Rhyme and Reason – Music and Art

The Anonymous Ramblings of an Old Opera Singer


For many years I was a working musician, a singer, making my living singing opera, as soloist with symphony orchestras and as a recital and oratorio singer. While my musical taste is highly sophisticated and my performance experience quite broad, (from Bach to world premieres of the atonal avant-garde hits of the moment, from Wagner to Weill) and, while well educated musically and academically, it seems my focus was nevertheless always rather pedantic. ie, I was interested in perfecting my role in the work that I had been contracted to perform, rather than contemplating intellectually or emotionally what it all meant in the grand scheme of things. I think many performers are like that. There is already so much involved in preparation and performance that often conceptual contemplation falls by the wayside . . . or so we think. As I have become more interested in and involved with visual art, and specifically non-objective art, I am more aware of my own aesthetic vocabulary.

As a singer, my responsibility, in addition to being musically and technically/vocally well prepared, was to understand the text (we always have one), to understand my relationship to the entire composition which includes the orchestra (or accompaniment) and any other singers, and to understand the composer's wishes which are always written in the score within the vocabulary of music: dynamics, rhythm, tonality, orchestration, colors, consonance and dissonance, repetition of themes or melodies and the style and structure of the entire composition. As a singer perhaps I did not analyze my own vocabulary of perception because my primary responsibility as a singer was not to create, as a visual artist does, but to re-create, to interpret the composer's vocabulary.


Image: ©2004 Valdez Abeyta y Valdez
"The Third Stone and the Fifth Reed"
Courtesy Tadu Contemporary pic Santa Fe

It takes a different kind of involvement to look at art than to create it. I always said the same thing about opera . . . it is an entirely different experience to sing it than to watch it (and ever sooo much more fun!). But in the visual arts I am relegated to the audience which in itself demands a new vocabulary, one different from that of either the Creator or the Interpreter, both of whom are actively, energetically involved in the artistic process. The art lover's role is that of die Zuschauer, the Onlooker, he who stands aside, apart from both the creation and the interpretation, but who is perhaps the most important player of all: he sees the art, hears the music and is moved by the creation. But how?

Until recently, visual art had always been out there for me, somewhere on the periphery, and I appreciated it in a passive way.

I had been immersed in the art of the Italian Renaissance during my study of the Italian language, I had lived with the French Impressionists, especially Degas and his ballet dancers, as I grew up in a family of dancers and teachers of dance, classical and contemporary, and, while living in Europe, I was dragged (in search of new treasures) from gallery to gallery by a pianist friend (who was and is still today a major collector of Fabergé). But in representational art, I was not forced to look for a vocabulary with which to view or understand these works. When viewing traditional art, we have a frame of reference; we see the subject in everyday life and can make some personal, subjective judgment about whether it looks as it should in a realistic painting or sculpture, or does the portrayal of the image in a more contemporary setting appeal to us as we wish. In non-objective art, however, we are drawn to the basics. It must be understood by something in us, something already there, to appreciate it.

I found that "something" when I visited an abstract gallery that I had visited many times before. Upon leaving, I realized I had understood what I had seen. It was all non-objective art . . . made up of forms, textures, colors, movement. What was that? I had recognized the language! As if hearing a long-forgotten, native tongue, a vocabulary emerged . . . balance, repetition, dissonance, form, beauty, melody, rhythm, consonance, color . . . and on and on. Musical terms meeting and melding with "space, line, scale, shape, light." My musical vocabulary spoke the language of abstract art! I had found a common ground, a shared aesthetic. And, although there was no heavenly voice, no drum roll, I was delighted by my delight and this wonderful welcomed insight.


Image: ©2004 Johannes Brahms
" Requiem"

Frank Lloyd Wright often commented on the importance of music in his architecture. Visual artists acknowledge the influence of music just as art and nature have inspired some extraordinary musical compositions. Upon first seeing The Third Stone and The Fifth Reed by Santa Fe artist Valdez Abeyta y Valdez, I was inexplicably drawn to it. Now I see the musical parallels in her use of space and repetition, and in the complex rhythms and dynamics which are found on at least three levels and move relentlessly forward, bound to the earth. Abeyta y Valdez has written about her works, "Silence and sound are my inspiration. Seven hours a day I translate the silence of grade school classrooms into six hundred small hands beating, drumming, thundering. Drawing, I enter the silence of paper and the paper sings with the sounds I hear." The introduction to the second movement of the sublime Brahms Requiem reminds me both visually and aurally of Abeyta y Valdez's work. There is a similar rhythm in the vocal melody, an unending throb surely emanating from the center of all creation as if both Brahms and Abeyta y Valdez have tapped into the pulse of the earth. It is the unseen and the unsung that pull these two works together.

Art is not the same as Music . . . or is it? I do not see or hear music when I look at art, but the same emotions stir in me in recognition of universal beauty ( . . . the quality of being very pleasing, as in form, color, or sound . . . ), and in recognition of the universal aesthetic ( . . . a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature, creation and appreciation of beauty . . . ) and in homage to universal creativity. Creation by the artist and composer, interpretation by the performer and recognition by the onlooker of the primordial flash, whether done in multi-colors, textures, or sounds, is all one and the same.

Thanks to Kay Fowler who is co-publisher of The New Mexico Millennium Collection.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 17


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