The Audio Control of Laser Displays

Early Developments: VIDEO/LASER I and VIDEO/LASER II

My own work in the laser–art medium developed from my concern and experimentation with a problem peculiar to electronic music on tape: the total abstraction of the sound materials. Public performances of tape music offer no visual information whatsoever about the processes by which the sounds are made. At first I was attracted by the abstract nature of electronic music, since by necessity the process of audition requires concentration on the sound itself, to the exclusion of all other factors; the rich visual rituals of performed music are absent. Even the reproduction of traditionally performed music, via recording or broadcast, operates within a visual frame of reference, the “persistence of memory” of our knowing the manner in which the music was originally performed. The most satisfactory performances (i.e., reproductions) of recorded electronic music may take place not in the concert hall, but at home. Here, one does not expect to participate in a performance ritual. Yet wherever the locale of reproduction, listeners to tape music are still denied visual information, either about the musical process, or from interrelated materials that could contribute to the appreciation of the sound materials.

Perhaps unconsciously trying to deal with these abstract properties of recorded tape music, composers in the ’50s and ’60s experimented with at least two approaches: the direction and mobilization of sound in space (including the construction of specialized equipment at electronic music studios in Paris, Cologne, Columbia–Princeton and Toronto, as well as my own development, the “Stirrer” ), and the idea of having the composer/performers come out of the studio onto the stage, heralding the advent of “live electronic” music. Having no interest in establishing a performance ritual for electronic music, I decided to try the second possibility or devising a means for making electronic visual correlates to the sound materials. Assisted by Anthony J. Gnazzo at the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio, I composed some tape pieces, including Video II (B), whose signals in performance were fed simultaneously to a two–channel audio system and to the inputs of an x–y oscilloscope. The oscilloscope was unsatisfactory for an audience presentation, and I subsequently modified a television receiver into an x–y display device. About this time (1965), John Cage (1912–1992) and David Tudor (1926–1996), leading figures in “live electronic” music, took an interest in these developments, and by 1966 the three of us had given several public collaborative performances with electronic sound and x–y television devices. The equipment, which I modified for these purposes, included black and white sets, color receivers, and a black & white television projector. The projector offered the most interesting possibilities for audience presentations, but it did not withstand an evening of use following the modification: all of our x–y patterns became permanently etched on the phosphor screen of its cathode–ray tube, owing to the high intensity of the brightness levels which the modification permitted.

At this time, the first argon and krypton ion lasers were in the process of being developed and marketed, and soon I had the opportunity to pursue my ideas for using a laser to overcome the inherent deficiencies of modified television as a medium for public performances. In 1968, shortly after becoming Artistic Director of the Tape Music Center, Mills College (Oakland, California), I had the very fortuitous opportunity of becoming acquainted with Carson D. Jeffries (1922–1995), a gifted and innovative sculptor of kinetic art systems, and significantly, a renowned Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley. I somewhat timidly proposed to Professor Jeffries my ideas for using a laser and a tandem galvanometer mirror system, driven by audio electronics, to make a laser x–y projection device for public performances. I suggested that the collimated nature of laser beams offered possibilities for x–y projection via mirror galvanometers, since the persistence of the eye would permit the perception of kinetic imagery when scanning frequencies in the audio range were employed. Professor Jeffries agreed that this was indeed a feasible idea, and he embraced the plan with his characteristic enthusiasm and artistic dedication. On May 9, l969, David Tudor, Carson Jeffries, and I gave at Mills College the first public performance with a multi–color, x–y laser projection system, programmed by electronic music, operating in conjunction with modified x–y television equipment, and entitled Audio/Video/Laser. Jeffries and I called the x–y device that we put together, with equipment borrowed from Honeywell, Coherent, and other companies, VIDEO/LASER (= VIDEO/LASER I). [2]

This first VIDEO/LASER was the prototype for a larger commissioned project, VIDEO/LASER II, which we built in Jeffries’ Berkeley sculpture studio. It was installed under my supervision with faithful attendance by David Tudor, in the Pepsi–Cola Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. The overall project for the Pavilion was undertaken under the auspices of Experiments in Art and Technology, Inc. (EAT), a cooperative group of artists and engineers based in New York. Tudor was one of the four initiating artists for the Pavilion, which was attended by over 2,000,000 Expo visitors while the 1970 World Exhibition was open. This four–color system (red, yellow, green, blue) utilized a Coherent mixed–gas laser, Bell & Howell mirror galvanometers, Jeffries’ own custom–machined mounting and alignment system, and my electronic control unit. The Coherent laser was later repatriated by Jeffries, donated by him to the UC–Berkeley Physics Department, and converted to argon operation, where he used it to the end of his career in his research.

Within about three years, the first imitators of VIDEO/LASER II appeared. Among the better known of these was a group calling themselves “Laser Images,” based in the Los Angeles area. They have made projectors for use under planetarium domes, at football halftimes, and elsewhere, using recorded music from science fiction film soundtracks, pop music, rock, etc., as part of the “light show.” Their “Laserium” equipment has spawned similar approaches by other groups. The “Laserium” was introduced after Elsa Garmire, laser scientist, disclosed the techniques of the Expo ’70 system, VIDEO/LASER II, to Ivan Dryer, a filmmaker. He later became the president of Laser Images, Inc. Dr. Garmire requested technical information from Jeffries and me regarding the design of VIDEO/LASER II for a publication, which she wrote on the various systems within the Pepsi–Cola Pavilion; she was also present during the installation of this system at Expo ’70. [3]


[2] Lowell Cross: “Audio/Video/Laser.” SOURCE, music of the avant garde, Issue No. 8 (1970), pp. 3-10. “Laser Deflection System.” In Klüver, Martin, and Rose, eds., Pavilion. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972, pp. 235-237.

[3] Elsa Garmire. “An overview: Laser Deflection System.” In Klüver, Martin, and Rose, eds., op. cit., pp. 184-186.