On Seeing Music

©2015 By Bob Litton

Synesthesia: Ever hear of that? It has been defined as “sensation produced in one modality when stimulus is applied to another modality, as when hearing a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color”.

The conjunction of sound and sight fascinates me. Usually, the term “synesthesia” is applied to programmatic musical compositions such as Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” and Sergei Prokofiev’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”; but nearly the same principle can be seen, I believe, in some individual words evoking phenomenal sounds, classified as onomatopoeia: “honk”, “whisk”, “boom”, et cetera. However, I want to restrict my discussion in this essay to sounds/images in musical compositions.

It is really odd, in a way, that I am engaged here with music, because I was a weak student in elementary school music class. I enjoyed the class as far as singing the American folk songs, Stephen Foster’s pieces, and armed forces’ anthems: that time, immediately after World War II, was really a chauvinistic period in our nation’s history, particularly in the South, where I lived. However, the part of the brain which grasps the mysteries of musical composition is also the part where arithmetic is learned; and arithmetic was my Achilles heel. Also, and this is something I still do not understand, I could not match my voice tone to the ones our teacher plucked on the piano when testing us individually.

What makes the odd even more strange is that I was the lyricist for a song that won a district-wide contest co-sponsored by the Dallas School District and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. After I was named the winner of the lyrics contest, my teacher helped me compose some music to accompany the words, I humming, in bits, a pseudo-melody and she jotting down the musical notes. That part of the contest I did not win; a little girl from a school across town did. The loss did not surprise me; I did not like my music either, while I did enjoy hers and now wish I had obtained a copy of her score. Still, I was on stage with the girl when maestro Walter Hendl introduced us during the annual children’s concert.

Other than that, I never ventured far onto the music scene. Oh, I did take a few guitar lessons when I was very young, since I wanted to be like my hero of the time, Gene Autry: I cannot recall now why I gave that up.

Yet, as I became a teenager I naturally shared my peers’ enthusiasm for popular and rock-‘n’-roll music; but I also liked to listen to some classical music then available on station KXIL (now a religion station) in Dallas. I was acquainted with only a few classical  works: “William Tell Overture” (of course), Rimsky Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee”, Camille Saint-Saens’ “Omphale’s Spinning Wheel”—that just about covers it. Radio adventure dramas of the time—“The Lone Ranger”, “The Green Hornet”, and “The Shadow”—were obviously the lead-ins for that stage of my musical education. Actually, radio dramas did much to foster knowledge of classical music for many of us in those years.

About that same time, my mother took me to see Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”. I do not recall how I responded emotionally to the entire film, only that I enjoyed “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and admired, slightly fearfully, Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”—or at least Disney’s animated rendering of them. Many years later, I guess it must have been in my 30s, I read an article in which the author disparaged “programmatic music”, that is, music which describes a scene. His thesis was that music should be “pure”, not reliant upon association with anything visual. That view is now quite widely held, I believe, and probably resulted in the current tendency to name compositions in mathematical terms or simply the name of the instrument(s) to be involved, as in most of John Cage’s so-called musical compositions. (This movement away from “association” or “meaning” in music was contemporaneous with an equivalent notion among poets: Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens are notorious in this manner; and Archibald MacLeish, in his poem “Ars Poetica”, asserted that a poem “should not mean but be”.) Ever since I read that music critic’s article I have been pretty much “straddling the fence”, not feeling competent enough to assert whether the critic was deluded or whether I am just a fossil stuck in some historical stratum. Frankly, though, I simply prefer music I can visualize…create a mental scene for…even if it isn’t accompanied by some background narrative.

After giving all that bio-historical stuff as background—as a sort of “disclosure”— I will now return to the topic with which I started: synesthesia.

A few years ago, I happened upon a clip on YouTube that fully engaged me: it was a rendition by Stephen Malinowski playing, on a piano, Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”[1]. The fascinating aspect of that clip was that it was accompanied by a video showing rows of animated rectangles of various colors; the intensities of the colors changed as the rows moved along, visually indicating touches on the keyboard. It reminded me of a lava lamp my mother gave me while I was at the university. I also watched and listened to Malinowski play, on an organ, J.S. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”[2]. Man! That was a pleasure and a half.

Malinowski (also listed as “Smalin” on YouTube) has several other musical pieces for which he has arranged animations—some rectangles, some circles with connecting lines. And, just recently, I saw a blog post by a group of British art historians collectively known as “ArtLark” on WordPress.com (the same host where I publish) about Oskar Fischinger[3], the German abstract painter and animator. In the early 1930s, Fischinger experimented with the same manner of musical animations as Malinowski, only without the aid of a computer. Fischinger reportedly created a portion of Disney’s “Fantasia” but later repudiated it after discovering that other Disney artists had altered his work.

Now to my main point. While watching several of Malinowski’s renderings, I began to wonder what passes through a composer’s mind as he touches piano keys and makes notations on sheet music paper. I wondered if he, or she, visualizes something like Malinowski’s rectangles and circles or if he/she imagines a sun rising, then a bird chirping, then single drops of rain, then clouds rolling, then horses galloping through a Swiss valley as we listeners can visualize the setting for the “William Tell Overture”. In some way or other—either in abstract forms or in representational figures—the composer must visualize while creating, just as we do while listening.

At least I think so.

[1] Debussy: Clair de Lune:

[2] Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor:

[3] http://artlark.org/2015/01/31/oskar-fischinger-an-optical-poem/



3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Francisco Castillo on March 5, 2015 at 5:58 pm

    I’ve really enjoyed listening to the music and lights.

  2. Disney produced Melody Time in the early 1940’s. That’s where I first saw Bumble Boogie – an experience that affected my musical life to this day.

  3. Don’t recall ever seeing “Bumble Boogie”, but I was just a wee brat back then, so perhaps I did. Thanks for the read.

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