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from Mediagramm, ZKM Karlsruhe, July 1996

VISUAL MUSIC

Larry Cuba's Experimental Film

 

by William Moritz

Larry Cuba must be considered the most distinguished practitioner of "computer graphics", for, though he has created only three films in the last 20 years, each one of them remains a masterpiece of Visual Music that resonates with fresh interest each time it is viewed-- the same replay-value that fine auditory music possesses.

The origin of Cuba's excellence arises from several factors, one of them undoubtedly native genius, but that can not be measured or discussed so easily. Larry was born in 1950 in Altanta, Georgia-- home of Gone With the Wind, Coca Cola, Delta Airlines and the 1996 Olympic Games. He received his Master's Degree from California Institute of the Arts, a unique college near Los Angeles, which includes parallel schools of Dance, Music, Film, Theater, Fine Arts, and Writing. The Cal Arts faculty included abstract animator Jules Engel, Expanded Cinema critic Gene Youngblood, and special- effects wizard Pat O'Neill. The animation studios at Cal Arts also sit next door to the Gamelan rooms which host a staff of Indonesian instructors, with both a Balinese and a Javanese gamelan orchestra-- so that while the animators work, they can often hear the mellow bell harmonies such as those Larry would later use for his film Two Space. Engel and Youngblood definitely instilled in all the students a love for the great masters of Visual Music from the pioneers Walter Ruttmann, Oskar Fischinger and Viking Eggeling to the living (then) California masters James Whitney, Jordan Belson and Harry Smith. For Larry this certainly meant a refinement of his aesthetic perception and standards, which would make him prepare his own later films consciously, with extra care and no compromise.

Pat O'Neill, in addition to the inspiration from his fascinating, exquisitely-complex animation/live-action films, influenced a generation of Cal Arts students, including Adam Beckett, Robbie Blalock, Chris Casady and Larry Cuba, who all worked on special effects for the landmark 1977 science-fiction feature Star Wars.

Next to the factor of artistic taste, the most important aspect of Larry Cuba's success in Computer Graphics probably rests in the fact that he himself programs his own films. Beginning with the "pioneers"-- like Stan Vanderbeek and Lillian Schwartz who both used Ken Knowlton's Beflix program to create numerous "computer graphic films" which all look painfully alike, awkward in their accretion of oozing grids-- most artists have relied on software packages prepared by a technician or endemic to a particular hardware system. Their artistic compositions had to cope with the parameters, demands and limitations of a program over which they had no control. John Whitney, one of the senior pioneers of Computer Graphics (for whom Larry Cuba prepared the program of the 1975 Arabesque), complained until his dying day about the limitations of his hardware and software, which never allowed him to create simultaneous real-time parallel visual and auditory compositions-- and, for example, usually left him employing an automatic color-mapping instead of a more sophisticated nuancing of hues that might have suggested an equivalent of auditory tone colors.

In his own films, Larry has avoided aspects such as texture and color which can not be adequately modulated to produce genuinely satisfying artistic effects. In 3/78 and Two Space (1979) he uses only points of light against a pure black background, which if properly printed on dense black-and-white film stock and correctly projected onto a film screen (no video substitutes, please), produce after- images in the viewers' eyes that sometimes trace trajectories, sometimes add luminous sparkles of gold and iridescent colors to the dots-- a kind of predictable optical phenomenon also employed by James Whitney and Jordan Belson for "magical" effects in their films.

3/78 , created in Chicago with Tom DeFanti's Graphic Symbiosis System [GRASS], consists of sixteen "objects", each composed of 100 points of light, some of them geometric shapes like circles and squares, others more organic shapes resembling gushes of water. Each object performs rhythmic choreography, precisely programmed by Cuba to satisfy mathematic potentials. The fascinating aesthetic results exude musicality-- a lyrical splash of mirror-image fountains bouncing and rebounding, percussive snaps of imploding squares leaving gashes of afterimage. The spare sound score for Kazu Matsui's shakuhachi flute perfectly complements the contemplative visual images.

By comparison, Two Space presents lush, full-screen image- patterns which parallel the layered continuities of classical gamelan music. Using a programming language called RAP at the Los Angeles firm Information International Inc. (III), Larry was able to systematically explore the classic 17 symmetry groups, which Islamic artists had long since discovered as the basis for their abstract temple decorations. Since Cuba's images again consist of white points of light on a black background, the movement of these dots create patterns by their movement, and imply other patterns in the black matrix by not occupying certain "negative space". Within the film's nine-minute duration, one senses an increasing complexity, an infinite potential-- and a dazzling climax of exquisite, "imaginary" complexity, as the viewer recognizes the eye's complicity in manufacturing afterimages and negative space illusions.

For Calculated Movements (1985), Larry again tried something quite different, using Tom DeFanti's Zgrass language on a raster- graphic system, which allowed him to program solid areas and volumes instead of merely the vector dots of the previous two films. It also allowed Cuba to choose four "colors": black, white, light grey and dark grey. These new parameters let Larry work with something he had long admired in Oskar Fischinger's black-and-white Studies: the complex choreography of simple forms. In five episodes, he alternates single events involving ribbon-like figures following intricate trajectories, with more complex episodes consisting of up to 40 individual events that appear and disappear at irregular intervals. Separate electronic sound scores underline the different nature of the odd and even episodes.

Larry Cuba's residency at ZKM will allow him to explore yet another territory. Silicon Graphics, until recently, could only be used with pre-programmed modeling packages, which made it easy for artists and animators to use, but unsatisfactory for someone like Larry Cuba, who prepares his films through algorithmic concepts at the programming level, generating his musical quantities with mathematical quantities. The new Python software available for Silicon Graphics at ZKM will allow Larry to program a new film there, and possibly discover a new, unexplored world of Visual Music sensations.