Music as a Part of Visual Arts: Art, Sound, and Atmosphere

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Ted's Master's Thesis paintings- the relationship between color and sound circa. 1945.

Ted DeGrazia’s ‘Color Machine’ lit up in colors in response to sounds in the 1940s. DeGrazia believed that there was a strong link between art and the mood/environment around the art. Image by Sonoflightning.

Visual art and music have long shared connections, but how closely do they relate? Can music be an effective part of visual art? Vice versa, can visual art stem from music? Or – are they one and the same: music/visual art, visual art/music, or just plain art?

In the twenty-first century, visual artists and musicians continue to explore the connection between visual art and music, to the extent that music becomes part of the form of the visual expression.

Must Art Be Purely Visual?

I worked at the McIntosh Art Gallery at the University of Western Ontario in 1978. An American sculptor, Richard Tuttle, held a solo exhibition during this time. The installation took several days, and I watched as the sculptor measured, hummed and fussed over where to place his creations.

On each of the four walls of the gallery, Tuttle fastened a tiny loop made out of thick rope. That was his exhibit– or was it?

On opening day, people came in to view the new exhibit. The barrage of commentary was phenomenal.

“I guess this exhibit isn’t open yet,” some visitors said. Others asked, “Where’s the sculpture?” Head shakes usually accompanied the commentary of disbelief.

A professor of contemporary art from the local university appeared and started to study the gallery space. He walked around, slowly taking in the works, the intensity of the space and the exactness of each carefully-placed rope loop. He chuckled and nodded in appreciation.

It was then that I realized that the sculpture exhibit was not just about three-dimensional objects, but rather about the entire space, not to mention the sounds that enveloped and sometimes invaded the space.

This artist created works of art that included not only visuals and texture, but also atmosphere and sound. His works were not landscapes by any stretch of the imagination, but instead were more conceptual pieces… More like soundscapes.

How to Define Art and Music defines art as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. [It is] the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria, [such as] paintings, sculptures, or drawings.”

The same source defines music, as “an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and colour.”

Just using the dictionary definitions, one can already see the obvious connection between art as a whole, and music. Both music and visual art require a creative expression, use space and form, beauty and colour. Both music and colour express emotions and/or ideas.

Music as Part of Visual Art?

We know that music is an art form, but thinking of it as part of something more broadens our interpretation of sound. According to art historian John Canaday, author of Mainstreams of Modern Art, different groups of artists used music even in the early 1900s to expand the visual expression into an actual “happening,” an event beyond the rigid, almost sterile gallery space. Musicians collaborated with artists and vice versa.

In 1952, the American musician, John Cage (1912-1992), organized an evening at Black Mountain College. As Edward Lucie-Smith describes in Art Now: From Abstract Expressionism to Superrealism:

“The audience, seated in four triangular, inward-facing blocks, was treated to a lecture by Cage himself, delivered from the top of a ladder, to poems by Charles Olson, delivered from another ladder and to various kinds of music (Robert Rauschenberg played a wind-up Gramophone.) Meanwhile dancers moved through the seating spaces.”

Recently, Black Mountain College held a tribute to Cage and Rauschenberg as part of the  Asheville Fringe Arts Festival. As a spokesperson for Black Mountain College says on their Museum + Arts webpage, “A Night Out With Bob (Rauschenberg) and John (Cage) is intended as an appreciation and an examination of their unusual genius and contribution to modern art.” In the 1950s, these two artists/musicians made the first of many of what is now known as ‘Happenings.'”

Performance Art and Music

By the late 1950s and into the 1960s, performance art became quite popular in America. Lucie-Smith points out in his book, Art Now: From Abstract Expressionism to Superrealism, that the Pop Art environment encouraged happenings, artistic events that became, in themselves, works of art.

This added a whole new dimension to the visual arts scene: the concept of time and place which would be ever-changing and evolving from moment to moment. Integrating multiple modes of creative expression became a means to outdo one other, perhaps, and to show the many inherent talents of the artist.

Michael Snow, Canadian Artist

Canadian artist, Michael Snow, born in 1929, is a painter, sculptor, filmmaker, musician and author. A talented jazz musician, Snow made numerous recordings. According to Kuntz in his exhibition catalogue, Michael Snow, Snow created the art of space, time and sound in multiple dimensions; a creative expression in itself. As a painter and a sculptor, he incorporated all of his creative talents.

According to a recent quote given to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Snow explains that he is (and always has been), “a pure sculptor,” he explains, “an artist who makes objects.” The AGO describes the artist as one who “makes things to look through, look around, look along, look at, up, down and behind, to look at yourself looking at things. By making vision the subject of the object, the looking activates the object. Looking that sometimes require touch, sometimes invites sitting and sometimes necessitates caution.”

This invitation to become involved in the work, not just as a passive observer, includes the sense of sound. One must listen to art as well as look at it in order to fully experience it.

Quotes on Art and Michael Snow

In 1979, Kunz quoted Snow as saying in his exhibition catalogue Michael Snow that, “in improvisation the miracles are produced by the interaction between people and events over which no one person has any control and actually they are unrepeatable.” The artist compared himself to one of the musical greats. “Beethoven,” he said, “must have improvised sonatas like the ones he wrote, that’s the way he played, the kind of form he thought in.”

As Ewer points out in her program, What does art sound like?, which she created for young art enthusiasts at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, “When it comes to artwork, there is generally a lot of focus on ‘looking with our eyes’ but much can be gained by entering further into the creative experience through sound.”

As Soundscape artist, John Muir, says in Soundscape Artists, “All things make music with their lives.” It should stand to reason, then, that if art expresses life, emotions, and other universal experiences, then art should also use music as a means of expression for the visual arts.

Another Soundscape artist, Gordon Hempton says in Soundscape Artists, “Sound is wonderful, because, different than sight (which is also beautiful, of course), sound connects things, and sound accommodates many voices at one time and they remain intelligible. Whereas with sight, we see one object, and very rarely do we actually have transparencies and reflections. Sound, as a medium, aesthetically allows us to experience environment as connections between living things, and cycles, and rhythms.”

This further explains the conceptual artist who methodically placed rope loops on a gallery wall. His work was more than the visual, it was the conceptual that required– indeed demanded– viewer interaction, response (positive and negative), and all of the senses, including the sense of hearing.

Art as Music?

Music has affected artists in one way or another through the ages. Many of the great artists represented musical instruments and happenings in paintings and sculptures throughout the centuries. Music lessons and people playing musical instruments were often popular images for paintings.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Yvonne et Christine Lerolle au piano 1897-8

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Yvonne et Christine Lerolle au piano 1897-8. Painting by Pierre-Auguste Renior, Paris.

If music is so important to the visual arts, does it not stand to reason that music, which is also an art form, should find its way as “the art of sound” – that it is into the actual form, the actual presentation of the work itself?

BRIC House Art Into Music Exhibition

For example, a new exhibition at the BRIC House in Brooklyn, New York explores the connection between music and visual art. Art into Music, explores the many ways that music not only inspires visual artists, but also the complex relationship between pop culture, mass media and the visual arts.

Elizabeth Ferrer, BRIC’s Director of Contemporary Art explains in “BRIC Announces Art into Music” that “Music is the most accessible of art form, and the one by which we most commonly gauge the tenor of our culture. For the visual artists featured in this exhibition, music, its platforms, and the communities that surround its varied forms, act as a means to fluidly think about culture, identity, history, and society.”

She continues, “Many of these artists employ music itself, creating works that merge the auditory with the visual. Their works are not only multi-sensory, but also multivalent, offering the possibility of connecting and drawing meaning broadly, on levels that are emotional and intellectual, personal and collective.”

From Landscapes to Soundscapes

Art is much more than merely pretty landscapes or other realistic representations. Images that one can view and admire now demand the involvement of all of the senses, most especially the sense of hearing. A soundscape does just that. It is a combination of sounds that forms or arises from an immersive environment, whether it is the environment inside an art gallery, the environment in an outdoor public setting, or the environment within nature itself.

As Cummings points out in Soundscape Artists, “We’ve all had our own experiences of the power of sound. In the multi-layered community of voices around a woodland lake or the exhilarating heart of ridgeline thunderstorm, in the gentle ambience of a neighborhood or the soul-shaking urban cacophony, we find our place in something larger than ourselves. Often, we notice our soundscapes only in passing. At times, we sink in deeply and reap the rewards of connection, feeling a context within which humanity’s dance is but a peculiarly inattentive piece of the whole.”

Sound is all around us and is all-inclusive. Music is sound. Without sound– without music– the arts miss out on an important element of the artistic expression.

Music as Part of Visual Art Experience

Art defines life; it expresses what we see, feel, hear or even experience. So, too, does music. Is it possible to have one without the other? Does the artist not depend, to some degree, on the emotion of sound, of music, to not only inspire him/her in creation, but also to make the finished work of art complete?

Music within the world of visual art? It’s not just a theory. Music is an artistic medium, just like paint or clay. Visit an art gallery or in a public space adorned with public sculptures and just sit and listen. Close your eyes and just listen. Then open your eyes and take in all that is around you, not just the sights, the smells, the textures.

Listen to the music.

It’s there, and it’s a part of your experience with a work of visual art.

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