Spitzer Space Telescope Invents His Own Video Language

Dan MacDonald masquerades around the US as Spitzer Space Telescope. He’s an artist born in the Midwest, but he went to school in Boston and currently lives in Portland.

For 2012, the one-of-a-kind folk singer has come up with a creative (one might even say revolutionary) new way to present his music. The Telescope’s first full-length album was released in 2009. The collection of tracks painted the personage of a lone folk minstrel, stomping his foot as he sang antiquated stories and wove fantastical mythologies. McDonald says his new project “is going to take a slight step away from spinning wild tales and images and instead be modeled more closely to historical folk music,” but that’s not the inventive part. What makes this new idea so interesting is that it is going to be a completely digital, interactive, ten-track, video-only album. MacDonald has set up a Kickstarter to help raise funds for his surgical transplantation of a few traditional styles into one of the most modern forms possible.

The Telescope’s novel release idea developed from his own obsession with devouring old videos he found while scouring the Internet. “Over the last year or two, I have been bookmarking any video that has a sick folk song in it,” he says. According to MacDonald, taking the music in visually provided a different experience than just simply listening to it. “The difference between hearing an entire album of prison work songs and seeing footage of the prisoners actually working to just one song is profound,” he explains. “Viewing all those videos made it very clear how engaging it is to see the face that is performing a folk song, or the hands that are playing it, or the body that is expressing it.”

MacDonald has seen a wide variety of videos and likewise he wanted to paint each of his own with a different style. He gave examples ranging from an Irish music documentary to an old English version of “Green Sleeves” from a scene in the classic film The Secret Garden. About the latter, he says, “I remember thinking, ‘what a cool way to showcase a folk song. Seeing it performed in this movie illustrates the song in a way that I could never get from a hundred different recordings of it.’” Other examples included old footage of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, whom he says “seemed to love being in front of the camera.” One video idea was even specifically influenced by Buffy Sainte Marie’s performance on Sesame Street of the song “Cripple Creek.”

How It Works

To emphasize that exclusively digital really means exclusively, MacDonald says there won’t be any physical copies of the album available at all, not even an audio-only version. Noting the potential drawbacks, he ponders, “How can a digital album compete with the experience of actually holding an LP in your hands?” His solution is to make the videos interactive.

Surfing through websites that have an endless stream of “related videos” enabled MacDonald to view multiple versions of the same song. He comments that, “The same song will always keep an ancient quality to it, even if several versions of it jump around from decade to decade or style to style.” Being forced to sit in front of a forty or so minute video without a linear story can be a challenge for the many with a deficit of attention, particularly in an update, guzzling culture. To be more engaging, MacDonald wants to provide a few “arrangements” with which the viewer can interact. “I am planning on presenting two or three different versions of each song on the album,” he says. “Imagine: a folk album that offers a few different killer interpretations of each song; you can save a playlist of your favorite versions, and download that playlist to your computer or mobile device.” The exact way MacDonald will implement this idea is still crystallizing; the musician wasn’t even able to mention it in the Kickstarter video.

The current state of web videos is an example of how this sort of interactive visual format could be successful. MacDonald notices that, “We are at a point technologically where everybody is comfortable with the video: passing it around, posting it, watching it in a tiny player or blowing it up full screen.” He calls it a “language” that is spoken through various websites and networks across the web. “It’s a language we are all speaking, that we all like to speak, that is entertaining and visually stimulating and part of our everyday practices now.” Recognizing this evolution of communication, MacDonald considers it “wimping out” to have hard copies or audio versions. “I’m simply trying to convert my album into this language exclusively, no translations,” he says.

Thoughts of the Future

MacDonald says one of the goals of the project is to “present new possibilities for the future of the music album,” but in the interview he admitted, “Maybe to your disappointment, I don’t have rants on the music industry.” His reactions to the business of music were more like personal preferences. “I just simply, one, quickly got over the novelty of contemporary bands putting out vinyl records and tapes and, two, have always wanted to inspire and empower the individual to be self-reliant and use his or her creativity.” It certainly seems more liberating as cases of 180 gram records lugged around while touring must get heavy.

“I imagine a future where I can go on tour and only have to take a stack of little download cards with me,” aspires MacDonald.

Continuing to envision his future career, he says, “I can envision a day when indie bands are setting up meetings with multimedia design firms instead of record labels for their next albums. The Internet has global distribution. I don’t have to talk to any CD or vinyl pressing plants, printers or distribution companies. All I have to do is build a website and market it.” The decision became a very easy one for MacDonald to make. “Now, the only hard decision is, ‘…should I ever go back to hard copies after this?’”

True Friends

As incentives for people considering pledging their support to the Kickstarter campaign, the Telescope is offering a wide variety of gifts. They range from limited-edition, hand-printed T-shirts to a personal concert for big spenders. Others include a personally sewn renaissance shirt, a custom oil painting, an opportunity to appear in one of the videos, and a hand-screenprinted newspaper that is written in MacDonald’s own weird binary writing that he calls ‘The Dan MacDonald Studios Logo” language. One of the most attractive offers is an exclusive never-before-heard Spitzer Space Telescope EP that won’t be available after the campaign ends. The thing is yours for a mere five bucks. The price is what a regular EP would cost anyway and you not only get the music, but you’re also helping out the band. As with the EP, all of the items will go back into the Spitzer Space Telescope vault once the pledge drive is over. The T-shirts offered say “A True Friend of Spitzer Space Telescope.” MacDonald remarks, “It will be cool for me to see supporters wearing their t-shirts to a show or something. I can say, ‘that dude is cool, he was there for me when I needed him, he really is a true friend of Spitzer Space Telescope.’”

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