On Exhibit

'Visual Music's' Colorful Cacophony

An image from John Whitney's 1968 film piece
An image from John Whitney's 1968 film piece "Permutations," part of "Visual Music" at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The exhibit melds audio and visual, depicting what images sound like -- and what sounds look like. (Estate Of John And James Whitney)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 1, 2005

THERE CAME a point, during a walk-through of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's "Visual Music," when, if I closed my eyes, I could imagine what it must feel like to live above a video-game arcade, with a classical music aficionado in the apartment to the left and a dance studio to the right.

It was about the time I hit the exhibition's "Synthetic Sound" gallery. There, a muted racket arose from a couple of experimental sound-and-image pieces by, on the one hand, Oskar Fischinger, a German artist who in the 1930s photographed scrolls of abstract drawings onto the optical soundtracks of motion picture film to create new audio-visual experiences, and, on the other, by brothers John and James Whitney, whose "Five Film Exercises" of the 1940s produced musical tones when film, on which wave patterns had been drawn by an array of pendulums, was run through a projector.

At the same time, I could hear traces of classical music (Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt") bleeding through from the gallery I had just exited, where an installation highlighted Daniel Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine's "Piano optophonique," a contraption from the early 1920s that looks like a cross between a piano (but please don't try to play it) and a slide projector. From off in the other direction came an indistinct rumbling of something I couldn't quite identify.

A little "Visual Music," in other words, goes a long way.

If you were to sit down and listen to (or watch, I'm not sure which term takes precedence) everything in this show, which explores the question of what sound looks like and what pictures sound like, you'd need plenty of free time. Three hours at least, and that's not counting the old-fashioned paintings by such artists as Paul Klee and Marsden Hartley or the photographic cloud studies of Alfred Stieglitz. Or the three mechanized light sculptures (also known as "lumias") of Thomas Wilfred, one of which, in case you're interested, "plays" a composition of slowly shifting lights lasting one year, 315 days and 12 hours.

(So that's why the guard made a point of reminding me that the building closes at 5:30.)

"Visual Music" works best, I suspect, when you don't assume that everything in the show is meant to be heard or seen in it entirety, but rather tasted and then set aside. It's a show whose pieces are intended -- at least in this context, if not originally -- to be dipped into and out of at will, passed up when boredom sets in, but perhaps picked up again on the way out. I tried, to the extent that I was able, to give every work its due but rapidly found myself as likely to be annoyed as delighted by something.

That's because there's something terribly subjective about synesthesia, the phenomenon in which the stimulation of one sense gives rise to a physical sensation in another, as when the sound of a bell might literally "taste" sweet. Poets have made use of this, of course, in the figurative language they adopt, but the fact remains that, for some people, it's quite a foreign concept. The notion that the color green might somehow have a specific "sound" just won't make sense for many, even as, for those who do experience this, that sound might manifest itself as several different things: the blast of a foghorn, a hiss or an electrical crackle.

And there are other failings. Not of the show itself, but of some of the earliest attempts by abstract artists to represent, pictorially, the experience of hearing music, which, as everyone knows, involves the element of time -- an element conspicuously absent from a single, static canvas. Fortunately, right about the time this will probably occur to you, the show pops in to acknowledge it as well, shifting gears to the scroll-like paintings (and subsequent film experiments) of such artists as Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter, whose composition can be "read" from side to side or from top to bottom.

Advances in technology, well used by contemporary artists like Leo Villareal, who uses computer-controlled LED displays, and Jennifer Steinkamp, who uses computer animation software, have gone a long way toward erasing the last remaining boundaries between sound and image. One of my favorite pieces of synesthetic art, however, and one that seamlessly integrates the visual with the musical, isn't even in the show (although it is mentioned in the catalogue). Incorporating subtle, ever-shifting color fields and hypnotic electronic music, "projections+sound" is a five-part collaboration by Cindy Bernard and Joseph Hammer, winners of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's New Media/New Century Award in 2000. Broken down into movements labeled "undertow," "woods," "field," "mountain" and "desert," a Web version is no further away than http://www.sound2cb.com/bernardhammer/pjweb/index.html .

Get yourself a good pair of headphones. Tune in, turn on and drop out.

VISUAL MUSIC -- Through Sept. 11 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW (Metro: L'Enfant Plaza). 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-357-1729).http://www.si.edu/hirshhorn. Open daily 10 to 5:30. Free.

Public programs associated with the exhibition include:

July 8 at 12:30 -- Gallery talk: "What Is Synesthesia?" Greta Berman, art history professor at the Juilliard School, conducts a tour of the exhibition and a gallery talk on art that incorporates two or more sensations.

July 12 at 7:30 -- Concert. The 21st Century Consort performs mixed-media works featuring a light show by lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner.

July 13 at 12:30 -- Gallery talk: Washington artist Robin Rose conducts a tour of the exhibition and gallery talk.

July 14 at 7 -- Gallery talk: "Visual Music -- The Physical State of Synesthesia." Synesthesia expert Richard E. Cytowic and National Symphony Orchestra cellist Yvonne Caruthers conduct a tour of the exhibition and present a gallery talk.

Sept. 11 at 4 -- Concert: Norwegian pianist Hakon Austbo plays music by Alexander Scriabin and Olivier Messiaen, two composers influenced by their propensities for "color hearing," followed by a discussion with the museum's chief curator, Kerry Brougher.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company