Art criticism

The Well Tempered Romance between Image and Music

Dr William Clark

An old pond: a frog jumps in—the sound of water.

—Matsuo Basho

Art and poetry are translations of deeply meditative, lived-experience to make the transparent visible. Basho turns water into sound using poetry, and the haiku’s translation includes the illusion that it was written in our language. Faithful translations may also be interpretations that shape the language into which the translation is formed. Da Hee Lee’s art involves the concept of parallel creation—translation as an art that is aware of loss and gain to negotiate a new perspective. These translations are not imitation—they creatively use language as a bridge to bring something new across. Good translation is aware that what is beautiful in one language can be nonsense in another, so it looks for dynamic equivalence—counterparts. What is the language that music speaks—is it untranslatable? What if like Basho looking is translated into listening and listening becomes looking?

From Leonardo’s sketches of ideas about the relationship of music to colour to Scriabin’s colour organ for his fifth symphony ‘Prometeus: Poem of Fire,’ many artists have tried to integrate images and sound. Modernism in art was marked by experiments in alteration of the borders between media and translating music into visual forms was often related to the desire to move beyond representation to discover something higher. The belief that music was abstract and yet simultaneously expressive of profound spiritual truths was shared by Sartre and Schopenhauer: both believed in music’s power to move us from hopelessness and despair through a meditative aesthetic distance that induced a vision-like frisson. Modernist investigations of other dimensions of thought were usually accompanied by the underlying belief that music and visual art originate at the same source. In art history this spiritual interest in the unity of music, colour and form had roots in the belief that ancient melodies were associated with ideas to the extent they could evoke a specific visual impression. The belief in a deep-seated level of meaning that could not be articulated by itself, but could be opened up through intermedial translation influenced Annie Besant’s melding of colours and spiritual states that led to Wassily Kandinsky and Arnold Schoenberg’s experiments in abandoning convention and moving towards abstraction. Da Hee Lee studied Paul Klee’s formalized connections between visual entities and spiritual responses. With musicality transposed in the imagery it cloaks it in mystique and enigma. Her interest was in Klee’s encounter with music as a way to solve problems of composition through a search for coherent organizational criteria. Music’s measures, scale, harmony and key can be emulated and musical structures can be translated as a vehicle to bridge the world of forms and the immaterial.

For Lee the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, as the master of the fugue, stimulated the idea of translating fragments or particular musical motifs into visual art’s language. She applies fugal reversal, inversion and reflection to hues and tones that are influenced by Klee’s ‘Magic Square’ series as graphic transcriptions of musical rhythm. With the paintings she began to look for a way to move beyond representing ’emotions’ that are instinctively heard and felt to embody Bach’s music as a type of gestural arabesque to follow the arc of crescendo and diminuendo. She did not want to use representational imagery and became engrossed in creating a process of individualization based on a strict procedure so that the mathematical and formalistic elements of Bach’s music were not lost in a subjective improvisational response.

The process she devised involved disassembling and analysing the order, beat, instructions of the performance method. This includes elements such as the characteristics of the instrument: some of this was based on observations to follow the interpretation style of two pianists from Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The development of her work through collaboration with musicians means their interpretation enables her to find new possibilities of visually recording the music. She accepts that each player will have different ways of interpreting and playing Bach with personal inflections and directly plays the music to understand the music from the player’s perspective. After this initial research is complete she looks at drawing a single note to decide on the force, position, colour, length, form, and context of the note and considers the possibilities in great depth to find consistent rules. This leads to the arrangement determined by a structure that reflects the pattern, flow and composition of the visually translated notes. When nearing completion she still includes an open attitude in selecting the medium of expression to derive the most appropriate result to convert melody into colour. She establishes the difference in saturation and brightness and spacing between rows and columns, length of notes per beat to visually plot the layout of what becomes a portrait of the music.

Her aim is not to ‘explain’ the music as if it was a decipherable text: it is paradoxically to understand the enigmatic character of Bach while preserving its mystery. She is not articulating a fixed meaning, but as a visual artist is interested in the dynamic signifying potentialities of Bach’s formal structure and how a composition unfolds through the acts of its players. We derive intellectual pleasure from music not just as a work, but as a collaborative event. The finished artworks explore the aesthetic and sensory qualities of Bach’s music so that the audience can perceive the complex mathematics that Bach has used in his compositions almost intuitively through the many congruent visual events.

Listening to music without the spontaneous feelings and images that it generates in our minds would be like removing its essence. It is mediating the essence of the music that interests her, leaving out superfluous imagery as a form of respectful ‘music drawing’. Translation is based on an assumption that its subject matter has a surplus of meaning—an essence that can transcends any particular media representation. Lee’s musical imagery is related to Bach’s musical language—it is not intended to replace it. She engages in translations of elements such as time into the concept of space to reveal the hidden principles of music and aid our grasp of these types of features. But her study of Bach’s music also means that the aesthetic value of the visual arts is re-examined. Sounds are naturally symbolic of transience, ‘lostness’ and the passage of time and music as an artwork is a way of capturing that transience. The music’s power combined with expressive imagery leads to a unique artistic experience of what is usually ephemeral. Her process translates music into elements of shape, contrast and chromic density as if providing a visual score.

Written notation and oral transmission are not the only carriers of musical information. Rather than try to develop staff notation the symbolism of a graphical notation can move into the territory where feelings and emotions connect music with visual imagery. Possibly this interest stems from her background in psychology. The pictures drawn through musical perception use ‘rules’ that are common to the senses of both seeing and hearing, faculties such as: resemblance, adjacency, and continuance that also relate to gestalt psychology and how the mental reception of sounds appears as a set.  Her systematic translation of musical compositions into paintings looks for universally quantifiable fixed transpositions from one medium to another. The presentation of new visual music does not have to be dependent on electronics and elaborate devices automatically generating patterns. There has always been more to music than making and perceiving real sounds; our experience also involves musical thought and imagining mental representations of sounds. Bach’s imaginative impulse included the creative mental ability to translate an auditory ‘image’ to sound. The translation that takes place from the immediate perception of a sound to the creation of a mental representation includes a conscious but elusive auditory image. Lee’s paintings trace a path we will never see from the invisible to the reality of a created work. Harmonic progression and the move from dissonance to consonance correspond with floating areas of colour that almost crystalize into objects with how she renders the sound.

Translation also has a geometric meaning: a correspondence between two sets of points, mapping from one plane to another; or in physics it means changing the positions of all points. Audiovisual translation involves different semiotic systems and music is arguably thought of symbolically in that it involves attributing a particular type of significance to particular sets of sensory information. Da Hee Lee’s art represents the intricacies of Bach’s polyphony: harmony is given pictorial form, we see the unfolding and superimposition of counterpoint, perceive the compositional ambiguities that the fleeting, intangible, invisible nature of music hides. She gives us a new understanding of composition, tonality, space, emotion and virtuosic complexity with deceptive simplicity that has been constructed with meticulous patience. For Lee, Bach’s music resonates with human sensibility while featuring mathematical ratios, transformations and patterns. With the painting of Bach’s Prelude in c minor, as played by Glenn Gould, it is as if Gould’s mystic sighs and groans at the ecstasy of the music he is playing have come to life to dance in front of us.

©William Clark