By Marc Gilson
“ I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” — Mark Rothko
We usually think of art as being a catch-all term encompassing a vast array of individual disciplines: painting, music, poetry, dance, graphic design, sculpture, etc. These are “art forms,” and those who rise to the top of their medium are icons, and often household names. But while we associate Mozart with music, Monet with painting, and Walt Whitman with poetry, it could be argued that these great artists approached their craft more as a means to an end rather than the end goal itself. They saw their art not as a window, but as a mirror – reflecting upon itself, and often, on altogether different mediums.
Whatever their respective talent, great artists often seem driven to express a juxtaposition of their work with that of another artist or art form; a kind of artistic crossover. More than that, of course, they seek to engender a feeling, sensation, or emotion in the listener or viewer. It would seem that there is art in terms of a product, and there’s art as a means of transcending the medium and transporting us to a level of feeling or sensing something unexpected. But how, exactly, is that achieved?
One definition of art certainly must include the notion of a destruction of one’s awareness of the art form. The effect of “losing oneself” in a painting, poem, or song is one we can all relate to. Like the scaffolding around a building under construction, the paint strokes, musical notes, clay, or meter must eventually disappear from the awareness of the observer, and allow the creation to be appreciated as an experience not merely of observing or listening, but of being.
The art one remembers is the art into which one disappears. Art is not just color, shape, sound, or word. It teases out the sense of self from the moment. It releases the observer from his or her secure stance in the moment. It changes the sense of space and time, and becomes – as pretentious as it sounds – transcendent. This experience is a feeling, yes. But feelings are too often internal things, experienced within the solitary confines of one’s mind. Great art is feeling expressed as something tangible, experiential, real, that can be projected outward and shared with other like-minded aficionados. Go to any rock concert or symphony and you’ll find a room full of people experiencing both a series of internal feelings as well as an external, shared reality. But the fuel for this experience is the artist’s expressive faculty; their desire and ability to grab hold of our senses and dictate – to some extent anyway – what those senses perceive.
A talented ballet dancer isn’t expressing “dance” when she moves. Dance is merely the vehicle. She’s expressing a feeling; maybe fear, longing, heartbreak, or joy. These feelings are not being explained or defined. She does not verbally tell us, “Now I’ll dance something very sad.” The feeling is simply expressed through every nuance of her movements. Movements, mind you. Movements that might bring you to tears.
Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane created his “sheets of sound” solos with soaring arpeggios and astounding stacked layers of scales not because he was thinking about “jazz music” or how to best play the sax, but because he was busy creating feelings and sensations for the listener. If anything, he was busy not thinking about the mechanics or how his technique was being understood in rational terms.
As Coltrane himself said, “I never even thought about whether or not they understood what I’m doing. The emotional reaction is all that matters. As long as there’s some feeling of communication, it isn’t necessary that it’s understood.”
In these instances, the artist and their instrument, be it a saxophone or their body itself, become a singular representation of something altogether ineffable, if not spiritual.
It’s been said that no great art springs from a void. All art is, in a sense, impressionistic and derivative, which is as it should be. It’s tempting to think of art as pure creation when in reality, art represents, reflects, refracts, and, if successful, engenders a feeling on the part of the observer, especially if the observer is willing to immerse him or herself in the mysterious experience of discovering a new way of sensing some aspect of the world. Art is, if nothing else, a way in which we human beings explore the range and limits of our senses. But the senses sometimes show us the power of art in some surprising ways.
Normally, we hear sound, see color, feel textures, smell scents. But through art, we find new sensory apparatus on what has to be considered a higher plane of perception. A kind of artistic synesthesia is effected by great art in which we can find texture in sound, color in word, or scent in shape. Or perhaps it’s all simply a matter of deriving something of form or sound from the feeling itself, and producing some representational pattern over the top of it, like seeing constellation figures of warriors and crabs amid the stars at night.
But whatever the case, some sort of feeling or emotion seems to run like a vibrating thread through the creative process; from inspiration, to creation, to presentation, to perception; feelings drive each step of the experience. Artists are not unaware of this and have always said as much:
“I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.” — Duke Ellington
I recently attended an exhibition of Ikebana, the ancient art of Japanese flower arrangement. New to the concept, I was prepared to see a lot of lovely flower arrangements and maybe learn a little something about this revered Japanese discipline. But Ikebana is, of course, not just a bunch of pretty flowers placed in a vase. The practice aims to unite nature and humanity. Line, shape, balance, and form are deeply considered aspects, as is the space between blossoms, leaves, and stems. The height of each floral element is critical, as are the colors and choice of base or vase within which the display sits. Dozens of careful choices are made to produce a true work of art in the world of Ikebana.
What struck me most was how these deceptively simple-looking displays conveyed such feeling. Moreover, when I examined the note card attached to each piece I found that the name assigned to each by the artist almost magically fit my emotional response to the piece. One display called, “Song in the Night,” created a lonely but hopeful feeling for me. Another called, “Anchored Attention” definitely felt like it demanded nothing less than a kind of Zen-like focus and I noticed others unwittingly lingering before it, attentions duly anchored. The most powerful one for me, a tall, angular display with lots of long green leaves reaching upward – almost straining like up-stretched arms – from a base of black stones. It was called “Aspiration.”
I left with the feeling of having been changed, if even for a few moments, by, of all things, floral displays. Obviously, creating such pieces is not so simple. The artists responsible for these arrangements had succeeded in generating in me a feeling I recognized internally, but was sharing with others at the exhibition, without the artists even being in the same room with me. Pardon the enthusiasm, but isn’t that a kind of magic?
So I wanted to explore this idea a bit more, and highlight a few of the many artists whose art form is correlative in some way to another art form, and to the mysterious way art expands our sensory awareness and evokes feeling. It might seem obvious that art plays this role as a kind of partner of the senses, or that it is indeed a cousin to spirituality in some way. Yet we’ll see that many of the more renowned artists in history who adopted this view were considered revolutionary and often controversial.
In the first installment of this series, we’ll look at the impact of one of history’s most renowned composers who sought to transcend the usual methods of composition and single-handedly redefined musical understanding for generations to come.
In part two, we’ll see how a Russian painter and father of abstract art saw not painting, but music, as “the ultimate teacher” and sought to capture the essence of music in his paintings.
Lastly, we’ll consider how a renowned beat poet and writer used meter and tempo to harmonize with the aural and cultural landscape of jazz within which he lived and performed.
Part One: Sonic Landscapes – Claude Debussy
“How much has to be explored and discarded before reaching the naked flesh of feeling.” — Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy was born August 22nd, 1862 in France. The son of an unassuming shopkeeper, Debussy’s modest beginnings gave little indication that he would eventually come to define the music of his era, and redefine music for generations of composers to come.
If you ask a musicologist to name the most influential composer who ever lived, you might hear Debussy’s named mentioned before Bach, Beethoven, or even Mozart. For it was Debussy more than anyone else who ushered-in the modern era of musical composition in the 20th century. His influence can be sensed in everything from The Beatles to Aaron Copeland, and in many movie soundtracks that depend on a certain dramatic and romantic cinematic element Debussy pioneered.
Impressionist. Although he hated the term because he felt it too inaccessible, Debussy was nothing if not an “Impressionist” composer. Others call him a musical “Symbolist”, using his compositions to stir the emotions of the listener in ways no other had done before. He accomplished this not only by innovative composition, but by experimenting and extracting new sounds from the musical instruments themselves.
To Debussy, each instrument came with its own character or emotional flavor defined by the sounds it could produce. Instruments held a secret means of expression – a kind of hidden voice – and Debussy attempted to discover them with each composition.
For example, Debussy used the piano in unusual ways: using the pedals to leave the strings undampened, creating long, haunting sustains and fluid, swelling melodies, and by alternating sparse tonal note with rich flourishes of cascading scales. This isn’t all that revolutionary today, but in Debussy’s time, it was eclectic and controversial.
The adjectives used to describe Debussy’s music are myriad; romantic, shimmering, sentimental, heartfelt, dreamy, and seductive. The adjectives used to describe Debussy himself are a little thornier; difficult, argumentative, opinionated, and decidedly brilliant. But of course, what persists in memory where artists are concerned is, and must be, the art.
Debussy listeners will tell you that listening to his compositions is a little like savoring a glass of fine wine, or finding yourself in a well-kept flower garden, amid color and fragrance, immersed in sensuousness. This is no accident, as Debussy himself derived musical inspiration from non-musical sources. He was an ardent fan of Baudelaire’s lush poetry and he loved to be surrounded by beauty. Flowers were abundant in his studio, and he is said to have been particularly affected by and attracted to pleasant scents and colors. It must have been quite an experience to be with him as his wrote: a grand piano blanketed with the fresh flowers he demanded be delivered daily to his studio. He was influenced by the Japanese artist Hokusai, who created the famous “Great Wave” paintings, one of which Debussy elected to use on the original cover of his score for La Mer.
These influences must have appealed to Debussy because of their aesthetic dichotomies. Baudelaire was famous for being particularly offensive at times, while exhibiting the capacity to express gentle beauty and sublime yet dark and ephemeral feelings. The Japanese wave paintings of Hokusai exhibited ferocious, almost violent power, while also being undeniably beautiful and hypnotic.
Like the the artists he appreciated, Debussy was himself a kind of duality. Though difficult in demeanor, and plagued by stormy relationships, Debussy’s music is gently melancholic, romantic, and often delicate.
Despite his popularity at the turn of the 20th century, Debussy was not always appreciated by the critics of his day. In retrospect, most musical historians agree that this was because Debussy did not compose music in the traditional manner. His unique stylings, bi-tonality, and unusual modulations jostled conventional musical approaches and challenged the compositional techniques of his contemporaries and predecessors.
Yet, what at that time some critics called “bizarre,” and “poorly realized” are today regarded as landmark works that represent the very foundation of much modern music. And not only in terms of classical music; musicians like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Brian Eno, and the minimalist composer Steve Reich also claim Debussy as a major influence. Debussy expanded the horizons of music in ways never achieved before and often seemed driven to innovate as a kind of battering ram against the very barriers the critics attempted to build around him.
And speaking of critics, Debussy detested them, often chastising their tendency to, “…kill in cold blood all the mystery or even the emotion of a piece.” It’s ironic, then, that so much fawning music analysis has since been slathered over his work and style, the uncomfortably pretentious so-called “Debussyism”. He would have hated it.
In spite of some musicologist’s assertions that Debussy incorporated aspects of mathematics into his compositions at times, Debussy clearly preferred to see music as an catalyst for an emotional experience, not a calculative hobby or scientific pursuit. As one of Debussy’s more articulate biographers, Simon Trezise said, “Debussy called for an imaginative involvement on the part of the listener, a willingness to be immersed in a complex but principally pleasurable aesthetic experience.”
He didn’t like playing in public, considering it egotistical, and detested being the center of attention. Yet his music, and often his personal life, was definitely a matter of public focus for most of his life. He was frequently unhappy, depressed, and on more than one occasion is said to have considered suicide. Yet his music rarely hints at this inner turmoil. In listening to La Mer, Claire de Lune, his Etudes, or Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune, as examples, the listener is compelled to enter a sonic landscape of color and texture few other musical composers have ever created. “One must seek the poetry in his work,” said his friend and fellow French composer, Paul Dukas, echoing the sense that Debussy’s music is not music alone.
Debussy stands in his place as the quintessential musical impressionist – as there’s no other word for it. Debussy did not reflect a given set of elements of the world in which he lived, he reflected all of them, though not historically, necessarily. He was not a social commentator or political pundit. And in a sense, he was not merely a musician or composer. He was an artist in the complete and integral use of the term, using the tools of music to produce something wholly emotive and evocative. It’s not surprising, then, to find that Debussy had, in his younger years, aspired to be a painter before music settled his destiny. While he gave up painting for music, in a sense he really simply switched a brush and palette for a baton and piano and went on creating. And in his music, we can almost hear the delicate brush strokes, the bold washes of color, the clear lines.
Debussy died in March, 1918. His funeral procession took a hurried path through the war torn and deserted streets of Paris as German planes bombed the city. In the midst of the bomb blasts, an artistic legend would be laid to rest. With the intensity of World War I cresting, there would be no grand public funeral or requiem mass performed for one of the most influential composers the world has known…which is likely just as Claude Debussy would have wanted it.