During the collage and visual association exercise in my sketchbook from Access arts developing sketchbooks course I explored representing music visually. This is something I have been interested in for a long time as I am a musician. I looked at an artist who uses music as inspiration before in this post when I looked at an artist who interprets madrigals in print. That work really was based around the structure of the words so I wanted to find artists who look at music more directly.
I found an artist using Bach's music as inspiration, Alan Warburton:
This work makes a clear connection between the elements of art and music. The music is formed of series of patterns of notes which I think are represented well by the patterns of lines made by the neon lights. Being a piano piece the notes are relatively uniform in their shape, which the neon lights represent well, shorter notes are shorter lights. This also makes a connection to the piano roll representation of music. At times these lines form all small shapes or units, as does the music in arpeggio patterns
At other times the neon lights form long lines representing the music lines which have now become long and fluid.
Color is used sparingly representing inflections of chromaticism.
I also like how the most significant difference between music and visual art is represented, generally art is static while music moves through time. This installation also moves, and is in fact very large moving into a different room for a different movement of the piece. The visual representations I made of the pieces of music in the collage task were static, I would like to repeat the same task on a long roll of paper showing the lines changing and developing.
One of the most well known artist to represent sound with image is Kandinsky.
This piece is Inspired by Wagner’s Lohengrin. It is described as
"Colors and shapes that evoke sounds
Pulsating surface that is alternately dynamic and calm"
This work represents a 3 hour opera with one image. By its very nature therefore it must make more abstract representations of the aesthetic of the music, rather than literal representations of specific lines like the Bach example. Kandinsky was a well known synesthete, seeing music in color. The interpretation of this work and its connection to the music is much more open to interpretation. I think the harmony is central, the circles to me feel like the feeling of suspensions swelling and then receding into resolution. I wonder whether the visual aspects of the opera had any influence on this? Whenever I have been to the opera I have found the visual qualities of the set and costumes always affected my perception of the work.
I would like to try representing a large work like this in a static work of simple shapes. I think it is quite different to find elements to represent the overall impression of a large work rather than representing specific details piece by piece. To really engage with a work like this, and have deep responses to it, it would be necessary to watch it performed live. Next time I am fortunate enough to see some large scale live music I will bring a small notebook with a view to recording some ideas.
In order to get a deeper understanding of this topic I looked for composers who have based their work on visual art.
In initial searches, I found mostly music following a narrative as laid out in a picture or series of pictures to create program music. Pictures at an Exhibition is an excellent example. This, as with many other examples of composers and artist's making this connection in both directions, has connections to set design, and as with so many artist's and composers of that time for the Ballet Russe.
This piece was composed after Ravel visited an exhibition of work by Victor Hartmann.
The promenade sections portray walking around the exhibition and the way he felt as he moved between the paintings, these sections are not representing the visual aspects of the exhibition.
Other movements depict the image.
This piece is very much based on the content or narrative of the image, the sounds of chickens and the way they move is represented in the musical lines, but this specific image has quit a different aesthetic, being quite static, the frenzy of chickens moving cannot be seen here at all.
In this movement there are some connections to be made between the visual and musical features, but I still feel the music is based on the sense of a real grand building, not this painting. The lines and harmony of the music are big, expansive and regal, also representing the institution this building represents and beyond that Russian Nationalism. So this is an interesting example of how while music may begin by representing the visual features of an artwork it will always be so much more than that, as an artwork does not exist in isolation, it represents its time, its culture as well as its narrative. I think this particularly applies to representational art, purely abstract art and purely abstract music, such as the Bach example at the top of this post, will share more abstract features and allow for a more in-depth connection to be made purely on lines or shapes.
How music can represents the broader aspects of an artwork also depends on whether the art and music are from the same era. In the Bach example a contemporary artist translated the music from another time into modern visual language. Bach himself would probably have been quite surprised by this interpretation. The Mussorgsky example both composer and artist were from the same era, aesthetic and political ethos of Russian nationalism. In the next example the composer is making a contemporary interpretation of an older work, Van Gogh Starry Night. This time he has the luxury of a deep understanding of Van Gogh's life, in particular knowledge of the mental health problems he was suffering from. The composer wanted to translate in his composition the "almost cosmic whirling effect which (the painting) produces". It starts with a slow moving chromatic melody creating character then later the swirling lines are depicted with fast moving melodic lines. I can hear how the composer has represented visual features of swirling lines with melodic lines, intense high value contrast with high contrast of register as well as the background history of the work of anguish and turmoil represented with chromaticism and irregular rhythms and phrases.
Timbres, espace, mouvement
Henri Dutilleux 1978
I would like to do some composition that interpreted visual art features, and I think it would help me generate connections and ideas for interpreting music visually, although this may take the form of exploration of sounds rather than a completed work.