Cacophony – Art in Music

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Art Galleries render a cacophony of space in which to display visual pleasure. Their silence hangs in the air like a vast sail and permeates peaceful contemplation of the pigments and pastels on display.

Just the barely audible murmur of appreciation or apprehension interrupts the seeing. Only the hush of a draped coat, a chair pushed back, a rogue notification, interrupts the moment. All is quiet contemplation.

English essayist Walter Pater said ‘‘… art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” Pater considered music to be exceptional among the arts in that there is no separation between subject and form. The very abstractness of music meant it wasn’t expected to describe, denote or depict anything beyond itself.

But music-making itself is an art form that requires subject and form. The presence of the artist, within a studio, interacting with a specific set of instruments, corralled by musical inspiration and technical ability, paints a sound palette as subjective and structured as a painting.

Ruark Lewis Transformation drawings: Shostakovich string quartet no 8 1960 #2 1986, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Ruark Lewis

There are many artists whose works are inspired by music. The Australian Ruark Lewis’ series Transformation drawings: Shostakovich string quartet 1986 is a composition derived from the process of listening. His hand is directed by the music, inverting the role of the conductor’s baton in allowing the composition to direct his 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.


Inspired by a jazz night at the Dominion Arts Club, in London, artist Dorrit Black placed dancing figures and a pianist amidst a dynamic pattern of lines and earthy colour to evoke the beat of the ‘new’ music. Music is one of Black’s earliest prints, made while studying at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art. It was shown at the first exhibition of linocuts to be held at London’s Redfern Gallery in 1929.

‘Music, 1927-28’ by Australian Artist Dorrit Black (1891-1951) | Colour linocut

The art of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was always conducted in the shadow of illness – both his own and the hereditary mental illnesses that ran in his family. In his art, we discover the hidden fears and shadow thoughts that haunt us, and, in his most famous painting, The Scream, a response to ‘the enormous, infinite scream of nature’ that is always around us.

The American composer Robert Jager (1939-) is better known for his band and choral music, but a work that has recently entered his repertoire is Suite from Edvard Munch (1996). The mid-point of the Suite is inspired by one of the most famous paintings of the modern era, which portrays a radical and fundamental expression of fear and of the pressure of the modern world. Even if the painting is silent, Jager gives voice to that scream of nature – the sharp sound of the violins contrasts with the background noise of the percussion until we, as the audience, need to clap our hands over our ears with the artist.

The Scream, 1893 by Edvard Munch

The music of art is turning the tables and looking at both mediums in a different light.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai inspired the French composer Claude Debussy to write La Mer (The Sea.) While writing his three-sketch-symphony, Debussy recalled his nautical father’s early plans for his career: “You perhaps do not know that I was destined for the life of a sailor and that it was only by chance that I was led away from it. But I still have a great passion for the sea.”

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai

The ocean seems a perfect match for Debussy’s art, with its shifting shapes, sparkling surfaces and mysterious depths. As he shunned conformity and the laws of composition, Debussy eschewed imagination and natural inspiration. “There is no theory.” he said, “you have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law…”

The Great Wave’s palette of indigo and imported Prussian blue inspired poet Rainer Mariner Rilke’s ‘Der Berg’ (The Mountain.) Hokusai cleverly played with perspective to make Japan’s grandest mountain appear as a small triangular mound within the hollow of the cresting wave, one of a series of thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, as Rilke pays tribute

Thirty-six and then a hundred times
the printmaker inscribed that mountain, torn
away and always driven back again
(thirty-six and then a hundred times)
Translated by Susan McLean

Although Mark Rothko (1903 -1970) did not subscribe to any one school, he is widely associated with the American Abstract Expressionist movement of modern art. Best known for his colour field paintings that depicted irregular and painterly rectangular regions of colour, he executed several canvases for three different mural projects in his later career. One, in particular, consisted of fourteen canvases for a permanent installation at the Rothko Chapel, a non-denominational chapel in Houston, Texas.

Morton Feldman (R) at the premiere of ‘The Rothko Chapel’, Houston 1976

The chapel was dedicated in 1971, a year after Rothko’s suicide at the age of 66. Although intimately involved in the planning and building process, the painter never saw the finished installation. Nor did he hear the music written in homage by his friend Morton Feldman, which received its premiere in the chapel in 1972.

Feldman, born in New York in 1926, was a member of the generation of American experimental composers headed by John Cage. Listeners reared on the minimalists of a later generation (Glass, Reich and Adams et.al), may detect pre-echoes of the so-called “holy minimalism” of Arvo Part and John Tavener in the rapt, devotional mood of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, the choir and vibraphone hovering like one of Rothko’s chalky panels.

Rothko Chapel interior. Photograph © Paul Hester

The need for musicians to be inspired by art and artists by musicians has been met not by traditional galleries but by modern spaces filled with installations.


From 1st June to 24 September 2017, the artist Hanna Tuulikki exhibited Away with the Birds / Air falbh leis na h-eòin at the Baltic in Newcastle. Away with the Birds is a body of work exploring the mimesis and representation of birds in the Scottish Gaelic song tradition. The composition, visual score and suite of habitat drawings are presented here, highlighting BALTIC’s connection to birdlife, which annually provides a temporary home to a number of the estimated 800 pairs of breeding kittiwakes in Newcastle Gateshead Quayside.

Voice of the Bird / Guth an Eòin by Hanna Tuulikki

Tuulikki’s vocal composition, Voice of the Bird / Guth an Eòin sits at the heart of the project. Written for a female ensemble, the piece reinterprets archive recordings, texts, and living traditions, weaving together fragments of Gaelic songs that imitate birdsong and bird calls, into a textural tapestry of sound, emerging from and responding to the landscape. This whole piece is now online and takes the listener on a journey through communities of waders, seabirds, wildfowl and corvids, evoking sea, shoreline, cliffs, moor and woodland

Hanna Tuulikki’s Air falbh leis na h-eòin | Away with the Birds project explores the mimesis of birds in Gaelic song and the sensitive ecologies of the islands and highlands of Scotland. At its heart is a fifty-minute composition in five movements, written for an ensemble of ten female vocalists. It is an extended soundscape in which Tuulikki weaves together fragments from nine Gaelic songs and five poems.

From the jazz-infused movement of a London nightclub in the 1920s to the digital and audible exploration of migrating Gaelic wildfowl, in 2017, the relationship between art & music continues to produce both incredible art and mesmerising music. But when they both work in harmony, be it a palette of sound or an opus of pigments, that’s when art and music become truly memorable.

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