Jumpin’ Jack Flash: a Generative Visualisation by James Dyer

We chat to James Dyer about his Rolling Stones themed art piece for our Melomania venue space.

We’ve converted the entire ground floor of our offices into an incredible sounding venue space - Melomania. Because…? Because why wouldn’t you when you’ve got a team of expert audio engineers in the house. We took the opportunity of the overhaul to install an incredible piece of artwork on one of the walls. This artwork is far more than just a pretty face though; behind it lies an entire matrix of geek-dom and an epic piece of music – which makes it just our cup of tea.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: a Generative Visualisation by James Dyer

What you’re feasting your eyes on is a visual representation of the song ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash by The Rolling Stones that has gone through a generative visualisation (or generative design) process.

Translation: A generative design process takes a form, pattern or object - in our case, the song - and runs it through a set of algorithms using a computer program to give it a new form - in our case, the visual pattern.

Why Jumpin’ Jack Flash you ask? (even if you didn’t we’re going to tell you because it’s good) The song was released in 1968, the same year Cambridge Audio was born and the song title’s initials match those of our CEO, James Johnson-Flint. It was meant to be!

James Dyer, the man behind the commission, took the time to talk us through the process, the design and his passion for music.

So where does the idea for generative visualisation come from? 

Generative visualisations have been around for a while, they became particularly popular in art practices when personal computers became more affordable around the 80's. But I would map the practices of "generative art" back to the early 20th century when Dadaism was beginning to be taken seriously. From their you can follow its development through performance art and relational art leading into the 21st century. So generative visualisations are not my idea, by a long shot, but it is something I enjoy participating in.

 

Can you explain the process of your generative visualisation method and how it works?

It’s all about making an environment or process and governing that environment with rules. So I write a program that reacts in a particular way to, in this case, music. Effectively, I tell the program: while the music is playing listen to the volume of certain frequencies (highs, lows, mids) and then draw different shapes depending on those volumes. Basically, the program re-routes the digital music data into something visual rather than just vibrating a speaker. Kind of like if you could your CD player into the side of your TV, and watch your music. In this way it is quite a modest piece of coding, but it produces such interesting results.

 

The piece you’ve created for the Melomania space is the generative visualisation of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ by The Rolling Stones. Could you talk us through the various aspects of the piece and what they mean?

The idea is that the centre of the radial visualisation is the lower frequencies and then the outside parts are the higher frequencies. What you’ve got then is different intensities in the frequencies that change the alpha channel or the opacity channel of each of these circles. What that means is that the volume of the audio makes some shapes more transparent than others; quieter moments draw more transparent shapes and louder moments less transparent. In this case with Jumpin' Jack Flash, in any one instance you might have singing which is mid range or a guitar solo which could be higher pitched, and these give different intensities or amplitudes of colour. For example, the area that has a darker segment on the right is the moment where the song fades out. Basically, if volume fades so does the transparency.

Are there any particular tracks that have given you interesting, different or weird results?

Tim Hecker’s music has loads of different frequency ranges in it, you can get some interesting results from that. Normally tracks with vocals in them are a bit tricky, although this Jumpin’ Jack Flash one is good, I like it. But usually vocals just have a focus on that mid range. So if you’ve got a pop song in there it’s interesting because you just get a really narrow band of frequency range. If you put in some early Madonna you get loads of low bass stuff when she was doing all the club music. But people like Aphex Twin or Tim Hecker all give you interesting results.

 

A younger James Dyer sold Cambridge Audio kit in a hi-fi shop, did you have any of our products yourself?

In all honesty no! The only speakers I could get my hands on to take home were always broken ones or ones that had been left behind. So maybe that says something about the quality of Cambridge Audio stuff, they never broke.

You can see more of James Dyers stunning generative visualisations and his array of multimedia projects at his website here. Let us know what you think!

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