In anticipation of its live New York debut, we spoke to electronic composer Hello Moth & code artist Glenn Marshall about their collaborative music video for "Clouds in Cloudless Skies."
For anyone who's ever stared at the "Getting Started" tutorials on Processing.org, the infinite, procedurally-generated possibilities of programming present themselves in the text carat's rhythmic pulse in the very first command line. The difficulty is in the details; every bit as challenging to master as any foreign language, the nuances of programming come not from the explicitly intended definitions and uses of each code element available in the Processing Reference, but from the ways in which the programmer can pry open the ellipses of possibility and meaning in order to let the language bear forth its own beauty.
Every bit as expansive and open to possibility as the title of the track itself, Prix Ars Electronica winner and Culture Shock Interactive Director Glenn Marshall's new video for Hello Moth's "Clouds in Cloudless Skies" is a boundless, four-and-a-half minute ode to the infinitude of all things procedurally-generated. Entirely created in Processing, this one is a swan-dive into a sprawling visual soundscape, materialized without the use of video camera technology. To honor the exclusive premiere of the music video (above), and in anticipation of a Culture Shock NY's 7 year anniversary event at LA SALA on August 7, which features Hello Moth's New York debut, the live premiere of "Clouds in Cloudless Skies," a playable exhibition of the new virtual reality gaming experience, SoundSelf, and a DJ set by Leisure Cruise, we spoke to both artists about their new work:
Explains Hello Moth, who hails from Canada, "I first became aware of Glenn Marshall after seeing his video for Peter Gabriel (The Nest That Sailed the Sky, 2009). [...] I admired the way he blurred the lines between technology and art, not trying to push inelegantly past the limits of his chosen medium (the Processing programming language) but rather recognizing those limits and using them to his artistic advantage." When it came to creating visuals for his debut album, Infinitely Repeated, Hello Moth already had Marshall on his short-list.
"Our art has a lot in common; we both make extensive use of technology in our creations and we both strive to do so in a way that enhances the expressiveness of the final product. He accepted my commission and, despite living on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean, we worked closely together to determine the narrative flow and overall feel of the work. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result," explains Hello Moth. "In 'Clouds in Cloudless Skies,' Glenn has created a vibrant visual companion to my song, providing listeners with a novel, imaginative and remarkable way to see the music.” Below, our interview with Glenn Marshall and Hello Moth:
You describe the nature of the collaboration as a "collision," an "accident waiting to happen." How did you two 'collide?'
Glenn Marshall: We haven’t actually met yet, ironically. He sent me an email out of the blue, asking me if I’d be interested in making a video for him. I ignored him. I get these emails all the time from people— they usually have no budget, or their song is crap, or both. But he persisted and kept writing. I eventually asked if he had a budget, and he did— not a great amount, but enough that showed me respect. That was an important first step— being shown respect. Then I listened to the song for the first time. It was unusual, different, but put together with a lot of feeling and professionalism. I listened to it again, and the ‘Clouds’ chorus stuck in my head for the rest of the day. There was no turning back after that, I was inspired, and could actually earn a living for a few months creating a new video anyway I pleased, but it very nearly never happened at all.
Ok, tell me about the "spark" of inspiration— when you wrote "Clouds in Cloudless Skies," did you see it accompanied by generative visuals? And when did the images you wanted to make begin to appear in both of your minds'?
Well the images appeared in my mind when I first saw them with my eyes— i.e. my approach as a code artist and experimental animator is writing software and algorithms that generate worlds and landscapes that you would never have imagined yourself. These are procedurally-generated worlds, they're infinite and random, and you can move through them in semi-real time with a very good rendering quality. You become an explorer, an adventurer— you can go on forever, but stop to ‘take a picture’ if you see something beautiful or unusual. A good starting point I thought was to create a pixelated cloud world, which fitted with the song name and chorus. From this I hacked code, twiddled numbers, bashed algorithms together, fearlessly and relentlessly, then ran the program, to see what new heavenly or hellish worlds awaited. That’s how the whole video was created— a process of hacking code, exploration, discovery and capturing a moment to be used in the video.
Hello Moth: The song itself has its own imagery in the words it’s a ballad of microwaves and metamorphosis and this lyrical content was my focus when I wrote it. I visualize the story in the lyrics almost like a comic book, the bizarre origin story of some oracular superhero (or villain). The video isn’t a shotbyshot literal interpretation of the lyrics but, as you point out, it fits perfectly with the sound of the music thanks to the recursive techniques employed in both the audio and visuals. I’m very pleased with how the music video provides a completely different way of seeing the song.
What was the collaboration process like? Where any interactions particularly formative?
Hello Moth: When I first contacted Glenn about the video, I had no idea what the final product might look like. He took off with the cloud imagery from the song by using perlin noise, which creates random cloudlike patterns, to form the geometry of a digital world. He resculpted the perlin shapes into cube grids to give the video a more technological look, and sometimes distorted them to make everything look organic again. He sent me still images of these generated vistas and I assembled the “sketches” into a narrative storyboard for the video, trying to make sure each scene had a reason for connecting to the next. Glenn then animated the scenes and put them together in sequence, sending me clips from time to time in case I had any thoughts. I know very little about the code animation process, and the few times I wanted to suggest something I wasn’t sure how difficult it might be to accomplish. The ideas I sent didn’t seem to phase Glenn, who is obviously a master at what he does, and he executed his and my concepts deftly. Glenn is not only an incredibly skilled programmer but also a tremendous artist, and I very much appreciated how closely we collaborated on the video.
Glenn Marshall: It was very interesting. I initially wanted it to be a quite an abstract, ambient piece, like most of my work— where I let the computer randomly generate the narrative— and I just take a back seat. I had sent him lots of test stills of scenes and landscapes I had created with a new 3d technique I was working on. What I wasn’t expecting was for him sending me back a storyboard he had made up using all the test images I sent him. There was a sort of childlike innocence to how he had cut and pasted the whole thing together, and it went right against my abstract, highbrow art, randomly generated plan. But he actually had a story which he tied up to the lyrics and narrative of the song. It made perfect sense to do it this way; I had given him all the jigsaw pieces, and he made his own picture. The end result is conventional, but how we got there was unconventional. I took it from there, and tried to improve on it— every scene, camera movement and edit point I tried to fit with the song intimately— at every point in song the visuals match the lyrics metaphorically or literally, or the emotion of the music fits with the visuals either in mood or synced with the BPM. It ended up being a piece of ‘digital opera,’ I thought.
The Creators Project: On Bandcamp, Hello Moth is described as "Soulless Soul,"— do you think it's music that could have been made in the past, or rather that the 'genre' is the product of the current moment?
Hello Moth: I think of “soulless soul” more as a creative philosophy than a genre. It’s a mix of organic sounds, like vocals, and inorganic sounds such as those that can be created using synthesizers. The organic components are far more immediately soulful, and the inorganic elements are soulless, cold, machine-like. A big part of what makes my sound interesting to me at least is the exploration of the space between the natural and the unnatural. I like doing things to accentuate the differences, or to close the gap between them, or even to switch their roles by letting the synthesizer play the soulful part against a somehow soulless vocal. I don’t think this could have been done in the past, at least not to the same extent. Synthesizers, being so far removed from any acoustic instrument both in their operation and sonic possibilities, are unique in their ability to highlight the contrast between “soulless” and “soul,” making the counterpoint all the more striking. I could also note that my synth of choice remains the Casio VL1, which came out in 1980. When synthesizers were first invented they were associated with the sound of the future, but mine actually sounds vintage since the technology has advanced so quickly. This creates another duality in the sound by blending old with new, borrowing the past’s future to make music now.
Do you see code as having advantages over more traditional animation methods? Or presenting animators with deeper challenges? And in this way, would you consider code generated animations and visuals as "Artless Art?"
No, it’s definitely art. The video for Clouds in Cloudless Skies plays on the same dichotomies as my music. Is it organic or inorganic? Nothing you see in the video looks like something someone would build, but it doesn’t look like something that would occur in nature either. Some of the scenes look like abstractions of the inside of a computer, or the inside of a cave. Other scenes look like abstracted cityscapes, or perhaps hoodoos. I think people who watch this video might ask themselves “does this look natural or unnatural?” but I doubt anyone will watch it and ask “is this art or not?”
Glenn Marshall: With commercial software for example, the creative limits are real. With code, the limits are theoretical, in other words there are no limits. If I need a particular fancy tool or feature to do something, I write it myself into the heart of the program itself. I’m creating my own technology to create my own art. This to me is the true definition of what a digital artist should be.
What's next for visuals for the Infinitely Repeated album?
Hello Moth: I’ve engaged nine artists from my city, Calgary, to create nine pieces of still art, one for each song on the album. The artists have free reign to create whatever they want for their chosen song, so the final collection will contain nine perspectives in nine diverse styles about nine different pieces of music. A few of them are already finished, and I’m looking forward to showing them early next year.
And Glenn, what are you working on next? Any plans for future collaborations?
Glenn Marshall: ‘Evolution’ is my next animated film I’m trying to get funded through Kickstarter. It’s the most important scientific discovery in our history, and one of the most controversial issues in the world today. I want to enter into the Creationism vs Evolution debate with a piece of visual art, in a positive, inspiring way, not through arguing and fighting with debates and books.
I want to poeticise science, to be a Blake or Milton, and immortalize a revolutionary discovery as high art.
Apart from a small line animation in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series, nothing really has been done depicting the purely visual story of how humans evolved from a single cell. Certainly nothing as an epic, cinematic experience. That’s what I want to do. I want it to be my Magnum Opus. If I were Michelangelo today and I was recommissioned to paint the Sistine chapel based on scientific knowledge, this is what I would do instead, but the cinema is now the new chapel, and technology like Oculus Rift takes it further. With cinema and VR, and this kind of sensory immersion, I want to give a ‘religious experience’ of science and the ‘miracle’ of reality.
Click here to learn more about Hello Moth's New York debut on August 7 at LA SALA at 7pm, featuring the live debut of "Clouds in Cloudless Skies," and an "Immersive virtual reality experience of SoundSelf on the Oculus Rift." And make sure to check out Glenn Marshall's Kickstarter for 'visual poem,' Evolution.