Alastair Graham

August 5, 2006

Bill Evans: “My Foolish Heart”

Alastair Graham is a London-based artist and animation designer. In the 70s, he was a producer at TVC London, the studio that made the animated Beatles film “Yellow Submarine.” Graham is a huge jazz fan, and for his next project he had the idea to do a “music video” for the jazz-fusion band Weather Report. He pitched his concept and a storyboard to Weather Report keyboardist Joe Zawinul, who received the idea enthusiastically. When Graham began talks with Weather Report’s management in LA, the management balked on the proposed budget. Thus, the film was never made. Graham reflects that the film would have been “the first music video, some years before such things became possible.”

Graham remains active as an artist that creates music-inspired art. His jazz portraits have developed a following among jazz fans, and he’s currently developing a series of short films featuring the music of Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista (of John Zorn, Paul Simon, Sting) for portable media players such as cell phones and iPods. To see some of his recent work, check out this short film inspired by the music of SUBA. The film recently screened in London theaters, opening for X-Men 3.

Take a look at more of his jazz portraits online at His drawings succeed not just because he exagerates the physical characteristics of each jazz musician, but because he is able to illustrate the unique musical personality of each musician he draws. Graham even goes so far as to list the specific recordings that inspire his drawings. His saturnine, introspective Bill Evans (above) is my  favorite.


Visualizing Musical Lines

August 4, 2006

The first part of this post may seem a little off topic because it deals with classical music, but in the words of Charlie Parker, “It’s all music, man. Just call it music.”

In music, counterpoint literally means “note against note.” Visualizing counterpoint is a way of understanding the shape and tension of the music at a given moment. Take for example this excerpt from Rondo A Capriccio, a piano work by Beethoven:

The picture above is a piano roll, which displays the music on a grid with pitch on the y-axis and rhythmic value on the x-axis. This piano roll displays the top two voices from the Beethoven excerpt. (Click here to listen to the excerpt). When I listen to music, I try to visualize the musical line(s) – and looking at music on a piano roll has put this in a new perspective for me. Of course, counterpoint didn’t begin with Beethoven… If you want to learn from the master, Bach’s The Art of Fugue is a great place to try to begin hearing music in terms of shapes and lines.

The linear quality of improvisation in the bebop style has roots in the counterpoint of Bach (and the Bach-influenced classical composers who followed). However, bebop deals with a significantly different harmonic language.

Saxophonist/composer Anthony Braxton creates a visual picture of what he calls “Bebop Sound Space” in the book Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton. The rhythm section (bass/drums/piano) inhabits the lower end of the musical spectrum. The soloist typically occupies the sonic space above the harmonic foundation of the rhythm section, and the shape of the solo reflects the contour of the harmony. (See how the dips and peaks in the solo line correspond with the ups and downs in the harmonic structure).

For Braxton, the individuality of the soloist is defined by the shape of the solo and how this that relates the the musical vocabulary of the soloist.

Link: Charlie Parker plays Confirmation (iTunes)

In Braxton’s words: “By gravillic weight I’m talking about how the gravity that underlines how a given forming is established in space. That being… Suppose I did a visual imprint, with respect to the gravillic contour; I would take one particular shape and section it off, then talk of the gravity points in forming as a way of understanding how that vocabulary works. Bird’s music would be like: (hums Parker solo and traces shape in the air).

link: Eric Dolphy plays Iron Man (iTunes)

Baxton continues: “Take Eric Dolphy’s language: the intervalic relationships between distances would be part of the contour of his music: (hums Dolphy solo and traces shape in air).”

Thinking about jazz in terms of shape and language is especially relevant when considering its historical relationship with animation. Many animators at UPA in the were highly influenced by the ideas in Gyorgy Kepes’s book, Language of Vision (published in 1944). I think many of these forward-looking animators saw the innovation of the be-bop language in the 40s as a model for creating a new visual language in animation. More on that later.

If you haven’t read it, buy Graham Lock’s book on Anthony Braxton! It will change the way you think about music forever.





The music of ‘Begone Dull Care’

July 19, 2006

Norman McLarenValarie T. Richard’s out-of-print book Norman McLaren, Manipulator of Movement contains a fascinating account of how Begone Dull Care was made. The film is truely a collaboration between artist and musician. From Richard’s book:

“[Oscar Peterson and Norman McLaren] worked together for four days developing the music. At times Peterson would play variations enabling McLaren to visualize colors and movements, and other times McLaren would describe specific music he wanted for a special effect.”

The score was recorded by Peterson’s trio, featuring Auston Roberts on bass and Clarence Jones on drums (as confirmed in David Meeker’s book Jazz in the Movies). I’ve seen several websites that claim the trio in the film was Peterson’s group with Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums, but the music speaks for itself on this issue. Listen as the medium tempo groove goes into double-time in the first musical segment. The drummer lags way behind the beat, and his brushwork is not nearly as refined as Thigpen, who wrote the book on playing with brushes. Additionally, Peterson’s last record prior to working with McLaren was Rockin’ in Rhythm (1947), which he recorded with the Roberts/Jones rhythm section for the Canadian label RCA Masters. So it makes sense that O.P. would be working with Roberts and Jones for his 1949 collaboration with Norman McLaren.

Musicians tend to think about shapes in music moving hoizontally, from right to left. At least, I do. Interestingly, almost all the motion in Begone Dull Care occurs vertically. Take a look.

Begone Dull Care (1949)

July 18, 2006

Norman McLaren’s Begone Dull Care (1949) is probably my all-time favorite animated short with a jazz score. The music to the short is provided by the Oscar Peterson Trio. This film avoids tying the music to any kind of representational imagery, using shapes and color to illustrate the music of O.P.’s trio. McLaren deals with the music on its own terms.

My favorite aspect of the film is the way it supports the musical wit of Oscar Peterson, resulting in some laugh-out loud moments (a remarkable accomplishment for a cartoon with no characters or story).

When I showed this film to a friend of mine, an alto saxophonist, she mentioned that she liked how it never repeats itself. The animation is a stream of conciousness, much like O.P.’s improvisation. The film follows the musical structure of three “movements,” each with its own individual identity.

Begone Dull Care is often compared to the work of Jackson Pollock, but I think it more closely resembles the work of abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.

In the first “movement” of the film, McLaren uses white lines against black to augment the musical unison lines which O.P. plays in octaves on the lower register of the piano. McLaren achieves this effect by scratching directly onto the film stock.




I can’t help but notice the similarities between these drawings and the charcoal-like paintings of Willem de Kooning, made just one year prior to McLaren’s film.

Willem de Kooning. Painting. 1948. Enamel and oil on canvas. On view at MoMa, NYC.

First trip

July 17, 2006

In a January 1, 2006 press release celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Animation, ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive director Steve Worth wrote:

“From its humble beginnings with J. Stuart Blackton’s film, ‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces’ first released on April 6th, 1906, animation has gone on to become one of the greatest American creative contributions to the arts, second only to Jazz.”

Mr. Worth is keen to note the historical relationship between animation and jazz. However, I’ve long felt that animation is one of our most missunderstood art forms, second only to jazz.

Both fields have experienced tremendous growth and innovation in the relatively short history of 100 years. During 1940s and 50s, jazz and animation were each undergoing significant stylistic change. The music of jazz artists such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk was evolving the language of jazz into a sophisticated new language called be-bop. Similarly, animation artists were developing a new visual language. By the 1950s, the independent animation studio UPA had replaced Disney as the new artistic standard in animation. Many animation artists during this time were amateur or even professional jazz musicians. Some animation directors collaborated with jazz musicians such as Oscar Peterson, Shorty Rogers and Dizzy Gillespie on their short films. So there was a lot of “crossing over” going on.

I’ve always found it interesting that many viewers describe animation art from this period with the same adjectives music critics use to describe jazz from the same period: words such as “angular,” “avant-garde,” and “modern.” But I haven’t seen much discussion on why this is. What prompts someone to call a piece of animation “jazzy?”

Current scholarship on the relationship between jazz and animation has dealt almost exclusively with racial representations of jazz musicians in cartoons. The goal of this blog is to explore the influence of jazz music on animation design in the 1940s and 50s by looking at animated films from this period that feature authentic jazz music. I’m also interested in finding similarities in how jazz musicians and animation artists visualize music. Though my research will focus on the 40s and 50s, this blog will have a broader scope, covering other decades as well.

I hope this blog might prompt dialogue between musicians and artists. So post comments! Thanks for visiting, and stay tuned as this whole thing develops.