A Video Synth Pioneer Dusts Off Her Groundbreaking Audiovisuals

Denise Gallant is playing her early analogue video synthesizer at Coaxial Arts in LA.

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Jun 2 2017, 2:34pm

Still from Denise Gallant’s work for Tangerine Dream. Images courtesy the artist.

For about as long as video synthesis has been an art form, Denise Gallant has been making experimental audiovisual works for installations, music videos, and live performances. This month, the pioneering video artist is breaking out her modular video synthesizer, Synopsis, for Denise Gallant: 45 Years of Video Synthesis, a live show that will include visuals, tweaked in real-time, that span her career. For the show, Gallant will set Synopsis up with a video camera and a microphone and demonstrate how it works. She plans to augment two-and-a-half hours of visuals, much of it culled from her early days in San Francisco, with an emphasis on how the Synopsis video synthesizer integrates with music.

Gallant tells Creators that her path to creating Synopsis began after coming across the psychedelic electronic artworks of John Whitney, Sr. and Steven Beck, late in her UCLA career. Originally intending to be an animator, she decided to instead explore the electronic arts. After graduating, Gallant reconnected with her high school friend Rob Schafer, and by the mid-70s the two were designing and building Synopsis in a modular way from the ground-up. "I pushed the idea of building the video synthesizer," says Gallant. "I wanted something in small boxes that I could carry and take off to clubs and concerts to plug into music and make things happen."

Gallant's major intention was to illustrate music. Design-wise, Synopsis is built for this purpose, as it is synced to music through control voltage, or CV, in analogue synthesis parlance.

The only module not designed by Schafer and Gallant is an audio control created by Gentle Electric. A pitch follower designed for regular audio equipment, this module allowed Gallant to plug in guitars, microphones, analogue synthesizers, and other equipment and capture the voltage for pitch and amplitude. This would then influence the character of the visuals that she tweaked in real-time, giving them different colors, patterns, luminance, saturation, and other qualities.

"The patterns were high frequency oscillators that were circles, triangles, diamonds, and squares," says Gallant. "I would just mix and match vertical and horizontal to create these patterns, which is kind of tricky because I'd be doing something live and Synopsis wouldn't like it, so I'd have to pull something out and start over in the middle of a concert."

Between 1978 and 1980, Gallant and Schafer played Synopsis at clubs in San Francisco, even as modules were still being added to it. The two created visuals for bands like The Residents, Group 87, and other bands in what she calls the city's avant-garde side of punk. Gallant also created synthesized visuals during this time for post-punk band Devo.

A move back to LA in 1980 introduced Gallant's electronic visuals to new age ambient artists like Steve Roach and, later, Tangerine Dream. Gallant describes this time as an eclectic intersection of new age, hardcore punk, and new wave music at massive parties that were almost like Burning Man in atmosphere, with robots, lasers, and synthesized visuals. Gallant also created visuals seen on the computer screens in VFX wizard Douglas Trumbull's proto-cyberpunk film Brainstorm.

Though she never stopped creating experimental visuals, much of Gallant's work in recent years has been in commercial video production and education. The Coaxial show brings Gallant's work full circle, right back to where it all started. "I'm trying to downplay my own history because this is just a statement of what I've done in the past," says Gallant. "But, I definitely wanted the show to be video synth specific."

Denise Gallant: 45 Years of Video Synthesis begins at 7 PM on June 3, 2017, at Coaxial Arts Foundation. Click here for more information.

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