Music+Art: Carol Cleveland Sings on Eadweard Muybridge’s Motion Studies
Philadelphia is a music-rich city and a trove of visual art, from graffiti pier to the Clothespin to our massive collection of Impressionists in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Barnes Foundation. How do the music and art worlds speak to each other? In this series, Music+Art, we chat with hometown musicians about their favorite art works in Philadelphia.
Eadweard Muybridge was a 19th-century photographer known for his studies of movement. In Palo Alto, he photographed horses in motion, breaking swift gallops into still images at shutter speeds of two milliseconds—an exposure time unheard of in early photography. In Philadelphia, he set up shop at UPenn. He studied bison, camels, and sloth from the Philadelphia Zoo, and the human movement of wrestlers, boxers, and ballerinas. He’d transfer his stills onto slides and turn them in the Zoopraxiscope, an early motion picture projector of his own invention. They’d turn and turn, a loop of motion, horses leaping and boxers boxing in perpetuity.
It’s no surprise that Gretchen Lohse and Thomas Hughes, who perform as Carol Cleveland Sings, are drawn to Muybridge’s work. Having studied art history and film, respectively, Lohse and Hughes have always conceived of music with visual considerations, and especially in the past few years, have poured much of their creative energy into filmmaking. Charming, technicolor video loops have become a hallmark of the band’s artistic output. The pair also runs Lavender Cat Creative, making short films for clients like Microsoft, Hennessy, and Warby Parker, often using stop-motion techniques reminiscent of Muybridge’s work. Here, we catch up with the band about their practice as musicians and filmmakers.
The Key: Your work in film lends a strong visual element to all of the music that you make. How does visual art inform your practice as musicians?
Gretchen Lohse [to Thomas Hughes]: When I first met you, you had an incredibly distinctive visual. I would see stuff at a thrift store and think, “That’s very Thomas-y.” Everything you did with The Spinto Band evoked a certain mood or visual idea. It seemed natural to incorporate that when we started working together.
Thomas Hughes: When I think about my favorite musical artists, the entire package is always alluring to me: album art, how bands dress, music videos.
GL: With my band [Yellow Humphrey], I’d decorate the stage to set a visual mood. It has always made sense to me to create a whole experience, rather than just showing up and playing.
TK: When you conceive of a song, are you writing with your eyes as much as with your ears?
GL: Yes. More and more, I can’t write songs without wondering what the video would be.
TH: For me, sometimes that’s the case and sometimes not so much. Our song “Wishing Well” came as a complete package. The song followed the idea for the video.
TK: Are there particular spaces in town that you look to for visual inspiration?
GL: Whatever neighborhood I’m in and the people I’m spending time with are a huge inspiration. Birdie [Busch], for example, lives her life as art. She’s always doing something creative and interesting, so she’s someone I look to. And our Germantown neighborhood in general. Before Germantown, I lived in the same house at 2nd and Girard for twelve years, and that was completely inspiring. There was a rotating door of roommates and different bands recording: Buried Beds, Spinto Band, National Eye, my band. I was immersed among people doing creative things.
TH: Every neighborhood in Philadelphia has a different feel, and here in Northwest Philadelphia I’m inspired by the architecture. In quarantine we haven’t had the opportunity to go other places, so we find inspiration close to home.
TK: What is your favorite work of art in Philadelphia?
GL: There’s a lot that Thomas and I like in common, but we have preferences of our own.
TH: So there was a lot of back and forth. How do you decide on just one piece?
GL: The difficulty of the decision speaks to what a great art culture we have here. But we decided on the photographs that Eadweard Muybridge took in Philadelphia. They’re in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection. We like the cat ones best. There’s something very pleasing about having a grid of slightly different images that create a sense of movement. That’s kind of what we do with film.
TH: For all of our videos, we create a visual storyboard with musical notation. Everything starts in a grid before we film it. Muybridge’s work deconstructs movement, piece-by-piece, and I felt a kinship with that. His work could be looked at as still photographs, but also as film loops. In our work, we want the style and symmetry of every shot to work on its own as an interesting photograph, but they’re meant to be played as a whole, and to be looped, just like Muybridge’s cats loop in infinity. We started doing those loops on Vine, and now we use Tiktok and Instagram.
GL: On these platforms, even if you don’t want your video to loop, it’s looping, so we’ve embraced that. It’s interesting to see the relationship between Victorian-era looping and the current looping. A lot is different, but some things are the same: Everyone still likes cats. Maybe that’s why I like Muybridge’s cat series. It’s accessible; it feels familiar.
TK: What are you working on now, and have Muybridge’s motion studies influenced that project?
GL: We’re trying to focus again on song-length projects in addition to 20-second videos. Muybridge’s work hasn’t had a direct influence yet, but it will now that it’s fully in our minds. So stay tuned.