The sound of colour: music, photography and Kandinsky

Wet pavement with lights

Wet pavement with lightsThe two photos Andy used for his CD ‘Reflections’

A little while ago, a musician called Andy wrote to me asking if he could use some of my photos as art for the cover of a CD he was producing.  The CD is called Reflections, and the photos he asked for were the two shown above. Naturally I said yes, and we exchanged a few emails which ended in the suggestion that we might aim for some sort of collaboration between us – probably involving me responding photographically to his music.

This is quite a challenge for me and has got me doing a bit of research for ideas on how to go about it. It’s hard to find much about photography and music – if you Google it, you end up with articles about how to photograph bands or rather literal depictions of musical instruments – images of the music-making, rather than inspired by the music.  However, after a bit of searching I did find this article  from, which featured an online community project that encouraged artists of all kinds to post a piece of music plus the personal art that it inspired.

The results are fascinating.  There’s a lot to read and listen to, so I’ve only skimmed for the most part but I noticed a few things as I went through the post.  One of these was that a large number of people used music with words, and I wonder how much of their interpretation is about the words rather than the music?  It’s hard not to be influenced by lyrics and I got to wondering if their art would have been at all similar had they only had the music to go on, especially as much of the resulting art showed quite a literal take on the lyrics.  Interpreting the words is fine, of course, but to me this is a whole different ballgame to being inspired by the music and more on a par with using poetry as a creative source.

For me, the more interesting entries were ones where the music had been used to evoke a mood and the resulting artwork didn’t bear an obvious relation to it, such as Timothy Brearton’s painting inspired by Massive Attack’s Danny the Dog.  Brearton says ‘the music was the “field” from which the ideas took form.  There was something about music which freed me, and opened me up for the moment to manifest.’

I’ve never found this to be the case for myself.  I don’t like to have music playing when I’m doing something else that needs a certain sort of concentration, such as the kind that writing demands – I want silence above all else.  This is a bit discouraging in terms of any plans to use music as a creative tool, but I haven’t tried it with photography and that may be very different.  To me, writing and music have more in common than photography and music – writing has sounds and rhythms and patterns which have the potential to clash with music. Drafting sentences in my head involves trying out different rhythms and sound patterns, which I ‘hear’ in my mind; music playing at the same time interferes with that.

However, photography is all about pictures and doesn’t rely on sound at all, so music is likely to be much more compatible with taking photos – I hope I’m right about this.  In some ways I feel as if I’ve bitten off a little bit more than I can chew.  I don’t want to do the obvious thing and interpret the titles of Andy’s recordings (they’re all instrumental) in a literal way.  I’d like to find a way of working more directly with the music itself, but I’m at a bit of a loss as to how that might work for me.

Many artists over the years have used musical references in their work.  Whistler, for instance, titled his paintings as harmonies, arrangements, symphonies, and nocturnes – all musical forms.  I don’t think, though, that Whistler used any particular music as a starting point for his paintings, and the titles are simply metaphors.

Kandinsky is more interesting.  He supposedly had synaesthesia, a condition that involves experiencing sense impressions with more than one sense at a time – for example, a colour triggers the person seeing it to simultaneously experience a sound or a taste or a smell.  You might hear colour, taste words, or see music, and it’s supposed to arise from some kind of cross-wiring in the brain that’s found in about one in two thousand people.  Kandinsky claimed to hear colours as sounds and see sounds as colours, and regarded his paintings as visible music (although not any particular piece of music).

Composizione  VI 1913 KandinskyComposizione VI, 1913, Kandinsky

It’s hard for me to imagine what synaesthesia must be like.  It’s true that we use metaphor that suggests synaesthesia – we feel blue, we experience a sharp taste or a sweet voice, and it’s easy to understand what someone means when they say the sound of a trumpet is scarlet.  But we don’t actually see scarlet when we hear the sound, which is what sets us apart from the synaesthetes.

While I’d love to be able to do something similar to what Kandinsky did, I’m not a synaesthete so this is probably beyond my capabilities.  Perhaps the best way forward is to let the music evoke a feeling and look around me to see if that feeling is represented by something I see – a kind of matching up of emotional response to the thing I hear with the thing I see.  One of photography’s limitations is that it relies on something that actually exists to form the basis of the image.  Do I have to find the right place, the right environment, to get this to work?  Or should I be able to find something in any environment that would do the job?  I don’t know yet – I’ll report back when I do.

Any thoughts on this would be very welcome – how would you go about it?

Some links I found along the way:

Creative Harmony: Art + the music that inspired it: – the main article I talk about in this post.  There’s a lot to read and listen to, here.

25 Sonic Postcards inspired by Instagram:  – Personally these don’t do much for me, but they might be of interest to someone.  25 Instagram photos were used to inspire ‘soundscapes’ – I find some of them positively annoying, but maybe I’m missing something……….

Kandinsky’s Color Theory: – this post has a chart showing Kandinsky’s colour theory, ie, what each colour sounds like or feels like to him.  If you have a while to spare, you can use it to try and interpret the painting above.

The man who heard his paintbox hiss: – more about Kandinsky.

The Influence of Music on Painting and Animation: – a 38-page essay which looks in detail at synaesthesia, the artists Kandinsky and Fischinger, and Disney’s Fantasia.  It’s written in an academic style, so a little dry, but still very readable.  I only skimmed…….




The King’s Speech: film, music and emotion

The other night we watched a DVD of ‘The King’s Speech’. Throughout the film Bertie – unwilling King after his brother abdicated – struggles with a stammer and the need to make frequent public speeches.  He’s eventually helped by a very unorthodox voice therapist and in the final scene, he has to give a speech anouncing Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, with Logue (his voice teacher) in the background silently coaching and encouraging him.  It’s a touching scene, and the background music is a piece I’ve always loved – Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 2nd movement.  Putting aside the irony of using music by a German composer in this context, it’s made me ponder about music and about film on a number of levels.

If you saw a film with and without the music, it would surely be two different experiences, and that makes me wonder if the lack of sound in still photography is one of its drawbacks (or one of its advantages?).  Although I know very little about music and wouldn’t consider myself any kind of enthusiast – in the sense of buying loads of CDs, going to concerts, and so on – I do find it affects me on a very deep emotional level.  Often, when I leave a film, it’s the ‘background’ music that stays with me, long after my memories of the film itself have faded.

Although this is surely true of many people, there are many others who don’t even seem to notice the music used – my husband, for example, rarely registers the music and he’s much more of a music enthusiast than I am.  There is a possible explanation for this: if you’ve ever studied or read anything about NLP, you’ll know that we process our experiences through our senses and that one of these senses is usually dominant in any one person.  (of course, we use all of them, but we tend to favour one in particular)  Taste and smell are difficult to work with, so NLP limits things to the three major sensory channels: visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic (feel/touch).   Unsurprisingly, given my passion for photography, my dominant sense is visual, with auditory some way down the scale.  However, Dawna Markova wrote about how the less dominant sensory channels can access our unconscious and our emotions more easily – it’s as if they have a direct path in there, without having to be sifted through our intellect or consciousness.

It may be this that creates such a strong link for me between emotion and music. The day after I saw the film I thought I’d like to hear this piece of music again but without the associated scene.  I found it on Youtube and clicked play.  Suddenly and without warning, tears were streaming down my face.  For a few moments I couldn’t understand what was going on, but then I remembered that at the time I’d first discovered this piece of music I was deeply unhappy in a difficult marriage, but one that I hadn’t completely given up hope on yet.  The music has always sounded like a combination of huge sadness overlaid with hopefulness to me, and this is what I felt at the time.  I’d played it then, over and over and over again, and hearing it now was vividly bringing back the abyss of unhappiness I was falling into at the time.  There are other pieces of music that act similarly on me: for example, I love Philip Glass but find his music so disturbing, in some way that I can’t articulate, that I simply can’t play it very often.  In this instance it isn’t linked to any particular experience, there’s just something about the music that gets to me.

Going off at a slightly different tangent, the video I found on Youtube enthralled me in a different way again. It’s a graphic version of the music that creates visuals of each instrument and note.  I’ve never been able to read music, although I tried to learn many times, but seeing it made visual in this way gave me an appreciation and understanding of this piece that I never had before.  It seemed to me I could ‘read’ it in a way I never managed with traditional notation, although obviously traditional music notation is visual too (and, in fact, imparts more information than this format does).  I’ve always found I need something visual in order to be able to listen properly; if I try to listen to a radio talk my mind just wanders off on its own path and I miss most of it.  But give me a related image or chart or something to look at while the talk is going on, and I can keep my attention on it.

Getting back to photography, something I’ve seen suggested more than once is to put on headphones and play music while you photograph, allowing the music to guide you in any way that feels right.  I’ve never tried this, but it would be an interesting exercise to play several different types of music while photographing in the same place, and compare the results.  We often rather foolishly try to separate out the senses when we talk about them, but in fact the input from each sense strongly influences the others.  Still photography lacks sound, and usually, tactile presence, limiting its input to one sense only.  Does this also put limits on its power to affect us?