Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Audio/ Visual: Multimedia Versus Intermediality?

As someone whose academic and artistic work tends to revolve around various critical concepts of intermediality, with a general and passionate fixation on the blurring of mediums and boundaries between disciplines, I have a somewhat awkward confession to make.

Honestly, there are times when pop-culture's (and particularly consumer-culture's) emphasis on the "multi-media" weirds me the hell out.

I feel like a bit of a hypocrite saying this, back-pedalling, trying to explain how what I'm referring to is somehow different from what "I" do, as I research the role of music in Literature or vice-versa, or stress the importance of videos I make for a more thorough understanding of my musical-output that they accompany... (I know. How very un-post-modern [or un-post-post-modern/ un-"reconstructionist"] of me to try to distance my own work from pop-culture. This is an observation, not a theory, so I offer no direct apology). It is what it is.

I first jotted some of these thoughts down in a notebook a few years ago, while I was searching for a gift for a family-member. I was looking for an electronic-device that performed a single task in a simple, easy-to-use manner. I had owned a similar device years prior, so I knew that the technology existed... and honestly, as a musician who's a bit of a gear-nerd, I knew of quite a few ways to accomplish the task in question. Problem was, at the time, there were plenty of devices on the market that could handle this simple audio task.... in addition to a plethora of other far more complicated tasks that wouldn't be used and would render the device far too uselessly complex for the person it was intended for. Poking around in the stereo-equipment section, I was invariably directed to the "home theatre" section, to which I groaned. "Oh, we have plenty of things that do that... as a side-effect of all this neat video-stuff that they can also do!" Another groan. "No, those features will not be used." I wanted a device that accomplished a strictly-audio task simply and efficiently. There was nothing on the market at the time that did what I wanted it to (outboard, without needing to be plugged into a computer) that didn't also have a visual-component.

For some reason, these frustrations led me to think of how distasteful I found the "Bohemian Rhapsody" sequence of "Wayne's World" the first time I saw it. The Queen song had long-conjured its own set of mental images for me. The aesthetics associated with that song in the film, Garth and Wayne headbanging, provided such a harsh juxtaposition with my own imaginative constructs for the song. Afterward, it irked  me irrationally and uncontrollably to no end that, among kids my age, whenever that song came on, the point-of-reference was inevitably "Wayne's World," rather than the dense operatic aesthetic landscape I'd constructed in my mind. {for the record, this no longer bothers me in the least. I was pretty young when that movie came out, and "A Night at the Opera" was the first record I ever purchased, so childhood feelings about this subject were rather biased and passionate.}

{contrast audio-associated aesthetic imagery and perceive intermedial dischord.}

{On a somewhat unrelated note, I'm developing an ever-more-detailed theory about how much you can tell about a person based on their opinion of Queen. I'm only partially kidding.}

Similarly, around the same time, I heard an article on NPR about how Disney's "Fantasia" shaped the way that entire generations qualified classical music with aesthetic imagery. (I think it was this article.) Although I found this story/ review fascinating, it also made me feel somewhat dirty. There's something deeply strange about how this classical content, works by Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Stravinsky, etc, was reshuffled, repurposed, re-imagined, and re-aestheticized forever in the collective consciousness.... by a cartoon. 

As Lloyd Schwartz says in his NPR review of the Fantasia rerelease,  "for kids, it's a delightful introduction to classical music. But both Fantasia films reveal how difficult it is to arrive at convincing images. Visual artists have to be deeply sensitive to music not to oversimplify, or betray, what's so deeply in the music." Maybe that's part of my discomfort, and the distinction I can't help but draw in my mind- pop-culture's use of "multi-media" tends to super-impose and interpret between mediums, whereas "intermediality" perceives and utilizes multiple mediums as components of an over-arching whole, multiple ways of understanding the same content, an ability for aspects of one medium to say things unable to be expressed with another, rather than a botched-translation from one format to another as if the vocabularies were entirely and seamlessly congruent? (See Deleuze and Guattari on mimicry versus Becoming?)

{I'm using this particular example not because it's the best-known and most narratively-accessible sequence from the film, but because the source-material for the musical-composition is literary [Goethe], which provides an additional layer of multi-media/ intermedial complication.}

I'll be the first to admit that, in all of these examples, the role of capitalism in our cultural reception of art is a large aspect of what I find off-putting... "You NEED more features... Why WOULDN'T we want our stuff to do more stuff??"... classic works of art repackaged and resold in more digestible forms to cater to a larger swath of the consumer population, scarring the new image-associations simultaneously to the parts of our brains receptive to the music, blocking our cognitive ability to let the music speak its own language... etcetera... {Breathe.}

Are these the only distinctions, though? As always, the line between audio (or any other medium) as product and audio as art is really blurry. I'm constantly trying to figure out where that line is, and how to most effectively discern and distinguish the force-fed "multi-media" that makes me feel like a dirty manipulated consumer from the uses of intermediality and the blurrings of boundaries between disciplines and distinctions that I find so vital and mentally-invigorating... Yet at the same time I'm entirely unsure as to why this line needs to be drawn or clarified at all. 

In the meantime, exploring observational knee-jerks is always something I find important. 

{Now, to cleanse your pallet, a bit of multi-media mind-candy I stumbled on while writing.}

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