5: FASHION CHANGES
Film is often seen as the best way of conveying musical ideas. Many visual artists who are also musicians find it the ideal medium to express themselves. As time is the primary dimension of music, so too does film have a duration. Where musical time is divided by rhythm, changing shapes and colours on a projection screen can keep time to the accompanying music.
From 1912 onwards, art films have been produced to convey musical ideas with abstract animation. Their moving lines and changing shapes were used to parallel the feeling and intent of particular scores, as much as their musical structures. At first, form provided the metaphor for rhythm (though sometimes it had additional significance, as an alchemic or Theosophical symbol): colour played a subordinate role, partly because early film was black and white and each frame had to be laboriously hand-coloured. Generally, colour was not coded according to any given notes or keys, nor meant to stipulate any synaesthetic relationships. Rather, rhythmic changes of light and colour supplemented the forms to display musical content and character to the best advantage.
With the advent of talkies, experimental filmmakers found they could couple visual images to sound effects on the one strip of celluloid, and were quick to exploit the correspondence. Lazlo Maholy-Nagy's "The Sound ABC" of 1933 used the same visual symbols (letters, faces, signs and so on) on the optical sound track as were shown on the screen. This 'light-hearted experiment' showed that each image could produce its own unique sound. Meanwhile, the Fischinger brothers in Germany and musicians in Russia (including Rimsky-Korsakov) were experimenting with patterns and shapes to optically generate musical tones. Soon, animators were using their own designs, freehand or geometric, to make synthetic sound. Some photographed their work frame by frame, others drew directly onto the film stock itself. Within the limits of film technology, sound and image had become one. At the same time, Mary Ellen Bute made the first abstract art films in the USA. Having helped Leon Theremin present his thesis, "The Parameters of Light and Sound and Their Possible Synchronization", she went on to create filmic impressions of music. At first, Bute built her imagery around mathematical formulae but later used an oscilloscope to choreograph a repertoire of forms to chosen scores.
The Whitney brothers, one a composer and the other an abstract painter, also used external devices to aid them in the production of animated films. They originally used pendulums to activate an optical wedge and expose the sound track. Though the pendulums themselves produced no sound, they were so finely tuned to harmonic lengths that a rich and complex music was heard when the film was projected. Simple geometric forms supplied the imagery; these were arranged across the screen and in sequence according to fixed rules, derived from musical forms such as the cannon and the 12-tone scale.
The Whitneys were fascinated by the periodic wave forms of sound. By the mid-l960s, they had pioneered the use of computers to create animations based on the mathematics of music:
The mathematical tendency reached some kind of culmination with Tony Conrad's film "Flicker", of 1965. To barely audible electronic music with a very rapid beat, a variable stroboscopic effect was projected as the only visual element of the work. Alternating transparent and black frames produced flashes of pure white, at rates moving in and out of the range of 8 to 16 cycles per second, that corresponds to the alpha rhythms of brain waves. Though the author theorized about harmonic relationships akin to music (with the standard projection rate of 24 frames per second supplying the tonic), he admitted that "Flicker" was conceived as "a hallucinatory trip through unplumbed grottoes of pure sensory disruption." An hypnotic state, with illusionary colours and images, is supposed to result, though many find the film purely excruciating.
Since World War I, stroboscopes have been used to treat battle fatigue, as a brain-washing technique, and in tests for some epilepsy: it was appropriate that Conrad should add a legal waiver to his film, to avoid reparations if someone threw a fit. The reality of this danger became clear in 1997 when a cartoon shown on Japanese television, including several seconds of bright and rapidly-flashing red, white and blue lights, sent over 700 children into convulsions.
The flicker effect was used for more benign ends in Paul Sharits' 1968 film "N.O.T.H.I.N.G." By varying colour and tone from frame to frame, he hoped to create rhythmic sensory impressions. Overall, colour progressed through white, yellow, red and green, to blue, following the program of the Tibetan Mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas. This tonal scale of colours, from the lightest to the darkest, was meant to promote awareness and the highest level of inner consciousness in the viewer. (His graphic device of mandala gave different colours to either the Tantric meditation on the four chakras, or the seven chakras of kundalini yoga. A Western derivation, the colour-music-chakra code, uses a spectral array of seven colours rather than a tonal progression: all, however, are aimed at achieving enlightenment.) But more than the symbolic colours of the mandala, the accompanying sound of the mantra was paramount for Sharits. The ultimate OM was represented, at blue, by a steady vibrational hum. Though electronic sound supplanted music on the soundtrack, Sharits considered the film as a composition, making music on a metaphoric level.
The work of abstract artists has always been in the vanguard of animation, though it is usually overshadowed by populist cartoons and video clips at the cinema and on TV. Only in the more personal (and relatively new) world of the Internet has an interest in unity of sound and vision regained prominence. Some of the most durable and elaborate sites on the Net are devoted to systems analogizing sight and sound: many sport technical wizardry and quote scientific theories, others rely on faith in a mystic, holistic unity of all phenomena, but all presume the combined effect of musical and visual stimuli has a profound human resonance.
Traditional ROYGBIV colour-music codes can still be found sheltering in web sites, usually as a list within a broad mythology dealing with the I Ching, astrology and the like. There they flounder under layers of obtuse meaning, inaccessible to all but the most literal-minded readings. Generally, colour music is likely to be subsumed in mainstream concerns, where the trend is towards less proscriptive methods, and more inventive techniques, for uniting sight and sound.
Software for the PC can now produce sound from any image, or vice versa, depending on the sophistication of the program and the power of one's computer. The commonest visual read-outs range from simple graphs (oscilloscope waves, moving colour-bars, etc.) to mandala forms of changing colour and complexity. Sound can be produced from any scanned image, pixel by pixel, according to colour; other programs can read and write music scores, as well as orchestrate existing sound. A degree of personal choice is often allowed - sound quality might be controlled, shape and colour preferences may be stipulated.
But perhaps the most customized interactive tool is IBVA, designed to harness the user's brainwaves, to navigate other software, to manipulate other equipment and trigger both sound and image. Its approach reflects the contemporary fascination, among scientists as much as mystics, for biorhythms as a predictor of aesthetic responses. Some software uses the irregularities present in heartbeats, or the coding of DNA sequences, as a mathematical base for linking sight to sound. More traditional methods, such as aligning cycles of musical fifths to a specific gradation of colour, are sometimes chosen. Whatever method is used, it is the computer programmer at the one end, and the individual user at the other, who dictate the audio-visual result.
In the realm of multi-media, sensory fusion has just begun. Artists, animators and musicians have been among the first to explore the meeting of sight and sound. Their work across different disciplines has provided a valuable impetus at times of change, in breaking with cloying traditions. The best artistic results are often personal, even arbitrary interpretations, free of rules that can inhibit expression. However, some old theories have proved remarkably tenacious. Ideologies for reconciling the senses, through mathematics and spirituality, re-emerge time and again - despite technical and philosophic innovation. The colour-music code, with its sterile arrangement of spectral colours and a white-note scale, is one antiquated idea that is never far below the surface. Some of its major tenets influenced early animated film, even though colour had less theoretical importance than form as an equivalent for music. Paradoxically, it occasionally appears in painting, as a transcription code for achieving the impossible - accommodating music in a medium with no time-frame.
One would think that computing, with its mathematical base and audio-visual capabilities, would be the ideal medium for colour music to flourish. And flourish it should, without the imposition of a dogmatic code. The mathematical codes (some of them the usual colour music formulations) that form the basis for earlier software, are likely to be surpassed; their refined concepts are likely to prove limiting in general applications Changes inside the computer and screen will dictate how sound and colour are produced. Flexible software would incorporate these elements in multipurpose programs, driven by the new methodology rather than based on old theories. Commercial considerations, as well as technical sophistication, will cater to public demand, for popular products that maximise results with the least effort. Codes per se seem to be a disadvantage in the long run. Hopefully, computer users will take inspiration from the abstractionists and animators of the 20th century, to make open and unfettered explorations of colour and music.
One field that could well do with a cross-disciplinary approach, to which general consideration of the principles of colour and music could apply, is the profession of architecture. After all, as an old saw has it, architecture is frozen music; rhythm is mimicked by the repetition of structural elements and a passage of time is marked when people pass through and around a building. Understanding music, its melody, harmony and so on, could but inform a designer's approach to structure, building mass, and streetscapes. Colour for buildings, whether in natural finishes or artificially applied, could be more nicely designed with time in mind, supplementing changes in volume and shape with colour changes redolent of the drama, variety and subtlety of music. Garish ornament and arbitrary styles, that are too often the only embellishments to the basic utility of a building, might be avoided by a more transcendent approach to design: consideration of musicality and the use of colour could only enliven our grim, grey cities.
The Pompidou Centre in Paris is one rare example of a public building with a strong colours on the exterior. Its popular appeal belies the difficulties its architect, Renzo Piano, experienced getting his design off the ground: he spent a full year justifying the colour scheme to Parisian taste-mongers, who had opted for shades of Eiffel Tower grey. A starting point for the palette of colours, used to pick out the Centre's external conduits and ducts, was the colour legend commonly used on working drawings, to indicate services and utilities on the plan. Using the standard colour code of engineers could be rationalized as a logical devolution of the building process, whereas a client might find it more difficult to swallow the seeming irrelevance of a colour-music code. The latter code only comes into its own when music is incorporated as an element of the built environment.
On a small scale, theorists and technicians have already begun to explore building as a medium for audio-visual design. One prescient example was Le Corbusier's design for the Philips pavillion at the Brussels world fair in 1958. Amplified music and rhythmically-orchestrated light and colour created a virtual environment to supplement the built form. Corbusier extended his idea of architecture beyond mere building to a synthesis of sensations bound by cosmic harmonies:
Despite the attention colour music has already received, it has not yet provided a visual, painterly equivalent of the composer's method (or vice versa), nor has it uncovered a tangible connection between various creative impulses. Partly, this gap must be caused by the blind emphasis placed on esoteric codes, that obscure the merits of colour and music alike. De Maistre and De Clario fudged these aesthetic issues, relying instead on the acceptance of their colour-music codes to give them an alternative credibility. The rational virtues of Newtonian optics were supposed to rub off onto each system (De Clario went to great length to draw on yet more science to validate his code). By aligning their theories with known laws, the artists tried to justify their codes, rather than prove them. Conversely, belief in the code was supposed to soothe all intellectual doubts and authenticate an underlying spirituality. Each artists saw his code's mystical virtue as its chief value. Operating clearly within the neoplatonic tradition, they assumed that natural forces (sound and light) are coordinated, indicating a single, presumably supernatural source. De Clario went further in this regard, emboldened by increasing tolerance of non-conforming religious views to declare his spiritual intentions in a way De Maistre could hardly have envisaged.
To suggest these emperors have no clothes might seem churlish, and risk accusations of bad faith. Notwithstanding such protests, nor the personal testimony of their acolytes, both systems reveal discrepancies that invite question. Both De Maistre and De Clario tried to coordinate and quantify the effects of sight and sound; when examined on their merits, their theories fail to find support in scientific fact. They both follow the reductive methods of bad science, that nowhere allow for any but the pre-ordained conclusions, so it is difficult to give their procedures any credit.
At first, the area of synaesthesia looks likely to establish the connection more objectively. The validity of any colour-music code might be tested by correlating accounts of private and subjective responses to colour and music, to see if any statistical connection could be formed. Each synaesthete will report consistent responses - for example, music will be accompanied by the same vision each time it is heard - but the experiences of different individuals are not the same. Though responses to musical or coloured input show some electrical activity in the brains of synaesthetes, establishing the links between specific colours and sounds depends, as yet, on the subjects' personal accounts of their internal experiences. Thus no general conclusions can be drawn from synaesthesia, no colour-music codes devised or verified for wider applicability.
Broad psychological testing, for reactions to colour only, show a normal acceptance of red as hot and blue as cold; otherwise, most colours elicit little reaction until they are seen in conjunction with each other. No concrete measure of colour sensation is available this way, and no connection to music can be induced. While the names of individual colours also have associative meanings, these tend to be symbolic and/or literal (white for purity, red as in bloody revolution). Words for colours provide metaphor within language: their meanings give few direct clues to the sensations colours provoke, let alone a musical equivalence: their sounds may be more illustrative.
Perhaps painters could supply musical descriptions of colour. When Whistler titled works as 'nocturnes' and Gaugin spoke of orchestrating colour, they referred to the effect they wished to invoke as well as to the approach they took. But once more, metaphor was employed, much as visual similes were used in late romantic and impressionist programme music. It may be that innovative work is impossible to describe, that the best likeness can only be found in another, wordless language.
By consequence, the association of colour with music appears to be irrelevant, but at certain times and in certain quarters the connection is made. When this occurs, the motive appears to be to confirm the spiritual, even where such concerns might otherwise seem peripheral and remote. In Western philosophies, the commonest procedure follows the neoplatonic pattern, which has become such a habit of thought that its application becomes automatic and its correctness is presumed. Even the Theosophical Society retained the essential classicism of Newton's ROYGBIV when reworking the colour-music code in the late 19th. century. The colour-music code of Roy De Maistre, too, was just such a learnt, intellectual arrangement, in spite of any spiritual leanings he might have had. Though De Maistre may have been a special case by virtue of synaesthesia, his paintings were primarily exercises in applying his code. In the end, they are unreliable representations of internal experiences - the coded structure intervened to cloud any true picture of colour-music sensation, producing outcomes according to rule.
The works of De Maistre and De Clario emerged from similar milieus. The spiritualist concerns of De Maistre's time are mirrored in the occult interests of the present New Age movement. Then as now, preoccupation with the spiritual inspired blind beliefs - colour music was embraced with religious zeal and codes evolved to serve as dogma. In the 1930s, a Hindu-inspired variation became so influential that it has become the most commonly accepted interpretation of colour-music codes today. De Maistre did not include this important modification in his approach at the time: perhaps he was influenced by contemporary European art, or constrained by his new-found Catholicism. In any case, the oriental modifications are just another veneer, superimposed on colours and musical notes whose arrangement has changed little since Newton's time. De Maistre's colour-music code is of this durable type. Though three-quarters of a century has elapsed since he first proposed it, the basic structure, with few alterations, is still accepted by many in contemporary Australia and elsewhere.
Niels Hutchison, Melbourne, 1996-2013.
Plate 1 : "COLOUR COMPOSITION DERIVED FROM 3 BARS OF MUSIC IN THE KEY OF ORANGE-RED", Roy De Maistre, 1918-33.
The Ian Potter Centre, NGV, Federation Square, Melbourne.
(from "Australian Modern Painting Between the Wars, 1914 to 1939", Mary Eagle. There, and at the NGV, it is entitled Arrested Movement from a Trio.)
Plate 2 : "ARRESTED MOVEMENT FROM A TRIO", Roy De Maistre, 1934.
(from "Roy De Maistre: The English Years, 1930 to 1968", Heather Johnson, Plate 33. There, it is entitled Colour Composition derived from Three Bars of Music In the Key of Green (a.k.a. Colour Scale on a Musical Theme from Beethoven).)
When I first saw these two paintings illustrated in books, I noticed the compositions were very similar. Their ruled structures differ little. Here, they are aligned one above the other, so common regions can easily be compared. The top version seems to be a preparatory work for the more elaborate one below: both works appear to be based on the same musical subject, as hinted at by their titles. It would seem they were collectively known as "Arrested Movement from a Trio" for most of their lives. However, when De Maistre exhibited them together (in his 1960 retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery in London), he supplied a more precise title for the earlier work. Three bars of music were stipulated, in the key of orange-red. According to De Maistre's colour-music code, orange-red would signify the key of B flat. (By convention, a major key would be assumed, since the word 'minor' is missing.) On the pictures' surfaces, musical pitch seems to be represented by height, while time is marked out in horizontal intervals. The twenty-four vertical stripes of equal width could be considered as quavers; eight of them combine for four beats, in each of the three bars, giving a common time signature. The paintings are out of sync by half a bar, with Plate 2 starting two beats before Plate 1.
The middle bar seems to be the focus of De Maistre's attention; a descending figure of crotchets is repeated every two beats in the bass, while a scale or arpeggio of eight quavers ascends in the treble. The quavers appear as a run of deep blue, red, orange-red and a (greenish) yellow, which occurs twice in succession. According to De Maistre's colour-music code, these colours could be F, A, B flat and C sharp. They would not supply the smooth rise in pitch intimated by the gradual slope of their ascent. While ther colouration is fairly consistent across both Plates 1 and 2, any musical reading remains ambiguous. Elsewhere, the blues might be anything from D to F sharp; tertiary colours (browns and ochres) are even more indeterminate - indeed, even De Maistre's commercial colour charts failed to distinguish them clearly. Add to this the inconsistency of De Maistre's own hand-made colour charts, the non-spectral nature of paint pigments, and the artist's tendency to vary colour for effect, and it becomes difficult to discover the musical source from the paintings.
Nevertheless, on the basis of the pictures, I reconstructed what music I could. (Eventually, a piece called "Fragments" was composed for the exhibition "Sight & Sound", at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, in 2010.) More musical material came from a sketch painted on a piano roll, kept at the Art Gallery of NSW (Illustration 2). On it, De Maistre depicted some twelve bars of music - almost three times the length shown below - from which the subjects for the easel paintings were chosen. The geometrical grid was adjusted according to each picture's size: three bars were taken from the "Piano Roll", and narrowed proportionately, to make the compositions for Plates 1 and 2. After examining the "Piano Roll" in its entirety, I was able to identify the source music in 2012. It is Haydn's "Trio in B flat", for keyboard, violin and cello (Hoboken XV:20). (A more detailed analysis of this discovery is available in my catalogue essay for "Sydney Moderns", at the Art Gallery of NSW, 2013.)
Illustration 1 : "COLOUR MUSIC / PIANO ROLL", Roy De Maistre, 1930s.
On comparing the "Piano Roll" with Haydn's manuscript, major visual features can be identified immediately. On close inspection, most colours are found to match their notes, as dictated by De Maistre's colour music code. Occasionally, visual patterns on the painting are barely apparent in the written score, but emerge clearly when the music is heard. Such is the case with central arpeggios of Plates 1 and 2. The notes - F, A, B flat and D (as it turns out) - sound as one discrete unit, immediately echoed by the same notes an octave higher. Thus the second set of notes is a paler version of the first, in accordance with De Maistre's system, whereby lighter colours indicate higher octaves. The notes recurred as a motif used throughout the piece; Haydn extracted them from the middle of a more uneven arpeggio in the first bar, as shown in colours on the score above. In placing these arpeggios at the centres of his paintings, De Maistre was exercising a fine musical discernment.
In Plate 2, De Maistre used graphic elaborations to enhance the sense of musical realism. The first F of the arpeggio is marked by two disjunct semicircles, a sign De Maistre appointed to that note on his colour wheel. Before it, to the left, similar symbols decorate long strips of rich blue. They indicate that Haydn's music had modulated to F major (or indigo) by the end of bar two. With the arpeggios at the start of bar three, the music reverted to the native key of B flat: De Maistre confirmed the change by an Indian red inscribed with the appropriate chevrons. (Likewise, semicircular symbols mark green G and the blue-green of E flat, to the right.) Apparently satisfied with his final picture, the artist propped it on an easel and painted its portrait: it stands at the focus of an undated work, "STUDIO INTERIOR", at present in a private collection (see FRONTISPIECE).
Roy De Maistre, 1919-1935,
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
(There, it is known as Arrested Phrase from a Haydn Trio in Orange-Red Minor.)
De Maistre was not always so cavalier with the colour-music code. After the fifth bar on the "Piano Roll", colours became increasingly accurate - the notes A to G more truly presented a spectrum, the Newtonian array of ROY G BIV. Even so, the recovery of the musical origin from De Maistre's painted interpretation was a painstaking task, with over four hundred notes represented - each with its own patch of coded colour. The artist was also rather cryptic in the titles he gave his work, never fully revealing his source: it is small wonder the paintings' identities have become confused over the years. Plate 3, for example, was considered to be in the key of orange-red minor by 1965, when exhibited as such at the Marlborough Gallery. The painting may look sufficiently sombre to justify the appellation 'minor', but no such key (or even chord) is depicted. The subject is really in orange-red major, and to suggest otherwise is misleading. After all, it would be futile to call a landscape a seascape, when what we saw were clearly mountains, not waves.
Plate 4 : "COLOUR COMPOSITION DERIVED FROM 3 BARS OF MUSIC IN THE KEY OF GREEN",
Illustratiion 3 : from "SYMPHONY No 9 IN D MINOR, Opus 125", 4th Movement,
In 2013, I re-examined Beethoven's monumental work (of almost 1000 bars); the musical source for De Maistre's painting finally emerged, a mere two or three bars away from where I had looked already. A simplified version of the score is shown in Illustration 3, aligned approximately with the painting. Coloured notes readily correspond to painted areas, showing how fluent De Maistre had become in the execution of colour music. According to his code, the colours have an accuracy matched only by the final bars painted on the "Piano Roll". But, unlike the pictures of Haydn's Trio, where every note is represented more or less as written, the Beethoven work takes certain liberties with the music over all. The first half of the woodwind line (shown as grey notes) is barely suggested, while the sustained vocal note in the central bar is broken up into component beats, to give the rhythm of large red shapes along the top. De Maistre elaborated only these three bars, plucked from Beethoven's vast opus; they last for a scant two seconds within a total running time of one-and-a-quarter hours. What most concerned him in his selection was the integrity of the text, the words "Freude, schöner Götterfunken!" (or "Joy, beautiful spark of the divinity" according to Wikipedia). It is drawn from the first line of Schiller's poem, iterated for one last time at the ecstatic climax of Beethoven's final symphony.