What color is music?

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”?

After some decades of being out of fashion, Scriabin’s music had a resurgence in the 1960s, his synaesthesia neatly relating to psychedelia. Synaesthesia may be a curiosity, but drugs can stimulate it in anyone. Light shows throbbed to the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore in San Francisco. The fact that 50 years earlier the Russian composer had, without ever taking LSD, not only presaged light shows but had written a symphony that included a part for bells hung from the clouds over India seemed to indicate that Scriabin was remarkably ahead of his time.

In fact, Scriabin and others with a synaesthetic bent from early in the last century lived in a very different world from hippies, and they make warring neighbors in “Visual Music.” Psychedelic films by John and James Whitney, especially those with ragas loudly played by Ravi Shankar, simply take over the museum. Grieg’s “Peer Gynt,” in a dim recording to a nearby color organ, might as well just turn itself off and go home.

Music on iPods placed around the galleries, with their recordings of Schoenberg -- who was a painter of significance and composer of genius (but oddly not represented in the show) -- Varese, Scriabin and many others, also cannot be heard in sonic isolation. The sound quality is constricted. This is music for dabbling and nothing more, which is an odd way to treat the inspiration for exactly the thing this art aspires to. On the positive side, bleeding tablas from Whitney light shows do enliven the dreary scores of the painter-composer Mikalojus Ciurlionis.

New York as missing link


The way out of “Visual Music” is through “Into the Unknown -- Abstraction from the Collection,” paintings MOCA owns by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and others. This is visual music too. It features work that came out of the New York schools of music and the visual arts in the 1950s, where the likes of John Cage and Morton Feldman had exceptionally close ties to Rauschenberg, Johns and other artists. “If you don’t have a friend who’s a painter,” Feldman once said in a lecture, “you are in trouble.”

Artists and musicians created a zeitgeist, shared ideas and worked toward similar ends. But they also respected the unique qualities of their different art forms. Feldman took the musical design for his flute, piano and glockenspiel trio, “Why Patterns?,” from a painting by Johns, but the translation is on the deep level that Klee’s music-to-painting translations were, with music never attempting to sound visual.

The omission of these New York schools, which were central to the history of American art and music (and central to the coming together of art and music in America), is all but synaesthesia as amnesia, especially given MOCA’s history of dealing with this work in such landmark exhibitions as “Rolywholyover A Circus” in 1993.

Can MOCA have forgotten that Fischinger set 20th century music on a new course, a course that ultimately had a profound impact on visual art? In 1937, Cage worked as an assistant to the emigre filmmaker. Interested in Buddhism, Fischinger explained to the young composer one day that every inanimate object has a spirit, an inner sound that can be made audible by setting the object into vibration. That set Cage hitting, scratching and rubbing everything he could get his hands on, with the result that he became a percussion composer with radically new theories about the nature of sound, silence, noise and music.

Percussion eventually found its way into a broad range of musical thinking. And Cage’s ideas crucially influenced the development of Johns, Rauschenberg and other visual artists, to say nothing of Fluxus, the neo-Dada, Cage-inspired art movement that gave Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono their starts. That impact is stronger than ever.

Drive west from MOCA on Wilshire and the impact is evident if you look for it. “Percussion Music,” the small, smart new exhibition at the mid-Wilshire SolwayJones gallery, reveals the important implications of the post-Cagean aesthetic in visual art. Here Tom Marioni creates birdlike drawings by drumming on sandpaper with jazz drum sticks. Steve Roden figures out a way to translate the parking lot design of Dodger Stadium into notes on a glockenspiel. Cage called percussion revolution, and the revolution continues.

So too does the glockenspiel. By sheer coincidence, Feldman’s “Why Patterns?,” arguably the finest musical score ever designed after a painting, will be performed at 8 p.m. Monday as part of the Monday Evening Concerts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Can it be that musicians and composer talk, yet museums don’t?

“Visual Music” is a missed opportunity to more meaningfully explore an issue that concerns everyone -- the battle of the senses -- and to connect it with our times, our city, or even with MOCA’s own collection and tradition. But at least it makes us ponder the mysteries of the senses and wonder: When sound leads to sight, and vice versa, whence patterns and why?


Mark Swed is The Times’ classical music writer.