Defining Multimedia



The exponential outgrowth of technological innovation has left digital multimedia without a cohesive sense of definition. Lacking specific criteria for categorization, multimedia indiscriminately encompasses the visual arts, theater, virtual environments, music, and, according to John Cage, "...all sounds, sights, and other sensory experiences that occur in and around a performance situation..." New media has transformed the notion of art through the lenses of postmodern plurality. Clicking a mouse may make a computer user the active conductor of a sound synthesis ensemble, or a dancer can choreograph a duet in real-time with her own shadow. A computer can generate algorithmic music by analyzing the color of an accompanying video, and a digital gallery disguises itself as a CD-ROM cookbook. Contemporary digital forms, though marginalized by "classical" composers, are the "rational extensions of ballet and opera" and satisfy "the need for visual activity in connection with the electroacoustic music." Multimedia works, whether online, site-specific, or any other venue, share a commonality with opera and ballet in that they all cross disciplines, but because of additional components not encountered in previous centuries, classification remains elusive. For simplification, composers use the terms "multimedia," "intermedia," and "mixed media," synonymously when labeling interdisciplinary works.

David Cope, in New Directions in Music, defines multimedia as a "loose" structure of media elements that do not "depend on each other for meaning." Elimination of one media segment, while subtracting from the final composition, should not detract from the overall impact of the piece if one strictly follows Cope’s definition, though some composers would disagree with this definition. An item might exist as a work in its own right. The early 20th century New York happenings, borrowing from theater and the visual arts, consisted of several unrelated events occurring simultaneously. For example, Allan Kaprow's 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959) required that visitors move from one constructed room as another in between the "performances" of a woman pointing to the ceiling, gramophones rolling by, and a ukulele playing. As Iannis Xenakis once stated, "The music doesn't have to be connected to the lights - we have ears and eyes." Happenings, theater pieces, environmental works, and merged medium pieces add to the confusion when used in conjunction with the term "multimedia," although in a Happening, each component exists independently within the larger composition. Despite the rather exact definition provided by Cope, the term "multimedia" continues to cover the broad spectrum of interdisciplinary works.

In a mixed media composition, a dependency exists between each media member of the work. Dick Higgins, co-founder of the Fluxus movement applies the concept of "mixed media" to the opera, "where the music, the libretto, and the mise-en-scene are quite separate: at no time is the operagoer in doubt as to whether he is seeing the mise-en-scene, the stage spectacle, hearing the music, etc..." Yet, eliminating the libretto, the orchestra, or the vocalists leaves the opera bereft of its key characteristics. Despite the definite delineation between each feature of the work, an "equalization of elements" prohibits the removal of any one part for the sake of conserving the composition as a whole. An audio recording of an opera, though a standalone object, clearly exists as documentation of a live event. Even the definition of an opera has changed, however, and perhaps the operas of tomorrow will require nothing more than a set of headphones. Higgins also gives the example of a painting which incorporates written text in its "visual field." The text and paint mesh together while retaining identifiable separateness. Contemporary examples may include video pieces accompanied by live performers or interactive CD-ROMs. In the author's work ETASL (2001), a performance artist acts out a mental debate over suicide while a tape echoes her thoughts about an ex-love. Though clearly different entities, the actress and the electronic music both compliment and rely on each other to convey the overall feeling of anguish prevalent in the piece. The removal of either component in this mixed media composition results in a somewhat sketchy and ineffectual conveyance of the situation.

In 1812, Samuel Taylor Coolidge coined the word, "intermedia," to describe artworks that "fell conceptually between media that are already known." In 1965 Dick Higgins resurrected the idea of intermedia in a series of essays. As such, many historians credit him with the origin of the term in the modern sense. In an intermedia work, the elements fuse together in such a way that extraction of any one media member seems impossible and incredibly destructive. In order to retain the overall cohesiveness of a composition, each element must be present. Laurie Anderson's The End of the Moon (2004) combines Anderson's reflections on being the first, and last, NASA artist-in-residence amidst an eerie drone processed in realtime and intermittent solos from her electronic violin. Dozens of candles, a recliner, and a projected image of the moon add to the spacious nature of the piece. As an intermedia piece, The End of the Moon exists as a complex interweaving of music and text. At designated pauses Anderson fills the hall with lush strings, allowing the audience to reflect on her statements about space, war, and basic human condition. The various facets of this piece crystallize into a solid intermedia art form.

The majority of interdisciplinary compositions evade classification under a specific term. For instance, Cope considers film both an intermedia and mixed media art form. A significant percentage of film soundtracks can survive as musical works without any association with the film, but the moving images may lose dramatic impact without the meticulously planned melodic accompaniment. Banal underscores can gain import when coupled with riveting action on-screen. If a film, which in this example consists of simply moving images and a soundtrack, can easily slide between terminology, then a film accompanied by sound, live musicians, and an interactive interface further tests the limits of standard definition. How does one systemize virtual reality, interactive CD-ROMs, and online installations in the context of art forms? Throughout the text the author equates the terms "interdisciplinary", "multimedia", "mixed media", 'intermedia", "mixed-medium", and "multidisciplinary" in hopes of reducing evidentiary resultant confusion.


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