Visual Music

Friday, August 06, 2010 - 10:48 AM

Charles Burchfield's <em>Autumnal Fantasy</em> Charles Burchfield's Autumnal Fantasy (

Although I work in the non-visual medium of radio, by training I'm a visual artist. I graduated from art school, and worked for ten years as a graphic designer and illustrator before moving to radio via my lifelong love of music. I think that radio actually is a visual medium, it's just that the associated images are conjured in the imagination of the listener, rather than on paper or on canvas.

Music and visual art have a long history of inspiring one another, and the classical music field contains many examples of this, such as Respighi's Botticelli Triptych and Morton Gould's Burchfield Gallery.

And speaking of the painter Charles Burchfield, I was astonished and thrilled by The Whitney Museum's current exhibit of his work. I'd been only vaguely aware of Burchfield before, but now I'm fascinated by his paintings in which sound seems to play as important a role as color, texture, or the shapes of nature. There are visual gestures in his painting that apparently represent the sounds of bells, electricity, and insects. Burchfield's work is described as "mystical realism" in The New Yorker, and certainly celebrates the magic of perception.

Another exhibit at The Whitney that combines music and visuals is the remarkable work of artist and musician Christian Marclay. Christian is actually an old friend of mine, and it's great to see him receive this kind of well-deserved recognition. His sculptures, films, collages, and other visual projects are always about music in one ingenious way or another. Some are almost like visual scores that prompt the viewer to hear music in their imagination.

These exhibits get my highest recommendation, and I hope you have the chance to experience them in person.

On Movies on the Radio this week (Saturday, 9 p.m.), I'm presenting music from films about painters. There's a surprising number of such scores, and it's fun to hear composers evoke the spirit of the art. The show includes Miklos Rozsa's music for Lust for Life (Van Gogh and Gaugin), Jeff Beals' for Pollock (Jackson Pollock), and Elliot Goldenthal's for Frida (Frida Kahlo).

What's your favorite example of visually-inspired music or musically-inspired visual? Have you seen either of the exhibits at The Whitney? If so, what did you think?


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Comments [8]

alan from manhattan

I'm a landscape painter, painting pastoral scenes in Prospect Park and Central Park. It's always a pleasure to hear your voice David, particularly when I'm in the park painting in the late afternoon and early evening. It blends perfectly with the tranquillity and beauty of the surroundings and adds to my inner peace. We are fortunate to have you on the air.

A few years ago, all of a sudden, I started to visualize ballet choreography when listening to many pieces of classical music from all eras. It has given me such a powerful sense of the choreographic potential of so much music, that I feel the need to study ballet to try to master the language to express what I am "seeing."

When I am painting a scene in nature, a composition of beautiful trees and foliage, while listening to the late quartets of Beethoven or, for example, the string quintet of Schubert, I feel that their music is a perfect expression of that reality, that the music and nature are one. Difficult to express, but I have the deep feeling that the music expresses something fundamental about the nature of that reality that I am trying to paint, they are 2 expressions of the same thing. That is about as close to a mystical experience as I can have.

Aug. 16 2010 01:27 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

I'm finding, only lately, that You Tube can paint some pretty evocative visuals with classical pieces. Most recently I have played/seen various versions of Faure's Pavane.

But my favorite radio "visual" is baseball. Nothing paints a picture in my mind more than listening to a good announcer, as the tension builds, in one-run Yankees/Red Sox game, with a full count and two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

Aug. 09 2010 08:08 AM
Michael Meltzer

Before we go a-rambling much further, if a piece of program music were not already titled and verbally described, thereby telling us what we are supposed to see when we are listening, what WOULD we see?
For instance, we are now told that after composing his preludes, untitled, Debussy threw a prelude-naming party for his friends after completing each book, choosing the catchiest suggestions for publication.
The fact that some people are multi-talented means that some people are multi-talented. Hindsight is an exact science.

Aug. 08 2010 01:38 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

Anyone who has heard Moussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King," Rimsky-Korsakoff's "Flight of the Bumblebee," or Richard Strauss' "Til Eulenspiegel Sprache" can SEE the program music in visual as well as tonal values. Great scientists like Albert Einstein, an amateur violinist, Enrico Caruso, a marvelous sketch artist whose work has been available in books, Red Skelton and Tony Bennett, both of whom have had their whose sletches and art work have been exhibited in museums, indicates how art and music are symbiotically integrated. Street Musicians may be as talented as any musicians, singers, actors or composers, especially when the economy has eliminated many other options. GIVE them the support they NEED for their aspirations and their physical survival. You'll feel the better for helping your fellow human.

Aug. 08 2010 09:47 AM
Michael Meltzer

No one has probably come closer to discovering a commonality between the arts than Joseph Schillinger in the 1920's and 30's with his "Mathematical Basis of the Arts" and "Schillinger System of Musical Composition," but never quite to the point of predictability. Two different composers will use the same poem or other subject to a result of extremely credible musical imagery, but they won't ever sound anything like each other.
That throws the whole issue back into the realm of the completely subjective. Investigation of the relationships between art forms can be a pleasure in itself, as long as you don't ever expect to come up with an answer.

Aug. 08 2010 03:55 AM
William Rich

I'm starting "Sposalizio" by Liszt. It is a piece appearing in the second cycle of the Annees de Pelerinage. The piece is inspired by Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin:

Sposalizio, with its pre-impressionistic harmonies, certainly would make one think of that painting. Liszt had even instructed that a copy of the painting be inserted in the manuscript pages, once the cycle was published.

Aug. 08 2010 12:41 AM
glo from Maspeth,NY

I'm a non-practicing musician, expressing myself as a "kilnforming" glass artist. At a workshop, we were asked to bring a picture of that which is inspiring. After much thought, I chose the Bach
Chaconne, but used the manuscript as the visual representation. I did the technique exercises, but the visual results were not as glorious as the aural experience. It is an unresolvable translation between the senses. Eventually, I completed a panel based on the manuscript. It graces my office, and reminds me and my co-workers of the inspiring power of J.S. Bach, and other giants.

Aug. 07 2010 05:29 PM
Michael Meltzer

Bravo, Mr. Garland:
I grew up that way. From Mayor LaGuardia reading the funnies through Superman, Tom Mix, Uncle Don, the Lone Ranger, the Mysterious Traveller, the Shadow, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Baby Snooks, the images were intense and powerful, as were those in the books we read.
TV came later, and by comparison was kind of a joke. It still is, but no one is laughing because it's stolen the show and put brains on hold.

Aug. 06 2010 01:50 PM

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Ignite your love of classical music every day with the articles published in the WQXR blog. Here you can find blogs about classical music, playlist selections, curated videos, and other features highlighting the joy of great music.