Music, Prose, and Visual Arts

This will be a short, casual, comfortable (I hope!) blog piece—not an essay. Lately, I’ve been focusing, in essays I’ve included here, on poetry and music, but I think it interesting, doing the research I’ve done and also random reading, just how often–in prose–I keep finding analogies between music (the eternal source of everything?) and whatever subject is being discussed.

In his book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Antonio Damasio, a neurologist/philosopher writes: “Feelings of pain or pleasure or some quality in between are the bedrock of our minds … there they are, feelings of myriad emotions and related states, the continuous musical line [italics mine] of our minds, the unstoppable humming of the most universal of melodies that only dies down when we go to sleep, a humming that turns into all-out singing when we are occupied by joy, or a mournful requiem when sorrow takes over.”

Here is a photo of Damasio (as if he were conducting an orchestra!), and his book: (Photo credit: YouTube.com)

Antonio Damasio     Looking for Spinoza

In “Breaking the Rules,” from The Writing Life, novelist/short story writer Ellen Gilchrist says, “Rules are made to be broken … Show, don’t tell, always ricochets because every great writer has told us plenty. The work for the young writer is to find the balance. This is the work of the ear [again, italics mine]. A good writer is a person with a good ear who can hear what the sentence or paragraph is supposed to sound like to the reader. It must ring with the writer’s voice. Voice, ear, the ability to write is like a singing voice.”

And here are Ellen Gilchrist and her book: (Photo credit: uprees.state.ms.us)

Ellen Gilchrist 2      Ellen Gilchrist The Writing Life

In “On Going a Journey,” classic 19th century personal essayist William Hazlitt wrote, “The mind is like a mechanical instrument that plays a great variety of tunes, but it must play them in succession.”

And from contemporary essayist Phillip Lopate’s excellent prose account (“Chekhov for Children”) about getting New York school kids (ten to twelve year olds: fifth and sixth graders!) to bring off, successfully, a performance of Uncle Vanya: “Here at last would be a chance to dig in and demonstrate how a great literary work was like music [italics mine], with patterns and refrains and variation, adagios as well as allegros.”

I’ll complete this set of “illustrations” with a drawing of Hazlitt (an engraving after a sketch by William Bewick, 1829) and a photo of Phillip Lopate: (Photo credits: telegraph.co.uk; azquotes.com)

WILLIAM HAZLITT   Phillip Lopate

I’ve been playing music most of my life (since the age of twelve), but I was originally trained as a visual artist (University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, University of Hawaii, University of California-Berkeley), and while I was at Pratt in the mid-Fifties, and Abstract-Expressionism was not just “in the air” but everywhere, there was much talk of and much effort spent on attempting to have painting attain “the condition of music”—or in the words of one of the early advocates of this ideal, Wassily Kandinsky, permit “technique and intuition to merge with the sort of immediate sensory experience provided by music.”

Here is a portrait of Kandinsky painted by fellow artist Gabriele Munter; a color woodcut by Kandinsky called “The Singer”; and samples of five of his subject-free “musical” works: (Credits: wikiart.org; mrspicasso’artroom; commons.wikimedia.org; sai.msu.su; actingoutpolitics.com)

Kandinsky portrait by Gabriele Munter      Kandinsky Singer

Kandinsky painting 5

Kandinsky painting 3   Kandinsky painting 4

Kandinsky painting 1    Kandinsky painting 7

In the words of another early advocate, Paul Klee, painting should aspire toward what “the time-bound art of music has gloriously achieved in the harmonies of polyphony.” According to author Will Grohmann, at one point in his life, Klee felt that “modem music was more advanced than modem painting” (paradoxically, he felt it had been his good fortune “to develop painting, at least on the formal plane, to the stage reached in music by Mozart”; he regarded Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony as “the highest attainment in art”). Music held a central place in Klee’s art (he was also a fine musician). He told his pupils that he preferred the word “absolute” to “abstract” for the “new” art, because the absolute was something “in itself,” like the “absolute of a piece of music, psychical not theoretical.”

Grohmann cites such musical features of Klee’s paintings as “their rising or falling rhythms, brief or broadly arching melodies, subdued or cheerful keys, polyphonic or harmonic phrases, tonal and atonal counterpoint”–and even such strict forms as fugues and sonatas. “All the music that was in him,” Grohmann writes, “he utilized as a foundation on which to build a science of artistic form.”

Here’s Paul Klee at work—and three of his “absolute” or musical works: (Photo credits: en.wikipedia.org; wikiart.org; commons.wikimedia.org; sai/msu.su)

ikleepa001p1    Paul Klee painting 1       klee.southern-gardens     Paul_Klee_-_The_Lamb_-_Google_Art_Project

It also seems that for much of my life, I have attempted to merge or fuse these three art forms: music, literature (both prose and poetry) and visual art—most recently integrating two of them (poetry and music) as song. Unlike the sources I’ve cited here, I do not have all that many theories on the process of reconciling such seemingly “discordant elements.” I just try to do it!

In the past, on this blog, I’ve cited a song I have written (based on a poem, “My Fingers Refuse to Sleep,” published in the journal december), as sung by vocalist Jaqui Hope (with Heath Proskin on bass and yours truly on piano). Now I’d like to “exhibit” some of my own visual art work which I feel may qualify as “musical” in effect. Aside from a bit of identification, I’ll just let the examples speak (or sing) for themselves:

(1/2)   Two paintings from my own “Abstract [Absolute] Expressionist” phase; (3) Just for the heck of it: drawings I did for an anatomy class at Pratt Institute–included because I’m still pleased to see how much m0vement (“music”) I could find in those static old bones; (4/5) two woodcuts of poems by Archilochus and Buson in which I tried to capture  the original “dancing” words of Classical Greek and Japanese; (6/7) a woodcut and ink painting (mythological themes); (8) woodcut on a Biblical theme, and (9) Jaqui Hope, Heath Proskin, and I (the You Tube video of “My Fingers Refuse to Sleep,” for which we have had 550 visitors, can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLqjmDeiz2shttp ).

Berkeley-Honolulu Paintings 5       Berkeley-Honolulu Paintings 6

Pratt Drawing 9      Archilochus2

Buson1       Gypsy Wisdom2

Goat Pan and Couple Dancing     Woodcut Prints Lilies    It's a Wonderful World 3

Perhaps, in a future blog post, I can come up with some reflection (theories) on the “marriage” of these different art forms, or music as “a foundation on which to build a science of artistic form”; but I hope, for now, you have enjoyed this somewhat casual edition of Bill’s blog. I certainly do not intend to compete with Kandinsky and Klee, but thanks for a chance to show my “stuff” (my own art work).

 

 

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Author: William Minor

I am a writer and musician who has published thirteen books: most recent Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958; also Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems; The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, a comic novel (Trek: Lips. Sunny, Pecker and Me); three books on jazz (most recent: Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within), and six other books of poetry. A professional musician since the age of sixteen, I have released three CDs (most recent: Love Letters of Lynchburg--spoken word and original musical score commissioned by the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia). I was educated at The University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, The University of Hawaii, UC-Berkeley (MFA in Painting and Drawing), and San Francisco State College (MA in Language Arts). I taught for thirty-two years (English, Creative Writing, Humanities) at The University of Hawaii, Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, and Monterey Peninsula College). Originally trained as a visual artist, I have exhibited woodcut prints and paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution. I have been married to Betty for sixty years and we have two grown sons: Timothy and Stephen. We live in Pacific Grove, California where, retired from teaching, I just write and play music, both of which I love.

2 thoughts on “Music, Prose, and Visual Arts”

  1. Haven’t read all your words yet, so I think I’ll print them out. It just so happens I’ll be finishing, in this academic year, an MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State, where my ‘culminating experience’ (read, ‘thesis’) will be my short stories and poems assembled around the theme of music.

    1. Hi Jeff–
      Thanks for your response to “Music, Prose, and Visual Art”–and congratulations on your forthcoming graduation with an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and completing your thesis of short stories and poems “assembled around the theme of music.”
      I was at San Francisco State College in 1962-1963, and received an MA in “Language Arts” (Creative Writing). My thesis project (Poems: The Weekend)was a collection of original poetry and translations of work by Russian poet Alexandr Blok. My thesis committee was made up of poets Leonard Wolf, Jim Scheville, and Bill Dickey–and my advisor when I entered the program was Walter van Tilburg Clark. I also took every course I could (including individual study) with Wright Morris, an exceptional novelist not much remembered now (if at all) I’m sorry to say.
      At the time, I was married, had two kids, and was working full time as a “Scientific Data Analyst” (scanning elementary particles) at Berkeley’s Radiation Lab–attending classes at night. You can find a “fun” account I put together (“On the Nature of Literary Friendship: Paul Oehler, by William Minor”) about that era, SF State, and “beyond” at: http://www.webdelsol.com/f-friendship.htm.
      Congratulations, again, on the degree you’ll soon have! Best, always, Bill

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