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some thoughts on sound and color

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Collage by Alexis Anne McKenzie | More here

I am thrilled as pie (is that an expression? pleased as pie? yes) about my avant garde music class at Paris VII. Recently we’ve been talking about Messiaen’s work and I’ve been taking copious notes a) because I bought a fountain pen and love watching it write and b) because talking about his color-based theories for composition could not fit more cozily into the niche of things I try to wrap my brain around whenever it’s feeling flexible. We spent a good hour talking about the way he, because of his synesthesia, heard color in music – he describes chords with adjectives like “blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white.” (If any of these remind you of words you’d use to describe the colors of a bird, there’s a reason: his music theory treatise was called Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie [Treatise of Rhythm, Colour and Birdsong]). The treatise apparently manages to prove that color is not a decorative element of music, but instead absolutely ingrained in its fundamental structure.

Olivier Messiaen – Préludes I. La Colombe

Olivier Messiaen – Préludes II. Chant D’extase dans un Paysage Triste

The first track above  was written with orange in mind, and the second, a deep blue.

I’m so interested in the relationship between music and color, suddenly. Taking the term “chromaticism”, in its musical context, it might seem that color and music have always been associated with each other, but the word proves to be a bit of a red herring, if you will: it shares the same origins as coloration, or the medieval system of the coloring in of notes to indicate duration. The ties between the frequency of electromagnetic radiation (that is, color) and the frequency of sound still seem indisputable, however: lower frequencies are so fixedly matched in our minds to equal degrees with deep colors and deep sounds, and higher frequencies with brighter colors and higher sounds. I am hesitant to pretend I know more about science than I do, or to tentatively posit ideas that I am sure have been investigated in volumes already, but I find them to be so pertinent to things I think and write about that I can’t help but unpack them a bit for myself.

Messiaen’s use of color as a tool for the hearing and writing of music reminds me, as so many things do these days, of making a map: of using the parameters of one field both to define, and in so doing, to create, another. (Here we could also consider the colors used to indicate height and depth in mapmaking, and in linking these colors to pitch, consider the potential similarity between a musical score and a topographical map.) In thinking about Messiaen’s additional work with palindromic rhythms, I am reminded of mirrors and their central role in so much literature, philosophy and art. One could say that Messiaen’s work is a good indicator of the most basic desire humans seem to have to represent one thing with something else – put simply, to make art.

It is the indelible stamp of process – of distance between the real and the rendered – that gives art, as an act of transposition, its deeply human element. Mirrors, then, are appealing to us like anything that is untouched or otherwise without signature: as producers of no more or less than a copy, they present us with the purest form of parallel; with a result too perfect to be human. In Messiaen we sense this aesthetic gap both growing and shrinking: his representation of color through music is rooted in the fundamental fissure defining human art, while his fascination with the perfect, with the mathematical, with the mirror reminds us of the deep-seated longing we have to close this divide.

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

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Written by bellaheureuse

February 17, 2010 at 10:50 pm

a man, a plan, a canal…

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Velvet Underground & Nico – I’ll Be Your Mirror

I’ve gotten to the end of Georges Perec’s Cantatrix Sopranica L, Scientific Papers, and have reached what I think is the best one so far. It’s called Roussel and Venice: Outline of a Melancholy Geography, and it deals with a lot of subjects that I get all hot and bothered about – maps, codes, mirror images, layers of meaning, and word-play.

The piece, like the others in the book, is written in the style of a scholarly essay directed at an academic audience, and thus is able to take the same liberties that an academic piece can in its ability to assume that a certain base of knowledge is present in its readers. Since these articles are parody, however, they have only limited basis in actual fact, and so we as readers can use little outside knowledge in our attempts to pin down what is significant. Because we are aware that applying fact to the fictional science given here would be ridiculous, we are unable to make few connections other than those that are provided for us, and so we become occupied with mentally cataloguing and fitting together the hints we are thrown as to the significance of words, characters, or places. The world within the book, because it is completely self-contained, becomes completely absorbing, in the same way that a novel does: Perec has succeeded in “using the expressionless terminology of sociology, entomology and linguistics to achieve effects they are distinctly designed to avoid.” If the terminology and style of academic writing is meant to describe a factual world, here they are used to create a world of fiction.

Below are some snippets from the Roussel and Venice piece. They are all instances in which the author tries to locate significance within “five unpublished sheets of paper [written by Raymond Roussel] he was lucky enough to discover and identify in the Fitchwinder University Library” by figuring out how they fit into the context of Roussel’s writing style and life.

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Fleisch makes an obvious mistake at the end of his analysis when he suggests that the theme derives from the transformation of “La vérité sort de la bouche des enfants” [Truth comes out of the mouths of the children] into “La vérité sort de la douche des enfants” [The truth comes out of the children’s shower]. The transposition b/d is indeed common in Roussel (le crachat de la bonne à favoris pointus / le crachat de la donne à favoris pointus) [the spit of the maid with fussy suitors / the regalia on the dealt card with pointed sideburns], Dardanelles / Bard à Nesle [Dardanelles, Bard at Nesle], la place du bandit sur les tours du fort / la place du dandy sur les tours du fort [the bandit’s place on the towers of the fort / the dandy’s bet on the strong man’s feats])….

*Singe [monkey] could be a rebus-abbreviation of Saint-Jean Baptiste (singe en batiste [monkey made of cambric])

In this sense, Roussel’s voyage to Venice was his only journey (Venice becomes “Voyage,” “Voyage” becomes “Venice,” and V comes to stand for both Venice and “Voyage”).

There are then two superimposed topographies in Roussel. One corresponds to the world of his books and generally respects geoographical reality…; the other is the secret world of his Venetian life. The centre of the first is Paris, the centre of the second is the Hollenberg Hotel, where Roussel and his mother stayed. It is immediately obvious that [the topographies of Paris and Roussel’s Venice] are mirror images of each other.

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The essay goes on to pose any number of possibilities to fill the gaps in our knowledge of Roussel’s plot and writing process, based on pun, rebus, and not least what we know about his life and history. The tools used to map out this possible story behind the story create for us a world in miniature and we find ourselves absorbed in piecing together the puzzle of a question that for us is as free of contextual import as the few pages of the “found” manuscript are free from binding. The Scientific Papers and the essay Roussel and Venice both manage to absorb us completely using no tool but their own decontextualization: they both contain only the amount of significance that we care to look for, and exist only to make us curious enough to inspect them.

“One cannot expect the exegesis of a few lines, however assiduously one may have dissected them from every possible angle, to cast much light on a body of work that was so well described in the words of Bachter as ‘a literary adventure having no source but itself, no end except its own existence, and no other meaning than the trail it leaves.'”

Written by bellaheureuse

January 12, 2010 at 1:44 am

biggie cartography

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Image to sound: an aural representation of any graph showing the directly proportional relationship between money and problems.

Recently I’ve had maps on the brain, both because of things I’ve heard about and because of work I’m doing myself. “Mapping” seems to be a useful way to approach a lot of things I’ve come across recently, from literature to art to music. There is now in my mind such a wide variety of maps that finding some way in which to link them all together, and create a navigable space for them to populate, will in itself be an exercise in cartography.

First, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m reading Koffi Kwahulé’s Babyface. The kind of reading I’m doing is not for plot, but instead for structure: as I go along, I take into account things like the trajectory of voices, their interaction with each other, repetition and the appearance of leitmotifs, and changes in rhythm and tempo insofar as they are interesting in their ability to give the reader a feeling of proximity to, or distance from, the realtime (“real” time) of the narrative. In short, I am investigating the potential of the novel to be visually plotted, and more specifically, musically scored. Based on the knowledge that Kwahulé uses jazz as inspiration for the structure of his writing, using the vocabulary of the former to redescribe the latter seems natural. Inherently, the study of using the vocabulary of one field to define another has borrowed its process from that of mapmaking, which is based entirely upon clarification through recontextualisation. When you use musical conventions to give structure to your writing, you are borrowing not only the vocabulary of music but also that of cartography.

The trick of maps is their ability to clarify a foreign idea by placing it in a familiar context. If we can’t quite fathom the depth of a valley in relation to the height of a mountain, it becomes easier when we can see these comparisons in color (based, arguably, on our association with dark colors and depth, light colors and height, and etc. with the spectrum between). So we substitute color for space, and voilà! – topographical maps. The same principle applies when we visually represent sound, heat, or movement.

// TripTrop map of the distance between my old apartment and other places in NYC.

// Topographical map of the eyeball of one Murray McFadden, Surrey, England.

Cabinet magazine has a particular fondness, it seems, for writing about this process of substitution. In his (?) article “Utterance is Place Enough,” Frances Richard describes the process of mapping conversation, while here D.G. Burnett and W.J. Walter point out the “set of symmetries between the act of literary creation and the playing of a game of chess” and create for us a computer program that actually allows us to play out this system of substitutions. Elsewhere, Haemi Yun’s installation project Da Capo, Layered visually and aurally represents motion on an output monitor.

Watch the video of the Da Capo, Layered installation

It’s clear that people find some value in this kind of substitution, and understandably: it is always interesting – and sometimes quite necessary – to see one medium represented as another (that’s why we need metaphors). To me, though, the more interesting question then becomes: is it possible not only to redescribe one medium using the terminology of another, but also to redefine it, in the sense that to redefine is to give new meaning or significance?

In his piece on mapping conversation, Frances Richard points out that “In its objecthood, the map detaches from whatever landscape it purports to render; it slips into its own register as a freestanding unit, a self-enclosed area operating by reflexively validated rules. The tropes of mapping—including scale, legend, color, the use of contour isobars and other conventions for translating three-dimensional elevation into two dimensions—are no less stylized than the parameters of any other discourse.” Thus, we could argue that yes, in developing its own vocabulary and tools for success, a good map not only serves the utilitarian purpose of explaining the nature of something that is not itself, but that in doing so a map becomes its own autonomous work. A map is both the fulfillment of a goal and the product of its own success.

So how can remapping one medium in terms of another lead to a product that is more interesting than simply a new representation of an older idea? Only if in doing so, the map in itself becomes a freestanding work that expresses something that neither of the previous media were able to. In short, a good map must be greater than the sum of its parts.

Written by bellaheureuse

December 27, 2009 at 4:50 pm