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Synesthesia and Visual Music

Other Articles:

Charles T. Downey, Håkon Austbø (DCist, September 12)

Jens F. Laurson, Visual Music - Musical Vision (Ionarts, September 13)

Marsden Hartley, Musical Theme (Oriental Symphony), 1912-13. The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts
Marsden Hartley, Musical Theme (Oriental Symphony), 1912-13, The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts
Sunday, Jens and I were at an outstanding concert at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, by Norwegian pianist Håkon Austbø. This was the final event associated with the Visual Music exhibit at the museum this summer. Although the exhibit is gone, the Web site (a very nice one) is still there for now, with lots of great images. After the excellent concert (see both our reviews to the right), Håkon Austbø sat down at a 1970s-style conversation corner (straight out of a fake talk show on Monty Python) with one of the show's curators, Kerry Brougher. First, they discussed how Austbø became interested in the music of Scriabin and Messiaen. In the case of the former composer, his interests were related to the Theosophic movement, of which several of the artists in the exhibit were adherents. Scriabin's treatment of color was somewhat Cartesian, a wheel of colors arranged corresponding to the 12 chromatic notes in the cycle of fifths. Messiaen, as the pianist explained, devised a much more complex system, freeform, derived from the colors that he perceived in his mind when he heard sounds. It was interesting to hear that Messiaen's blue, A major, was a spiritual harmony, when it was also, for Kandinsky and the other Der Blaue Reiter painters, the color of spiritual awakening.

The best part of this presentation, by far, was the opportunity to see DVD excerpts of the Scriabin performances by the LUCE Foundation, especially the incredible light-color piece Prométhée, le Poème du Feu. By studying the score, Austbø and his colleagues worked out the logistics of how best to render the light part, using a computer and five screens over a background screen. On the latter, they projected the bottom light part, which cycled through seven colors over the total duration of the work. The upper part's light changes with the harmony in the work, and they worked out not only to make that happen in conjunction with the orchestra but also how to fade in and out of colors and create different patterns. The DVD was mesmerizing to watch, and I wish you could buy a copy of it. Perhaps would send me a copy if I asked him.

The other DVD was a forthcoming project, a series of videos for each of the birds in the Catalogue d'oiseaux. We watched part of the blackbird piece ("La bouscarle"), which is what Austbø played in the concert. This was less captivating, although the images were shot in the spot where Messiaen first notated the bird's song. It is an attempt to match Messiaen's specific colors, taken from natural settings instead of artificially computerish colors, with each passage in the music. There was also time for a few questions, and by the end of the conversation, we were still interested in listening to more.

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