by Jean Yves-LeLoup

The advent of the dvd and the need for musicians to transcribe their work into video format has given rise to a new visual culture. a culture where images, just like music, fall apart, unfurl to become simple ornaments.

In my office, where I'm plunged into the near-darkness of this winter evening, two images confront each other. Or rather, match each other. The first one comes to light up my computer screen and the other my TV set. The screensaver pf my Mac gives a succession of images that gently fade in and out: luxuriant landscapes, a forest at nightfall, an underbrush under the morning mist, a plant dampened with dew. When I turn my head, I see on my television, the desolate, urban images and the frozen wastelands of “Quiet City” streaming at the same speed. This DVD by Pan American (aka Mark Nelson), accompanies the release of his superb fourth album. His light and contemplative music fills the room in a singular manner. It seems to give special meaning to these two images that are echoing each other. It is full-bodied, with a ghostly quality that focuses on the private world of intimate hideaways. This is not surprising, since Mark Nelson's music has always had astonishing virtues that fire the imagination. “Quiet City” is therefore a mix between an electronic base with discreet synthesisers and a few guitar beats and the hushed, raspy voice of the American. The former guitarist of Labradford (a mind-blowing, ambient rock group) has found the balance between economy and the right note. This album, like the equally successful previous ones (The River made no sound, 360 Business / 360 Bypass), will even easily hold their own with the ambient music of Brian Eno. Like his famous predecessor, Mark Nelson has really understood what soundscaping is all about, the way we deck out our domestic areas, fill the slightest corners of our interiors and create an aura in them. His music “defines” space and releases the physical body to charm the spirit. We haven't listened to music that is so simple, delicate and liberating in a long while.

Landscape images
Let's go back to the images that accompany his music. There are some beautiful moments on this DVD that was produced with Annie Feldmeier, some fleeting moments of grace, poetry and beauty. The bluish-grey bottom of a pond, in which a white bear appears in slow motion. An underground tunnel, bathed in white light from which a human silhouette steps out. Snow-covered landscapes and urban panoramas filmed at night, fragments of daily life in an American town. And for all that, despite the beautiful music that accompanies this ballad or the images of this rout, Quiet City is far from being a finished work in itself. It is difficult to consider it as the work of a video artiste and even less as a film (there is no real film language in this piece). Let us rather say that you can watch the DVD version of the album while doing something else, like a window that open out onto the world, a landscape image, and ambient drift that lacks a narrative heart and moments of emphasis or empathy. It is a floating image, a disembodiment of the visual art, which seems to obey only the laws of music. Quiet City is, for that matter, not the only video to offer this type of treatment. A lot of people in the contemporary art field are now transforming video to suit their own purposes, offering the public (and an increasing number of collectors) their picture-images in the form of stolen or captured moments. However, Quiet City belongs to another category, subjected to the music, its aesthetics and the laws of its market. Although visual artists have, for many years now, developed a visual and videographic language (which has found the perfect medium in the DVD), today, musicians have taken over the image, but not always with the same talent.

Invasion of the DVD
With the CD crisis, record labels and musicians are under a lot of pressure to find a visual equivalent to their work. And also, with the advent of the digital culture and the democratisation of shooting and editing resources (we can literally compose music and make the accompanying film with the same tool, the PC), the world of cinema and video has never seemed so accessible to musicians. Of course, this can sometimes result in a few original documentaries, strange films that cannot be classified in any category, a few creative and novel clips, but more often than not, DVDs that come with albums turn out to be of a rare immaturity, and patent of no interest, without ever being able to compete with the music. This is because often, except for live captations or documentaries, most musicians dream of an immaterial and abstract image, as voluble and unreal as what they compose in the studio.

There is therefore an immeasurable number of DVDs without any ideas (including all those claimed to surf on the wave of the visual version of the lounge), the useless exercises by VJs (there are many of them on the techno scene) and in particular the pathetic attempts by video artists who have succeeded in convincing record labels to produce their soulless works. In all these attempts, the image is now only a mere medium for the music. Condemned to the status of a simple visual accessory and illustration, it merely adds a touch of brightness to the music. This is a surprising reversal of roles. For many years, in the fields of video or narrative and experimental film, music often served just a series of waves. But there is no point in being too gloomy here. The emergence of this aesthetic is more simply a sign that musicians today are trying to give a new consistence to the image. The growing number of productions even testifies to the fact that the model and times have changed. This new visual culture that considers the image as a vital element of the environment and the landscape, an undefined material that is closer to light or design, may manage to find an ideal and controlled form in the future.

Pure software
The world of music had already found this design ideal. We are not talking about sound-design and the musical presentation of public places that nearly everyone encounters every day. But rather, we're talking about musicians who are trying to take the concept of ambient music further than Eno ever imagined. Or at least in a form that is quite different. Eno's “music for airports” can be likened to pastel or impressionism. Ambient house or techno, which appeared in the early 1990s, was more psychedelic. Today's electronica music, which sometimes aims at the most absolute minimalism evokes a sharp, icy imaginary universe. For example, if we listen to the very beautiful “Looping I-VI (And Other Assorted Love Songs)” by Frank Bretschneider, or even, many other productions released on the same 12K label, this design ideal of music becomes perfectly clear. It is a music from pure software that evokes the perfection of hardware and the bubbling activity of our machines. It is a music that evokes a world of diodes and machineries with sober curves, metallic grey or ebony. Music that should be derived more from the orchestration of sounds from our daily mechanical and digitised world (the humming of the fridge, the rattling of the computer and the blowing of the air-conditioning), from visual arts or even architecture, than from the expression of the artist's emotions or ego. Listen carefully to Bretschneider's sound waves. They sound strangely like what you can abstractly perceive when you are shut up at home, with your ears all alert. The only difference is that in this album, the musician has managed to sublimate the indescribable and to give it body, or in one word, an aura.
Taylor Deupree