Hula hoop dancers; a scored film about the BQE; and a full orchestra playing back up — Sufjan Stevens pulled out all the stops at his impressive show at BAM last fall. But what really mesmerized BB was a series of video projections in back of the orchestra that moved and morphed in time to the music.
Unlike your typical, colorful concert visuals, these were hallucinogenic yet precise, like Fred Tomaselli’s paintings set in motion. Which makes sense, because their creator, Clinton Hill video artist Deborah Johnson, is a fan, and once used Tomaselli’s paintings to create some of her live visuals for Wilco. In 2003, their “Ghost is Born” tour launched her career as a video jockey, which took her around the world and back, to Radio City, where she wore a harness to sit perched above the crowd and program her videos (that’s her backstage). Not to be confused with music video “veejays,” video jockey “VJs” score music with live video projections — though Johnson prefers the term visual performer.
“You’re a silent visual performer with the band,” she explains.
Typically Johnson listens to a song twice before she begins to create a video for it, first sketching it and then incorporating different media, like Super 8 film, and finally editing it with software like After Effects. For Stevens’ intricate music, she collaborated with programmer Siebren Versteeg to create what she calls “Victorian Tron” visuals. You can see some of her work on the new Asthmatic Kitty DVD, Encyclopedia Asthmatica Vol. 1, or you can click on the still below to see the video she and Versteeg created for “Majesty Snowbird,” the theme song of Stevens’ recent tour and the high mark of the BAM show (the audio online was recorded earlier, at Calvin College in Michigan).
It’s nine minutes long, and you’ll need to type in the password snowbird to see it, but you’ll be glad you did — particularly when it begins to shift course around the 4:30 mark.