by Nathan Cornelius
In this post, instead of offering a “hearing” of a piece of music, I want to instead share my personal “seeing” of a work of visual art which has inspired me as a composer.
One of the most engrossing experiences with art I can remember was the minutes I spent with a large painting of water lilies by Claude Monet at the Art Institute of Chicago several years ago. I found myself absorbed in the image on many different levels, from the most delicate swirls of paint to the rich array of flowers and reflections which arose out of them. So, when I visited Paris earlier this summer, I eagerly looked forward to visiting the Musée de l’Orangerie, home of eight monumental canvases Monet painted of his lily pond near the end of his life. These works, collectively titled Nymphéas (“water lilies” in French) hang in two oval galleries specially designed by the painter to create the ideal environment in which to contemplate his vision. Those not fortunate enough to be able see these images in person can take a virtual tour at the museum’s website.
On my visit to the Orangerie, I began by admiring each painting from as close as I dared, being mindful of the security guard pacing deliberately around the room. Since each painting is six feet high and twenty to fifty feet long, it is impossible to grasp the whole picture from this distance. Instead, the close-up viewer peers into a dense thicket of curved brushstrokes, often bold, loose, rough, and even ugly. The brushstrokes pile up against each other, sometimes spilling paint out the cracks between them until it builds up into textured ridges, like foam on a breaking wave. My eyes were flooded with the vibrations of a myriad of colors, now complementing, now clashing against each other, from radiant lilac and salmon to drab green and brown. As I looked longer, I noticed that most of the brushstrokes were in fact loaded with several different colors which swirled into each other, outlining the traces of the individual hairs on the brush. Each section of each panel was awash in such details and, with its spontaneous yet balanced flow, could almost pass for an abstract expressionist masterpiece.
As I stepped back to view the entire sweep of the image, my view radically changed, and it took focused mental effort to keep hold of my abstract perception of the painting. As soon as my eye settled on any pattern for a moment, my brain immediately began to decode it as a lily pad or the reflection of a cloud, and then the whole abstraction dissolved into a scene of a pond again, as if released from a magician’s spell. Despite the abundance of tangible detail in the work, it is remarkable how little Monet actually shows of the objects which the painting seems to represent so effortlessly. He provides just enough of a suggestion of foliage, light, water, and sky to allow the viewer’s mind to catch on and begin filling in the rest. Thus, it is not Monet’s lily pond I see; it is one of my own imagination. I seem to remember myself, at some time in the vague past, standing at the edge of a pond with the light falling through the trees behind me, looking at the reflection of a sunset sky in the calm water. I am not so much aware of what Monet was feeling as he made this image as of the strange emotional associations that the memory of lily pads, trees, and clouds calls up within me.
As I left the peaceful oval gallery, I felt a resonance between my desires as a composer and the lessons I learned from this great artist. I would love to create a music that absorbs and enthralls the listener in a rich and sweeping array of detail, as Monet’s Nymphéas do. Eventually, the listener will “step back” aurally to grope for something recognizable to take hold of in this delightful torrent of textures and colors. I want to be able to reward this search by creating music that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, as listeners can lose themselves in the immediacy and freshness of the sounds as they happen or enjoy a larger structure that may even seem familiar. Yet, I wonder, how do I do this in such a way that the form which the listener perceives is not a window into the my (the composer’s) mind but a mirror into his or her own soul, revealing something they deeply felt along? I don’t expect to find the answer to this question anytime soon, as Monet’s Nymphéas series was the culmination of five decades of artistic exploration. For me, this work does provide a compelling vision of what such a synthesis could look like. I would love to hear what works, musical, visual, or otherwise, do the same for you!