Monday 5 March 2012

Painting Through Music

Excerpts from Chapter Six:  
Painting through music - how it all developed.

One hot day in 1957 I walked into the Great St. Bavo Cathedral in the centre of the Dutch city of Haarlem and found myself in the huge, surprisingly quiet, cool nave. Facing me were the tall pipes of the beautiful organ on which Mozart, Handel and Mendelssohn had played. I sat down to make a sketch.
Organ of the Great St. Bavo, Haarlem, before its restoration. Gouache, ink, 1957.

Suddenly, as if on cue, a magnificent sound burst forth – the first notes of Johan Sebastian Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor!  I had never heard it before and I was transfixed – and deeply moved.
Click here to listen (organist Henrik Behrens)

Back home after a quick purchase at the nearest record shop, I put on the Philips long-playing record of this work.  Looking at the conventional design on the record sleeve, it occurred to me that Philips needed something to express the essence of the music more effectively, so I started to doodle with some colours to these dramatic sounds. As I worked, I began to realise that I could give forms to the music through a sort of ‘automatic writing’ with a paintbrush. Without thinking, I just allowed my hand to respond to the rhythm and melody. The choice of colour came intuitively, without any conscious deliberation.  It dawned on me that maybe I could develop a whole vocabulary of visual equivalents to musical sounds. After all, we use the terms rhythm, colour, tone for both. Even though Philips didn’t buy my idea, a whole new world was opening up for me.
How do you decide which colour represents a sound?  It’s intuitive - certain colour-sound equivalents just seem right and some people literally see them.  Although there is no general agreement about exact equivalents, most of us, if we had to choose, would agree that a low bass sound is, say, dark brown and a high sound, say, light blue/green; a major key warm; a minor key cool.  It’s also obvious to me that all numbers and letters have their own colour (Wednesday is definitely apple-green while Friday is reddish-brown), but few people will agree on exact equivalents like these.

Like many before me, I believed that these sensations or illusions were my very own discovery.  In those days I had no idea that this intertwining of sensory experiences is called synaesthesia (from the Greek syn: with and aesthesis: feeling) and that in fact many artists like Kandinsky, Dufy, Kupka and composers such as Messiaen and Scriabin had experimented with this concept for years.  Scriabin probably didn’t have synaesthesia but he planned colour projections to accompany several of his works. After attending a concert of music by Schoenberg in 1911, Kandinsky contacted the composer to discuss this interdisciplinary crossover.  Schoenberg’s “atonal” music was undoubtedly a major influence in Kandinsky’s tendencies towards non-figurative art that were already developing at the time.  Colourful lyrical abstractions based on feeling, rather than on observation or storytelling. Kandinsky saw a direct parallel between the abstract forms of both music and visual art. I myself learned to appreciate “modern” music through my understanding of abstract painting.  It was subsequently contemporary music that gradually, over a much longer period, pushed me towards my lyrical abstract style of kinetic painting in performance.

Then I discovered that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, artists in Europe and the United States were constructing colour organs to project light with music.  Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, Mary Ellen Bute and Norman McClaren are a few of the many film-makers who experimented with what came to be known as “visual music” (or “color music” in California) in the 1920’s and 30’s.   Without getting the credit he deserved, Fischinger also did major work on Walt Disney’s 1940 animation film Fantasia, now a classic example of how sounds can become coloured shapes that dance or vibrate.  Actually, for the original version of Fantasia, Disney had commissioned the composer Stokowski to orchestrate the very same Toccata and Fugue I had improvised to. The great authority on this subject was the late William Moritz, with books like The Dream of Color Music and Machines that Made it Possible.  A more comprehensive survey can be found in the lavishly illustrated book Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music since 1900 and in the extensive archives of the Center for Visual Music (CVM) in California.
Still, in 1957, the conviction that all this was “my” discovery provided me with the inspiration I needed to make more abstract paintings of the sound of the music, rather than the appearance of the musicians.

After meeting and painting the young cellist Edith Neuman in 1965, she introduced me to the promising young conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink. I began a series of him action that over the years became more and more abstract. In the painting below, I’m still using elements from the observed movements of the musicians, but in general I’m more concerned with the sound, the explosions of colour and shapes from Stravinsky’s Firebird.
Bernard Haitink conducting Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’, oil on canvas, 100 x 65cm,  Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 1977.  Collection of Prof. Cees Hamelink, Amsterdam.  The observed colours and shapes of the orchestra are combined with those of the sounds I could hear.
Later, the Dutch percussionist Michael de Roo introduced me to the lively contemporary, experimental music scene in Holland in the seventies.  Percussion sounds (in all their adventurous variety) often play a prominent part in modern music (meaning, as we usually do, music from about 1900 onwards) and seem to be particularly graphic. I could see irregular shapes and colours jumping and moving in all directions to the unconventional sounds in contemporary music.  Wow! Here was a freedom in picture-making that you didn’t have when just painting from observation. 
Painted in watercolour and ink in 1978, this picture (70 x 50cm) was inspired by a performance of Luciano Berio’s ‘Circles’, with two percussionists, soprano and harpist. The performers can be discerned amidst the pattern of rhythms and words (by e.e. cummings) scattered about the paper.  Collection of Michael de Roo, The Hague.


Next Monday: Excerpt 7 - Concerts of Kinetic Watercolour


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