Bringing Your Music into the Visual Space

By The Echo Society  •  August 18, 2016

The Echo Society is a collective of composers and visual artists based in LA. They specialize in mixing orchestral and electronic elements with visual accompaniment for immersive, one-of-a-kind live shows. We asked for their expertise on how music creators of all kinds can extend their music into the visual space. 

The Echo Society's fifth show takes place August 31st at the historic Theatre at Ace Hotel in Downtown LA. Click here to get discount tickets. 

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Inverting our process

As film composers, we spend much of our time focusing on the overlap between music and narrative, particularly as it relates to how we can use music to support visuals. When we started The Echo Society, the idea was to step outside of our comfort zone, away from a pre-written narrative, and to almost invert our process by using visuals to support music.

It's become an amazing opportunity for us to explore a wide range of interesting spaces around Los Angeles, from sound stages to disused churches and warehouses. For each show, we invite guest composers from around the world to join us in composing new pieces that merge large live orchestral music with dynamic electronics. We take this same approach with the lighting and visual design team for each show, striving to combine disparate elements and asking ourselves, "How can we push ourselves beyond what is expected?” As the shows have grown, we’ve found it inspiring to reach for something new and unfamiliar with each performance, while still creating dynamic and engaging touch-points for our audiences.

These kinds of events require commitment and attention to an overarching aesthetic that will create the space for music and visuals to cohesively thrive together. Here are some concepts to consider when thinking about bringing music into the visual space:

Feed all the senses

You’ve probably heard it said that the audio in a film is just as important as what you see. Similarly, when it comes to live music, the visuals can be every bit as important as the audio. Pop concerts have been wielding this tool for decades, but the principle comes from simply sitting close to musicians and watching what they play. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of observing an orchestra and suddenly sensing a clarity – almost a perceived bump in volume – when focusing on a certain section. It’s a simple magic trick that our brains play, and it is incredibly powerful. Just as taste is enhanced by smell, so sound is enhanced by sight. When we see the motion creating the noise we’re hearing, it becomes even more effective.

Use abstraction to translate dynamics

Of course, it can be nearly impossible to focus on a single player in a large space, and this is where abstract visuals are extremely helpful. Your audience may not be able to see the exact moment a mallet hits a drum, but if the entire stage flashes in time with the sound, it has a similar effect. In this way, you can push to convey the audio information in a visual way so that people in the back row – people who can’t see what the musicians are doing – can still get a full, multi-sensory experience. Aim to make the music resonate by supporting it with all the tools at your disposal, since experiencing something with more than one sense enables our minds to latch on more readily.

Avoid a prescriptive approach

When working with a director, the goal is to help tell the story they’ve put on the screen. In a concert, there can often be some type of story as well, but it is usually somewhat impressionistic, more abstract, and almost never didactic. In these situations, focus on harnessing the emotions a piece of music evokes, and then figuring out a way to capture some visual element that enhances that feeling without prescribing too specifically.

Work with a theme

We’ve also found it helpful to organize our creative process around a central theme. Currently, that theme is “V,” or “Five.” For our upcoming performance on August 31st we’ve been inspired by the visual strength of the symbol itself, but also what it represents. While doing some research, we came across the idea that in numerology, five represents the “symbol of the incarnated conscience: 4, Matter, + 1, Spirit.” All of our pieces explore this theme in one way or another, and the broad motif gives room for a wide variety of dynamics and styles. Past themes have included other esoteric concepts such as VeilsSolstice and Bloom. Essentially, these serve as simple prompts, which take on different lives; all wholly unique to each composer’s perspective. They mutate and expand through iteration, ideally yielding a diverse but thematically cohesive program.

Embrace ephemerality

Just like scoring or sound designing for a film, creating a performance event that merges music and visuals is a tremendous amount of work. Unlike a film or album, where the work lives on to be viewed and heard in perpetuity, a performance event is over quickly, and of course, open to all the happenstance of live staging. Still, the idea of “one night only” – of creating a moment in time that can only be lived and shared collectively – is an important part of the experience. In a world of constant broadcasting, creating a singular shared experience can be more valuable than ever.

Consider the space beyond the stage

It can be easy to think that your appreciation of a piece of music starts and ends with the music itself. If you're honest, this is rarely true. Your impressions of the space, the people, the discussions afterward, and even the ride to and from the venue can play a subtle but important role. Some of our favorite shows expand beyond the opening notes; beyond the closing numbers. Because of this, you might consider hosting your events in spaces that feel welcoming and encourage interaction. Aim to set the stage…not just for the players, instruments and visuals, but for the audience as well. The Echo Society has slowly expanded into different venues, selecting spaces we can envision playing host to community gatherings. For us, these shows are a chance to connect with old friends, and hopefully, to meet new ones.

The last four years have been an amazing time of learning for all of us, and we’re excited to keep exploring new ideas. This upcoming show will be our largest yet, but we’re excited to keep the same vibe we’ve come to love. We’ll be exploring a wider range of sonics, a larger group of players, and a visual experience beyond anything we’ve yet attempted. Hopefully these thoughts have sparked some of your own, and if you’re interested in what we’re doing, we invite you to come see the show and introduce yourself.

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About The Echo Society

The Echo Society is a non-profit collective of composers and visual artists who live and work in Los Angeles. Over the past four years, they have staged a series of shows featuring new works of art performed in unique, non-traditional venues. The concerts welcome guest composers from around the world and are performed by an ever-changing ensemble of LA's top musicians. Each show’s program features between 10-14 world premieres written specifically for the evening's ensemble, which highlights a mixture of orchestral and electronic elements combined with projections and lighting design. www.theechosociety.com

Echo Society: V takes place August 31st at the historic Theatre at Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. Find out how to get discount tickets here