Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Interanimation of the arts: music and synaesthesia

Ordinary speech recognizes analogous effects among the different categories of sensory experience. Colors may be described as “loud,” even though colors are incapable of emitting sounds. We may characterize a person as a “smooth” talker, even though talk does not have the smoothness of surfaces available to the touch. Some choose to dress in fashions that are “hot” (or “cool”) even though clothing and accessories do not operate like stoves or air-conditioners.

Among sophisticated thinkers the idea that the arts make up a set was already current in classical antiquity. Yet only in the Renaissance, as Paul Oskar Kristeller has shown, was a system correlating the arts created.

Within the concert of the arts particular alliances seemed inviting. From the Renaissance through the eighteenth century, the Horatian tag "ut pictura poesis" (poetry is like painting) tended to suggest that painting was about the imitation of reality and narrative. In his "Laocoon" essay of 1766, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing presented serious arguments against this pairing. Once this divorce had been achieved, two paths opened as they do in human marriages: living alone, or remarriage. The first path hews to a strict sense of the distinctiveness of the arts according to media (as emphasized in the later criticism of Clement Greenberg), while the second proposes various alliances of the arts.

During the middle years of the nineteenth century poets began to reemphasize a range of comparisons among the arts. The title of Théophile Gautier’s 1852 collection of lyrics is Emaux et camées, enamels and cameos, suggesting that the French writer wished to emulated the miniaturized precision of those two techniques. One of the poems included is called “Symphonie en blanc majeur.” James Abbott McNeill Whistler painted his first “Symphony in White” (Also known as “The White Girl”) in 1862. He also produced a number of Nocturnes, evoking the musical form created by John Field. Whistler’s Arrangements are also probably meant as musical analogies, though flower groupings could also be meant. These practices adumbrated Vassily Kandinsky’s naming of “Improvisations” and “Compositions,” as noted below.

During the course of the nineteenth century the prestige of music increased enormously. There were a number of reasons for this eminence, including the excellence of particular composers, especially Beethoven, Wagner, and Brahms; the close link with the ideals of the romantic movement; and the sense that music, perhaps alone among the arts, offered an immediate rendering of deep feeling without the interference of imitative effects.

Abstract art has been typically linked to music. In 1909 Kandinsky painted the first of his series of relatively informal works, called “Improvisations.” By 1914 there were 35 of them. Of the larger, more elaboration “Compositions” he produced only ten, placing them strategically across most of his career as an abstract artist (1910-39). More generally, the numbering of some artists' works, as "Painting No. 12" and the like, recalls the opus numbers used to designate the individual pieces produced by composers. The work of Mondrian offers good examples.

To some extent, composers were to return the favor with their tone poems (or symphonic poems). Most of these have a general character, evoking historical or legendary figures, or scenes, as in Debussy’s “La Mer.” Yet a few aspired to achieve a translation of specific paintings. Modest Mussorgsky composed “Pictures at an Exhibition (1874); the pieces pay homage to canvases by his friend Victor A. Hartmann. Originally written for piano, the work was memorably orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. In 1909 Sergei Rachmaninov limned Arnold Böcklin’s symbolist “Isle of the Dead” for orchestra.

For a time Kandinsky was in close contact with the innovative composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). As a secondary activity Schoenberg executed paintings in an expressionist style; in 1910 the Heller Gallery in Vienna held an exhibition of them, while musicians performed two of his string quartets. During the winter of 2003-04 New York’s Jewish museum highlighted Schoenberg’s paintings and music, affording a comparison also with works by his friend and comrade in arms, Vassily Kandinsky.

Schoenberg's earlier masterpieces, such as "Verklärte Nacht" (1899)and "Gurrelieder" (1901), derive from the late romanticism of Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler. As his musical thinking advanced, Schoenberg came to the conclusion that the Western tradition of tonality, which had prevailed since the Renaissance, must be abandoned. This led to the condition of atonality, dethroning the Western system of major and minor chords and creating a king of democracy of notes in which none was superior to another. This revolutionary reform affords a comparison, somewhat remote to be sure, with the downgrading of perspective and figuration (two hierarchy-creating deviced in painting. Some date this musical breakthrough as early as 1908.

The shift turned out to be only the first stage of an evolution, leading ultimately to the emergence of the mature twelve-tone system, probably in 1924. In its turn, the twelve-tone system, also known as serialism, bears a number of interesting resemblances to abstraction. As noted with atonality, like abstraction the new musical system presents itself as a radical rejection of norms hitherto broadly accepted. Perhaps the closest visual parallel with twelve-tone music is the Neo-plasticism of Mondrian (and not the work of Kandinsky). Like Neo-Plasticism, twelve-tone music presents itself as ruthlessly logical, for it is based on a system of permutations of the twelve tones of the series. Departures from the rigor of the system were sternly forbidden. Both systems claimed to be the ultimate form of their art in the twentieth century, superseding any other.

Time has not been kind to either of these exclusivist assertions. Overlooking the perhaps grandiose claims made both for Neo-Plasticism and twelve-tone music, the credos maintained by the developers of these systems resulted in a number of major works.

Just prior to Schoenberg's time, critics had evolved the concept of absolute music. Absolute music, essentially instrumental, stressed the autonomy of music based on soundscape, much as abstract art was later to do with colors and forms.

For a variety of reasons, then, the analogy with music was central to the apologetics of abstract painting. Yet music had an older partner. In his Philosophie der Kunst (1802-03) the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm von Schelling had proclaimed “Architecture in general is frozen music.” Indeed, the analyses of architecture and music share some common terms, including rhythm, composition, and proportion. Many, however, have felt that there was a deeper affinity. For this reason, the affinity between painting and music became in a sense a triad: painting, music, and architecture.

While some secondary features of architecture (such as Corinthian acanthus leaves and caryatids) are representational, on the whole architecture is not. It is a craft in which considerations of structural integrity and practical utility loom large. Because it is so different from painting and architecture, some have concluded that it architecture not a fine art at all. Still, others regard it as the dominant art, one which provides shelter for sculptural adornment and for painted altarpieces as subordinate parts However this may be, architectural analysis has often invited concentration on proportion, scale, aptness of form, and functionality, rather than of representation. Significantly, the influential Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, later noted for his formalist analyses of painting and sculpture, chose to write his 1886 dissertation on Roman triumphal arches, which require careful attention to geometry, rhythm, scale, and proportion.

A significant turning point occurred in the middle of the nineteenth century, when many critics disparaged fussy, overdecorated buildings in the academic taste. But what to adopt instead? A prominent counter-example was the Crystal Palace erected in Hyde Park in London for the Great Exhibition (the first World’s Fair). The architect Joseph Paxton, whose background was in greenhouse construction, created a simple but grand design using iron and glass. While the term was not used at the time, this building ranks as an early example of functionalist simplicity in architecture. The American architecture Louis Sullivan popularized the idea in his watchword “Form Follows Function.”

The most thoroughgoing early advocate of such simplification was the Austrian avant-garde architect Adolf Loos, whose trenchant 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime” virtually equated the two Several buildings created at this time show his radical flensing principle in which all superfluous ornament was omitted.

In the early 1920s the International Style emerged in architecture. A noted center was the Bauhaus in Dessau, which also welcomed abstract artists, such as Kandinsky and Joseph Albers.

In France Le Corbusier created highly simplified (though not nonobjective) paintings in his “Purist” mode. As an architect Le Corbusier is famous for his statement that “a house is a machine for living.” Indeed, the machine aesthetic played an important role in both architecture and painting during the first half of the twentieth century. Yet there is more to Le Corbusier’s aesthetic. “Architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light; light and shade reveal these forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders, or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage.” In this way the architect arranges forms in a way similar to the painter. In fact, Le Corbusier pronounced that “Today painting has outsped the other arts,” pointing the way to progress on a broader front.

In the Netherlands architecture was an important component of the De Stijl trend, and such figures as Gerrit Rietberg and Theo van Doesburg produced designs for buildings utilizing forms that recalled those in the paintings of the group.

Many found the analogies among the arts compelling for another reason. When Kandinsky wrote stage works such as "Yellow Sound" he was invoking established doctrines of synaesthesia.

During the nineteenth century scientists began to study subjects who experienced involuntarily two sensations simultaneously as the result of single stimulus. This is the physiological definition of synaesthesia. Apparently rare, the faculty can be stimulated in artists--perhaps in alliance with "thinking with the right brain."

As noted at the outset, the parallel in experience has long been recognized in linguistic metaphors, when we speak of "loud colors," "soft sounds," or even "music that stinks" (as one nineteenth-century critic expressed his dislike of Tchaikovsky).

Baudelaire attempted a theoretical grounding of these analogies in his doctrine of correspondences. Rimbaud illustrated the idea with his sonnet of the Vowels, which opens with the line: "A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu."

Sometimes artists have sought to create technology that would achieve such affects, as in the "clavecin oculaire" of Louis-Bertrand Castel (mid 18th century), in which the performer produces colors by touching a keyboard. The symbolist writer Joris-Karl Huysmans imagined a sybaritic equivalent, in which a device would drip various liqueurs on the countenance of a diner, combining the effects of taste and odor.

During the Belle Epoque that saw the breakthrough of abstract artists, some poets were taken with the idea of introducing abstraction into literature. As in art, forerunners have surfaced, in this instance in the poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne and Stéphane Mallarmé, where the attenuation of meaning served to evoke nuances and moods.

The most striking effects were found in Russian Futurism, where poets created works in pure sound. F. T. Marinetti, the Italian theorist of Futurism, had tried out various forms of arrangements of words so as to produce visual poetry. In this he was followed by the Russians, who achieved notable effects. Some of these recurred in the poster art of the Russian Revolution.

During World War I the Dadaist Hugo Ball arranged public presentations of sound poems in Zurich. The rhythms of these performances were influenced by the chants of the Eastern Orthodox church. Ball's heir in this sphere was Kurt Schwitters, best known as a collagist. Schwitters' "Ursonate" (Primal Sonata) of 1921-32 is probably the masterpiece of the genre; it is available on a CD recording.

Addendum: Here is the French text of Rimbaud's famous poem.

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu : voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,

Golfes d’ombres ; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,
Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d’ombrelles ;
I, pourpres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles
Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes ;

U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,
Paix des pâtis semés d’animaux, paix des rides
Que l’alchimie imprime aux grands front studieux ;

O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,
Silences traversés des Mondes et des Anges :
- O l’Omega, rayon violet de Ses yeux !

REFERENCES. Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, London, 1960; Simon Baron-Cohen and John E. Harrison, eds., Synaesthesia: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997; Carl Dallhaus, The Idea of Absolute Music, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989; Kevin C. Dann, Bright Colors Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search for Transcendental Knowledge, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999; Gerald Janecek, The Look of Russian Literature: Avant-Garde Visual Experiments, 1900-1930, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984; Edward Lockspeiser, Music and Painting: A Study in Comparative Ideas from Turner to Schoenberg, New York: Harper, 1973; Karin von Maur, ed., Vom Klang der Bilder: Die Musik in der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, Munich: Prestel, 1985; James F. O’Gorman, ABC of Architecture, Philadelphia, 1998. William Thomson, Schoenberg's Error, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.


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