Beethoven Machinery


Beethoven Machinery, 3:41, digital animation with music, 16mm color film, 1989.



Beethoven Machinery is an attempt to visualize the unfolding architecture of the Vivace movement from Beethoven’s 16th String Quartet, in F major, op. 135. Visual Music is a widely used term for this kind of film –– chiefly animation, often timed precisely to existing musical compositions –– in which structural relationships between sound and image are explored. As a graduate student at Cal Arts from 1986-89, I worked with Jules Engel and William Moritz, both of whom were connected directly to Visual Music pioneer Oskar Fischinger. My first desire to “explain” the structure of music probably dates from seeing Disney’s Fantasia projected in a theater as a child. Fantasia, I should note, is a film on which Fischinger worked briefly and unhappily.

The hybrid technology of Beethoven Machinery is a product of its time. I used an IBM XT desktop computer and an early 3-D graphics program called Cubicomp to realize the sequences, which were then displayed on a CRT video monitor and filmed frame by frame with a 16mm Mitchell camera — the setup at the Cal Arts computer animation lab, overseen at the time by Vibeke Sorensen, who also is active in the Visual Music world. To learn more about this world, please visit the Iota Center, The Center for Visual Music, and Stephen Malinowski’s fascinating Music Animation Machine.

I used Beethoven’s composition as a script, timing out individual notes and larger phrases, but more importantly, trying to map the structural basis of the music’s intense drama –– its sense of journey, climax, and return. The film depicts nothing like the true structure of Beethoven’s composition, of course, which is immensely more powerful and profound. But the foursquare construction of this deceptively simple movement struck me as a landscape that I could at least enter into.

Visual Music derives in part from European Modernism –– early VM filmmakers such as Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling, for example, were connected with the avant-garde Blue Reiter and Dada movements –– but popular cartoon animation could also be keenly synesthetic, a double lineage embodied in Fantasia. Visual music, actually, is an idea that could be applied to a very wide range of films, from Busby Berkeley dance sequences to the silent experiments of Stan Brakhage. But there is a more narrow and somewhat occult filmmaking tradition that Beethoven Machinery willingly participates in, an intuition captured in Goethe’s famous insight that architecture is “frozen music.” With the development of film, architecture could be unfrozen, even made to dance.

Beethoven Machinery, since its completion in 1989 as my MFA thesis at Cal Arts, has been included in numerous programs, exhibitions, and screenings, including at the Museum of Modern Art in a program of Cal Arts experimental animation, curated by Josh Seigel and subsequently shown at the Centre Pompidou; at the Reina Sofia museum, in a program curated by computer animation pioneer Larry Cuba; and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, in a an event curated by Sharon Louden and Margaret Parsons.