Visual Music Classics #3-4 Permutations & Arabesque – John Whitney

Permutations and Arabesque- John Whitney
Permutations & Arabesque – John Whitney

No survey of visual music would be complete without a mention of John Whitney, inventor, animator and early computer art pioneer. His two most celebrated works are Permutations – 1966 and Arabesque – 1975, made after his stint as artist in residence at IBM. It was there that he used an IBM 360 mainframe system with Fortran to write his own animation programs. One of the key aspects of Whitney’s films is in the use of what he referred to as ‘Computational Periodics’. A means to achieving ‘harmonic events in audio-visual presentation’ where a simulation of musical progression could be achieved with rhythmic overlays of multiple objects to create symmetries and counterpoints analogous to notes and rhythms within music.

‘In PERMUTATIONS, each point moves at a different speed and moves in a direction independent according to natural laws’ quite as valid as those of Pythagoras, while moving in their circular field. Their action produces a phenomenon more or less equivalent to the musical harmonies. When the points reach certain relationships (harmonic) numerical to other parameters of the equation, they form elementary figures.”

In Arabesque, Whitney used a combination of computer and oscillograph to create a series of transforming sine waves and parabolic curves that compliment Manoochelher Sadeghi’s exotic Persian Santur soundtrack. It’s notable the Whitney was influenced by patterns in Islamic architecture, their symmetry and modulation being analogous to temporal patterns in complex musical motifs.

Whitney’s book, ‘Digital Harmony – On the complementarity of Music and Visual Art’ is an advanced treatise on the harmonic relationship between music and computer graphics. It’s a beautifully illustrated work containing explicit examples of computer code and connected philosophical ideas.

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