Musical Realism. Is it here yet?

by F.

Reading Jackie Wullschlager’s column in the FT yesterday on the road to abstract painting, I thought about how Classical Music and Kandinsky et al are, to me, quite dull. I think this is for the same reason. And I think I know what that reason is.

Starting first with the former, I mean, I like a good tune like everyone else, but, emotionally, I respond more strongly to the sound of waves or rain or birds. I have a feeling I’m not alone in this. I have a very fond memory of waking up to the sound of the waves on an island in the San Juans (in the Pacific Northwest). The gently rushing of the waves on the round rocks. Periodic, yet unquestionably natural.

Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian also bore me. I mean, I don’t find their work, generally, ugly. It’s actually quite beautiful. It’s just that it’s sort of an “oh” experience rather than an “OH!” experience. That sort of purely abstract design works well on product packaging or advertisements. In this way, it’s like soundtrack music—it’s a part of a fully satisfying artistic experience, but not a whole one.

But I don’t think the average viewer is going to have the same kind of experience looking at this:


as they would looking at this:


I imagine the reason why is that more cognitive machinery is involved in looking at the latter (Caravaggio) than the former (Mondrian). It involves the most interesting objects in the universe, from a human point of view: people. It also engages pictorial problem solving machinery (depth, light and dark, foreshortening, and so on) that, say, Broadway Boogie Woogie doesn’t. Broadway Boogie Woogie engages—I would guess—our cognitive machinery in the same way a Monopoly board does. It’s cool. But…

So, What is the connection between the Malevichians and Music (big “M”)?

It’s this: Both western music and abstract paintings are purely abstract—they don’t represent anything, and so the cognitive associations they engender are, I think, probably more limited. Imagine an abstract film. They exist. But they are absofuckinglutely boring. Sort of like looking at a sequence of paint chips or a PowerPoint without any text.



While there is a long tradition of naturalistic painting and drawing and printmaking, going back to something like 15,000 BCE (Lascaux dating is vexed), I’m not aware of a similar tradition in music.

But such may be coming. Because now, people are recording and selling natural sounds. Rivers. Ocean surf. Birds. Cows. This is, to me, music, and it gives me a braingasm like Ravel just never will.

Now, the next step is to take these sorts of natural sounds and order them in a way that will give an audience the most satisfying cognitive and emotional experience possible. What might that sound like? I don’t know, but I have some guesses.

For instance, one could organize an evening of natural sounds along the lines of a traditional form—such as a symphony. Or one could “travel” through different sounds, from rivers (hear the water on the rocks) to mountains (hear the wind) to the shore of the ocean (hear the waves, the undertow pulling the sand back out to sea). I would actually pay money to hear that.

I’m sure someone is doing this, but I have yet to find it. If you are doing this, or know someone who is, let me know.