Mixing Mediums: Finding Musical Inspiration in the Visual Arts

Mixing Mediums: Finding Musical Inspiration in the Visual Arts

Lilly Haley, D.M.

Collaboration with colleagues is one of the most crucial aspects of cultivating musicianship, but traditional ensemble rehearsals are nearly impossible to replicate online. This time at home can be an opportunity to look for inspiration outside of the practice space. Researching the work of artists in other mediums is an effective tool for approaching our practice in more creative and rewarding ways.

Arnold Shoenberg

Arnold Shoenberg, one of the fathers of atonal composition methods, was also an avid painter. He is pictured here with some of his self-portraits. Schoenberg shared a close relationship with painter Wassily Kandisnky, as each found meaning in the other's work that they strove to produce in their own mediums.

Striving to sustain my motivation in the current climate of self-isolation, I thought back to a paper I wrote several years ago comparing a painting by Wassily Kandinsky and Pierre Boulez’s Éclat for orchestra. Looking at the score of Éclat as someone unfamiliar with Boulez’s compositional language, you really don’t even know where to begin. Odd symbols, disparate chunks of music, and performance notes (in French) litter the page, and there is no discernable road map. The element of chance is an important component, so it never sounds the same way twice, making the score even more difficult to follow.

Paul Klee
Paul Klee "Red Balloon" wikiart.org

it wasn’t until my music theory professor took the class to the art department for a lecture on Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, two influential abstract painters, that Boulez started to make any sense to me. I started to think about the music in the abstract—in gestures, velocity, and contrast—and considered how those elements could translate visually to Kandinsky’s painting. The relationships between visual space and silence, articulation and use of line, intensity of color saturation and musical dynamics, shape and tempo, all enhanced the effect of both the painting and the composition to the extent that it seemed to me one could not exist independently of the other:

Six black lines run from the bottom left corner to the center of the painting. If the viewer imagines that these lines were not actually lines but a three dimensional shape, they begin to take on the form of a piano, and towards the center the first four lines from the left are cut off by a dark blue shape which looks like the arms of a pianist playing at the low end of the keyboard. This is quite a dramatic angle and viewpoint from which to observe the pianist, and the eyes seem to accelerate down the keyboard and collide with the figure just as Boulez’s opening piano cadenza crescendos and accelerates into Figure 1 where the other instruments begin their trills.

Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky "Improvisation 26" wikiart.org

Try encouraging students to explore these types of relationships in their repertoire, or even incorporate some of their own creative outlets into their approach to music making. Inspiration can come from paintings, sculpture, fiber arts, science, photography, cooking, other genres of music, literature, anywhere! I have found these endeavors to be an excellent method of clearing out the musical autopilot areas of my brain and re-engaging them to produce art, not just notes.

This video is a documentary which includes interviews and a performance of Éclat with Boulez coaching the players. At minute 29:00 Boulez discusses inspiration he gleaned from the painter Paul Klee.

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