Mastodon Visual Music - Fluffy Schwartz - Sensitive Skin Magazine

Visual Music

Talking about Zig’s work has gotten me thinking about other types of visual music. J. Randolph Hostetler, also known as Randy, was a close friend of mine and a wonderful musician who passed away tragically in 1996. He was, in fact, one of the most talented people I have ever known—a marvelous multi-talented human who played in my ensemble and could shred anything you threw at him. Randy also had a deep love for the music of John Cage and enjoyed abstract performance art, a unique combination to say the least.

I recently had the pleasure of programming two of his cutting-edge video string quartets alongside my own work at REDCAT in the Disney Hall Complex in Los Angeles. And I will have the pleasure of doing so again in a concert coming up in October, in Davis California (more on that later).

What the heck is a video string quartet you ask? Good question. In Randy’s case, it is a piece of music where the images the musicians watch on screen creates the music you hear. The players sit with their backs to the audience and watch the screen. In both cases, Randy included a couple of pages of instructions and that’s it—that’s the score.

In the case of Floaters (for string quartet and video score of white shapes moving against a black background, 1989), each player is given a few rules, pitch and string indications, and they are represented on screen by an icon—triangle, square, circle, little Pac-Man guy (still not sure exactly what it is)—and, as the icons enter and exit and whiz all over the screen, the music is created.

The piece comes with one page of instructions, take a look. By the way, you can click the image to enlarge it.


Here is a concert performance in R.O.D. at CalArts in the spring of 1988, I don’t really know who is playing, sorry about that, it has been a while.

And here is a more recent interpretation from the Redcat Theatre in Los Angeles on January 29, 2010, featuring a Cal Arts student quartet.

In Palm Quart (for string quartet and video score of palm trees in Los Angeles, 1988), the video is made up of both still and moving images of palm trees shot all over Los Angeles. Each player is again given a string and pitch range, as well as a quadrant of the screen to “read” as the palm trees pass by. Francesca Talenti (the filmmaker) and Randy both thought that palm trees looked like musical notes, so they filmed them upside down, sideways, from cars and standing still, you name it. I guess if you are stuck bored out of your mind in a car in traffic jams long enough you can come up with anything, right?

Here is the piece being performed, once again, at the Redcat Theatre, January 29, 2010.


Now, to me one of the most striking things about both of these pieces is how completely consistent and formal they sound. No matter what groups play them, in Los Angeles or New York, today or twenty years ago, they always sound the same. Seems strange and impossible at first, but I swear: If you closed your eyes and did not look at the screen, it sounds as if you are listening to a piece of Xenakis or Ligeti, something very complex and difficult to realize. However, open your eyes, and the images we see on the screen make these pieces delightful and full of fun and humor.

Randy was a formidable American composer. These pieces scream out to us, “Hey! I don’t have time to spend a month laboriously notating some torturous piece of musical calisthenics for a player to learn. In fact, there is no need. I can make the same stuff much easier. In fact, I can make it with anything. I love this sound, and I can make it with dots on a screen, palm trees, whatever I choose. Heck, I can make gasoline out of donuts if I want. Nothing is impossible.” Now that is a heavy chop, complete with a huge dose of American ingenuity and know-how. Let’s make it better (well, maybe “different” is a better word than “better” in this case) and in half the time. Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s also make it fun to watch and listen to.

Randy is also a typical American composer in that most folks know nothing of his music. They are just beginning to find out now, many years after his death. We often don’t hear the music of our greatest geniuses until long after they are gone. Curators are afraid to take a chance on challenging new stuff, budgets are tight, and audiences dwindling. We all know that no one spends a lot of time with cool abstract new music on TV. Too bad. Randy (and many others) have proven over and over again that they should. -Fluffy


Filed under:


2 thoughts on “Visual Music

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *