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What the Fuck Is Animusic?

These computer-animated music videos from the near retrofuture are synaesthetic mind-melters.
October 16, 2014, 9:30am
Screenshot / YouTube

You know the feeling. In some sleepless fugue of YouTube browsing, following a chain of links and associations, you find yourself in foreign territory. This time, the poster frame for the video looks ridiculous: skueuomorphic woodgrain evocative of some 90s CD-Rom nightmare, a visual timbre somewhere between steampunk and Myst. What the hell, you click play.

What you watch, then, is something so stupendously weird and seemingly outside of time that you feel as though you've come across the Holy Grail: an unknown piece of video strangeness as yet undiscovered by the millions of pickers trawling YouTube for such gems. You're Columbus. You're a Viking. You're an ancient Polynesian crashing onto the shores of Hawa'ii in a double-hulled canoe. Then you check the views.

3,225,284. Nope—you're a latecomer. But the sinking feeling of disappointment is replaced by a new, slightly less triumphant, but perhaps more subtle discovery: this is a thing. An entirely different way of thinking about and visualizing music, unique in its technical mores and aesthetics, with a devoted following. You haven't come across something unknown. You've discovered something known, and loved, by a fervent subculture. This isn't just a video—it's a world. Welcome to Animusic.

What the fuck is Animusic?

It is a form of computer-animated music produced by a company of the same name. While most music visualizers—the kind bundled into your iTunes, for example—simply generate loopy imagery synchronized with the music being played back, Animusic begins with computer-animated models which programmatically "perform" each MIDI instrument in each song. Virtual instruments with precision timing, they call it.

The instruments are almost exclusively speculative, often physically impossible: an eight-necked classical guitar that plays itself with slender, clawlike wooden fingers, self-playing MIDI robots banging on specialized drum pads all over their bodies, a clique of bouncy Chapman sticks, and—my personal favorite—a vertiginous Rube Goldberg device of pipes, bongos, and balls so precisely rendered that it sparked a rumor that such a machine may actually exist, built from decommissioned pieces of farm machinery, at the University of Iowa.

Animusic was founded by Wayne Lytle, a computer animator and computer scientist who created his first visual music animation, "More Bells & Whistles," in 1990, while at the Cornell Theory Center, now the Cornell University Center for Advanced Computing. Compared to the baroque textures of official Animusic videos, "More Bells & Whistles" is rudimentary, but the instruments Lytle invented—a CGI vibraphone fountain, synth laser, and self-playing xylophone—make appearances in many of his later pieces.

The half-dozen songs on YouTube are culled from Animusic's two DVD "Video Albums," each of which took Lytle and his very small team around three years to make. A third Animusic DVD was Kickstarted in late 2012, to the tune of $200,000. But the animations are still under production, a delay that the company attributes to a complete restructuring of their proprietary modeling and rendering software.

To get a sense of the kinds of people who are really, really into Animusic, one need only consult the testimonials on the company's site. "Very clever stuff," says Alan Parsons. "AMAZING," says Jon Anderson from YES. "Everyone at Blue Man Group loves Animusic," says Chris Wink, co-founder of Blue Man Group.

Prog Dad aesthetics aside, there is something infinitely compelling about these videos. We've long since accepted the mutable line between the physical and the digital in contemporary music—I, for one, can hardly distinguish between soft synths, analog tones, plugins, or "real" tones anymore. But we still think of instruments in rough categories: synthesizers, guitars, drums. In Animusic videos, a bubble is an instrument.  Fiber-optic balls of light are an instrument. A robot is an instrument. In this rendered world, freed from the physiological constraints of the human body's capacity to grasp and play it, an instrument can take any dimension.

There is also a slightly hallucinatory, synaesthetic quality to Animusic. For someone in the right mindset—perhaps someone in the throes of a sleep-deprived YouTube fugue state—seeing each sound in a composition embodied in its own specific physical carrier, plonking along and playing itself, merges two sense states into one.

Animusic isn't quite the music of the future. Visually, it looks as though the iconic Mind's Eye computer animations from the early 1990s never went out of fashion, and instead grew in sophistication along with the increased processing power of the machines on which they were rendered. It's driven by MIDI, a thirty-year-old standard. In this way, Animusic feels like the creative summit of an alternate timeline.

And yet the landscape of its world, with its instruments untethered by the limits of human physiology, playing impossible compositions for their own benefit, feels resolutely posthuman. After all, when machines compose music solely for the joy of it, to express impulses and ideas inexpressible in their native programming languages, we will know for certain that we have entered a new era.

Or maybe I should just stop YouTube browsing in the dead of night.