If I have a "philosophy" as a music visualiser, this is it...

I’m a musician by training, and wherever it’s appropriate I try to think of the visuals I produce as another musical instrument or performer – so not necessarily an add-on or background. As an “instrument” the visuals have got to work as part of the whole setup, and be integrated with it. So if typical VJ visual wallpaper is what the overall effect needs, that’s fine; I’ll do it. But if the overall effect is better served by closely synchronising individual visual elements with specific musical components, I’d typically rather do that. So I aim to synchronize intelligently, reflect and express the music's structure and mood, and pick out key musical elements.

I also want the visuals to mean something, and to have some relevance to the music. Sometimes this isn’t possible, but I’ve been surprised how many times it works well, and draws the audience in as a result.

 Here's an indication of the range of work I do:



Same visual instrument, different approaches

It's interesting to compare the two very different series of live visuals gigs I've been doing. The music played by John Law's "Boink!" is fairly structured, but there's a lot of improvisation and it's metrically very challenging (i.e. there's no sign of 4/4 time anywhere). Toby Mark's Banco de Gaia is more solid metrically, but as it's largely digital, the sonic palette is extremely varied. I've used a very similar setup for both - Resolume on a laptop, and an EMU keyboard as my main controller - but the way I use it is quite different. 

For Boink! I know roughly what's coming next in terms of broad structure, but the solos are often drawn out and unpredictable in character. I might have prepared a number of clips that suddenly become redundant if the players decide to head in a direction I'm not prepared for. So I rely heavily on effects to adapt what I've got set up. 

For Banco I've no idea what's coming up (unless Toby leans over and tells me). But because the music tends to move in fairly regular phrases I know when to act, even if I don't really know how to react. So I use more audio-reactive effects and often just hit, hope, then react very quickly once I can hear what's going on.

The key thing for me is to somehow, on the spur of the moment, express visually some aspect of what's being played. Simply providing visual wallpaper is something I'll never do. My goal - which I think I'm a little way away from at the moment - is to provide visuals that are as expressive, responsive and flexible as if I had a visual instrument as powerful generatively as any musical one. 

Visual improvisation with electro-jazz

I did my first gig on Friday with John Law's new group, Boink! It's a departure for him, but also for me.

My brief from John is to a "another instrument" in the band. So I can't just do that VJ cliche of banging on some clips, letting them run and generally messing about; I wouldn't be another instrument, I'd just be like moving wallpaper. I need to synchronise, respond and improvise with the rest of the band, while still make aesthetic sense.


I reckon there are two key challenges here. Firstly, this is live jazz, which means no click-tracks, and pretty common changes of speed and time signature. So if I'm sync'ing with a beat, I've got to do it manually, and be prepared to change often. Secondly, although I've prepared thoroughly and I know the tunes and their structures, this is jazz man. The musicians can head off in any direction they like, and I've got to follow. If, like on Friday night, they take a tune that (on the recording) sounds lovely and delicate...and they blast it into a kind of jazz-infused prog ballad, I have to adapt my visuals. But what I'd prepared was all lovely and delicate. I need to make a much more flexible visual instrument, which is what I'm working on now.

Next gig is at the Vortex, London, on Feb 18th.

And here's a review of the live album.

How to perform audio-visually?

I went to see the Light Surgeons a couple of weeks ago at the Coulston Hall in Bristol - really amazing stuff. Documentary meets concert visuals, meets social commentary meets live AV performance. But it was the "live performance" bit that got me thinking. Basically, because the performers were positioned behind one of the two projection screens (it was largely translucent), it was quite difficult to distinguish the nature of their "performance"; what were they actually doing? There was a cellist and a violinist, plus a bunch of laptop performers, and some other folks...but because of the lighting and positional setup, it didn't feel "live" for most of the time.

It's a tricky one this - I know it is. How can a performer make the connection between their actions and the results of their actions sufficiently explicit to ensure that the audience has a sense of "liveness"? Zan Lyons, the support act, had a different approach. He positioned himself in front of the screen and produced some of his sound material on a viola. So it felt more "live"; we could see him, and connect his actions to their results.

Given the very rapid growth of new, more responsive technologies, I think we're going to see and hear a lot more "live" AV performances - that actually feel live. And I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing them.