Friday, February 25, 2011

Depicting Painting with Music Notes

I have always been fascinated by one art form depicting another.  If it involves creating, then it would be even better.  A case in study is the book The Girl with Pearl Earrings.

The most challenging case would be trying to depict visuals with music notes.  I have been meditated on this theme for a long time and today's San Francisco Chronicle review of San Francisco Symphony's performance propelled me to finish this draft.  The review, S.F. Symphony review: A superb 'Rothko Chapel', stated that:
In Davies Symphony Hall on Wednesday night, Michael Tilson Thomas introduced "Rothko Chapel," one of Feldman's richest and most haunting works, to the San Francisco Symphony repertoire. The piece is a virtuoso display of minimalist lyricism, and the few performers onstage gave it a mesmerizing performance.

Written in 1971 for the opening of the interfaith chapel in Houston built around Mark Rothko's paintings, "Rothko Chapel" marks a confluence of several strains in Feldman's work. As ever, the rhetoric is subdued, the tempos slow, the textures sparse and suggestive, and the instrumentation - for solo viola, chorus, percussion and celesta - is a determinative feature of the piece.

But there are other elements in play as well that tie the music directly to its setting. The viola, which is clearly a protagonist and emotional stand-in for the composer, relocates physically to different parts of the stage, adding a spatial dimension to the music.

"Rothko Chapel" is also more explicitly sectional than many of Feldman's works, conjuring up an image of Rothko's paintings being looked at one by one (shades of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition"). And Feldman's writing - particularly the gentle block chords sung by the chorus, which Thomas aptly likened to a cross between Webern and Duke Ellington - is a correlative in sound to Rothko's fields of color, with their solid centers and vaporous edges.

It must be a wonderful evening - I wish was there.  

In last couple month's, I've been listening to a recording including Respighi - Gli Uccelli/Il Tramonto/Trittico Botticelliano.  Trittico Botticelliano is a three-part orchestral suite, based on the impression from Botticelli's three incomparable masterpieces - La Primavera (Spring), L'adorazione dei Magi, and La Nascità di Venere (The Birth of Venus), all reside in Uffizi Museum.

This suite was conceived by Ottorino Respighi in 1927, during his trip to Washington, D.C.  The music was not very photo-realistic and the title helped to set the mood and the way to understand it, quite similar to the better-known Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, and unlike some quite vivid poems like La mer by Claude Debussy, which would be hard to miss the topic as the sea.

Back to Respighi.  Apparently, he tried to imitate or suggest some old music idiom, as far back as Renaissance period, and the echoing of Vivaldi was palpable.  As for the middle piece, a section based on hymn helped to establish the character.  However, the overall effect was much established by the suggestions of melody and rhythm, which can be seen as parallel to the paintings the music notes were trying to depict.  However, a knowledge of these paintings would be extremely helpful for the listeners to make connections of the aural impact and visual memories.  It might be very interesting to listen to these pieces with copies of the paintings in front me, but I haven't tried yet.  Perhaps I ought to.

The above-mentioned Pictures at an Exhibition is another good example.  However, the artworks Mussorgsky based on are lost to us and I have to admit that I have more difficulty in understanding this than that by Respighi.  Therefore, I'll rely more on Wikipedia:
It was probably in 1870 that Mussorgsky met artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. Both men were devoted to the cause of an intrinsically Russian art and quickly became friends. Their meeting was likely arranged by the influential critic Vladimir Stasov who followed both of their careers with interest.

Hartmann died from an aneurysm in 1873. The sudden loss of the artist, aged only 39, shook Mussorgsky along with others in Russia's art world. Stasov helped organize an exhibition of over 400 Hartmann works in the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, Russia in February and March 1874. Mussorgsky lent works from his personal collection to the exhibit and viewed the show in person. Fired by the experience, he composed Pictures at an Exhibition in six weeks. The music depicts an imaginary tour of an art collection. Titles of individual movements allude to works by Hartmann; Mussorgsky used Hartmann as a working title during the work's composition. He described the experience to Stasov in June 1874: "Hartmann is seething as Boris was. Sounds and ideas float in the air and my scribbling can hardly keep pace with them."

Mussorgsky based his musical material on drawings and watercolours by Hartmann produced mostly during the artist's travels abroad. Locales include Poland, France and Italy; the final movement depicts an architectural design for the capital city of Ukraine. Today most of the pictures from the Hartmann exhibit are lost, making it impossible to be sure in many cases which Hartmann works Mussorgsky had in mind.

Mussorgsky links the suite's movements in a way that depicts the viewer's own progress through the exhibition. Two "Promenade" movements stand as portals to the suite's main sections. Their regular pace and irregular meter depicts the act of walking. Three untitled interludes present shorter statements of this theme, varying the mood, colour and key in each to suggest reflection on a work just seen or anticipation of a new work glimpsed.

More broadly speaking, his Night on Bald Mountain and Debussy's La mer can be called musical landscape paintings.  Several tone poems by Richard Strauss and Jean Sibelius fall into this category too.  I love Sibelius' tone poems greatly, particularly his The Swan of Tuonela. I admire Strauss greatly, particularly his songs and opera, but have to cringe a bit of the banality in his tone poems, such as however masterful they are.  Such as Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), Op. 40 (1899) and Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), Op. 64 (1915).  But then, he redeemed himself with his sublime Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Op. 24 (1888-89).

Even more broadly, one can say that some music pieces are portraits as well.  The best known example of this is Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E flat major (Op. 55), also known as the Eroica (Italian for "heroic"), which was a dedication and semi-official biography and portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The challenge and admiration between painters and musicians are often mutual and the traffic goes both directions. Even I attempted to capture some music making with my paint brush:

Limelight / 聚光燈 / Rampenlicht

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