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NICK ROTHWELL: Visual Imagination & Unconventionality In Music

Sounding Off By Nick Rothwell
Published June 1996

Multimedia artist Nick Rothwell isn't very old. But he's old enough to remember a time when we didn't need hallucinogenic drugs to have a visual imagination. What's he on?

The other day, I was listening to Desert Island Discs on Radio 4, sad person that I am, and the guest (George Martin, producer of The Beatles) said something that stuck in my mind: that some of the old, humorous records that he produced decades ago (such as 'Right Said Fred' by Bernard Cribbins, complete with sound effects) would not succeed nowadays, because today's listeners no longer have the necessary visual imagination.

It's certainly true that we're in danger of turning into techno‑junkies, embracing every musical trinket and toy that the information revolution can throw at us. Our paradigms and thought processes are having to accommodate changes, perhaps the most significant of which is the trend towards ever‑greater detail and literalism. To a large extent, this is because it is so easy for a computerised system to deliver detailed visual feedback. Our sequencers show us precise timings of notes in a variety of colours, and our keyboards draw little diagrams of envelopes and audio routings on their LCD screens.

Isn't this a good thing? In some respects, certainly. But I would suggest that there are definite drawbacks as well. For example, if you're staring at screens, how are you going to be able to visualise the music you're composing? Perhaps old age is creeping up on me, but I used to be able to visualise the timbres of a PPG Wave without too much effort. These days, all this staring at editor pages and thinking numerically about the modulation routings in my Waldorf MicroWave has somehow dulled my imagination. And since imagination is immediate and detail is slow, as soon as any idea gets anywhere near a computer, it's almost certain that creativity will dry up.

Unfortunately, this march towards the visual and literal seems to be widespread in our culture. MTV delivers hour after hour of video footage, artists invariably lip‑sync'ing to their lyrics, and none of it requiring effort or imagination to comprehend. Gone are the days of the young child preferring radio to television, because 'the pictures are better.' I am coming to the conclusion that we are living in a culture obsessed with images, but unable to appreciate imagery.

It has recently dawned on me why I dislike multimedia. When I was younger, multimedia meant performance art; eclectic 'installation pieces' of dance and sound combining different media in unusual ways, and appealing to the different senses. Today, it seems to mean regimented video footage and generic music, delivering sanitised 'knowledge‑bites,' literal and precise. While a multimedia encyclopaedia or Web site might be able to tell me everything I ever wanted to know about meteorology, it is never going to help me see the shapes of imaginary animals in the clouds.

Since I appear to have such a low opinion of the visual, you might be wondering why I work in contemporary dance. Actually, I have nothing against the visual per se, just the overly‑literal. I'm all for piles of bricks in the Tate Gallery and concrete houses for the Turner Prize (though I do draw the line at animal carcasses), and I find architecture fascinating. What is so wonderful about dance is that, when it is done well, the imagery can be incredibly powerful. A contemporary dance piece seldom tells a story or acts out a drama, and yet it can still have a striking message. Anyone who doubts that should check out Rosemary Butcher's work in the South East, or the New Moves dance festival in Glasgow [

Sadly, this drive towards the literal is impacting on all of the Arts, including music. It seems as though everything these days has to be categorised and labelled. Wannabe an American rock 'n' roll band? Grow your hair and wear Spandex. Wanna play techno? Woolly hat and Roland TB303 obligatory. Gone are the days when the popular music scene could be turned upside‑down by a shy teenager with a room full of guitars, recording an album like Tubular Bells. Multi‑national corporations now hold the purse‑strings and yardsticks, serving up identikit artists who fit neatly into record shop categories. The musical instrument scene seems similarly afflicted: we judge a synthesizer by the quantity and selection of onboard sample ROM and presets, rather than by what the instrument might be able to do with some imagination and maybe a little misuse. The Usenet synthesizer newsgroups are flooded by articles asking 'Which is better?' from punters wanting quick and easy answers.

Not that the publicly‑funded Arts scene fares much better. Much as I love the contemporary dance scene as an arena for experimentation and innovation, if you want a real challenge, try getting project funding as a musician directing a dance company. Pegs don't come much squarer. The Physical Theatre performers and companies I know just get bounced between Dance and Drama Departments at the Arts Council.

In spite of all this doom and gloom, however, I can see room for optimism. The crucial step is to realise the limits of the literal, in all its guises. We have to learn to see things, not for what they are, but for what they resemble or suggest. We have to be open to new experiences, experiments, projects and performances. And we have to break down barriers. Although the techno scene is a soft target for ridicule, its best examples are rich in imagery, and their graphic art is well sorted. There is innovative music out there, and true multimedia installations are still performed — the project by Robert Wilson and Hans Peter Kuhn in London's Clink Prison Vaults last October was excellent. The big mixed‑media performance companies battle on (and if you can get to see Brith Gof or NVA performing live, I strongly recommend them). In the meantime, you could start by digging out a set of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's Oblique Strategies cards (a Web search should turn up a copy) and have a go at doing something musically unconventional. And above all, don't take things too literally.