Sometimes when people are being fanciful they’ll talk about a musician painting a scene with music.
Usually, I think at least, they mean that the person made a piece of music that evokes an image of something in their heads. On the occasions that I’ve experienced that it’s been somewhat nebulous as it’s been more a series of impressions instead of an exact picture.
Music doesn’t work that way. It’s just not an exact enough an art form to create a concrete image. It's more an ever-shifting collection of impressions that generate a sequence of emotional responses than anything else; you’d be hard pressed to find too many examples of it ever creating static imagery.
That doesn’t mean that a musician can’t be inspired by the visual arts; the composer Mussorsgky’s Pictures At An Exhibition is probably the best known example of an attempt. However, this type of work is scarce; in fact I don’t recall any other compositions along similar lines.
That is until now, with the release of Notes On Canvas by Cuban percussionist Arturo Stable (Stable is pronounced like the English word). For this recording, which Stable has subtitled “Jazz Portraits Of My Favorite Paintings,” he selected nine works of art (after writing compositions for 20) to be represented. His object was to compose jazz tunes that would musically underscore what the colours, shapes, and emotions of the paintings said to him.
Now these are obviously going to be highly personal visions, based on his reactions to a work, so on what basis can you critique? If you know the work in question you will have your own opinions on it and it will move you in a way that may not be the same as the way it moved Arturo. But that doesn’t make him wrong, anymore than his opinion is right and yours is wrong.
The approach I took for this review was to focus on two of the works, both by artists that I’m familiar with but the specific image he chose wasn’t one I knew that well. I listened to the music first, a couple of times, and then proceed to look at the painting to see if I what I had heard jibbed with what I saw.
Anyone familiar with the work of Frida Kahlo is aware of the incredible intensity of feeling that was the hallmark of all her creations. She depicted her life in graphic detail on canvass, from miscarriages to the continual erosion of her body from polio suffered as a child and a crippling accident she had suffered as a teenager; nothing was spared. So you would expect any music based on her work to of a similar, dark intensity.
So I was rather taken aback by the cheerful jazz voice that came lilting out of my headphones, underscored by piano and percussion. But the singer (Esperanza Spaulding) stops short and begins a spoken word voice over. She asks Frida if that is her she sees in the shadow of every Mexican woman on the street and proceeds to change the mood of the piece into something a little more somber.
When the music and the vocalizations start again, it is no longer as lilting and airy and has taken on more of a sensual air. But it still does not mesh with any of her self-portraits that I could recall. So I was somewhat taken aback when I looked at the image he had selected and saw a young woman staring back at me who had many of the qualities that Arturo’s music claimed she did. Of all of Frida’s Self Portraits this is probably one of the least well known because it doesn’t show her as suffering.
Very rarely are images of Frida shown these days that don’t serve to remind everyone of her suffering, ignoring the fact that she was a sensual and passionate woman. She had a great many lovers, male and female, throughout her life and when able, she took great pleasure in living live to the fullest.
This is the woman who Arturo Stable saw in this picture and composed his music for and I understand his choice now. I’m still not sure I completely agree with the direction the music takes, it’s a little too frothy considering the somber colours used in the painting, and the intensity of Frida’s stare, but his depiction of her as vibrant and alive is note perfect.
Monet’s “Impression/Sunrise” is probably typical of the impressionist school of painting from the late nineteenth early twentieth century but isn’t a work that I know very well. Truth be told I’ve always found most work by the Impressionists, with a few exceptions, to be insipid; nice to look at and all that, but not much body.
Monet said that when you go out to paint, look at a composition in terms of blocks of colour, not in terms of subject matter. So a painting would be a representation of the colours and their contrasting shapes and hues instead of being literal. According to Arturo’s notes he has attempted something similar musically with the use of two contrasting styles.
While that might be true, and there were two contrasting styles of music present in this piece, the overall effect of the music seemed to be so far removed from the effect of the painting that I had a difficult time relating the music to the painting in question. I would have thought that he would have been concerned about the overall “feel” of the painting, as much as making a singular point about one element. It was as if he became far too focused on making his one point that he forgot about the rest of the painting.
Obviously trying to find a way to interpret one art form with another can be enormously difficult, look at how hard it is to adapt a novel to a film, or a story to dance. In both cases if you don’t know the story in the first place there’s a good chance you won’t understand what’s going on at all. With Notes On Canvas, Arturo Stable’s attempt to offer musical interpretations of various pieces of visual art, the problem is thematic more then structural.
In the case of Frida’s “Self Portrait” he has gone after capturing some of the person’s spirit as seen in the painting, and that works beautifully. But in Monet’s “Impression Sunrise” he has tried to interpret a style and lost focus on the painting. It’s actually something I noticed happening on more then just this one painting. While his piece for Dali’s “Clock Explosion” was suitably chaotic and the connection was obvious, in others the connections just weren’t there.
The music on the CD are all exemplary pieces of Latin based Jazz, with wonderful playing and innovative arrangements, yet I failed to see the relationship between a good many of the compositions and the paintings they were based on.
I’m quite prepared to believe that a deficiency on my part played a hand in that, I don’t have the greatest ear for musical nuance, but I think the composer has to take responsibility for that failure as well. After all he chose how he would express the images – and what form that expression would take, and some of them just didn’t work at all.