Archives for the Month of July, 2017

John Whitney’s Digital Harmony – On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art

“The dream of visual dynamism is the same; to leave behind earthbound stasis and to fly into that liquid space of numerical architecture without gravity” – John Whitney


John Whitney’s Digital Harmony – On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art [1980] can now be read or downloaded at the ever brilliant Good news since second-hand copies of this out-of-print classic often fetch up to a few hundred pounds each on Amazon. A classic textbook for those working in audiovisual composition, the book explores technical, philosophical and conceptual aspect of software-based visual music. The computer code contained in the book is obviously well outdated but there is much to learn from Whitney’s insights into his methods for composition.


The main tenet of the book is the idea of ‘harmonic resonance’ – that the harmony of music corresponds to the harmony of visual design. Whitney explores how graphic harmony can be generated using periodic relationships, modulation, tension vs equilibrium, interference, resonance and counterpoint in audio-visual systems. He demonstrates how interesting results from ‘the nature of patterns in time in the human perceptual experience’ can be attained without relying on the obvious mechanical synchronization of sound and image. Technologies able to translate sound into video or vice-versa (in anywhere near real-time) were scarce outside scientific laboratories in 1980 so Whitney made metaphorical and perceptual bindings using mathematical relationships in his modal systems. The book contains many full colour stills from Whitney’s films and also revealing step-by-step diagrammatic annotations to his process. He cites precursors in the field such as Len Lyre, Viking Eggeling, and Hans Richter, but he also mentions less obvious sources of inspiration such Schoenberg, Pythagoras and even Chomsky.


“Computers will do no such thing – art is a matter of judgement not calculation / No one expects a piano to write really good music” [p124]

“Symmetries generated by kaleidoscopes and snowflakes are not unwelcome – but like medication, overuse quickly becomes overdose” [p109]

“Using chromatic scale to concatenate tonal reflection upon tonal statement, at exactly the right time, that is how Debussy gave elegance to the shape of time” [p85]











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