An Essay on Music and Motion in Three Parts.

Little discussion echoes the historical links of sound to the visual or its importance as a valid part of the creative process in moving image. Within the motion arena, sound is composed and synchronised in tight relation to the slickness of the moving image, they are designed in perfect symbiosis for maximum expression. How then have two different art forms come together with such precision in execution?

Outside of cinema and traditional film, which I will refer to at moments but are not my main perspective, the relationship between the sonic and the visual has a rich and profound history that developed before the transition to the film and video medium. One only need to look at the titles of many of the early 20th Century art works to realise this : Paul Klee’s ‘Polyphony’ and ‘Fugue in Red’, Kandinsky’s ‘Improvisations’ and ‘Compositions’, Braque’s ‘Hommage to Bach’ or Mondrian’s series of ‘Compositions’. As sound developed with the film medium, it became an integral part of the production process feeding innovations on both sides of the artistic coin. Musicians Scott Bradley and Carl Stalling for example, innovated their orchestral works closely in line with many of the earlier cartoon productions. Silly Symphonies, Merry Melodies, Loony Tunes all had hallmark sonic stings that underlined the visual gags and chase sequences, building up a musical vocabulary that is still in use today. The jazz paintings of Stuart Davies from the 30’s to the 50’s express bold colours and graphic rhythm. The digital mandalas of John Whitney in the 50’s to 70’s, the title sequences of Maurice Binder and Saul Bass, the graphic scores of John Cage and the present day installations of Ryoji Ikeda or Semiconductor. The examples are indeed abundant.

Both sound and image have fed into and grown from each other to push forward creative expression and development. It is however, music’s inherent nature that sparked the greatest influence on the early works and theories, that have informed as well as shaped many of today’s practices in moving image. Sound evokes memories, emotions, and adds depth and dynamics which the visual does not necessarily have the capacity to do, or at least not with the same ease and efficiency. It is within the abstract nature of sound that we can trace its effect and indeed its fundamental link with the development of the visual arts at the beginning of the 20th century. Music was the driving force behind most European artists at the fore of the visual and mostly pictorial art scene in the early 1900s. Not only was it an inspirational form for the beginnings of abstract art, it equally imposed its immaterial and temporal weight on Cubism, Futurism, De Stijl, Bauhaus and later on the Fluxus movement.

Wassily Kandinsky. Impression III (Concert). 1911.

The analogy of musical composition in line with pictorial theory and practice has been well documented. One of the most quoted artists in this area is Wassily Kandinsky who had devoted practically all his life to ‘painting’ music. In January 1911, Kandinsky was present at one of Schönberg’s orchestral works. The musical experience had been so intense in terms of visual thoughts that it inspired him to painting ‘Impression III’. The event not only sparked a close friendship between the two artists, it also helped Kandinsky forge his ideas which were later to take shape in his first published work, ‘Concerning The Spiritual in Art’, 1911.

‘A painter, who finds no satisfaction in mere representation, however artistic, in his longing to express his inner life, cannot but envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art. And from this results that modern desire for rhythm in painting, for mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated notes of colour, for setting colour in motion.’
Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Project Gutenberg Ebook. [Translated by Michael T.H. Sadler]

Within this important reference work, Kandinsky develops his theory on colour. Closely in touch with the spiritual side of creation, he uses what he calls, ‘in the psychic sphere…the theory of association’. An association of the musical to the visual, deliberately drawing from musical vocabulary in order to discuss and argument his line of thought : Composition, melody, symphonic therein stand up to form and colour. Deep blues become bass sounds and yellows become softly blown flutes creating an orchestration of the canvass which ultimately sounds out with impressive viceral emotion. This initial theory of course fed his later work and teachings during his time at the Bauhaus. Further connection to music can be found in his theoretical work, ‘Point, and Line to Surface’, 1926. In which he describes art’s essential graphic elements, such as the point drawn on a surface, as single entities with their own inherent resonance and property for expression. Much as a pianist may consider the point on a musical score and play a note. This note, depending upon its position and relation to others would build up a bigger picture of a melody, harmony or rhythm, ultimately creating the composition. The analogy is strong and beautifully apt.

Fugue in Rot. Paul Klee. 1921. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

One of Kandinsky’s close associates at the Bauhaus was the artist and teacher of painting and elementary design theory, Paul Klee. An accomplished violinist, Klee was a keen player of Bach. The art of the fugue, for which Bach had ultimately brought to maturity, became the inspirational structure for many of the visual artists of the early 20th century and Klee was indeed an avid practitioner with some of his earlier works taking direct inspiration from this complex musical form – ‘Fugue in Red’, 1921 and ‘In the Style of Bach’, 1919. Whereas Kandinsky drew comparison between colour and sound, Klee developed more a relation between structure and composition of the image through musical metaphor. If we take ‘Fugue in Red’ for example, the repeated motif and its visual dimension through use of shade, clearly express the idea of polyphony and resonance. Each motif alluding to instruments of a musical orchestration.

Due to the important theoretical developments and teachings at the Bauhaus and essentially its move to America with Maholy Nagy, the purely graphical elements in visual creation and their relation to sound, began to show their signs in other disciplines such as graphic art. Here the musical aspect became even more apparent by the very nature of the work with posters and title sequences for the cinema, music album covers and concert posters. However, in terms of motion, it was within the realms of the film medium that sound and image would find their perfect marriage. The Futurists Bruno Corra and Arnaldo Ginna, along with the Parisian based Finish artist, Léopold Survage were amongst the first to take up the film medium as a means to experiment with these foundations of sound, colour and form. ‘Visual Music’ became then an obsession for a generation of experimental filmmakers to come. Kandinsky, as well as many more from the early 20th century had paved the way forward for what was to become truly a form of ‘painting’ music. The film stock had become the new canvas upon which to paint, scratch, draw and manipulate graphic elements and to create movement in synchrony with sound. Artists had finally found the time line upon which sound and image could co-exist. So what did the new medium promise?

>>> PART TWO Here.
>>> PART THREE Here.