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Barnes: The Art in Painting...with Music

Student 24's picture

"The piano transcription of a symphony loses the qualities of orchestral color and other relations which give the symphony its unique form, that is, make it what it is. A part of the form goes when the matter is changed. ... In really good music, even the shift from one key to another makes a difference."

This bit from Barnes' book struck a chord with me and immediately brought to mind George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. I'm still not one hundred percent sure that Gershwin is my all-time favourite composer, but I can say with absolute certainty that if I were forced to choose only one piece to which I could listen for the rest of my life, it would be Rhapsody in Blue. I won't go too much into my history with this piece (or into the fact that culturally I don't have much of a reason to claim history with the piece in the first place) but I will say that I distinctly remember my transition from listening to the orchestral, Disney Fantasia 2000, arrangement of the piece to an actual recording of Gershwin playing Rhapsody in Blue on the piano. It was transformed into a much more intimate and tangible experience. As a pianist, I am familiar with how piano keys feel under my fingers, how the notes move between my fingers, and how the sounds emerge from my fingers. Hearing and listening to the piano makes music something I know I can touch and sculpt with my own hands too; something muscular. That's why I went ahead and learned to play a good, solid portion Gershwin's Rhapsody. But I lost something as well. I experience, to a certain extent, synesthesia when I listen to music. The sounds appear as shapes, colors, textures, and patterns in front of my eyes, and the more diverse a piece's instrumentation is, the more vivid and dynamic my visions are. Each instrument has its own timbre, its own texture, and its own visual representation. In the Rhapsody, the orchestra is host to so many instruments. Also, by nature, a rhapsody is like a vibrant quilt of designs with many stylistically-varying sections. Using an orchestra allows for the different styles, themes, moods, and designs to be illustrated in texture with more defined differences in instrumentation. With just the piano, that illustration is flatted in this certain dimension, and the visual changes of style rely more heavily on the way in which the piano is played and performed, and the more musical elements such as melodic and harmonic development, dynamics, tempo, etc.

It's a challenging sort of play, when you are put in command of planting images in your audience's mind. I know that to have your concrete vision entirely absorbed and saturated by the illustration of music that is manifesting itself before your eyes is exhilarating, beautiful, addicting, and overwhelming, and I hope that everyone can at least once in their lives be blinded, suffocated, and starved by sound.

"But the man who is an artist because the interest in understanding and depicting things is a master passion with hint, sees more deeply and more penetratingly than we do, and, seeing better can also show better. His interests compel him to grasp certain significant aspects of persons and things of the real world which our blindness and preoccupation with personal and practical concerns ordinarily hide from us."