UB Exhibit Reveals Links between Visual and Musical Worlds

By Sue Wuetcher

Release Date: June 2, 2003 This content is archived.


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A UB exhibit looks at art created and/or admired by five composers, including Paul Hindemith, whose humorous drawings were in sharp contrast to his serious music. (Click on image for larger version.)

BUFFALO, N.Y -- Morton Feldman. George Gershwin. Paul Hindemith. Arnold Schoenberg. Edgard Varèse. Five world-renowned composers who, to the surprise of many, also were avid artists or had strong ties to the art world.

The composers' deep connections to the visual arts form the basis of "The Composer's Eye," an exhibition at the University at Buffalo of works of arts created and/or admired by the five composers that serves as a complement to this year's June in Buffalo festival and its theme of "Music and the Visual Image."

The exhibition -- curated by Olivia Mattis, visiting assistant professor of musicology in the Department of Music in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, with the assistance of graduate student Steven Gerber -- also features five musical scores that exemplify five different kinds of links between music and the visual world.

It is on view through Sept. 30 in the Music Library in Baird Hall on the UB North (Amherst) Campus. June in Buffalo, the annual festival devoted to emerging composers, will be held June 2-7 at UB.

Mattis, who focused her doctoral dissertation at Stanford on Varèse, notes that all of the composers, with the exception of Feldman, were painters. She included Feldman in the exhibition because of his UB connection -- he was a faculty member from 1973 until his death in 1987 and founded June in Buffalo in 1975 -- and because he was a close friend of artists. In fact, according the exhibition notes, Feldman composed the soundtracks for documentary films about artists Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning.

Mattis points out that there's "big diversity" in how the composers incorporated the visual image. For example, Hindemith, she says, "is basically a doodler; he makes these really humorous drawings, which is interesting because his music is not at all humorous -- his music is deadly serious. That's a side of him that people in the music world are not aware of."

She paired Gershwin and Schoenberg together in a double exhibition case, she says, because of their connection to each other -- they were daily tennis partners in Hollywood in the mid-1930s, as well as great admirers of one another and avid painters.

"People don't know that side of Gershwin; everybody's heard of Gershwin but they don't know he had that other side to him and that 'Rhapsody in Blue' has a real visual reference," she says.

Gershwin originally was going to title "Rhapsody in Blue" "An American Rhapsody," with rhapsody being a genre of music that is nationalistic in nature, she says. His brother, Ira, saw an exhibition of paintings by James McNeil Whistler, who titled his work with such names as "Nocturne in Gray" and "Symphony in White." Ira suggested that George title his work "Rhapsody in Blue" because of blue notes in jazz -- a style incorporated in the musical piece.

Gershwin discovered art at the end of his life and became one of the leading collectors of modern art of his time, Mattis says, adding that he used his art collection as the basis of study -- he was self-taught in art and used his art collection as teacher.

Gershwin and Schoenberg make an interesting pairing, she says, because most people don't know that they knew each other -- let alone that they were friends -- because they were such different composers. Gershwin incorporated jazz in "Rhapsody in Blue" and "American in Paris," she points out, while Schoenberg composed "highly impenetrable music only for the elite few who could understand it. Very opposite as far as their intended audiences, and you wouldn't think they would admire each other at all. But I think the fact that Schoenberg himself was a painter was one reason that Gershwin really admired him," she says.

"It's fun because it's a side of these people that the audiences for June in Buffalo are not going to be aware of."

Mattis notes that the connection between sound and color is one that people throughout history have tried to make. She points out that Sir Isaac Newton was very interested in the sound-color analogy, and inserted indigo as the seventh color in the rainbow -- even though it is not actually represented in the rainbow -- because there are seven notes in the musical scale.

Composers like Varèse and Schoenberg tried to represent something visual in their sound, she says. "I don't know if one can actually literally do it, but it's interesting to me that they are trying," she adds.

"The Composer's Eye" can be viewed during the Music Library's summer hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The library will return to its regular operating hours with the start of the fall semester. Those hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, and 2-9 p.m. on Sunday. The library is closed on Saturdays.