Experiments with Sound and Image

18.11.2005 Ian Helliwell

The majority of my super-8 films involve a significant hands-on element – drawing, scratching and bleaching of emulsion, in a direct physical interaction with the celluloid. My electronic music soundtracks have a direct relationship with that same methodology; starting with a soldering iron and circuit, touching on wires and adding components, then physically reacting while recording the sound and watching the image – my aim is to achieve a very close synthesis of audio and visual elements.

A question I sometimes get asked after people have seen a film of mine is what comes first, image or sound? The answer is I always start with the image. On a technical level I do not have the equipment or working methods to be able to fluidly juggle images around to connect with a piece of existing sound. And beyond that, my visual creative impulses are not triggered through hearing – I cannot ‘see’ sound or summon graphic relationships to it in my mind`s eye. Unlike people who have even mild synaesthesia, I do not sense any visual associations when I am listening to music, yet many songs and musical works have a deeply moving and profound effect, on a level difficult to describe in words.

For many years I have been fascinated with finding ways of creating abstract images from sound, and generating sound from visual material, using very simple, largely homemade electronic equipment. Although I have been interested in electronic music from the age of 12 – after watching Dr. Who on television throughout the 1970s – it was punk rock that held the most possibilities and excitement for me at that young age. However, I had always felt an instinctive pull towards industrial machines and buildings, and it was completely natural that electronics would sooner or later play a role in my work. In the late 80s when I was still playing and writing songs in a group, I was thinking about ways to incorporate electronic sound.

I had started to introduce tape echo feedback into one of the songs the group performed, and after buying an old second hand reel to reel recorder I started experimenting with tape loops. By 1991 I had completely tired of being in a band and had bought my first cassette 4 track recorder. I was playing guitar, drums, bass and monophonic synthesizer by myself, and adding snippets of radio sounds – voices from plays, orchestral music and SW interference. I did my first complete audio collage “Rose Tinted Spectacles” that year with loops, radio and some electronics from a percussion synthesizer pedal.

I was very intrigued by raw electronic sounds and at the start of the 90s a couple of friends gave me valuable advice on building 9v battery powered circuits. This quickly developed into playing around with cheap sound producing toys, modifying the circuitry rather than buying separate components and building from scratch. Using a wholly intuitive method I would touch wires around the board and listen to the results of these ‘short circuits’. Then by gradually finding places to solder jack sockets, potentiometers and switches, a whole new range of sounds could be discovered and tailored to my own tastes and requirements. Before long I found a company selling ‘build yourself kits’ for producing simple sound effects. These were exceedingly useful and versatile and opened up a lot more possibilities, becoming the foundation of my range of Hellitron tone generators. With a dozen in the series, each circuit is housed in its own uniquely styled and remodelled box with both input and output sockets, making possible a wide variety of different waveform combinations, rhythms and textures. If ever I feel I have exhausted the potential of a generator to create sound patterns I have not used before, I will go back over the circuit and rewire it.

Not having been to university, my discovery of slide projections and then super-8 at the close of the 1980s, meant the visual art side of my mind was suddenly opened up, and as I started making films, music was integral to the process right from the outset. As all my equipment was geared towards silent shooting, my early experiments dispensed with dialogue and relied on music as a vital component in the mood of the film. From the beginning, found footage and drawing directly on super-8 captured my imagination – I had no knowledge of any previous work in this area – so it was a voyage of discovery to develop my own techniques and explore some of the ideas with moving image that I had tried with static ink painted slides.

The basic set up for composing to film that I established in the early 90s with a 4 track recorder and a TV monitor and video recorder, is basically the same as I use today in 2005. The main difference now is I have a mini-disc 4 track instead of a cassette tape model. My approach to soundtrack composition is always to get a rough vhs copy of the piece, and decide on the basic sound sources that are likely to be most fitting. For completely abstract films I like to use wholly electronic sources from a combination of several Hellitron generators. My trilogy of abstract films, “Into the Light “(1998), “Return to the Light” (2001) and “Beyond the Light” (2003), deal with projected light through distortion lenses, in an attempt to fuse light, colour and motion with purely electronic sounds. For films with recognisable images from the outside world, I will often decide on a synthesis of electronics, radio extracts, found sounds, tapes and acoustic instruments. I always strive to capture or enhance something of the mood of the images, and closely connect to the film`s rhythm.

I do not use a time code for synchronising sound to image, but do everything by eye, with a visual marker on the videotape and a start point on the disc to record from. With the Hellitrons patched together I will run the video and try ‘tuning’ them to achieve an interesting audio connection or counterpoint to the images. Motion and rhythm are key considerations – often I will ‘play’ the generators while watching the monitor – physically reacting to what is on screen. At other times I can let the generators run without interference, finding appropriate settings that allow certain randomness in the sound. (A few of the circuits have an inherent instability especially when battery power is low, and this can be usefully harnessed). Some films will require dozens of very short bursts of sound, recorded one after another, carefully layered and synchronised, and gradually built up over weeks of recording.

Up to now I have described how my soundtracks are inspired completely by the films they accompany, and pieced together bit by bit on a 4 track. However, I have also pursued experiments in simple circuit (re)design and instrument construction, to create instant electronic sound from the action of film with photocell resistors. Two instruments, The Megatherm (developed 1995-2000), and the Hellioptic (2004), both involve the interaction between the light and dark areas of super-8 film, with light sensitive resistors housed on the machines.

The Megatherm started life as a heavy piece of 1950s hospital apparatus designed for short wave deep heat treatment. Bought from a car boot sale, I was thoroughly inspired by the metallic box, and set about trying to convert it into some sort of electronic sound device. Initially it evolved into a performance instrument using a player`s proximity to, and interaction with light sensitive resistors, but I was conscious of it being perceived as a cut-price Theremin. So over several years I made various modifications, installed a new circuit and developed the idea of the Megatherm as an auto-soundtrack machine that would react and generate electronic sounds when a film was projected directly onto it, literally playing the accompaniment by itself. I made a special 4 minute film from fragments of super-8 leader, edited to accentuate the contrast between light and dark areas, and this projects over two sensors; one controls volume – lighter areas increase loudness, and the second activates a switched sequence of sounds, part of the original circuit design and now rewired. The Megatherm is positioned in front of a white screen with the film image zoomed in quite small and projected onto the screen and sensors.

The Hellioptic was developed from my interest in how film soundtracks are optically read and translated into music. Using a discarded musical box and the remnants of a super-8 editor/viewer, I built two independent circuits that connect to two separate photocell resistors, housed underneath an aperture over which super-8 film travels. Directly above is a small lamp, which illuminates the resistors, and as the film is manually wound with two handles, Letraset shapes that I have drawn onto clear film, act as masks cutting out light and changing the resistance in the circuit. This simple idea has potential as a performance instrument – the physical act of winding the film backwards and forwards over the photocells, creates an obvious visual connection to the player and the electronic sound that is being produced.

The performance aspect of electronic music is a key issue and one which is often not addressed or challenged. The cult of the dj and rise of laptop use on stage has led to a generation of supposedly live events with very little visible interaction between player and equipment, and virtually no attempt to reach out to the audience. Why bother leaving the house to pay and watch someone staring at a computer screen? This is an area where the connection of visuals to sound, and inventiveness with instrument interfaces, has got to eventually sweep away the limited non-performance that often passes for live electronic music. That can only happen when audiences become more demanding, and programmers are more selective in seeking out artists who are actively making an effort to perform and communicate.

In my “Expo Worlds” and “Integrated Circuits” programmes I have tried to bring together features of expanded cinema – film, video, slides and multi-screen – and introduce live music, often from the contemporary classical field. I have included performances of Expo compositions by Stockhausen and Takemitsu, and for an Integrated Circuits show on the work of Tristram Cary, I organised a rare performance of a live work amongst a programme of 16mm, video, dissolving slides, tape pieces and questions and conversation with the composer. This brings together audio and visual work which is often kept apart, and hopefully provides a varied and stimulating experience for the audience.

Another development in my interest with optical sound came with the film “Filmosounds” (2001-04). Initially I was trying to scratch and draw a synthetic soundtrack onto found 16mm, but the experiments were unsuccessful. Nevertheless I carried on playing around with fragments of film and started to edit sections together purely for the sound content alone. Although labour intensive, as I used only projector and splicer (no Steenbeck viewing table), a carefully constructed sound collage emerged from long sessions of splicing and listening back on the projector.

At the end of this process I still felt it needed a visual accompaniment – the images on the film were not usable as many were upside down or out of step with the soundtrack. (Sound is printed ahead of the image due to the spacing apart of projector aperture and sound reader). I was looking for something that would register with the sound, but leave the emphasis on listening to the film. Some years earlier I had been given a TV test pattern generator and had played around with sending high frequency audio signals into the circuit to create sound activated abstract images on a monitor. I soldered a new input connection to channel the 16mm soundtrack directly into the test pattern generator, to produce blue horizontal bands appearing on the screen whenever sound is heard, becoming more intense the louder the volume. A number of my super-8 films have been made by filming directly from a TV screen, starting with “Catalyst” (1997), and continuing with “Red/Blue Electron Guns” (1999), “Orbiting the Atom” (2002), “Crosshatch” (2003), “Compound Eye” (2004) and “Deflection Currents” (2005).

The images on the TV in the case of Red/Blue Electron Guns were generated with a modified 1970s electronic tennis game console. I sent sine tones into the circuit to disrupt the black and white graphics of the game, and create moving abstract patterns. I filmed these with super-8 and then during the transfer to video, used filters over the projector lenses to add colour.

Catalyst and Orbiting the Atom were derived from a specially modified TV, which I reconnected to send high frequency audio signals into the picture tube. This is a long established technique which results in oscilloscope type images forming according to the sound input – the left and right channels relating to the horizontal and vertical axis of the screen. Tones from a sinewave generator can produce exquisite geometric shapes and patterns that flow and circulate as sound frequency and amplitude are altered.

Crosshatch, Compound Eye and Deflection Currents include material derived from the same modified test pattern generator as used for Filmosounds. This was designed for engineers to accurately calibrate a TV set, and gives a number of set test pattern signals, powered from mains electricity supply. Once again I gingerly experimented with touching around wires, finding connections to send in audio signals – I was looking to use pieces of listenable music rather than high frequency tones. Crosshatch involved a disrupted chessboard pattern, while Compound Eye and Deflection Currents featured distorted colour bars.

Last year I built an exceedingly basic kit, which became the Helliscope – a monochrome waveform generator that receives an incoming audio signal and plugs into an ordinary TV, creating a graphic representation of sound on the screen. It is essentially a very primitive oscilloscope with an old-fashioned video game display – easy to make, yet very useful and satisfying in its simplicity.

The experiments in building, modifying and redesigning lo-tech equipment continue, as I search for new ways to create interactions between images and electronic sound.

– Ian Helliwell is an artist living in Brighton, England since 1985. Amongst other things he has made over 40 short super-8 films without funding, details of which can be found on his website. www.ianhelliwell.co.uk