Still from Allures (1961), 16mm film by Jordan Belson. © Jordan Belson, courtesy Center for Visual Music
“The legendary Vortex Concerts conducted by Henry Jacobs and Jordan Belson at Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park from 1957 to 1960 were quintessential examples of lumia art integrated with sound in an intermedia environment. By present standards one could not ask for a more perfect setting. “Simply being in that dome was a holy experience,” said Belson. “The entire theatre was like an exquisite instrument.” And Jacobs recalls: “It was such an absurdly perfect situation that we just stopped altogether after we left the planetarium; when you begin with the ultimate there’s nowhere else to go.”
Vortex began in May, 1957, as a series of experimental and ethnic music concerts from tapes owned by Jacobs, a poet and composer of electronic music. Within a few weeks, however, he was joined by his friend Belson, and Vortex became an experiment in visual and acoustical space. The sixty-foot dome was surrounded at its perimeter by thirty-six loudspeakers clustered in equally-spaced stations of three speakers each. There were two large bass speakers on either side and one at the zenith of the dome. Speakers were installed in the center of the room, bringing the total close to fifty sound sources. “The acoustics were very unusual,” Belson remarked. “Very hushed, and you could hear any sound no matter how far away, as though it were right behind you, because sound carried over the dome.”
The planetarium engineering staff installed a substantial amount of equipment especially for Vortex, including an audio keyboard with controls for addressing individual speakers or spinning sounds rotationally about the room— thus the title of Vortex. In addition, Belson supervised the installation of special interference-pattern projectors that were added to the hundreds of projection devices already assembled. “One of my greatest pleasures,” said Belson, “was working with the star machine at a point when the entire dome was bathed in a kind of deep red. As the color began to fade away, there was a point when it overlapped with this beautiful starry sky; it was a breathtaking and dramatic moment.
“We could tint the space any color we wanted to. Just being able to control the darkness was very important. We could get it down to jet black, and then take it down another twenty-five degrees lower than that, so you really got that sinking-in feeling. Also we experimented with projecting images that had no motion-picture frame lines; we masked and filtered the light, and used images that didn’t touch the frame lines. It had an uncanny effect: not only was the image free of the frame, but free of space somehow. It just hung there three- dimensionally because there was no frame of reference. I used films— Hy Hirsh’s oscilloscope films, some images James Whitney was working on for Yantra, and some things which later went into Allures— plus strobes, star projectors, rotational sky projectors, kaleidoscope projectors, and four special dome-projectors for interference patterns. We were able to project images over the entire dome, so that things would come pouring down from the center, sliding along the walls. At times the whole place would seem to reel.”
Sound-to-image relationships amounted to counterpoint rather than what Jacobs calls “Mickey Mouse synchronization.” Vortex did not simply project sound into space, but employed dimensionality, direction, aural perspective, and speed of movement as musical resources. “Jordan controlled the performance with parameters of the time an image would begin, the amount of brightness, speed of rotation, and speed of enlargement. I would control the loudness of the sound, the equalization of the sound, and the spatiality of the sound.” Music ranged from Stockhausen, Berio, and Ussachevsky to Balinese and Afro-Cuban polyrhythms, set against the geometrical imagery characterized by Allures. Jacobs and Belson conducted approximately one-hundred Vortex concerts, including two weeks at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. In 1960 the planetarium withdrew its support and Vortex ended without ever realizing its full potential.”
(Youngblood, 1970, 388-390).
‘Expanded Cinema’ by Gene Youngblood, can be downloaded in full, here.