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The Birth of Multimedia Composition - Essay

"History is the story of an angel being blown backwards into the future." - Laurie Anderson


Intermedia - the copulation of the art forms. Movement accompanies sound and the visual in an overstimulation of the senses. Once orchestrated with analogue tape, static images, and inexplicable actions, current intermedia art encompasses logorhythmic music, digital video, and virtual reality. As Dick Higgins described in his landmark, "Statement of Intermedia," in 1966, intermedia exists "between the media" (1) . Though often considered a visual art medium, the role of music and sound proves to be essential components of many artworks. Technology has accelerated creative expression as ideas, once existing only the in the mind, can exist in a tangible form. Music has embraced the digital world. Out of circuitry and imaginiation the next musical age evolves.

No survey of contemporary culture can begin without a comprehensive look at the history that gave birth to the ideas of today. Multimedia presentation was aided by the intense labor of women working in fluxism, performance art, and electro-acoustic music. Through their vigorous efforts, a marriage of art, music and science created experimental marvels only before conceived through the hallucinatory imagination. As the monstrous head of progress forged ahead female artists did not complacently sit by the wayside. They left their own singular imprint in time by presenting views previously dismissed. Escaping from the imposed corset of conservativism, these women exposed the hidden in the exhilerating expression of liberation.



Fluxism, the bastard seed of Dadaism, gave root to the ideas interpolated in performance art, the mother of multimedia art. A movement acting against the materialistic art business, fluxism escaped from the gallery into the streets. Their "Happenings" became notorious for their shock value and enitire disregard for historical defintitions of "good" art. In a deliberate attempt to further thwart the staus quo, artists created works that crossed disciplines. In the mid-twentieth century, choreographers like Merideth Monk combined film, movement, and music with live performers. Composer La Monte Young "composed" Zen for Head for Nam June Paik in 1962, which consisted of Paik drawing a line with his head dripping in paint. A theatrical theatre piece created by Yahuda Yannay consisted of a double bass player bound in a straightjacket while a cyclist played a record of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (2). In a performance of Cage's "26'1.1499" for a String Player musician Charlotte Moorman bowed a string pulled over Paik's naked back, in a bizarre combination of theatre and musical performance (3). Performances took place outside the museum, whether in private showings, public places, or fluxus festivals, and accomplished its goal to circumvent commercialism's devaluing of pure art.

As fluxism fought the art world by storm, in music, inventors and composers joined to form techologies that would later become integral parts of performance art. By the early 1960s, analogue tape had established itself as an acceptable medium. Stemming from the works of the 1950s, the tape pieces of the following decade branched out in different directions. While some continued the work of John Cage, combining a multitude of samples into a complex and confusing collage of sound, others attempted to find unique ways to use tape in their compositions. Experimentations led to extensive and unusual sounds that soon permeated through current musical trends.

In 1968 Eliane Rodigue discovered the possibilities of audio feedback. Using this technique, she created what was later dubbed "sound environments" which involved tape loops which were, "...never exactly the same, nor exactly something else..." (4). Inspired by the intracacies in feedback manipulation, she applied audio feedback to her pieces throughout her career, extending to even her 1988 piece, Kyema, in which, "The audience was bathed in sound without knowing where the sound was coming from." (5). Her works foreshadowed the later musical style known as "sound design," which uses spatial relationship and ambient sounds to immerse the listener in an all-encompassing sensual experience.



One of the bastions of electro-aucoustic music, Pauline Oliveros accomplished what no woman preceeding her had. Throughout her lifetime, she has created a multitude of works involving various mediums, and has been described as "an articulate experimentalist" (NOTE COPE 218). Yet, Oliveros' place in the history of electronic music marks her gratest contribution to the art world. Working at the San fransisco Tape Music Center, with fellow composers Morton Subotnik and ramon Sender, Oliveros composed works usiing electronics and "live" electronics. Stolba explains the technique employed by Oliveros to execute a live tape piece:

To compose that work, she connected 12 oscillators to a keyboard,amplified and reverberated the sounds,and used two tape recorders to produce double feedback and loops. (NOTE: Stolba,674)

Her ingenuity flowed to her othere works, as she incoporated film and choreograohy. Though not often catergorized as an intermedia artist, she has learned to intertwine other disciplines wihtin hers.

During the civil right years, as fluxism took the role of political megaphone, the influence of feminism brought to the forefront many female artists. Though not all their art focused on a particular topic, the openness about woman's experience and place in the world became the focal point for many artists. Women like Shigeko Kubota, Yoko Ono, Billie Hutching, and Charlotte Moorman involved themselves in works that explored cultural stereotypes. In an extreme example of protest Moorman, performing Paik's Opera Sextronique (1967) topless, was arrested for indecent exposure. The field of intermedia becaame a fertile ground for emerging female artistis. Though derived from the roots of performance art and fluxism, largely patriacrchal in nature, the incredible output of these women created a discipline which allowed them freedom to explore their gender identity. Other groups, such as homosexuals and transvestities, found that they could flagrantly present their worldviews and be heard, if not accepted.

Issues of vicitimization and control became the thematic elements of many works. Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1964) involved audience members cutting her clothes piece by piece with a pair of shears. The aesthetic experience caused the participant to question his/her role in this "brutal act" (6). Ono had a variety of " instruction pieces," - compositions that directed the performer to execute a set of actions (7). For instance, in her Tape PIece III (1963), she wrote that the performer must record the sounds of snow and then proceed to wrap a package with the resultant tape. Her compositions with their Eastern influence, though many times incorporating sound, incorporated more visual elements than musical.

A young dancer named Merideth Monk, a performer in many Fluxus "happenings," launched herself in to the world of performance art through her work, Juice (1969). Described as a "three-part theatre cantata," Juice showcased Monk's original choreography. Her works in the 1970s continued along the same vein, allying dance and theatre in Education of a Girl Child (1972) and Quarry (1976) (8). As her career progressed in the early 1980s, she incorporated extended vocal techniques, film, and music to her already extensive creative palette. Still actively composing works, Monk uses multimedia to address the controversial social topics of AIDS and racism (9).



Later to become legendary, Laurie Anderson used her quirky knack for fusing unlikely technologies into bizarre "instuments". Her most notorious creation, "viophonograph," first premiered in the 1976 Ethics in the Aesthetic of the Few(ture), demonstrated not only her ingenuity but an original synthesis of the old and the new. Using an old violin, she played with bows strung with tape instead of horsehair. Each bow had a different sentence inscribed on it. For her first performance, she took Lenin's quote, "Ethics is the aesthetic of the Future," and distorted in into the afore-mentioned title. She enjoyed acquiring antiquated instruments from pawn shops and junk yards and fusing them with electronics. Her elaborate creations, as will be later mentioned, soon exploded in a spectacle of video, light, and sound.

The anti-establisment attitude of precvious generations was thrown by the wayside in the 1980s. A conservative era, now charaterized by its overt materialism and booming economy, the '80s found that composers and musicians no longer agonized over the idea of art and monetary success (NOTE: Goldberg 190). Though not all artists longed for economic stability, popular patronage no longer seemed an enemy but a powerful ally. Works meant for mass consumption, such as (ARTISTS" WORK), appealed to a broader audience and encouraged commercial success. Some composers, however, such as (ARTIST) still rejected the establishment with works such as (WORK) which (WHAT WORK DID). Other technological developments in music and visual art furnished the means by which innovative works came to fruition.

In 1983, the release of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) recolutionaized the electronic music industry. In the past, keyboards had no common language, and synthesizers from different companies could not communicate with each other. Composers now could design their studios around their own needs, instead of compantability of equipment. Smaller company's worked on equal footing with their bigger competitors like Roland, Yamaha, and Korg because the instruments commicated regardless of sophistication of equipment (NOTE: CHADABE p. 196). Parts became interchangeable, and, though initially pricey, eventually the costs came within the reach of the masses.

With the coming of the consumer video camera, the common person could now direct his/her own "movies". No longer a tool of the elite, the average citizen created in-depth visual works, despite the lack of "formal" training. Democracy of artistic expression, however, did leaed to unexpected trends. In New Directions in Music, David Cope writes:

According to Cope, the concept of video and music limited itself to popular music like jazz and rock, New Age music and minimalist works, and the area of performance art (NOTE COPE 123-124). Television jumped on the bandwagon (REWORD) and MTV and VH-1 soon were exporting and feeding entertainers, such as Madonna or Whitney Houston, to the masses. While this transformation was taking place in the commercial music industry, in the "fine art" community, video had become the new medium of choice. To the chagrin of purists, the influences of rock and pop music infused vibrant freshness into upcoming musicians. However, through videos, composers have the opportunity to correlate music with the visiual arts, exploring freely- due to the advent of sophiscicated digital editing machines- abscrat and representational expressions.

Laurie Anderson grasped onto the new technology. Her grand works, such as O Superman, probably her best-known work, involved the latest in technical innoveations. The "Drum Suit" she wore utilized pickups embedded in a suit. The sounds she produced were then amplified. Anderson used synthesizers, film, extravagant lighting design for many of her works in the early 1980s. Contracted by Warner brotheres to produce a series of albums, Anderson , her pieces exeplified their era, with lavish, almost grotesque, damcers. Today, never one to wait for technology to knock on her doortep, Anderson has embraced CD-ROMS, the internet, and even laser beams, a far cry from the telephones and tape that she used before (NOTE GOldberg 15).

In multimedia performance, video augmented compositions. Just as drama and music joined in opera for hundreds of years, a contemporary opera opened its wings in the intermingling of music, art, video, poetry, theatre, dance, and just about everything.

With computers increasingly becoming necessary components of contemporary music, critics protest that technology will soon replace composers. Proponents argue that "[new technology] wil not replace older tools in the creation of social meaning,but rather extend and add power to them." (NOTE Lovejoy p. 253). If anything, modern artists unite the old and new in powerful works. Sequencers, digital video, graphic design interfaces, and sound editors all serve to aid not replace. The internest has provided hundreds of thousands budding artists to have a platform in which to virtually exhibit their art. Today, composers such as Libby Larsen, Kristine Burns, Brenda Hutchinson, Maggie Payne, Liz Phillips and others continue to create pieces that sit on the cutting edge of technology.

In conclusion, the technological innivations incurred within the last century have aided argists to exzpress themselves in ways not precviouasly possbible. Intermedia, once a discipline resrtrcitdted to performance art now applies to various art forms. Music technology plays an intergral part for the mpodern intermedia artist. Through the work of women like Pualine Oliveros, Merideth Monk, Laurie Anderson, and various others, intermedia has pushed the boundariea of music and fine art and have made room for a yonger generation of artists. As science begats more innovative wonders, music and art give birth to new creations.



note 1: Armstrong/Ruthfuss, pg. 14.
note 2: Cope, David, pg. 104.
note 3: Armstrong/Rythfruss, pp. 84-85.
note 4: Chadabe, p. 76.
note 5: Chadabe, p.77.
note 6: Armstrong/Ruthfruss pg 81.
note 7: Burns, Vol. II, pg 481.
note 8: Goldberg, pp. 143-144.
note 9: Burns, 424-425.

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