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What color is music?

MOCA cranks it up with art sparked by music but tunes out a vibrant time in New York.

February 27, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

"Please, no music."

With that line Oskar Fischinger's obviously silent 1942 film "Radio Dynamics" begins, and it happened to be the first thing I saw on one of my visits to "Visual Music." Talk about a sucker punch.

The Museum of Contemporary Art is not a quiet place for its latest show. But then a lot of noise over the centuries has been made about the relationship between sight and sound. Visual art and music may express a longing for the other, feel a magnetic attraction, even experience, in their most spiritually intense unions, the sense of different beings becoming one. But just as you can never really know another person -- the minute you think that you can, you are in trouble -- the eye and the ear are hardly immune to misunderstandings, jealousy, envy.

Obsession has its role as well in the music-art affair. Just as "No sex, please, we're British" means they want nothing but, Fischinger's "Please, no music" is an addict's plea. He doesn't mean it, and MOCA doesn't mean it. "Radio Dynamics" was an anomalous abstention for Fischinger. The German animator who emigrated to Hollywood in the 1930s was a pioneer in what is sometimes known as Mickey Mousing, the finding of one-to-one visual correlations in film to pieces of music. "Fantasia" began it, and he began "Fantasia" with the idea of an abstract animation: Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Ultimately Walt Disney took "Fantasia" away from the Fischinger ideal, but he was the catalyst.

Likewise, "Visual Music" looks at music's role as an art catalyst. And for a music buff the attention couldn't be more flattering. Leave Fischinger behind, enter another gallery and bask in music's glory. It is credited with nothing less than offering such great artists as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee the means with which to provide visual abstraction new expressive possibilities. This is the really flattering theme of "Visual Music": It celebrates art not meant to illustrate music but to rise to the condition of music.

Kandinsky's "Fugue" is not a fugue, that highly formalized interaction of contrapuntal lines in music. Rather it is painting granted permission by music to be itself. "Fugue" is not only no fugue but also no form of counterpoint. Its power comes, instead, from a painter listening deeply to the music of the zeitgeist and then painting what he saw, not what he heard.

That music and painting can inform each other is hardly surprising. Whether out of enthusiasm or desperation, artists have always taken inspiration from everything around them. But the dialogue is imperfect at best. Musical structuring devices based upon the division of time seldom suit a visual realm. Color to an artist is a science, often part of a work's essence. Color in music, tone color, is coloration, important but less easily codifiable.

Klee was more systematic than most in his musical appropriations. His lecture notes, which might have made an interesting inclusion in the MOCA exhibition, are full of musical examples. But he always transcends his calculations and grids; it is not contrapuntal geometry that gives "Nocturne for Horn" its musicality but the horn breaking free of the patterns, the light bursting through the night.

Klee so transformed his musical devices that musicians have, in turn, found new inspiration in Klee. When Karlheinz Stockhausen taught at UC Davis in the 1960s, he had his students model asymmetrical musical phrases after the lines in Klee drawings, resulting in a type of music so untraditional that Klee would have never recognized his influence, and probably lamented it.

The danger of visual music is in art and music each encroaching too determinedly onto the other's territory, which can lead to suffocation. In the 1950s, some European electronic music composers got the bright idea that sound and light are the same thing because both are mathematically expressed as waves. Complex graphical correlations were drawn and electronic sound realized. It proved incredibly flat, lacking texture or interest of any sort.

Synaesthesia versus psychedelia

Once it leaves the world of abstract painting and enters the realm of synaesthesia, "Visual Music" courts such danger with curious recklessness. You might expect that this very specific correspondence between the senses would illuminate, so to speak, the mysterious interaction between art and music. It does just the opposite. The best known form of synaesthesia is the association of certain colors with certain pitches or chords. Of the handful of composers who experience synaesthesia, Scriabin is the most famous. But colors he associated with pitches were meaningful only to him. Do you need to look up the tint of Scriabin's mystic chord to get goose bumps from a great performance of the "Poem of Ecstasy"?

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