Music to Your Eyes

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in a 1967 concert that incorporated music with the psychedelic projections of the Joshua Light Show, which is included in the exhibition.
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in a 1967 concert that incorporated music with the psychedelic projections of the Joshua Light Show, which is included in the exhibition. (Hirshhorn Museum And Sculpture Garden)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 23, 2005

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 .

© 2005 The Washington Post Company