In between teaching lessons last week, I was sitting outside a room where piano lessons were taking place. I could hear the teacher, a friend of mind, coaching a really young student on musical expression. He was introducing her to the concept of artistry, and he asked her what it meant. When she drew a blank (as probably most six-year-olds would), he asked her what the word “artistry” sounded like. The answer was, of course, “artist,” which she readily provided. She then waited for a beat and added in a small but matter-of-fact voice, “Musicians are artists.”It put a smile on my face to hear such a young person recognize that musicians belong to the artistic community as a whole. Often it seems that the average person uses the term “artist” with a musician in a kind of metaphorical, figurative sense, reserving the literal sense of of the word for people who produce tangible specimens of art: paintings, sculptures, and what have you. In thinking about it, I also realize that I often cast the musician-artist in the metaphorical role, too. Perhaps it’s because we don’t produce anything you can hold and touch, or maybe it’s because we often consider music a horse of a different color altogether. For whatever reason, though, music is often overlooked as a true art in the same way that visual arts are recognized, and, as such, the musician is often added to the artist’s club as an afterthought–almost like Ron Paul is included in the Republican primary race. He’s kind of like the rest of them, but not quite–and everybody thinks of him differently.
In a similar sense, music is truly an art, but it’s one of a different nature from the visual and tactile arts. It has more in common with the other performing arts–dance and drama–than with visual art, but it is an art nonetheless. Upon closer examination, though, it turns out that music and the musician shares more with the standard-issue artist than one might think. To this end, the juxtaposition of visual art and music performance has been gaining popularity for some time now. Recitals at museums are now time-honored traditions, art installations often feature some kind of musical dimension, and concerts with visual aids–like projections of the solar system in tandem with a performance of “The Planets”–are ubiquitous. Recent trends have been taking the connection between visual art and musical performance to a more intimate and carefully thought-out level. Da Camera of Houston features a young artist’s program that teaches, among other things, participants how to pair musical performance with art by asking the fellows to curate a program of chamber music to go with exhibits of modern visual art housed at the Menil Collection and similar venues. Another recent program highlighted an even more specifically planned connection between art and music in which Filipino cellist Renato Lucas performed a musical tribute to Pablo Picasso at an exhibition of the master painter’s “Suite Vollard” at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila.
Lucas’s program did much to highlight the relationship between music and art, both specifically and generally. The program was of brief duration and was entitled “Connect and Disconnect: A Musical Homage to Pablo Picasso.” It featured the Bach C Major Suite for Solo Cello, Pablo Casals’s trademark Song of the Birds, and the third solo suite by Max Reger. Lucas said of the project, “This task has been in my head for many years. Visual arts have an edge in terms of [public] perception, as the musical arts—especially instrumental music—can be very abstract.” Lucas’s tribute sought to forge connections between the specific art at the exhibition and the specific pieces he presented, and the connections were successfully communicated. They ranged from drawing parallels to the periods of formalism through with both Bach and Picasso went to emotional parallels between movements from the Bach and particular prints to parallels in the contemporaneous lives of Picasso and Reger. Most striking, though, was Lucas’s use of the traditional Catalan “Song of the Birds,” which was a song close to the heart of the great Pablo Casals. Casals’s use of the piece was key in his expression of dissent against the Franco regime in Spain, and it strongly mirrors Picasso’s themes of hope and pride in his homeland. Says Lucas, “Artists like Casals and Picasso were very vocal in expressing their protests against the Franco regime. But their dissent wasn’t just about Franco. It was also about disgust, in the strongest possible way, towards man’s capacity for inhumanity towards his fellow human beings.”
Performances like these, curated for collections and carefully tailored to communicate deep connections, are among the best examples of affinity between these two art forms. Over and above their intended messages, though, they present the audience with two very important opportunities. The first is an opportunity to consider the parallels between the physical act of creation in both media. The bow draws sound across the blank canvas that is silence much like ink, paint, or oil creates shape from a visual vacuum, and the artist in both cases works to shape his intentions with his hands and heart. The opportunities to notice specific and striking parallels give better insight to both art forms, but the best opportunity of all is one that is decidedly non-specific in nature. The pairing of music with visual art gives the listener and the viewer–who is one and the same–the blank canvas and lets the most important connections form abstractly and personally. It is up to the programmer to provide a starting point for the audience’s experience, but ultimately each person will hear and see different things in the music and art when seeing them in a unique combination. In the end, the ultimate art form is in the emotional experience that impresses itself upon the audience’s heart and mind to be remembered for years to come, and in that, music and visual art are very much alike.