Composer crashes CG world, adds depth to digital images

By Geoff Koch

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“As artists approach me, I feel it is very easy to take their visual arts and convert them into musical compositions. In a sense, the music is already composed, and my eye converts what it sees into audio, through my fingers. I believe that it is very natural for visual artists to want to add a new dimensionality to their work with audio.”
–Justin Lassen

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Take an Intel® processor with high data throughput. Add optimized software for music creation and editing. Then add an inspired artist with more than a decade of experience remixing and composing music on computers and an itch to collaborate in a new way with CG peers. What you get, if that inspired artist is Justin Lassen, is the enigmatic and enchanting Synaesthesia, a new experiment in hearing pictures and seeing sound.

Skim the biography on Justin Lassen's Web site at or browse recent entries at his LiveJournal* blog at You are forgiven for thinking you have stumbled onto a southern California music pro who, while clearly tech savvy and successful, is not necessarily unconventional. He has produced remixes for artists ranging from Madonna to Blue Man Group to Lenny Kravitz. He has composed game soundtracks, including tracks for the wildly popular Out of Hell* mod for Unreal* Tournament created by Long Nguyen. He attends events such as ASCAP's I Create Music 2009 Expo where he met Semisonic's Dan Wilson. ("Cherry on top for me, was getting to see/hear Dan Wilson, live! I also got to meet him!" Lassen enthused.) He shops at the Santa Monica farmers market.

It's easy to read right past references to his Synaesthesia project, which seems to hint more at some strange medical condition than multimedia wizardry. But dig a little further into Synaesthesia and it's soon apparent Lassen is far more than meets the eye, or ear.

Synaesthesia, in which Lassen pairs his own ethereal music with still images produced by talented CG artists, defies easy description, at least for the uninitiated. However, there is no shortage of accolades. Jerry Rees, a Hollywood producer who has directed for everyone from Steve Martin and Robin Williams to George Lucas and Michael Eisner, said that Lassen's project is responsible for nothing less than awakening the "fundamental expectation that fine art should effortlessly embrace analog and digital realms, while inviting participation by the eye, the ear, the mind, and ultimately, I suppose, the soul."

Though Lassen is clearly well-connected across the entertainment and technology realms, Synaesthesia emerged entirely independent of studios, music labels, and software companies. It's a pure expression of creativity and talent from someone who, like the Impressionists of the nineteenth century, is opening a new window on human perception and experience. Monet worked with canvas and brushes while Lassen's tools are computers and software. But both helped to change the rules of how art is created and consumed.

Remarkably, Lassen's use of Intel® technology goes back to the 286 processor. (Lassen first pecked away on a hand-me-down machine from his dad.) Today, he works on a new PCAudioLabs Digital Audio Workstation with the Intel® Core™ i7 processor.

"It's an incredibly fast system, and things even installed faster than usual, which amazed me," he wrote in a May 16 blog entry, chronicling his efforts to load software to his new machine. Two days later, in a post titled 'Mastering Synaesthesia on Intel Core i7!,' he added that "there really is a night-and-day difference between mastering on the laptop versus mastering on this sweet new Core i7 system . . . I'm blown away, actually!"

A digital native if ever there was one-the Intel® 286 processor was released in 1982, before he reached his first birthday-Lassen said he relies on MOTU's Digital Performer*, Digidesign's Pro Tools*, Image-Line Software's FL Studio*, Sony's ACID*, "and a dozen other applications, each worth checking out." But he seems to reserve a special affinity for Cakewalk, whose products he said he has used since the days of Windows* 3.1.

Cakewalk's SONAR* 8 was one of the applications that were optimized and ready to take full advantage of the four cores and eight threads available with the Intel Core i7 processor. Among the many new features in SONAR 8 that Lassen appreciates are "the new 64-bit plug-ins for mastering, compression, gating, and limiting, as well as the tried-and-true Sonitus:fx* plug-ins (which always find their way into all of my projects, since they don't overload my CPU)," he said about the new performance levels of SONAR 8. "I can pile tons of them on top of each other to my heart's content."

The birth of a new art genre

For his part, Lassen seems more than a little surprised at the attention generated by his work, which has been featured everywhere from CG trade magazines to art museums to tech trade shows. Though more than three years have passed since the release of the first of his four Synaesthesia collections, all of which have received rave reviews, he is only now getting around to working on a CD that might be sold to his growing legion of fans. Asked about his motivations, Lassen is passionate in describing the creative process and his affinity for the community of CG artists while being conspicuously silent about the possibility of eventual commercial success.

"I collaborate because what can be done with two minds will always be better than one's sole vision, especially when collaborating with two different mediums in unique ways," he said. "I personally also collaborate with artists I respect, because I like to share the limelight with people that deserve it. CG artists are really special people who don't quite know what the outcome will be for their work."

Listen to Though It Seems, It Is Not All In Vain at:
Music: Justin Lassen

Nos Morituri © Erlend Mørk

One of these artists is Alex Ruiz, whose dark and foreboding scenes belie his more than a decade-long tenure drawing what might well be the most recognized contemporary cartoon characters: Bart, Homer, and the rest of the Simpsons. Now in its twentieth year, the Simpsons franchise is both a cultural icon and a cash cow for Fox. Last year the show's ratings were its strongest in five years while sales of Simpsons-themed consumer products topped the USD 6 billion mark, Brandweek reported. Still, Ruiz, who now spends half his time freelancing for clients, such as Radical Comics, and half working to develop his style as a digital artist, doesn't crow about his tenure on the show.

Listen to Samurai Templar at:
Music: Justin Lassen

Samurai Templar © Otherworld by Nykolai Aleksander for Jesse K. Hill

"In many ways I'm reestablishing, restarting everything because sometimes the Simpsons (experience) won't get me as far as I'd like in the CG world," said Ruiz. "People love the show, but as far as art, a lot of people don't consider it art. So I kind of sometimes keep that part of my professional history in the background."

Falcon © Alex Ruiz

A few years ago Ruiz posted a digital painting entitled Thoughts to his Web gallery. The piece depicts a sinewy, wraith-like creature struggling to pull free from-or perhaps being pursued by-a looming organic-industrial chimera. Bart Simpson skateboarding down a Springfield sidewalk it is not.

Soon after the piece was posted Ruiz received an e-mail from Lassen, who he didn't know, asking about the possibility of composing music to accompany the image. Ruiz sent back a short note to say he was open to the idea, though confesses today that he didn't expect to hear from Lassen again given that most would-be collaborations never pan out. Lassen, though, was persistent, and Ruiz was more than pleased with the final result.

Sephia © Nykolai Aleksander for 2Dartist Magazine

"He did a piece of music to it and it was fantastic. It was beautiful and weird and creepy and dark, which is all that stuff I love," said Ruiz, who is quick to add that he's hardly a tortured soul and is in fact "a very down-to-earth, normal dude."

There is little that's normal about Synaesthesia, including when it comes to the best way to experience it. Spending lunchtime hunched over a laptop with tinny speakers and browsing pieces in the project is one thing. Putting on headphones in a quiet house at midnight and displaying that artwork on a decent 17-inch LCD monitor is entirely another.

Ruiz said that for now the CG-music combo is for people who don't mind shutting out the world and immersing in a dialogue- and plot-free creation in an abstract, meditative kind of way. But another of Lassen's Synaesthesia partners, Nykolai Aleksander, thinks the best way to experience the pieces might be in a much more public, communal setting.

"I think a cinema would be great," said Aleksander, currently working from South Africa. "Big auditorium, lots of speakers, massive high-definition screen."

Unlike Ruiz, the 31-year-old Aleksander zigzagged her way to a career in the visual arts. The German native moved to London at age 17 to enroll in a music and theater studies program, returned to Germany a year later to work as a caterer on a film set and then as a set assistant to a TV show. Her work as a painter dates back to only 2002, when she decided she wanted to illustrate some of the characters in the novel Convivium she was helping Andrew E. Maugham to write.

Listen to Welcome Back, We Missed You at:
Music: Justin Lassen

Aion Underground © Benita Winckler

Today Aleksander supports herself doing commissions and writing tutorials for various trade magazines. And her work as an independent artist continues to be published in magazines and books, including an illustration on the cover of Ballistic Publishing's Exposé art annual, the self-declared collection of the "finest digital art in the known universe."

Aleksander shares at least one thing with Ruiz: she has never met Lassen in-person though nonetheless has developed a deep friendship and rapport with him, feelings that clearly are reciprocated.

"It's honest, intriguing, inspiring," she said. "He's just insanely good at converting images into sound, at capturing the essence of a picture in music."

"I've seen Nykolai grow so much over the years," Lassen told IT'S ART in a feature article on his more recent The Darker Side of Synaesthesia. "The paintings all just bring out such honesty, but in a really cryptic way which I am addicted to."

Listen to Something Was Left Behind at:
Music: Justin Lassen

Something Was Left Behind © Kirsi Salonen

In Aleksander's Cordivae, a bony young man stares fixedly down his outstretched arm to a perched raven, a symbol across cultures of both good fortune and death. Describing the process of creating the accompanying music for the piece, Lassen told IT'S ART that "there was such intensity in the painting I chose, just in the character's stare, that there was a lot of anticipation to get the song recorded before he looked away."

Medusa © Martin Bland

Despite the anticipation surrounding the eventual release of the Synaesthesia CD, one defining hallmark of Lassen's work with CG artists is the deep and abiding sense of mutual respect for the creative process itself. Indeed, the hours of interviews elicit scant references to sensitive egos, grandiose ambitions, squabbles about credit and authorship, and other durable stereotypes of the artistic set.

Consider Martin Bland, a full-time CG artist in northeast England. Though not featured in the Synaesthesia project, Bland's Medusa creation was the first image for which Lassen composed a piece of original music.

Listen to That pounding in the back your head at:
Music: Justin Lassen

Thoughts © Alex Ruiz

"Justin credits me as the inspiration behind the whole set, the kickoff, (which is) incredibly humbling," he said, adding that even though "the community at large doesn't really see the link between Synaesthesia and myself, the mutual respect has formed the basis of a strong friendship; we're excited to work together on projects in the future."

Of course, Lassen and CG peers have one other glaring commonality: the use of personal computers to not only get paying work with companies but also to pursue art as a fundamental means of human expression and emotion. This pursuit is not without its ironies, particularly for the visual artists.

Ruiz notes that despite all the advances in CG software "people are still really keen on seeing a traditional feel-meaning a painterly style mixed with a digital element." He cites Adobe Photoshop*, Corel Painter*, and Pixologic's ZBrush* as his primary software tools. Asked to name any tech-related bottlenecks to the creation process he's quick to cite a need for more speed, which might be remedied in part by more RAM.

"Sometimes you want to draw as fast as you think and you can't because the thing is taking forever to save," said Ruiz, who is seeking to upgrade from 4 to 32 GB of RAM. He currently creates on a Power Mac* G5, a product Apple has since replaced with the Mac* Pro with an Intel® Xeon® processor. Ruiz adds that he is "really looking forward to picking up a new 17-inch MacBook* Pro running the Intel® Core™ Duo processor. That seems like a fantastic machine."

Despite SONAR 8 and the rest of the hardware-software speedup made possible by his new PCAudioLabs system, Lassen's fans will themselves have to be content to wait while he remasters many of the Synaesthesia pieces and prepares them for eventual commercial release.

"Remember, this is nearly two hours of music composed over three years of time in several different countries that needs to be and sound cohesive together, so this is no mean feat and not for the faint of heart," he said in his May 18 blog entry. "Thank you all for the patience and support!"

Listen to What, If In a World, There Was at:
Music: Justin Lassen

Budapest Landscape Fantasy © Kornel Ravadits

Some, like Hollywood producer Rees, insist that it's Lassen that should be thanked for pushing the creative envelope. When it comes to mimicking the human imagination and marrying evocative images and music, said Rees, "We all say 'Of course! These things belong together. I should have thought of that.' We should have. But he did. And he did something about it."

About the Author

Geoff Koch writes about science and technology from Ann Arbor, Mich. His work has appeared in the Dallas Morning News, SD Times, Software Test and Performance, Intel® Technology Journal, and elsewhere.

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