Monday, 2 July 2012

BOOK: Shibusa - PART 1 - Chapter 1

SHIBUSA - Extracting Beauty
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Detail from Composition #2, Katagami series of paintings,
oil, on hand-dyed and washed canvas 
copyright Pip Dickens


Shibusa: A Musician's Perspective
Chapter 1: Exploding Stillness
by Monty Adkins (Professor)

 Extract (with kind permission of University of Huddersfield Press)

The association of sound and image has been a subject that has fascinated composers and artists for centuries, and can be traced back as far as the investigations of Artistotle and Pythagoras into the correlation between the light spectrum and musical tones. Although the main theoretical texts that discuss the relation between music and painting emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century, most notably centred around those artists associated with the Bauhaus and the famous meeting in 1911 of Arnold Schoenberg and Wassily Kandinsky, practical investigation and experimentation between colour and sound has its origins further back in instruments often termed ‘colour organs’, such as the clavecin oculaire constructed by Louis Bertrand Castel in 1734. In 1720, some 14 years prior to the construction of the clavecin oculaire, Castel wrote, ‘Can anyone imagine anything in the arts that would surpass the visible rendering of sound, which would enable the eyes to partake of all the pleasures which music gives to the ears?’ The clavecin oculaire was a device that used 500 candles, 240 levers and pulleys, and 60 reflecting mirrors to illuminate a 2-metre-square frame with 60 coloured windows (5 octaves of 12 tones, each with a specific hue), each with a curtain that was automatically raised when the corresponding key on the harpsichord was struck. Many such instruments were developed throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – Kaster’s pyrophone, Vietinghoff-Scheel’s chromatophon and Thomas Wilfred’s clavilux are but a few examples of instruments that all worked on a similar premise. All these instruments were based around the keyboard as a means of triggering colour–pitch combinations. In the twentieth century this tradition of using a physical mechanism to produce an association of sound and colour continued with experiments using film to combine sound and image, particularly in the work of Norman McClaren, Oskar Fischinger (who created his own colour organ – the lumigraph – in the late 1940s)  and Walter Ruttman.  

Aside from these mechanical devices aimed at multisensory stimulation, conceptually the most coherent approach is found in Richard Wagner’s notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, expounded in his essay ‘The artwork of the future’ of 1849, and which he defined as a unification of music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts and stagecraft.

Although Wagner’s influence on future generations of composers is often discussed in terms of his dvancements in harmonic thinking and the emancipation of the dissonance, the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerkcan be traced through Schoenberg’s opera Die Gl├╝ckliche Hand (1910–13) and Scriabin’s Prometheus (1911) – both of which were accompanied by carefully choreographed coloured lights – and Ives’ unfinished Universe Symphony 1911–28), as well as countless contemporary multimedia spectacles. At the same time as Wagner’s development of the Gesamtkunstwek, a shared vocabulary emerged between painting and music that extended beyond mere metaphor – works in both creative disciplines were discussed as compositions, panels or improvisations that have a form. James Whistler went further and titled his paintings with musical terms such as ‘nocturne’, ‘harmony’ or ‘study’, and  most famously the Symphony in White series (1862–7). The purpose of such titles was to emphasise the tonal qualities of the composition and to reduce the emphasis on narrative content. In Karl Gerstner’s book The Forms of Color, he observes that: Each musical tone can be defined by three parameters:

1) frequency (pitch),
2) amplitude (volume), and
3) overtones (tone color).

Each color can likewise be defined by three parameters:

1) color tone (or hue, according to Munsell),
2) lightness (or value), and
3) purity (or chroma).

In the early part of the twentieth century the mapping of colour to musical pitches was the principal reoccupation of Roy de Maistre, a contemporary of Klee and Kandinsky. De Maistre’s 1935 painting Colour Composition Derived from Three Bars of Music in the Key of Green (Colour Scale on a Musical Theme from Beethoven) is typical of his work and is based on a system the painter developed from Sir Isaac Newton’s theories of colour, expounded in the latter’s treatise Opticks of 1704. De Maistre believed that ‘a mathematical relationship of frequencies …united the physical phenomenon of light and sound’.

During the first part of the twentieth century a number of composers were also active as painters. Schoenberg painted a number of expressionist works and maintained close contact with Wassily Kandinsky and Der Blaue Reiter group. Schoenberg’s pupil, John Cage, created drawings and paintings that often used similar chance techniques to those employed in his compositions; indeed Sharon Kennedy maintains that ‘Cage’s awareness of silence in music can be seen through its abundance of white space in his piece called Stones 2(1989)’. While only Kandinsky purported to experience an intense synesthesic bond between sound and image, it is clear that the visual work of both Schoenberg and Cage were informed by their musical aesthetic.

As digital technologies proliferated during the second part of the twentieth century, it might be assumed that the connection between music and painting would become lessened in favour of music in conjunction with the moving image. Yet despite the propensity of visual music in our contemporary culture, painting is still a significant source of inspiration for contemporary sound artists and composers. The influence of painting on music comes in many forms: the initial structural model of Kaija Saariaho’s Verblendungen (1982) was a brushstroke from which the composer abstracts simple geometric shapes that control parameters such as tessitura, harmonicity and polyphony, and the relationship between the orchestra and the electronics. 

[End of extract - more information on this book and purchase details below]

More information about this book, and ordering information:
Book details:
Shibusa - Extracting Beauty
Edited by Monty Adkins and Pip Dickens
ISBN-13: 978-1-86218-101-4
Size: 280 x 210mm
Pages: 144
Number of images: 97
Images in colour: 89

published by University Huddersfield Press
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