Art Surface Essay

Music & Art Beneath the Surface

by Frank J. Oteri

One of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals at the Detroit Museum. The murals inspired Michael Daugherty's violin concerto  "Fire and Blood"On the surface (if you’ll forgive the pun), there would seem to be extremely little in common between music and painting. For starters, unlike any other art form, music is for the ears rather than for the eyes despite such ubiquitous malapropisms as “Did you see that concert last night?” or “I’m looking forward to your premiere.” Conversely, I’ve never heard anyone say, “That painting of yours sounds great!” or “I can’t wait to hear your new exhibition.”

Music is also about the passage of time whereas paintings and most other works of visual art convey their content in a single, all-at-once eternally present moment. Although much greater detail can be gleaned from most paintings by staring at them for long periods of time—all-at-once perception being impossible for most human minds—the time you spend with a work of art is ultimately up to you.  Try that with a piece of music. The folks who walked out on the last movement of that symphony last Sunday afternoon really have no idea how it ended.

Paintings are singularities, unique and un-reproducible physical commodities, a fact of life made all the more tragic when an important painting is destroyed or stolen like the recent heist of Edvard Munch’s famous masterpiece, The Scream. Music, on the other hand, is intangible ephemera.  And, in modern times, music is capable of being widely disseminated via radio broadcast, audio recordings and now the internet with everyone getting essentially the same experience.  A photographic reproduction of a painting in an art book, on a postcard, or a print, no matter how well done, can never quite fill in for the actual painting. Also, a piece of music could never be stolen in quite the same way art thieves steal paintings which is part of what is making it so difficult to resolve the ongoing intellectual property battles being waged between internet file-swappers and record companies, but that’s another story!

Finally, despite numerous attempts at program music and more local forms of “tone painting” (note the metaphor) over the centuries, music at its core is an abstract medium and most “extra-musical” references (note that word too) within music are perceived as a result of culturally-specific conventions.  To give an easily identifiable example of this phenomenon, while major and minor are taken to mean happy and sad in Western music, those associations are not true for music in many places around the world. Admittedly, painting also began exploring non-representational and self-referential realms nearly a hundred years ago. But many people roaming museums today and staring at the most austere manifestation of abstract expressionism will still be heard muttering comments like: “Do you see that woman’s face in the top corner?” etc. It’s an uphill battle to escape the basic acculturated perceptions of portraiture and landscape reinforced by independently evolved traditions spanning millennia from all over the globe. I guarantee you that no one in the audience at Carnegie Hall “hears” a woman’s face in a Richard Strauss tone poem, despite his possible intentions.

Yet, despite the seemingly irreconcilable differences between music and painting, many artists on both sides of the equation continue to seek an artistic rapprochement.  Composers are unsimilar as Alexandr Scriabin, Morton Feldman and Michael Torke all hear color in specific tone combinations. Yet, these sonic colors are as sonically mismatched with each other as the clothes of someone on Mr. Blackwell’s fashion hall of shame. When Bernard Herrmann created the film score for Alfred Hitchcock ‘s black and white thriller Psycho, he used only a string orchestra which he famously described as “black and white” sound, yet many other composers have described solo piano reductions of orchestrations as “black and white.” Virgil Thomson went so far as to have people sit for him while he composed a sonic portrait.  They’re delightful musical compositions, but do they actually sound like the people they are supposed to be portraying?

A century ago, the landscape paintings of Swiss romantic Arnold Böcklin inspired major orchestral works by composers as opposite as Serge Rachmaninoff and Max Reger.  Much later, the metaphysical child-like paintings of Paul Klee have inspired composers from several generations and cultural backgrounds including Gunther Schuller and Tan Dun, to very different musical ends. Way back in 1874, in what is perhaps the most famous example of painting inspiring music, Modest Mussorgsky attempted to sonically convey 10 drawings and watercolors by his recently-deceased friend, Victor Hartmann, in his masterpiece Pictures at an Exhibition.  I don’t think Mussorgsky’s music sounds like Hartman’s art work which isn’t all that interesting. But I’ve only seen reproductions of it and not all of them survive anyway (see the rant on un-reproducible physical commodities above). The old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” might have an apt corollary here in “the way things beheld by the eye get translated into sound is in the ear of the composer.”

Of course, one way a composer can get around the lack of a universally recognized specificity to musical tones is to put words on top of them.  Almost every single piece of political or otherwise socially-motivated piece of music is actually a political or socially-motivated collection of words set to music.  To make the art and music connection, there have been notable operas based on the lives of painters but to call these musical works inspired by painting is probably a bit of a semantic stretch.  The operas Goya (as in Francisco) by Gian-Carlo Menotti and Vincent (as in Van Gogh ) by Einojuhani Rautavaara do not readily conjure up sonic renderings of the works of the painters in question, as far as I can hear. However, Stephen Sondheim‘s Broadway musical Sunday in the Park With George, inspired by George Seurat’s pointillistic masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Grand Jatte, not only recreates the painting with the actors on the stage but the music actually goes quite far in imitating Seurat’s careful dots of individual colors which blend into an image at a distance by creating melodies from a series of ostinatos and tiny dot-like motives.

Perhaps the best way for a composer to be influenced by painting is to be a painter him- or herself. Arguably the most successful artist to work in both disciplines was the Lithuanian national hero Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (1875-1911) whose paintings boast titles such as “sonata” and whose orchestral tone poems with titles such as “In the Forest” or “The Sea” evoke landscapes on huge canvasses. While Debussy, who never painted, categorically rejected being described as animpressionist, Arnold Schoenberg was so influenced by the expressionism and later abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky that he not only evolved an expressionisticmusical style which ultimately led to atonality, for several years he also created a small but significant body of paintings and drawings.  Although Kandinsky, also a trained musician, never composed, the influence went both ways, with a concert of Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet serving as the inspiration for Kandinsky’s 1911 Impression III (Concert).

In America, George Gershwin and Carl Ruggles, hardly musical soulmates, each dabbled in painting, creating equally dissimilar work. Clear parallels can be drawn between the chance operations in the music of John Cage, who was also an occasional visual artist, and the paintings of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, both close friends of the composer.

Cage’s compositional circle also included Morton Feldman whose “painterly” music was already briefly described.  While Feldman never painted himself, he cavorted with most of the important painters of his time, including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and Philip Guston who remained a lifelong friend.  Feldman claimed these painters were a greater influence on his music than Bach, Beethoven or any other important composer in the pantheon of Western classical music and certainly his static hours-long washes of registrally-dislocated melody feel like the sonic equivalent of staring at an abstract color field painting for a long time. None of the pioneers of minimalism in music or the visual arts crossed the music/painting divide either. But art galleries exhibiting minimalist art also served as concert halls for minimalist music in the early years of the movement, thus creating an environment amenable for mutual respect and influence, which artists in each category freely acknowledge.

Today, the worlds of music and painting continue to intertwine as more and more multi-media work gets created.  A piece of music inspired by a painting or a series of paintings is a commonplace event on a concert program.  And, as artists continue to reject the Aristotlean notion of one artist making one type of art, there is also a lot of work which combines aural and visual elements into a unique whole.

–Frank J. Oteri is a New York-based composer
and the Editor of NewMusicBox,
the Web magazine from the American Music Center