Can you actually hear the visual? Yes.

Sound and Music in Modern Art

Through a whirlwind of experimental artistic projects, forward-thinking minds of the twentieth century left more than just a paint-stroke on the aesthetic world.

With the fully outstretched embrace of modernity, these innovative artists strived to define the future and abolish the outdated tendencies of traditional art.

The fast-approaching industrialized society could best be described as a paradox for many people: the “trends towards revolutionary and reactionary positions” were intertwined with the “fear of the new and delight at the disappearance of the old, nihilism and fanatical enthusiasm, creativity and despair”.

In other words, some artists of the era were frightened by any sort of change, and thus lingered in the dark, stale, expected art of the past. Artists on the other side of the spectrum proudly basked in the chroma-filled sunlight of the future.

Nonetheless, in full support of the modern age, this talented pool of artists believed that true and successful art was meant to involve the senses, specifically sound; this would expand the aesthetic experience.

This perception of sound in art could be sensed in the talents of artists, writers, composers, and even thinkers of the twentieth century.

This group of forward-thinkers decided to follow the vibrations of sound waves to a higher level of creativity in their own work because of nineteenth century artists like James McNeill Whistler.

As a vital contributor to the controversial Art-for-art’s-sake movement, an artistic movement that dismissed itself from any functionality or didacticism, Whistler recognized a parallel between painting and music.

He was one of the first to render both components on a singular canvas in the 1870’s; with names such as “arrangements”, “harmonies”, and “nocturnes”, his painting titles referenced tonal harmony.

Whistler believed that by involving such references to music, an intrinsically expressive medium, the painting would be more meaningful to the viewer; in this way, Whistler was being self-conscious of his work without feeling the need to sneak in a moral lesson.

He only wished for the viewer to experience the deep and intense emotions of sound, a unifying sense that creates an immediacy of effect, through color.

Moreover, the end of World War I gave birth to Modernism and its reactions. Disgusted by the carnage of the 1914 war, the Cabaret Voltaire and the Dadaists wished to breathe new life into poetry and the arts.

They focused and experimented on the sound of the spoken word, reacting to the war by creating radical abstract phonetic poems that “abandon[ed] a language ravaged and laid barren by journalism.

Even the name “Dada” is an experimentation with rhythm in language. Leader Hugo Ball poignantly stated that “nothing could better express [the group’s] optimism, [their] sensation of newly-won freedom, than this powerfully reiterated ‘da, da’ – ‘yes, yes’ to life.”

He and other members of the Cabaret Voltaire established their signature “poeme simultane” or simultaneous poem that was punctuated by punchy, bombastic theatrics.

Tristan Tzara, obsessed with negro rhythms and the loud sound of tom-toms, helped “drum literature into the ground” by using “bells, drums, cow-bells, [and] blows on the table or on empty boxes [that] all enlivened the already wild accents of the new poetic language, and excited, by purely physical means, an audience which had begun by sitting impassively behind its beer mugs.”

In other words, the Cabaret Voltaire and Dadaists incorporated sound into their poetic performances to amplify feelings and reactions.

Furthermore, the Italian Futurist Luigo Russolo introduced the art world to sound with his provocative discoveries in the field of noise-music.

He wanted to desensitize people so that they could become accustomed to the sounds of the quickly-industrializing society in which they inhabited.

In order to do this, in 1911 he came up with a series of noise-generating instruments called “Intonarumori” that were hand-activated large scale boxes with megaphones attached.

Each individual instrument gave off a unique sound based on its pitch, intensity, and frequency. These were often played as an orchestra of eighteen to twenty-seven or so for controversial concerts.

Some rejected this experiment in sound because they viewed traditional music as excluding such noises as “the eddying of water, air and gas in metal pipes, the grumbling noises that breathe and pulse with indisputable animility, the palpitation of waves, the coming and going of pistons, [and] the howl of mechanical saws.”

These mental orchestrations of everyday sounds served as the “furious momentum of the new movement”, a movement into the Avant-garde: Synesthesia.

Followers of Synesthesia believed that the five senses are connected and can even overlap one another as can art forms. They theorized that one could taste shapes, feel warm or cool colors, and most importantly: hear the visual.

This concept of hearing the visual was “an outgrowth of the Romantic and Symbolists movements, during a time when music was elevated to a status of supremacy over all other forms of creative expression. The other arts, notably poetry and painting were said to aspire to the condition of music.”

In other words, music and sound began to abstract themselves into a wide variety of art forms, resulting in a smorgasboard of newfangled creativity for mass consumption.

For example, Neo-plasticist Piet Mondrian attempted to achieve this abstraction of music with his grid-like painting compositions that played with rhythm, similar to the rhythms of the jazz music he listened to.

He recognized that “painting was considered a static art form, and [that] some modern artists wanted to add to their two-dimensional painting not only the third dimension of depth but also the fourth dimension of time by means of visual suggestions of movement” such as musical rhythm. Hence, synesthesia would forever change the art world.

Some artists of the twentieth-century believed that music concerned the spiritual; “the closer an art form aspired toward music, the closer it approached the ultimate revelation.”

Artists like Wassily Kandinsky gravitated toward spirituality or ‘inner sound’ in their artwork because it established a move away from materialism and the Bourgeoisie way of life.

Painter Mark Rothko’s works captured the essence and emotion of music. His paintings, marked by light and fluffy divisions of floating color spaces, mimicked ambient music, a genre that whispers and nears silence.

On the same note, Frantisek Kupka also attempted to perceive “the musical wave [radiating] from the global orchestra.”

In “Piano Keyboard/Lake” there is a hand shown playing tonal varieties that mirror the red, blue-violet, and green hues in the water waves of the lake.

This hints at the wave-like nature of sound and light, not to mention the theory that everything in the natural world is interconnected by sonic vibrations.

In addition, such spiritual and innate emotion in music can be equated to that of light and color. In 1913, Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, the founders of Synchomism, focused on “color as a full and independent medium of expression.”

Synchromism, meaning ‘with color’, was a movement that recognized the idea that color has certain equivalents in music and the emotions.

For instance, Morgan Russell’s painting “Synchromy in Blue-violet” consisted of shifting angles or wedges of carefully paired colors such as blue and green or red and yellow, formed into an S-curve. You might be wondering what this has to do with music; the answer lies abstractly in color theory.

Color theory was established by Sir Isaac Newton. Through working with the prism, he found that there were seven primary colors that made up white light (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet), and that these colors were equivalent to the seven notes on the western musical scale: “blue was the equivalent of a C note, yellow was E, and red was a G.”

Such a unifying relationship between color and sound could be observed even closer: “pitch in music equaled luminosity in color, tone equaled hue, and intensity in music equaled saturation or purity of color.”

If this is true, then Morgan Russell’s rainbow-rhythm-ribbon of a painting “Synchromy in Blue-violet” is just as much an auditory, synesthetic experience as it is a painting.

Thus, Sychromism helped secure color painting as a vital part of the contemporary drive towards modern art, specifically color music.

Moreover, music-light devices furthered the exploration of color music in the most visceral way. Louis-Bertrand Castel attempted to create an audio-visual instrument called the Ocular Clavichord; but because it was only experimental, there is little known about this device.

On the other hand, there is a useful amount of information on Thomas Wilfred’s color organ called the Clavilux, meaning ‘light played by key’. As a complex device, the instrument allowed a person to create and perform Lumia (visual sound) compositions.

The dematerialized configurations of colored light could be juxtaposed to be experienced as chords. Light could flood the room in a sort of attack-mode, while it could also delicately recede in decay-mode.

With such an audiovisual invention, “the dream of creating color music for the eyes comparable with auditory music for the ears” began to take shape for the creative spirits of the modern age.


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