‘All art’, claimed English critic Walter Pater, ‘constantly aspires to the condition of music’.
Writing in the Victorian period, Pater considered music to be exceptional among the arts because in it there was no separation between subject and form. In other words, Pater felt that music differed from, say, painting or sculpture, because it wasn’t expected to describe, denote or depict anything beyond itself. In this way, it achieved a level of abstraction that would remain beyond the grasp of visual art in Europe for decades to come.
Despite the myriad transformations in the arts since Pater’s time, music remains a unique and special art form. Over the course of the 20th century, while visual art might be accused of having become increasingly elitist, music became more popular, affordable and accessible. It feels indisputable in the 21st century that music is the most relatable of the arts – one that most of us consume daily, and about which we all feel comfortable making aesthetic judgements.
It’s no wonder that so many contemporary artists make work that is inspired by music or which tries to bring art and music together to create something new. I recently scoured the Art Gallery of NSW collection looking for examples of musical art. Here are some highlights.
One way in which visual artists have actively contributed to the development of new musical forms is through the creation of alternative systems of notation. In 1918, Sydney-based artists Roy de Maistre and Roland Wakelin created a body of work based on their ideas about analogies between the colour spectrum and the musical scale. In their paintings, colours signified notes, with the depth and saturation of pigment respectively corresponding to pitch and volume. With titles like Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor 1919 and Syncromy in orange major 1919, the paintings sought to represent music in pictorial form while also functioning as scores. With the aid of devices such as de Maistre’s Colour keyboard 1919 and Colour music 1934, the paintings could even be performed.
It’s easy to imagine de Maistre and Wakelin listening to phonographs in their studios as they composed their paintings. Fast forwarding to the present, Vincent Namatjira has described how music is a constant in the busy studio where he works. It’s not surprising, then, that the experience of listing to music regularly becomes the subject of visual art. In Namatjira’s Studio self-portrait 2018, the sounds of the studio find their way into the painting. ‘It must have been rock’n’roll on this day’, he wrote, ‘because I’ve put on the Kiss t-shirt and Chuck Berry is playing his guitar back there on the canvas’.
In Ruark Lewis’ series Transformation drawings: Shostakovich string quartet no 8 1986, the entire composition is derived from the process of listening. It is as if he inverts the role of the conductor, allowing the music to direct his hand. Making marks on paper with graphite as he listens, Lewis creates drawings that visualise the music’s compositional structure as well as its emotional intensity and drama.
Jazz is the backdrop for Stanley Whitney’s paintings. Whitney once described turning up at art school with musician Charlie Parker on his mind and thinking about artist Paul Cézanne in terms of rhythm. His large, colourful, abstract paintings are composed in the manner of improvisational jazz – the call-and-response from one musician to the next is echoed in his selection and arrangement of colours, as is his openness to allowing the painting to find its own path without a predetermined structure in mind. Just like Ornette 2010 refers to pioneering free-jazz musician Ornette Coleman, whose 1959 record The shape of jazz to come had a profound impact on Whitney.
Dorrit Black’s lively linocut Music 1927-28 perfectly captures the social dimension of music. Executed after attending a jazz night at the Dominion Arts Club in London, the print evokes the infectious energy of live music. I particularly like the pianist, in the upper left, who is as intoxicated with the music as the dancing audience. The radiating, intersecting lines also emphasise the immersive physicality of music and underline its power to incite movement and to occupy space.
Other works in the collection reveal the ways that music is tied up with identity. In Ronnie van Hout’s Vocalist seeks band 1995–96 the artist has transformed a note found on a music store noticeboard into an embroidery on canvas. Transcribed word-for-word, the artwork relates a singer’s ‘desparate’ [sic] search for a band. The influences cited – ‘Nick Cave, Sisters [of Mercy], Velvet Underground, early [David] Bowie and heaps more’ – paint a vivid portrait of the vocalist and, moreover, underline the way in which music is both a way to express individuality and to seek identification with a group.
In Angelica Mesiti’s Citizens band 2012, music is a signifier of cultural identity. The four-channel video installation features four musicians performing in different public settings, far from their places of birth: Geraldine Zongo practises Bakan water drumming in a Parisian swimming pool; Mohammed Lamourie sings an Algerian song on the Paris Metro; Asim Goreshi whistles a Sudanese melody in his Brisbane taxi; and Bukhchuluun Gangurged plays the Mongolian fiddle while throat singing on a Sydney street corner. Music, the work suggests, can transcend time and place.
Despite its capacity for abstraction, music feels more connected to the real world of events than any other art form and is regularly instrumentalised – excuse the pun – for ideological purposes. Susan Hiller explores the political dimension of music in Thoughts are free (Die Gedanken sind frei) 2012 – an installation that shares, via a Wurlitzer jukebox, the artist’s selection of 100 songs about freedom. Sourced from different times and cultures, its content ranges from the 1524–25 Peasants’ War in Germany to the 2011 Arab Spring, and reveals the capacity for music to provoke political liberation. (It was also the subject of a recent post by writer and critic Anwen Crawford)
Pedro Reyes similarly regards art and music as agents for social change. To create his Disarm sculptures, Reyes collaborated with musicians and sound engineers to transform a cache of over 6000 firearms seized by the Mexican military into musical instruments. The Gallery acquired five of the works in 2015 – a guitar, psaltery (a kind of harp), rain stick, pan pipes and xylophone – and first exhibited them in the exhibition When silence falls. During the day they sat menacingly on plinths, while, on a select number of evenings, composer Stu Hunter brought a group of musicians into the Gallery and improvised a performance on them in front of a live audience. It was incredibly moving. ‘It’s important to consider that many lives were taken with these weapons’, said Reyes. ‘As if a sort of exorcism was taking place, the music expelled the demons they held, as well as being a requiem for the lives lost’.
Like many of the works above, Disarm began as an idea that became an artwork which expresses itself through music. Equally at home in a gallery or a concert hall, it reveals art and music to be the most potent of partners — capable of the abstraction that Pater valued so highly, while remaining connected to the experiences, events and emotions that make up our lives.