A Visionary Attempt To Catch Sight Of Sound

A still from James Whitney's 1960s abstract film
A still from James Whitney's 1960s abstract film "Lapis," which used Ravi Shankar's sitar music. (Estate Of John And James Whitney)

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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 23, 2005

Anyone who has tried to describe a piece of music to someone else -- and that would be most everyone, including and especially music critics who do it for a living -- knows the dilemma at the core of the Hirshhorn's new exhibition, "Visual Music." Unless you use the specialist's language of musicology and talk in terms that only musicians would understand, to put music into words you must borrow ideas from other art forms and the senses to which they appeal. Making sense of music requires that we speak as if we have seen it, or smelled it, or felt it with our hands.

So flutes make bright tones, trombones dark ones. Composers, we say, work like architects, structuring sound, building arches of melody. At one moment, musicians may play dense or textured sounds, at another, thin and airy ones. Even the most basic musical terms -- high notes, low notes -- are described with spatial metaphors. What's the "high" point on a piano string?

"Visual Music" is about the history of a fantasy, the fantasy that these metaphors that let us describe music could become real and palpable. That the blues would look blue. That music that seems to pulse and throb and explode like a sunburst would actually do all these things right before one's very eyes. In showing this history, the exhibition also raises the question: Where does this fantasy come from? Why did composers, such as Alexander Scriabin at the beginning of the 20th century, start fantasizing about extending the symphonic ideal into the realm of light shows? And why did painters, such as Kandinsky, start fantasizing about making fugues in paint?

In part, it arises from feelings of inadequacy -- an inadequacy shared, it seems, by all the arts. The painter looks over the garden fence and sees the composer's audience rapt with emotion, sitting in hypnotic silence. So he strives for a new kind of image that has the mesmerizing power to make the viewer feel deeply, without having to be about something. Composers, frustrated that most music isn't about anything at all, return the compliment, writing narrative symphonies that strive for the storytelling power of epics -- hence program music. Writers such as James Joyce would seek to break free of the limits of their art form as well, especially the rules of grammar and the literal quality of words, to make language dance in the brain. Sometimes these experiments worked inasmuch as they produced interesting new works; rarely, if ever, did they work on the literal terms their creators imagined.

Decadence lurks behind all of this, the decadence of jaded palates, the decadence of aesthetes looking for ever greater kicks (and you can almost smell the marijuana haze coming off some of the trippier experiments in "Visual Music"). But so does idealism. The utopian mind, which craves to break free of the shackles of old art forms, has an ultimate fantasy. That fantasy is creating an entirely new art form so powerful in its allure that it will fashion a new audience, remade spiritually. The conservative mind loathes this sort of thing. What is the difference between an artist who seeks to refashion everything, right down to the way we hear or see, and an ideologue, selling a utopian brew for remaking the economy, the family or the state? People of more liberal disposition will respond: To solve intractable problems, it may well be necessary to reimagine everything, reinvent the soul, refashion the body, reconstruct the society. And why shouldn't artists be in the fore of that project?

But it's a bit of a disappointment, and a powerful object lesson offered by this exhibition, to see how small, and sometimes how silly, the grand visions of the future often are, and how easily they are absorbed into the everyday world as a kind of wallpaper, or background noise. Oskar Fischinger's 1942 film, "Radio Dynamics," a color fantasy of circles that swell off the screen, looks a lot like the opening of the Looney Tunes cartoon series by Warner Bros. The organic, fluid forms seen in a film by Elias Romero, from 1968-69, can be found for less than $20 on eBay -- in the form of a used lava lamp. To be fair, sometimes people who imagine grand futuristic visions -- whether artistic or scientific or political -- suffer from their own success: Their visions are assimilated so completely that in retrospect nothing about them seems very new.

"Visual Music" is essentially a study in metaphor, and often in the poverty of metaphor. Painters who glibly slapped titles such as "Symphony" or "Fugue" on their canvases were using metaphor on the cheap, borrowing the grandeur or prestige of musical forms to elevate the status of something that had nothing to do with music. When James Whitney, a filmmaker based in California in the 1960s, made an abstract film called "Lapis," he used music of the great Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. Looking for a visual equivalent, he offered up images that look very much like a Tibetan mandala -- in motion. The metaphorical reach here is small: Iconic Eastern music must look like iconic Eastern art. Imagine if an artist from China decided that the best visual metaphor for Beethoven was a Coca-Cola sign because both are Western.

"Visual Music" is an exhibition about aspiration, about goals that will sound very familiar to people today: breaking down barriers, thinking outside the box, inventing one's way out of dead ends. Man, a creature distinguished from animals essentially by his ability to make metaphor (to make one thing stand for another), reaches for metaphor first when confronted by challenges. Artists, at various points in the last century and a half, have felt themselves hemmed in by their own rules, and so tried to extend their art, metaphorically, into the realm of other art forms. But they were not alone. "Visual Music" is also a study in what might be called the propaganda of the future, the ways in which creative minds -- in this case often with the support of major corporations including IBM -- have struggled to make the new and terrifying more palatable, and perhaps beautiful.

Take, for example, Thomas Wilfred's 1959 "Study in Depth," commissioned by the Clairol Corp. for the lobby of its New York offices. It is a slowly evolving light show that looks like an aurora borealis twisting in space. It could easily be an image from the Hubble telescope. There's an implied metaphorical equivalence: The future is to the sorry moment we live in as this image is to anything you've ever seen in an old-fashioned art gallery. It is more alive, more beautiful, more dynamic. But look behind the screen, to the machine creating it, and you have a metaphor for metaphor itself: The future is made by a set of dinged-up reflective panels, rotating on what looks like an old oil drum. Electrical cords run in and out like tubes into a dying patient. Metaphors that promise much, whether it's a new art form or a new view of science or the world at large, are often just a screen, and it's always worth looking behind them.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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