Still from Allures (1961) by Jordan Belson, showing interference pattern effects used at Vortex
© Jordan Belson, courtesy Center for Visual Music

Between 1957 and 1959, filmmaker Jordan Belson and musician Henry Jacobs organized a series of audiovisual concerts known as the Vortex Concerts. Jacobs presented international contemporary electronic music that Belson accompanied with abstract projections. The venue they chose was the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco, as it was equipped with extraordinarily progressive sound and projection technology. It possessed a multidirectional sound system with about 40 loudspeakers that enabled making even the most muted sounds audible anywhere in the auditorium and controlling the loudspeakers separately by means of a console. In this way, the impression could be produced, for instance, that a noise was moving through the auditorium from back to front or in a circular motion (from which, by the way, the name vortex—a whirling mass—stems).

Jordan Belson attempted to carry these spatial acoustic experiences over to a visual level by utilizing ca. 30 different kinds of projecting devices, including the planetarium’s star and rotational sky projectors as well as a special interference pattern projector in order to project shapes and colors onto the planetarium’s dome, 20 meters in diameter. For film projections he used abstract image material from James Whitney and Hy Hirsh, as well as his own.[1]

Belson was no longer concerned with simply producing a sequence of various projections, but rather with generating a creative, artistic interblending thereof. This resulted in a visual event that one can refer to as a kind of abstract painting with moving and still slide projections.

For the audience, this was in no way solely a motion ride meant to take them to the limitations of their perceptual capacities; rather, it was a very subtly composed audiovisual space of experience. In addition, the Vortex Concerts cast new light on the issue of the image and the projection space. Belson remarked on this as follows:

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.[2]

It was not lastly due to this concert series that for Gene Youngblood, Belson would become one of those artists who exemplified what Youngblood sought to capture under the heading Expanded Cinema.