First–person statement re: music, art, and technology

X–Y Scanning: From Oscilloscopes to Video Systems to Laser Projectors

From my youth I have been fascinated with x–y displays of audio–frequency information, certainly including music. When I was about 10 or 11 years old, there was a science fair at Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University) in Lubbock, where my father was head of the biology department. The physics department was demonstrating an oscilloscope showing a real–time plot of a star–shaped Lissajous pattern in slow rotation. Since that young age I have retained the rotating image as a vivid memory throughout my professional career, even though there was no provision at that demonstration for observers to hear what they were seeing.

By the time that I was 16, I was building Heathkits, including a 5" oscilloscope and a “hi–fi” tube amplifier for my monaural sound system. I was also taking a physics course at Lubbock High School. Two–channel home stereo reproduction was still on the horizon, but I made x–y displays on my oscilloscope by plotting signals radiated from a fluorescent light fixture on my desk—rich in the harmonics of 60 Hz—against the ~400 Hz audio output from my Heathkit radio–frequency signal generator. For the first time, I could hear and see these electronic signals simultaneously.

A decade later, when I was a graduate student working in the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio, I concluded that the presentation of electronic tape music, including my own, was visually boring. Yes, it was abstract, and abstraction during that era was considered to be a virtue by certain academic practitioners of electronic, aleatory, and serial music. But—young rebel that I was—I decided to put kinetic electronically–generated visual images into the performances of my electronic music, using systems of my own design. The “aesthetic” was that of directly correlating the images and the sounds; two simultaneous forms of abstraction were more interesting to me than one. I began with an x–y oscilloscope, progressed to monochrome and color television receivers that I modified for x–y display, and then I became involved with x–y laser projection systems.

V/L I setup

VIDEO/LASER I setup; May 9, 1969.

After my wife Nora and I moved to Oakland, CA in 1968, I was very fortunate to collaborate with a world–renowned physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Carson D. Jeffries, in the design of multi–color x–y laser systems. Carson, also a gifted designer and builder of kinetic sculptures, really liked my idea of sending audio signals into tandem–mounted mirror galvanometers (“scanners”) operating in conjunction with a powerful krypton ion laser. By May 9, 1969, we were ready to present at Mills College Audio/Video/Laser using our borrowed and “built from scratch” system, VIDEO/LASER I (see photo). Note the use of ordinary lumber for supporting the laser and the x–y deflection components—not Carson’s rigid custom–milled metal mounting assemblies that we used later for VIDEO/LASER II (Expo ’70, 1969), VIDEO/LASER III (The University of Iowa, 1971–72), and VIDEO/LASER IV (The Adler Planetarium, Chicago, 1980). Carson did, however, custom–fabricate in his sculpture studio the metal mounts for the “front end” of VIDEO/LASER I for the Mills College performance. David Tudor joined Carson and me for that performance, which unfortunately was not documented in color photographs.

Video II (L)

Video II (L)

The color photo is of a kinetic projection from the next system that we built, VIDEO/LASER II, destined for Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, and completed in December 1969. I am confident that this is the first color photo of a multi–color laser performance system in operation, utilizing mirror scanners and electronic tape music. That music was my Video II (L), composed for x–y display. I employed that same music earlier for Video II (B) and Video II (C) with interconnections to modified monochrome and color television receivers. For Audio/Video/Laser, I employed all three of those display devices simultaneously, and for nostalgic reasons, an x–y oscilloscope (see May 9, 1969 setup photo).