Bassoon Blue: The Painter and the Blind Composer – a dialogue

a fragment from a script for a film initiated by alf loehr, very much in progress…

Note: B = the Blind Composer; P = the Painter

Part 2

B

Well, now that we’ve established a way to translate, or perhaps better put, transform, music into painting and painting into music, describe to me what this middle painting looks like.

P

Alright. I’ll do my best…

B

Don’t be too concerned, dear Painter, I may be blind but I do have a knowledge of geometry, and of the human figure, since, after all, I do have a body myself, though I’ve never seen it. Perhaps that is a good thing…

P

Oh please! dear Composer. You’ve been told often, I’m sure, how beautiful you are!

B

Your flattery falls flat with me, Painter, since I have no conception of visual beauty, only musical beauty.

P

Beauty is in the ear of the listener, is it?

B

Well put, indeed! But I sense that you’re stalling…

P

I see that intuition doesn’t require eyes. Well… I have to forewarn you that your knowledge of geometry and the human form will do you no good… will do me no good I should say, in aiding my description because my paintings aren’t figurative or architectural or geometric or realistic…

B

Ah… they are what is called abstract, then?

P

Yes. And precisely here we encounter the first impasse that we will need to overcome, I suspect. Music is very ordered, mathematical in fact, classical music is, at least. I know that music is often considered an ‘abstract’ art, but musical abstraction and that of painting are quite different, aren’t they?

B

Having no experience of visual abstraction, I’m not qualified to say. We are in a spot here, aren’t we.

P

Yes, I think we may be. Nor am I, really, qualified to speak about musical abstraction, not as qualified as you are. I listen to a great deal of music of all kinds from all eras, so I have at least a toe hold there. But perhaps you should first describe to me what musical abstraction is. That way I can better look for analogies for our different uses of the term.

B

Stalling again, are we? I’d been warned that you were a sly dog. I don’t mean to insult you. I appreciate cunning in a person. Alright, then. I’m game. Music is abstract in the sense… well… in the sense that… hmmm….

P

Ah ha! Now you see my dilemma.

B

Indeed I do. Allow me moot this – music is abstract because it’s made of sound, noise, and silence. It doesn’t appear to us to be a physical thing, because well, it can’t be touched. And for you, I imagine, it’s also abstract because it can’t be seen. It is true though that sound, and therefore music, ‘touches’ us. We can’t put out our hand and grasp it, but our ears, in fact our entire body, can. But for humans, touch and sight are the dominant senses, the perceptual modes which allow us to experience the world as physical, concrete, material, objective. Whereas, we don’t experience sound as physical, usually, as listeners at least, because we don’t think that we experience it, physically. When in fact we actually do. We choose to reach out and touch something, and, so I’m told, we can choose what we look at or not look at. So we think we have more control when we touch or see something. Seeing and touching give us a sense of power and control over the world. But our ears are passive organs, aren’t they? We can’t choose or not choose what we hear. It just somehow, mysteriously, happens to us. As listeners, we don’t cause it to happen. And anything that just happens to us, that we can’t control, is not part of our body, is separate from us, and that is one way in which music is abstract – it’s something independent of us.

My, I’ve become loquacious. My apologies.

P

Not at all. Please go on.

B

It’s a very different case with musicians, for those who play an instrument. For them, it’s a profoundly physical experience. But oddly, even though they cause music to happen, they can’t make sound happen. For, as you say, sound is only in the ear of the beholder. Even for them, as they perform, they are also passive listeners, just as dependent as listeners are on their ears, perhaps even more dependent because they’ve trained their ears to be expert listeners.

P

So music and sound are very different things?

B

Yes. It’s a very strange situation, isn’t it? But it gets even stranger. And this brings me to suggest a second way in which music is abstract. Music, like mathematics, even like language, consists of symbols, of notation, and symbols themselves are not concrete things, are they? They only point to concrete things. But they are not the concrete things themselves. They are abstract scratches on a piece of paper that have no physical existence, other than being a mark on paper. By themselves though, they have no meaning. The note, ‘C’, doesn’t have any concrete existence or meaning until the piano key is struck, does it?. It’s merely an abstract mark that can only point toward a sound, or be a single element of a word, which itself is only an abstract group of symbols. A musical score is a gathering of symbols into some kind of order that can only represent sounds unfolding in time. But they are not the sounds themselves. No more than the word, ‘cat’, is a real, objectively existing, ‘cat’.

P

You’re very right. This is a very strange set of affairs. I’d say that it’s even paradoxical. You were describing how the musician, the performer, is different from the passive listener. This may be key to thinking about painting. So could you say more about that?

B

Yes, of course. Imagine the musician as she plays. She is in two different places simultaneously. She is intimately engaged in the very physical act of playing her instrument. But at the same time, her brain is on fire with the complex patterns of the abstract symbols of the score, as she translates them into the physical actions of her fingers striking the piano keys or plucking the strings of an upright bass. The act of playing an instrument is a truly miraculous event. Somehow the musician is able to forge or compress purely abstract symbols and abstract sounds into a single thing, a single act, the performance. It’s almost like forcing the north and south poles of a magnet into a single force, and, we know what happens when that’s done – a great explosion occurs. So a musical performance is an explosion caused when abstract notation and abstract sound are compressed together. Then, and only then, can one hear Bach or Zappa.

P

Wow! I now regret turning the tables on you! I fear that I’ll not be able to rise to the same heights in describing the abstraction of painting.

B

Come now. You’re just being a sly dog again.

P

Don’t be so sure, Composer.

Bassoon Blue: The Painter and the Blind Composer – a dialogue

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