[Paleopsych] WP: Music to Your Eyes

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Fri Jun 24 19:56:45 UTC 2005

Music to Your Eyes

[I went to the opening yesterday, at which at least 150 people showed up, the 
largest gathering in the Hirshhorn's history, I thought, and the director of 
exhibits agreed. The guided tour, done by joint curators of the exhibits 
(Hirshhorn and Los Angeles) took an hour and a half and was the best tour I can 
recall. The only thing missing was a representation of Glenn Gould's 
"contrapuntal radio." I did ask about this, and the curators were certainly 
familiar with Gould's work. Perhaps another time. I also asked if Paul 
Hindemith had gotten involved in this co-mingled art form. The answer was yes. 
I enthusiastically recommend the exhibit.]

    Music to Your Eyes
    At Hirshhorn, Multimedia Excursion Doesn't Go Far

    By Blake Gopnik
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, June 23, 2005; C01

    Try playing some music on your computer. Chances are, when you stick
    in that CD or access those MP3s, a swirl of color will appear
    on-screen, throbbing and pulsing in time to your tunes.

    These sound-and-light displays, churned out by "visualization"
    programs built into most of today's media players, don't serve any
    practical purpose. They're about simple sensory enjoyment and about
    giving us a glimpse of a bold future when our separate senses will
    collapse into a single pleasure -- a time when categories such as
    "music" and "video" and "art" and "graphics" are supposed to dissolve,
    leaving us bathing in a brave new world of multimedia sensations.

    The funny thing is, that future has been here for almost 100 years,
    hidden away in obscure corners of avant-garde art and music and
    filmmaking. The big summer show opening today at the Smithsonian's
    Hirshhorn Museum tracks how radical artists have been crossing over
    between sight and sound for ages, even though most experts and museums
    have rarely taken note of this important trend.

    The Hirshhorn exhibition, titled "Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art
    and Music Since 1900," includes works that few of us have ever seen
    before, by artists we've barely heard of, using media and techniques
    whose names don't even ring a bell. It gives us a chance to explore
    life on the artistic fringes and take in some of the mind-bending
    sights and sounds that have come out of them.

    The show includes some paintings, sure, by artists as well known as
    Man Ray, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. But there's also a room
    devoted to Thomas Wilfred's "lumia," an art form the American inventor
    first developed in the 1920s. It sets nebulas of color swirling across
    translucent screens.

    Over the first half of the 20th century, artists turned out "color
    organs" with names such as the Synchrome Kineidoscope, the Clavilux,
    the Lumigraph or the Optophonic Piano. Some of these Rube Goldberg
    contraptions, salvaged from dark corners and displayed in working
    order in this show, demand a couple of operators to make them go. They
    produce elaborate displays of light and color that either accompany
    music, or that are meant as silent "visual symphonies."

    These instruments mostly gave way to abstract films, at first made
    using standard animation skills and then, in the 1950s, by way of more
    advanced technologies that opened new frontiers in animation.
    (Computers were adopted early on for the special effects of abstract
    film. George Lucas owes a debt to a number of "visual musicians" who
    simply wanted to make swarms of colored dots go dancing across space.)

    In the psychedelic 1960s, certain experimental artists and collectives
    (with names like the Single Wing Turquoise Bird and the Joshua Light
    Show) emerged from the artistic margins to design the elaborate
    projections that ran at concerts by Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd and the
    Who. This exhibition includes archival footage from some of these
    shows, but the art form will come fully to life only this weekend,
    with the Hirshhorn's one-time "Cosmic Drift" event. On Saturday night,
    the museum will be staying open from 9:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. The show
    itself will act as a kind of art-historical backdrop for a program of
    live light-and-sound performances that will take place in the
    Hirshhorn's circular courtyard. It'll be a groovy trip, man.

    Hirshhorn curator Kerry Brougher -- who conceived the exhibition with
    his colleague Judith Zilczer and Jeremy Strick, director of the Los
    Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, where "Visual Music" premiered in
    February -- argues in his catalogue essay that the rock-concert
    spectacles of the 1960s give a rare example of vanguard art
    infiltrating the mainstream. The infiltration was so thorough, in
    fact, that few of us are likely to realize that those light shows had
    their roots in esoteric art ideas born 60 years before.

    Those took off from a simple notion and had a simple aim.

    The notion was to take the novelty of abstract art, so radical before
    World War I that it could hardly be imagined, and justify it by
    comparison to music. If a Beethoven string quartet could be understood
    and admired on its own terms, without imagining that it painted a
    sonic picture of the world, visual art should have the same freedom to
    escape from rendering reality. The notes and timbres and structures of
    music could be compared to the colors and textures and forms of a
    painting; a talented artist could assemble them into a visual
    "composition" every bit as affecting, meaningful and praiseworthy as
    anything that goes on in a fancy concert hall.

    There were even shreds of scientific evidence in support of such
    crossing over between the visual and musical arts. In a rare
    neurological condition known as "synaesthesia," the sensory systems in
    certain people's brains are cross-wired. When a given sound enters
    their ears, they "see" -- in their mind's eye, at least -- a color.

    Another synaesthete might take in a color or shape, and find that the
    optical signal has been carried to the brain's auditory system,
    producing a sonic experience at the same time as the visual one. The
    modern French composer Olivier Messiaen was said to "see" flashes of
    color that corresponded to chords in the music he played. Such stories
    provided a kind of real-life analogy to, and justification for, the
    "visual music" proposed by early abstractionists.

    Kandinsky is generally credited as the first artist to produce purely
    abstract works of art. He, however, took the pairing of pictorial
    abstraction with musical abstraction, understood by some of his peers
    as nothing more than a useful analogy, and made it literal. He said
    that his paintings were meant to translate the specific qualities of
    music into visual terms. His "Impression III (Concert)" was made in
    response to a famous performance of Arnold Schoenberg's radically
    modern music held in Munich in early 1911. "The independent life of
    the individual voices in your composition is exactly what I am trying
    to find in my paintings," the artist wrote to the composer.

    In 1916, under the influence of Kandinsky, the American Man Ray, based
    in Paris, painted his colorful "Symphony Orchestra," whose only
    recognizable feature is the keyboard of a piano.

    Two other Americans, Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright,
    tried to build an entire artistic movement, dubbed "Synchromism,"
    around musical ideas. In their Synchromist manifesto, they insisted
    that "mankind has until now always tried to satisfy its need for the
    highest spiritual exaltation only in music. Only [musical] tones have
    been able to . . . transport us to the highest realms. . . . Yet color
    is just as capable as music of providing us with the highest ecstasies
    and delights."

    Both tried to take the musical analogy as far as it could go,
    designing light-projecting machines that would make patterns of color
    and form play out in space over time, as the notes of music do.

    Long after abstract painting had found its footing, and stopped
    needing the crutch of a musical analogy, notions of visual music
    continued to attract followers working in media that took place over
    time. There were those color organs, first, which eventually gave way
    to experimental film, capable of combining sound and abstract image
    without clumsy apparatuses. The 1930s bred various pioneers in
    abstract animation. Figures such as Len Lye and Oskar Fischinger (who
    at first worked on the popularization of visual music in Disney's
    "Fantasia," then fled the project) made geometric and biomorphic
    shapes go dancing across the movie screen, sometimes truly rivaling
    what leading abstract painters were doing on their static canvases.

    Which leads -- by way of this show's psychedelic spectacles, zooming
    computer graphics and recent kinetic light sculptures -- to your
    computer's media player. Which, if you think about it, isn't such a
    grand place for an art form to end up.

    Many of the works in "Visual Music" suffer from the same problem as
    your computer's own "visual music" display: They provide wow-cool
    flashes of attractive light and shape that don't take long to lose
    their interest. There's something about trying to find visual
    equivalents for the sonic energy and verve of music that seems to push
    artists toward superficiality.

    Despite this exhibition's subtitle, none of its artworks actually
    manages full-blown synaesthesia, truly crossing over between sound and
    vision. You'll not once feel you're hearing something just by looking
    at a piece in this show. And short of fulfilling that grand aim, its
    visuals tend to become illustrations of how we imagine music operates,
    rather than real rivals to the musical experience, or champions of a
    fully visual one.

    In 1923, American painter Arthur Dove went to a Chinese restaurant,
    and, according to this exhibition's catalogue, he came away inspired.
    He went off and made an abstract picture that seems full of earthy,
    soy-sauce browns; of spikes that make me think of ginger's bite; of
    garlicky edges and angles. The only problem is, the mouthwatering
    sensations that I read out of Dove's artwork are not the ones he meant
    to put into it. Rather than "Wonton Visions," his painting is titled
    "Chinese Music."

    Which goes to show that synaesthesia is always in the mind of the
    beholder, and that relying on such sensory crossovers doesn't get you
    all that far in art.

    Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900 is at the
    Hirshhorn Museum, on Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW, through
    Sept. 11. Call 202-633-1000 or visit [2]http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu/ .

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