`ALL art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,'' according to Walter Pater's famous, if disputable, sentence. Did he really mean to suggest that music is a higher form of art than painting - or architecture - or poetry? When I listen to music - something done with the most profoundly unorganized enjoyment and wandering of attention and gappy knowledge - it does seem to me sometimes that the reverse of Pater might also be true: all music constantly aspires towards the condition of painting - or architecture - or poetry. Particularly painting. This is bias, I expect....
I'm intrigued how the program notes provided at concerts - which generally attempt to describe pieces of music technically or in the emotional terms of changing moods - do occasionally resort to visual images. ``The adagio leads without a break into the finale, an extended movement in which the image of a gray, barren landscape is built up through the constant use of quiet dynamics.''
This quote, written by Caroline M. Smith, comes from the note for Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 10, when it was played (along with all the other 14 string quartets by the Soviet composer) at last year's Edinburgh Festival. Possibly being too literal, I listened expectantly to see that gray, barren landscape, but somehow I missed it. And I've tried again since, on CD. Still can't find it somehow. I'm sure it's there - at least for Caroline M. Smith.
But while the outlines of changing mood in program notes can be both suggestive and helpful (particularly with a composer like Shostakovich, who was convinced that music has the power to evoke various quite specific emotions, and often spelled them out in word-form), it strikes me that, when it comes to images leaping to mind as the music develops, we are dealing with something far more subjective. Something unprogrammed and ungraspable. Something essentially spontaneous. With music aspiring toward the condition of painting.
Listening every other morning over a period of 10 days to the entire Shostakovich string quartet cycle proved to be quite an experience - and not merely a kind of cultural endurance test. I became fascinated by the way his private language (and his quartets are relatively speaking more private than his larger-scale works) could take hold of two violins, a viola, and a cello and summon up such variation of feeling and sound. Compellingly percussive, plucked rhythms; jolting, fragmentary cacophanies; vast floodings of relentless, reaching sound ... spare and morose juxtapositions, thin; despairing passages of ``low moan'' or piercing shriek, squeaking or tapping moments of terror. One minute his music is naive and lucid like a child's song, next it's a climaxing folk dance, then it's dream or confusion, soothing melody, or bitter expressionism.
True to himself, Shostakovich doesn't use music in his quartets as escape from rigor or harshness, as evasion. Sentimental he is not. And although increasingly his themes are morbid and heavily oppressed, dispensing a kind of arid grief, I never found myself wanting to weep, which I have found happening with unexpected ease listening to Beethoven's late quartets.
``Shostakovich's last quartet,'' noted Caroline M. Smith, ``was completed in the autumn of 1974.... The entire work is pervaded by a sense of desolation and grief.'' She goes on to characterize parts of it as melancholy, distorted, sad, sinister, and disturbing - some catalog of adjectives. This, then, was to be musical expression at the end of the road, music expressing ``no hope.'' Yet there is at least a paradox, if not a downright contradiction, in the very act of composing music in or about such a frame of mind: The act itself is a positive affirmation of vitality, of point and purpose. Its translation into the resonance of string sound, of performance, inevitably involves vigor, crucial activity, art.
I thought of painting that concerns itself with death - certain works by Mantegna, Goya, Picasso - and how, in all their perversity, such pictures are by no means dead pictures. They celebrate the aliveness of art.
The thing is that art (painting, music, poetry) may parallel an artist's life. It may be a kind of autobiography. But it always has a different, even if only slightly separate, existence. It takes life and puts it, as it were, in quotation marks. At worst, perhaps, this becomes a kind of escapism. At best it can grasp even the most enigmatic experiences and make some kind of new order out of them.
Something similar occurs in the connection between different art forms. Painting might be music in quotation marks. If images are suggested by music, they too are in quotation marks. As someone much more schooled in the visual, as a painter and writer about paintings, I find the fleeting experience of a concert full of color and form. This is not what music critics mean when they use such words. I think of music as a passing event which opens up the possibilities of painting.
If I remember anything valuable from the Shostakovich cycle, it is that the freedom and dimensions of music are a kind of confirmation of inspired movements and contrasts of color in paintings - either paintings already made, or yet to be made.
The fragmentary nature of Shostakovich, and the limitation to only four instruments in the quartets, helps the listener to concentrate on parts rather than whole, and it is these parts that seem full of ideas for visual furtherance. Kandinsky and other painters of our century have been sensitive to specific relationships between certain colors and certain feelings, and between musical notes and harmonies and colors. Codifying such, or turning them into elaborate theories generally goes too far from the actually intuitive practice of painting; but - just as an instance - it is difficult to imagine that a deep rich note on a cello could be light blue, or brilliant yellow: it is a deeper color, surely, like Van Dyke brown or Alizarin crimson.
Similarly some of the piercingly high notes Shostakovich demands of his violin-players, equate, I visualize, with bright, sharp hues - edgy vermilion or biting lemon yellow or quick emerald green.
Then music naturally has something (maybe Pater was right after all) that painting can only contrive in rather artificial ways - and that is its passage through time. Everything in a painting finds itself instantaneously apparent, and yet music insistently calls for movement, progression, development - about the hidden being disclosed. In that synesthesia there is surely meat for endless exploration in the linguistics of painting.
For me Shostakovich's string quartets, even at their most anguished, turned out to be a wealth of associative images. Sometimes, in a topsy-turvy world, the lowest can be very high indeed - and not a barren, gray landscape in sight.