Photo 22-12-2016, 09 29 55.jpg
 

It was early 2016,  David Bowie had just passed away, and like many others, we were listening to his songs on loop.

His songs are so richly creative, so well written both musically and lyrically, and so well performed that they hold up to any kind of analytical scrutiny. In short, they’re too good not to visualise.

 

WHY SPACE ODDITY?

Space Oddity was Bowie’s breakthrough single. Recorded at Trident Studios on 20 June 1969 and released on 11 July, it was his first British Top 5 hit and his first to make the US Top 20. It later reached the British number one spot in November 1975.

It is something of a novelty song. Space Oddity tells the story of an astronaut launched into space who leaves his rocket and – perhaps deliberately, we can’t be sure – drifts into the void, never to return. The title was inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and its release was timed to coincide with the Apollo 11 manned moon mission, launched on 20 July 1969. The tone of the lyrics is fairly mocking at times (‘Here am I floating round my tin can’) and the BBC refused to play it until the Apollo 11 astronauts had safely returned.

His friend Tony Visconti considered it a publicity stunt and refused to produce it, so Gus Dudgeon – who went on to produce Elton John in the 1970s – did so instead.

But Space Oddity is more than a novelty song, despite some kitsch moments. The story of a doomed astronaut has a kind of timeless appeal and metaphorical resonances – loss of control, loss of ego, humanity’s irrelevance in the vastness of the universe – that give it meaning beyond its immediate late-1960s context. The strength of the songwriting and the lush, multi-layered musical setting give it an emotional depth that may have increased over the years, even as the song has become familiar (perhaps over-familiar) to millions of people.

We decided to visualise Space Oddity both because the world conjured up by the lyrics is so richly visual (space, rockets, the Kubrick inspiration) and because the music is so satisfying.


Deconstruction

Deconstruction can be defined as breaking something down into its separate parts in order to understand its meaning.

We had both previously worked on projects that deconstructed works of art in different ways. Valentina’s 2009 project The Shining – a visual deconstruction analysed Kubrick’s film The Shining by looking at how shot length, appearance of characters and use of colour contribute to its internal structure. Miriam’s PhD research in musicology was on performance style in recordings of the music of Anton Webern. Part of this involved analysing the recordings one parameter at a time, examining how particular timing and intonation patterns create the musical effect of a performance. In both projects, we deconstructed artworks in order to understand them better, reveal patterns, decipher hidden meanings.

Oddityviz_detail_print_2.jpg

ONE SONG, MANY SYSTEMS

We decided to take a systematic approach to our project. At first, we considered applying a single system to many Bowie songs. But in the end we decided to look at just one song – Space Oddity – using 10 different systems.

Each record deconstructs the track in a different way. The 10 records are like 10 different angles on the same song, each illuminating a different aspect of it but all using the same format: one rotation of the record equals the length of the song.

The first record visualises our interpretation of the story told by the song: 

1 Narrative

Then four records visualise aspects of the music:

2 Recording 3 Texture 4 Rhythm 5 Harmony

The next four records visualise aspects of the vocal line:

6 Structure 7 Melody 8 Lyrics 9 Trip

The final record, 10 Emotions, is a bit different. It visualises the emotional responses people had while listening to Space Oddity.

Data

We based our research on the 2009 remaster of the album version of Space Oddity, simply because it was the version we liked the most.

There’s a long fade in at the start of the track. We cropped off the initial silence to avoid having long blank sections at the start of each record, so 0:00 on our records corresponds to the first guitar chord played.

Miriam gathered most of the data by ear, that is, by listening to the song carefully, many times over. The timing data was gathered using a semi-manual method in Sonic Visualiser, a powerful and free program for analysing music recordings.Another open source program, Audacity, was used to create the waveform images in 2 Recording.

Parts of the animation were generated directly from the audio file master tracks in Processing by Valentina and Mike Brondbjerg. Because most of the data was gathered manually, a few errors likely crept in – although not too many, we hope! At the same time, this manual data-gathering method allowed us to explore our own interpretation of the song, something we could not have done using software. This is not hard data; it’s data derived from our own subjective readings of the music. We’ve made some judgements about the characters singing at different times, and about what sections should be called what. We may even have heard some chords as being slightly different to those in the guitar tab versions online. That is okay with us. It’s an exploration of the song, not the final word on it.

Design

Each visualisation is laser-engraved into a 12-inch acrylic disc. One rotation of the record equals the duration of the song, five minutes 17 seconds.

Time is shown on the x-axis and flows clockwise. You start reading at 12 o’clock. The y-axis displays different data depending on the record. Valentina created the visual system and realised all the project designs. We’d hoped to use vinyl for the records, but apparently vinyl + laser = toxic fumes! 

Working within this 12-inch circular format brought an interesting set of constraints. Firstly, it made us focus on aspects of the song that could be communicated well using a linear time-scale on the x-axis (rather than, say, more abstract features where we’d have to depart from this). 

Secondly, it allowed us to visualise things radially: the y-axis displays as ‘distance from the centre’ rather than ‘height’. Our y-axis runs from the inside of the black portion of the record (small or close by) to the outside edge (large or far away). In the records that display pitch information, we always put lower pitches towards the outside of the record, since larger sound waves produce lower frequency sounds and larger objects tend to make lower-pitched sounds.

The third constraint was that the records are engraved. We liked the idea of etching into a record that cannot be played, but must be decoded visually instead. Engraving meant we could use lines, type, symbols and texture to communicate data, but no colour. The posters also had to be entirely black and white. Our aim was to create a stark, monochrome look and feel, alluding to stars in the cosmos and also to many black and white rock album covers from the 1960s onwards, such as Peter Saville’s famous design for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album – itself a data visualisation of a pulsar signal from distant space.

Oddityviz_Disk_2_Recordings.jpg

The circular format also allowed us to create visual layers or concentric circles, orbiting within one another like the rings of a planet. On many discs, the y-axis lines look like the grooves of a record. Or they could be the stave lines on a musical score. While we tried to steer away from traditional musical notation, we did end up reproducing some of its elements, such as using lines to show pitch height. We were also inspired by the many alternative graphical scores in existence, from John Cage to Brian Eno.

Many of the illustrations reference Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – the film that inspired Bowie to write the song – as well as the Apollo Moon missions and space travel more generally.

We use Gill Sans typeface for headers and Inconsolata for captions and annotations. Inconsolata was used in tape and record covers in the 1960s and 1970s (and more recently by Manchester label I Hate My Records).

Animation

Our animation brings visual elements from the Oddityviz records to life by setting them to Bowie's original track, Space Oddity.

The animation combines visual elements from the Oddityviz records with new elements inspired by the song's lyrics – floating doors, an enormous HAL-like eye and, at the end, a portrait of David Bowie composed of thousands of stars. 

Many parts of the animation were coded directly from the audio track to make them move in sync with the music.

A number of visual elements are taken from the third Oddityviz record, Texture, where each icon stands for a different instrument playing at that point in the song. 

Where a symbol is present, the instrument is playing during that bar. The icons renew themselves every bar then fade into the background as the music plays. 

Valentina art directed the animation, creating sketches for Mike to work from.

Then, working in Processing, Mike produced a series of 3D sequences that revealed and animated Valentina's visualisation designs.

Miriam's musical data was used to position the instrument icons in time and audio analysis data of individual tracks was used to animate them and bring them to life.

The two visualisation models were shot from numerous camera angles and exported as full length, 60 fps, Full HD sequences to be edited into the final motion piece later.

Valentina then created further visual elements for the animation in Processing and After Effects.