Right now, one of the most exciting art exhibitions in London can’t be seen—not exactly. War Damaged Musical Instruments by Susan Philipsz consists of speakers hanging from the ceiling of the Duveen galleries of the Tate Britain, playing recordings she made of musicians performing upon instruments damaged during wartime. What has a corner on the art press in San Francisco, several years into its heavy rotation in various museums and galleries? Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet: forty speakers, each dedicated to a single voice in the 40-part choir that performs Thomas Tallis’s Spem In Alium. Even the title of MoMA’s 2013 inaugural exhibition of sound art, Soundings, had a tentative, probing quality, as if to ask openly, “At what point is this no longer visual art?”
The Art of Music, both the exhibition and the accompanying publication, takes a wide, historical approach to the question of how music and art have looked to one another. It surveys a series of moments in which the visual arts and music have most dramatically interacted and overlapped, ranging from ancient Greece and Rome to Chinese literati culture to the international interest in synesthesia in the 20th century. At various times the connection is formal, social, technical, physical, metaphorical, and/or conceptual. Composer and visual artist Tristan Perich, the youngest of the contemporary artists included, creates work that is seemingly all of the above.
The most iconic or immediately noticeable aspect of what Perich does revolves around the 1-bit tones, generated by simple microprocessors and often played through basic, unboxed speaker drivers.
Coded in binary—the simple on and off of electrical impulses—the tones generated by these microprocessors represent an infinitesimally small unit of digital sonic information. There’s something pure in how they express the physical and musical properties of speakers, never attempting to mimic or emulate acoustic instruments by layering sounds, as some synthesizers do. Often Perich’s 1-bit tones “perform,” across multiple speakers and in shimmering cascades of repetition and variation, alongside human musicians playing traditional instruments of the Western repertoire—even when, as is true of Active Field, it becomes surprisingly hard to differentiate what is 1-bit electronic sound and what is the infinitely complex interaction between human performer, bow, and violin:
In embracing what is in many ways the radical, formal limitation of 1-bit sound, Perich of course joins a long line of composers who detached from traditional notions of melody, key, and development. Perhaps the most famous is Schoenberg and his rules of twelve-tone composition, which in turn (as contributor Simon Shaw-Miller describes in his contribution to the catalogue) would serve as a guide for Paul Klee’s “magic square” pictures. In Klee’s New Harmony, for example, the grid of non-complimentary colors can be divided into four quadrants, with each quadrant being an inversion or retrograde inversion of the others—techniques of serialism integral to the composers of the Second Viennese School.
Even Nicolas Poussin, 17th century French painter, looked to music (and the music theory of Gioseffo Zarlino via his treatise Istitutioni harmoniche) for productive formal constraint. In a letter to a patron, Poussin claimed to rely on musical modes for the limits and proportions of his painting. He describes each mode as “the ration or measure and the form that we employ to do anything, which compels us not to go beyond it,” and goes on to associate certain modes with the emotional effect they’re best at conveying. Though he doesn’t link these to particular paintings, we can see his description of the Ionian mode, fit for depicting the cheerfulness of dance, bacchanalia, and feasting, in his Triumph of Bacchus.Ragamala paintings and the classical Indian music they’re associated with offer a similar case, as explored in the essay by Marika Sardar. In theory, these Indian paintings illustrate texts that describe the musical modes, or ragas. But in many ways both image and song are meant to evoke a third term, the emotion prescribed by the raga, each also being associated with a time of day, season, and type of weather. The musicians have a set time signature and mode, and thus certain notes to work with, but otherwise improvise. Painters seem to have made use of various representational motifs from various aspects of the Indian tradition to likewise evoke that emotional content and the abstract experience of listening to this music.
The barkcloth drawings and vocal music of Ituri Forest tribes, as described in a section of the essay by Gemma Rodrigues, have an even tighter form of unity between music and art. Each are a kind of response to the forest itself, “vibrations in rapport with forest powers” as one community historian from northern Kongo describes it, and both share a number of aesthetic attributes: complex polyphony, the use of multiple voices (in the case of the drawings, multiple artists collaborating on a single piece), and quick transitions between motifs.
In this sense, the conceptual basis unifies the visual art and music, leading to a result that is audible in one form and visible in another. A similar process, coming through the legacy of serialism—Perich grew up listening to Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley—informs Perich’s work on both sides of the art–music divide, one in which the creative process is set in motion by the artist but not forever beholden to him. His Machine Drawings are created by a code that operates two motors strung by fishing line to a suspended Sharpie pen. Like Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, which are the result of the artist’s guidelines but not his actual mark making, the code written by Perich has chance built into it. The drawings it executes vary because of a variety of worldly, physical qualities the pen has to deal with in following those ideal instructions–gravity, wall texture, and the amount of the ink in each pen among them.
Perich’s music that features both musicians and speakers playing off one another deals with the same issues. The physical demands of performing the piano or baritone saxophone—fingerings, repetitive stress, physical exhaustion, demands of breath—come into contact with the abstract, disembodied abilities of computation, often generating seemingly endless and rapid arpeggios of sound. In the emphasis on repetition and in setting up processes that operate, to more or less a degree, independent of the artist, both his music and visual art emerge from the same core conceptual approach.
You can see and hear it in Surface Image, a composition for piano and forty speakers in which the physicality of microprocessors and speakers—there are physical limits to processing speeds, for instance—is dramatized by the punching movement of these speaker cones:
Vicky Chow, who performs here and on the recording, has spoken about the meditative mindspace she has to be in to inhabit the mathematical rigidity of its demanding patterns. Sometimes she seems to attempt to mimic the rush of digital data. Other times, the piano lifts from this to inflect it with mood and feeling more in the style of Debussy. The human and acoustic are shown capable of coldly analytical performance, and the digital, it turns out, is deeply expressive, turning the piece into a kind of Apollo-and-Marsyas tussle on the limits and potentials of each.
In Microtonal Wall, 1,500 identical speaker diaphragms are arranged in a grid, installed in a continuous aluminum panel. Just to look at it can make you think of serial composition, yet each of these speakers is also wired to its own microprocessor generating a 1-bit microtone. The pitches rise from left to right by minute degrees and, together, reach across four octaves. You change your perception of the wall’s sound by moving around it: Draw your ear close to one speaker to hear that definite microtone. Draw out to hear a cluster of related tones rub up against each other. Move from left to right, and you can’t help but feel the rightness of our everyday visual metaphors for musical effects—“rising” and “falling” pitch, “high” and “low” notes—in your bodily sensations.
Music has its own long history of drawing on visual metaphors and aspiring to visual effects, and visual art has relied on musical ones equally often. One that reaches across cultures is music as a metaphor for near-supernatural communication. As Christina Yu Yu notes in her essay, the qin zither among Chinese literati carried such connotations, illuminated by the story of the composer Boya playing for his friend Zhong Ziqi:
Boya was good at playing the qin. Zhong Ziqi was good at listening to the qin. When Boya’s will was towards high mountains in his playing, Zhong Ziqi would say, “How towering like Mount Tai!” When Boya’s will was towards flowing water in his playing, Zhong Ziqi would say, “How vast are the rivers and oceans!” Whatever Boya thought of, [Zhong] Ziqi would never fail to understand. Boya said, “Amazing! Your heart and mine are the same!” When [Zhong] Ziqi died, Boya broke the strings [of his qin] and vowed never to play again. Thus, there was the melody of High Mountains [and] Flowing Water.
For James Whistler, giving his paintings musical titles—Nocturnes, Symphonies, etc.—was a metaphor to attempt to reorient viewers shocked by his unfinished style. Music was emotive, direct, and appreciated not for what it represented but for its formal qualities, all attributes he wished critics (like John Ruskin, whom Whistler sued for libel) would judge his work by. Whistler’s “Ten O’Clock Lecture,” translated into French by poet Stéphane Mallarmé, would influence Claude Debussy to likewise revel in color, though musical “color” is itself another metaphorical appropriation.Microtonal Wall engages one of the visual-musical metaphors we’re apt to be familiar with in our clamorous age: white noise. If noise is just sound alone, it shouldn’t have a color. But if you stand back from this twenty-five foot wall of sound, what washes over you, at least when I listen to it and contemplate it, leaves high, dense, and white or bright impression. The sense of listening to an individual pitch, however, registers as more opaque and distinct. Here’s where Microtonal Wall continues to work on the viewer/listener on a metaphorical level, allowing us to consider how this singular sound “white noise” is achieved through the accumulation of 1,500 particular tones. It draws a continuum from tone to white noise as much as from the concrete to the abstract or from order to randomness. Our senses of perception, both those of the eye and the ear (among the others), are influenced by the metaphors we use.
This art-music interaction reaches one kind of apotheosis in two pieces by Perich, 1-Bit Music and 1-Bit Symphony.
Both consist of a microprocessor, battery, volume knob, and headphone jack affixed to the interior of a jewel case. The chip has been programmed, in the same basic binary code, with a musical composition—in the case of the symphony, a quite complex and beautiful one. The music is “played live” when the listener hooks up headphones and flips the on-switch. In that way, the score and the musician are one in the microprocessor. The written (and so visual) artifact of music and its durational, sonic realization is unified in a single object—a real literal kind of formal unity between music and visual art.
Though the form it takes couldn’t be more different, this was the dream of many artists in the early 20th century pursuing abstract painting. Vasily Kandinsky, having experienced a synesthetic revelation at a performance of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, believed that one sense organ “sets up vibrations along the corresponding paths leading away from the soul to other sensory organs,” meaning that a sound could evoke a visual response as much as lines and colors leave musical impressions. His final leap into pure abstraction was nudged by Schoenberg’s atonal music, especially the Three Piano Pieces (Op. 11) which he saw in concert in Munich on January 2, 1911, and the two men’s subsequent correspondence and friendship.
In many of Kandinsky’s Compositions and Improvisations, we’re not just seeing painting that is like music, but that is music, at least in its conception and its intended effects. A later artist like Oskar Fischinger would make this more forcibly clear in his animated films, filled with colorful geometric forms often moving to a musical soundtrack—though the colors and forms remain musical in this expressive, Kandinsky-esque sense even when, as with Radio Dynamics, the film has no soundtrack at all.
Something like Susan Philipsz’s War Damaged Music Instruments goes the other direction, all but scuttling anything visual, but the emphasis is still on the inner, emotional, and still in some sense spiritual power of music and sound. In her earlier piece Study for Strings, she staged speakers at the Kassel rail station to play a recording of Jewish composer Pavel Haas’s Study for String Orchestra. Again the music was presented in a fragmented form, for only two instruments. Each note was recorded separately and moved in playback across eight speakers scattered around the station. Haas composed the piece while in the concentration camp and after he completed it, he, along with most of the orchestra who performed it for a Nazi propaganda film, was sent to Auschwitz and killed. The music is driving and full:
Philipsz’s installation is sparse and mournful. The missing members of this orchestra haunt the isolated viola and cello lines in their absence and shape the space of the railway station through this particular listening experience. The weight of these absences, felt in the silences and missing consonances and dissonances around the viola and cello lines, forms one part of the requiem, occasionally joined by the rhythmic percussion and hiss of a train upon the tracks, arriving or departing—a powerful, musical meditation on the tragedy that befell its composer and performers.
On first blush, Perich doesn’t dwell too much in this expressive tradition. Color doesn’t seem to hold much interest for him. As Shaw-Miller has suggested, the other 20th century trajectory of art–music interrelation was inaugurated by Marcel Duchamp and would lead to the conceptual play of Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg, and Johns. Perich is certainly a minimalist at heart. We can’t see inside the chip that plays 1-Bit Symphony—which reminds me of Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise—but in this case, Perich has helpfully reproduced 1/100th of a second of the score’s computational basis, which only fills a 695 page book. That’s a lot of hidden noise, indeed.
Of course, for many minimalists the score is a playful visual site where the composer, unbeholden to traditional Western musical notation, can come up with idiosyncratic and often beautifully graphic systems for charting a musical thought, images that guide another’s performance. Perich takes this to a digital-age extreme, forcing us to confront how, when most of our music reaches us via streaming services and when the world’s greatest works of art are pinch-zoomable on our iPhone screens, it’s all data—data to be “interpreted” by a processor, Spotify in the direction of our ears, Google Image Search in the direction of our eyes. But even then, there’s something more.
Contrary to any claims of “coldness” that could be leveled at art borne from computation and that results on seemingly emotionless ideas like white noise and mathematical repetition and permutation, perhaps Perich’s greatest strength is in how warmly he humanizes these ways of thinking. Both his visual art and music are a probing, personal search through big, philosophical and scientific questions using techniques and means very much of the present. In Microtonal Wall’s physical and metaphorical relationship with human viewers, in the compositions’ dramatization of human–machine interaction, and in the Machine Drawings as process-based extensions of human creativity, 21st century life finds a distinct mirror here. Beneath the ones and zeroes, sometimes on a sub-acoustic or nearly invisible level, something fundamental persists and endures: the breath.
Patrick Coleman is an independent writer, editor, and scholar.