One of the things that really excites me is taking something out of its natural environment and placing it in a different environment to see what happens. Sometimes, nothing. Most of the time, new ideas are generated and frontiers get expanded. Noticing when things are similar strengthens theories, and noticing how new behaviors emerge leads to discovery. Sometimes this happens by accident, e.g. a lab sample get contaminated and births a new useful idea. Sometimes it’s on purpose, by curiosity. Today I’m going to purposely cross sensory boundaries and apply this principle to Art.
“But Namir,” I hear you saying, “that’s silly. How can combining art produce new ideas? Besides, how are you going to do that anyway? Are you going to paint scents? Or hear colors?”
Yes. Using the power of our minds (sparkles and glitter magically appear out of nowhere, prompting amazement-filled gasps of delight.)
Let’s start by remembering your favorite song. What goes through your head? A video of the song? A memory of seeing the band live? When you see a painting or favorite image, what goes through your head? A verbal description of what is depicted perhaps? Similarly for food: do you restrict what you taste to simply sweet or salty? These are all well and good, but buckle up, because we’re going in for a closer look.
I enjoy being passionate about sensing my world. Appreciating all of the experiences it has to offer. And the best way of hooking into the ability to appreciate Art on another level is to ascribe emotion to it. For instance, to feel music; to be overcome with happiness when eating your favorite food. It is this way that we can start using language to describe in vivid detail what it is we’re experiencing. Coming from a classically trained background in the combination of piano and tuba (like all the best musicians), I learned the value of playing with my heart. To pour emotion and feeling into a piece. And I listened to a lot of music. All kinds, from classical European, to Arabic folk tunes, to American pop. Pop songs are too repetitive and simple in structure to tell complex stories. Don’t get me wrong, I could listen to Aerosmith all day long (and in fact have). But I also listen to Vivaldi. And Rimsky-Korsakov. And Prokofiev. Now there are some masterful story-tellers.
The most accessible example of storytelling are books. As you read the words, your brain translates them into images you already have stored in your memory. The storyteller weaves words together to create a cohesive running commentary of images that roll through the brain. The really amazing thing is that this story is different for everyone. And the richness of the translation and actions of the characters begin to evoke emotion as we develop feelings for, and become attached to, the story we develop and read. Because the larger themes and specific instances pull emotions from our memory stores as well. So a masterful story is one that creates detailed, rich tapestries of visuals as well as emotion. It is my argument that this entire process can be applied to Art that applies to other senses. Let’s take another example: music. Specifically, non-pop music.
Two excellent examples of this are Peter and the Wolf, and Night on Bald Mountain. Peter and the Wolf is narrated with musical accompaniment. Every passage is illustrated by music. And every bit of music is matched to the story in order to create a rich tapestry of various themes that can fill one’s mind by bringing the scene the narrator describes to life. The narrator might speak of a fox making its way through a forest, and the music will bring it to life by suggesting the fox doing so in a hoppy, quick, darting way, perching on rocks here and there while periodically sniffing the air for familiar and foreign scents.
In the film Fantasia, animators present their take on how the music can be visualized. As I watch it, I flesh out the story being displayed with ideas, motives, emotions, and whatever comes to mind as it unfolds. It is an example of how a piece of music can be interpreted as a story. Perhaps as the composer intended it or perhaps as a new interpretation. This is the magic of art…it can, and should, be interpreted however you want. The entire film Fantasia (and its sequel) tell similar tales interpreted by Disney animators. It is a great place to start seeing how to visualize music and the story being told. Another is Nicholas Rougeux’s literal translation of a score into beautiful visual art.
What a beautiful, complex, convoluted way to communicate. Imagine having a thought, or hearing a song in your head, and then translating it into a universal language (music notation), and then having a huge group of people simultaneously read it, and play their interpretation. Then, a person hears it and interprets it themselves. It can change so many ways from ideation to final interpretation. This subjective latitude is not afforded to the realm of science, and it is for exactly that reason which I love art. And why it is so important. Art grows in meaning with every interpretation, and becomes richer.
So when I listen to a story put to music, such as an opera, symphony, or simple sonata, I imagine what is trying to be communicated. I try to let the story tell itself and I fill in the
characters, scenery and actions. It makes for such a vibrant interpretation than just some notes being played in different combinations. I invite you to pick some classical pieces of music and listen to them with this new outlook. Realize that music can be interpreted as a language, with its own grammar, parts of speech, story arc, characters, and background scenery. Realize the immensely powerful capability of the brain to create a visual story that accompanies that story. Know that these put together create complex thoughts like emotion…or if you’re lucky enough, just hear the raw unfettered emotion the composer poured into their creation, and appreciate the performers and conductors that bring the tiny scribbles on paper to life. Is the music fast like a herd of gazelles running, being chased by a cheetah? Or slow and purposeful like a giant oak swaying in a breeze? Is there whooshing like winds dancing or staccato notes like so many marbles falling on a steel table? Is the tone happy like excited puppies frolicking or mournful like a parent who’s child passed away due to sudden and unforeseen circumstances? Are there feelings of hopefulness and victory or the urgent pushings of a struggle for one’s voice to be heard in a sea of cacophony?
All of this can be translated to the world of visual art as well. The obvious difference of course, being that music is a journey through time and art (such as a painting or illustration) is a moment in time. But oh, the stories that can be told around that moment in time! Art helps with the visuality a bit since paintings can be representative images of things already familiar to us, like people strolling through a field of flowers. The real fun comes when looking at abstract images. You have to make your own story. Does what you’re looking at illustrate the epic struggle of the repressed voice of feminism in the 1950s? Or perhaps a chilly day that has a sun that broke through grumbling clouds and provides a crisp day with which to finally chop some wood? How does it make you feel? The question isn’t so much if it is or isn’t art (in any form). The real question is what do you see, imagine, or feel. It isn’t our place or job to critique it and point out its flaws or problems. It wasn’t made for you, or to your specifications. It was born inside a specific person who wanted to create something. So the only way you should appreciate art, is on its own terms.
Continuing the theme into the sense of taste, food is similar to music in that it can be considered a time-based journey. There is a visual aspect, but I feel that it detracts from fully experiencing it. Conversely, I think the sense of smell accentuates and is integral to the story. A good gustatory story is told through a series of courses, each with their own sub-plot. When you taste a carefully crafted dish, it will have a beginning, middle, and ending flavor. Perhaps complimentary, perhaps contrasting. One of the best examples of this is the language people who taste wines use. Again, the same questions can be asked as you thoughtfully imbibe this art. What feelings does it evoke in you? Does it taste like spring or fall? It is playful and light with dashing hints of flavor like perhaps pastel colors? Or many strong and brash flavors like a Sousa march featuring brass instruments? Does the taste transport you to a place in your memory that has feelings attached? If not, what memories will you attach to this new experience?
If you haven’t gathered yet, one of the ideas I’m trying to introduce is that senses can be combined to create and enhance full bodies of sensory treasure. The ultimate story would be one that involves all of the senses at once. I wonder what that would be like! Stories can be inter-sensory experiences. And the more detail and senses used, the richer, more memorable, fascinating the story. Colors that you can hear, tastes that you can see, and smells that make you weep (for joy. Not the other kind. Those are horrible and should not be considered an art form). The corollary to this is that mindfulness in being observant is vital to the entire process. The more details you notice about your physical world, the more adjectives and memories your brain has to paint pictures. Noticing small things. Noticing details. Noticing how your body reacts and what feelings bubble up. Noticing all these things as they are, not as you want them to be. Appreciating and being thankful for all the detail the world has provided. The more you notice, the richer your entire world becomes. What do you choose: a dull colorless life or a bright vibrant life?
Photo: Getty Images