“The primitive artist occupied a place that would later be filled by the photographer.” Synthesizing early American voices and copying our way into history and/or the future.

America: The Artist’s Eye

by C. Spencer Yeh

Digital Project Published on November 17, 2015

To explain where we began, let’s start at the ending.

The music is “America: The Artist’s Eye,” composed by Frank Lewin. It is available in a two-volume collection, Film Music By Frank Lewin, or as an individual MP3. The composition is the only piece of music from America: The Artist’s Eye, a three-minute-long educational film produced in 1963 by the Westinghouse Broadcasting Co., that can be purchased in a high-quality format. “America: The Artist’s Eye,” which concludes the film, also happens to be the only piece of music that is not overlaid with the warbling voice of the female narrator, at once earthy and genteel. This narrator is Florence Eldridge, an actress born in Brooklyn and nominated for a Tony Award in 1957. Yet Eldridge’s accent seems oddly archival rather than regional, as if derived from the early American paintings pictured in the film, from scenes of blacksmith shops, impossibly edenic plantations, and cheerful boxing matches.

A 16mm print of America: The Artist’s Eye was found in an industrial storage cabinet in the Chestertown, Maryland, workshop of Frank B. Rhodes, furniture maker and grandson of Colonel Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch. The Garbisches’ collection of American Naive art, collected over a period of forty years, is showcased in the film. America: The Artist’s Eye was made to encourage viewers to “visit your museum to see America through the eyes of our leading artists,” in Eldridge’s words.

Eldridge gamely announces a “look at our American past,” when “rustic artists showered the countryside” with “merry, sad, or decorative” works. I knew upon first viewing that the film had to be digitally preserved for further research. In the process, Lewin’s 16mm film composition was captured—a lossless record of an artifact (complete with any previous shifts in format and depletions of information). Meanwhile, the 256-Kbps iTunes MP3 of “America: The Artist’s Eye,” though technically compressed, was deemed lossless as well, the most faithful, high-fidelity representation of the composition that could be found.

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I subjected the MP3 (from iTunes) and the WAV (from the digitized film) to forms of compression that characterize the systems for distributing and listening to music that have prevailed in the past three decades—some prioritizing mobility, some prioritizing fidelity. This process can be illustrated, with reference to the digitized film:

Resolutions
176x144 320x240 640x480 720x480

Containers
.mov .3gp .mp4 .mov


Codecs
Cinepak MPEG AVC DV

The results were unveiled at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, as part of an installation titled Pointing Machines. The audio was played on two separate loops so that listeners could sometimes evaluate the compressed files individually and sometimes experience the convergence of seemingly disparate modes of reproduction and even perceive the past and the present at once. One researcher commented that the music seemed to be continuously heralding a moment that never arrived, or announcing its own arrival, its own presence, at this and at other disparate points in time and space. The curtains open only to reveal another set of curtains, and then yet another—one pristine velvet, the next tattered and discolored, the next obscured by shadows and distortion.

“A look at our American past through the treasures in our art museums.”

“Primitive paintings—merry, sad, or decorative—form an eloquent record of people, places, and pastimes from a bygone era.”

“On horseback or on foot, they traveled the back roads in search of customers—the remarkable self-taught artists of early America.”

“On horseback or on foot, they traveled the backroads in search of customersthe remarkable, self-taught artists of early America.”

Clavier Wilcox
To: C. Spencer Yeh
Re: Fwd: Inquiry

Dear Spencer C.,

I am delighted you’ve gotten in touch about our services. We take pride in our peerless customized text-to-speech solutions, and I’m certain we can develop an exclusive audio brand that distinguishes your market recognition and visibility. Thanks for the detailed questions and comments—it’s great to receive a contact from such an informed individual. The below information from our FAQ should provide more insight into our process:

In order to reproduce the natural sound language, a narrator records a series of texts (poetry, political news, sports results, stock exchange updates, etc.) that contain every possible sound in the chosen language. These recordings are then sliced and organized in an acoustic database.

During database creation, all recorded speech is segmented into some or all of the following: diphones, syllables, morphemes, words, phrases, and sentences.

Upon the input of text, a grammatical and syntactic analysis enables the system to define the prosody: the rhythm and intonation of a sentence. The chain of analysis ends with determining the tone and required length of the pronunciation. Sound is generated by selecting the best units stocked in the acoustic database.

We offer three tiers of quality: Voice at First Sight, Small Talk Voice, and High Quality Voice. These are based on varying levels of refinement, fine-tuning, enhancement, and optimization. Timelines run from two weeks to three months.

I received the sample of your prospective subject. Fascinating! Her cadence, vocabulary, and accent definitely make her an exciting—if potentially challenging—candidate for synthesis. I can see her being a great spokesperson—quite authoritative and authentic! It’s always great when a client has a clear idea of his or her needs—it really helps our team hit the ground running.

Please note that in order to ensure the highest resolution and most accurate vocalization, we’ll need the narrator to attend the recording sessions. Where is the subject now, and what’s her availability? I’d definitely advise against working with existing recordings, as the results will be incomplete and unpredictable.

I hope this helps you get to know a bit more about our company and our unmatched solutions and services. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have further questions or concerns!

Best,
Clavier Wilcox

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“The primitive artist looked at the world with innocent eyes, and struggled for technique to make a picture from a fragment of it.”

Spenser C. Yeah
To: Alexandre Prován, Lucy Ives
Re: Nearly final preview!

Namaste, Lucy and Alex!

Hope you’re well, guys! Sorry to have cancelled our lunch/summit last week, but I was in the war room with my accountant, and of course can’t cancel yoga! Body first, mind follows…

I’ve reviewed the Vimeo link (cute password!) and have some thoughts…

First of all, wow! A real eye-catcher. I feel like I’ve been staring at all the art in my house for so long that I forgot what real paintings look like. Real people and locales and so forth, not just a bunch of lines and dots and gunk! And the narrator: so authentic, really classy. Where ever did you find her? I’d pay her to read the freaking phone book! You’ll have to pass along her contact as I’d like to take her out, pick her brain, maybe lunch down by the boats ;)

I know that my relationship to this project is as “stakeholder,” but you know me, part of being successful is knowing when to back off and let the experts do their thing. I know “you do you” best, otherwise I wouldn’t have backed you all these years! First time we met, I shook your hand(s) and I thought “Man, I’m palming geniuses!” Am I making you blush? I can totally see it! I know you’re not one for the spotlight, but we just can’t keep it off us, my friend.

But back to my feedback—constructive constructive! My therapist tells me to be more direct, you know, sweep the broom, get that mouse out, let the dust settle! So, to be honest, I’m not quite feeling the paintings, the whole Ken Burns thing. Don’t get me wrong—I think they’re fabulous. They are historic! But I’m wondering, since this is a film, how can we make it more, you know, CINEMATIC? Get the audience invested. Get them out of their chairs! Let’s make that history squirm, wiggle, and shout!

Is there a way to make that circus lion LEAP off the screen? Maybe one of the boxers can really LAND that uppercut. POW! No blood, though—we need to keep this approved for all audiences.

Also, I get that we want that authentic vibe—colonial, I guess, or at least antique-themed—but is there any way to perk up the music? You remember that movie American Beauty? How great is Kevin Spacey?! I just DL’d the soundtrack from iTunes for a yoga sesh the other day. That music really feels deep, so amazing. It’s like, man, how big is the freaking universe?! How small are we?!? I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so powerless, yet so brimming with potential.

You know, I keep thinking about these REAL paintings, how these artists REALLY wanted to capture life from all these fragments that surround us, that might just freaking drown us in the end. They HAD to make meaning out of them, they HAD to create that beauty to make themselves feel whole. There was no other choice. That’s how I think of the movies we’re making today, my friend.

What choice do we have?

Please get back to me with a proposal, timeline, budget, and list of collaborators and available/exploitable resources as soon as you can. We may have to cut corners elsewhere, but I really believe we can take this to the next level. My cats need more trophies to knock over. Onwards and upwards!

Peace,
Stephen C.

“The primitive artist occupied a place that would later be filled by the photographer.”

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