Musicians and painters view each other with fascination. One group works for the ear, the other for the eye. One art exists in time, the other in space. One is incorporeal and abstract, the other is corporeal and can be representational. Visual art and music are, of all the arts, the most distant, but they share a powerful bond by being nonverbal.
In the end, though, the relationship between art and music is a slippery subject. Composers and visual artists may or may not take inspiration from their opposites, and the inspiration itself can come in any number of ways.
For a composer, the most direct form of inspiration is to write a piece of music that somehow represents the atmosphere of a specific visual work. That was the idea behind the USC Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble program at the Zipper Hall of the Colburn School on Monday night, when it made its annual appearance in the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Green Umbrella series.
The two works presented were Louis Andriessen's "De Stijl," which brings Piet Mondrian's 1927 "Composition With Red, Yellow and Blue" to exciting life, and Morton Feldman's "Rothko Chapel," written for a performance in the nondenominational chapel built in Houston for which Mark Rothko painted his last canvases before committing suicide in 1970.
Both pieces, each 25 minutes long in these performances, do an extremely good job of translation. But they are also such strong, involving scores that they would appeal without any knowledge of the paintings that inspired them.
"De Stijl" is one Dutch master paying tribute, not always reverently, to another. The title, "The Style," comes from the Dutch abstract arts movement of the early 20th century. Andriessen formalizes Mondrian's interest in crosshatched lines, with intersecting musical lines of counterpoint. A text in Dutch by the Stijl theorist M.H.J. Schoenmaekers (whom Andriessen calls a "crazy Christian philosopher") about the mystical perfection of the straight line, is sung by four amplified female voices, in flat declamation.
The painted lines that Andriessen mimics in music are wild, forceful, Minimalist with a hint of disco. Andriessen is also interested in showing something of the peculiar character of Mondrian, who was a stiff ballroom dancer and avid jazz fan. Brilliantly mixing high and low, the composer includes an additional text, this one in English, about the painter's dancing, and it is recited by a dancer and accompanied by boogie-woogie piano.
But most striking of all is Andriessen's ensemble, which he has called "the terrifying 21st century orchestra." It is a big band of multiple flutes, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, electric guitars and drum sets. The sound is sheer aggression, exhilarating to both body and mind. In 1989, Andriessen made "De Stijl" part of his first opera, "De Materie" (Matter), and Robert Wilson staged it as a scene from early 20th century Dutch life merrily hurtling out of control.
Feldman's "Rothko Chapel" is as appropriately quiet and meditative as "De Stijl" is manic. A percussionist intones barely audible timpani rolls. A small choir hums disembodied chords. A viola plays hushed melodic fragments. A celesta adds celestial punctuation. With this, Feldman found not only the musical equivalent of Rothko's color fields in his music but also a way to put an audience in the mysterious mood that seems to overtake a visitor to the Rothko Chapel.
At the end, the viola intones a beautiful, nostalgic melody that hints of cantillation and that Feldman wrote as a teenager. It is unlike anything else in the composer's published music, and one senses in it his sad, fond elegy to the troubled painter who was his friend.
The performances were carefully and astutely conducted by Donald Crockett, and surely they will prove a meaningful and memorable occasion in the education of the USC student players. As such they could also serve as an effective part of campus life. But one longed for professional players, especially ones who could fully realize the dazzling impact of "De Stijl." The Philharmonic does well incorporating academic musical institutions into its family when they bring cutting-edge work. And such visits provide responsible cost-cutting that allows this admirable new music series to continue. But turning over modern classics to the schools is one step too far.