03 November 2010


From whatever moment it was that I first became "serious" about music as a teen (too serious many would say) right up to the present day, few things have bothered me more than the appending of non-essential extra-musical stimuli to the listening experience. Besides the fact that I usually enjoy the experience less that way, I'm prone to take offense to any implication that music is not good enough by itself.

As time has gone on, it has become clearer to me that the problem is not necessarily with all extra-musical stimuli, but rather those which are particularly intellectually obtrusive. In other words, there are, on one hand, stimuli which distract whatever part(s) of our brains we're using to listen, and, on the other hand, those which appeal to some other available pathway, therefore truly adding to the listening experience rather than merely competing with it. For me, the distractions include language, meaning, allusion, representation, and for the most part, emotion as well (not mine, mind you, but rather that supposedly communicated by the stimulus). The enhancements, then, are exclusively limited to sensory stimuli as abstract as the music itself.

The word "visualizer" was not in my vocabulary until today, at least not in reference to software plug-ins. As it turns out, this is the term used to refer to the screensaver-like thing that some media players display while music is playing. I ran into one today and kind of dug it, which quite surprised me on one level given the hang-ups stated above, yet makes sense considering that the content was, in fact, completely abstract and clear of potential distractions. It was obviously reacting to the music that was being heard, yet whether by virtue of being well-designed or of my having reached some sort of inner detente with the extra-musical, it truly seemed to enhance rather than detract from the experience.

The conceit of unpredictability is one reason I find such things (more) successful. In a sense, this contributes to the overall degree of abstraction by undermining the development of expectations; visualizers which establish direct, consistent and perceptible correspondence between a sonic and visual stimulus have thus ventured into the realm of representation and association, which I place decisively in the distraction category. This is why I find things like Animusic so worthless, even creepy; paradoxically, it is this very correspondence between the musical and the visual that experts seem to have glommed on to as a boon to the developing brain, which more or less ensures that the bulk of such productions will take this direction.

Of course, it wasn't tough to tease out the pattern in many early screensavers, and I imagine that while technology has advanced substantially since then, a listener who spends many hours a day in front of the most abstract of visualizers would sooner or later, and consciously or subconsciously, develop associations that would ultimately undermine the element of abstraction. The specter of constantly seeking out new plug-ins to keep things fresh gives me pause when I think about making visualizers part of my listening routine, but I might try it anyway.

I also realized that, for some reason and without really thinking about it, I had developed the erroneous belief that visualizers were a PC thing, and was somewhat surprised upon looking into the matter to find that my very own copy of iTunes has them as well. It seems that the ones that come with it kind of suck, but people make their own, and you can download many of them for free. The fact that so many people would take the time to design and distribute these things speaks to the fact that music is, in fact, not good enough by itself for many listeners, and that still strikes a nerve. Even so, I may have seen the light just a bit today, and it was all swirly and neon looking.

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