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Monday, November 5, 2012

Finger Painting

The notion that music is a uniquely multidimensional art-form revealed itself to me rather early in life. Mrs. Biller, my first grade teacher at Springhurst Elementary School in suburban New York, was an accidental catalyst that brought this heady issue to my attention over a half century ago.

I have no lost love for Mrs. Biller. I flunked her class and had to repeat first grade again. She was a nervous, rigid, and inexperienced public school teacher who didn’t know how to deal with kids that were outside of the box. But unknowingly she presented me with an intellectual challenge that I’m still grappling with today.

It’s not a simple matter if you think about it. The issue broaches root-concepts such as time, space, multiple dimensions, and the essence of reality itself – all heavy stuff for a first-grader who could barely tie the shoe laces on his filthy Converse sneakers.

Mrs. Biller laid out a large, coarse sheet of white construction paper on each student’s desk. Her class was instructed to put on smocks and open a collection of finger paint jars before us. When everyone was ready, Mrs. Biller walked over to the phonograph, picked up a record album, took the LP out of its sleeve, and carefully placed the shiny black vinyl disk on the turntable. She did not announce what was about to play.

“Now class, listen to the music and paint what you hear.” Mrs. Biller nervously dropped the needle somewhere near the beginning of the first track on the album and music began to pour out of its tiny internal speaker. We heard the sound of a symphony orchestra, scratchy and without much bass, but it was the recording of an orchestra nonetheless.

First graders usually go with the flow. Nobody questioned who the composer or conductor was, or which orchestra was performing it. In retrospect, it was most likely the first movement of a Beethoven Symphony – something with a discernible pulse as I recall. I don’t think Mrs. Biller cared one iota about the music. She most likely selected the composition randomly and thought that “classical music” was beneficial for our developing little brains (a notion that educators maintain to this day). For her this was an experiment of sorts or a way to preoccupy her adorable students for a few minutes with an activity other than pelting spitballs at each other projected through drinking straws.

The music that blared from the phonograph was really inspiring, intense, quite beautiful, and full of emotion. It penetrated my soul. My colleagues around me were already hard at work sticking their fingers into paint jars and (more or less) randomly slopping large globs of paint onto the virgin pages of pristine paper sitting before them.

I paused to listen, and to think.

How should I attack this problem: “to paint what you hear?” I knew that this was going to be a very subjective exercise. I hoped that whatever artistic “solution” I choose was not going to be meticulously scrutinized or end up jeopardizing my forthcoming academic career. Given the limited number of options available within the medium of finger-paint; I didn’t fear that I would fail the exam, but I was also a bit timid, concerned, and hesitant about the prospects of a promising outcome nonetheless.

However, this hands-on exercise did force me to confront (on some level) a key issue about how ideas are communicated by their particular medium, and how music is distinctly different than visual arts (and vice versa).

As I listened I could hear the raw elements of musical sound before me: pitch, rhythm, tone color, dynamics, and their multilayered, entwined, and interlaced internal dance over the course of musical time. It’s a complex pattern and the brain has to work at full utilization to keep up with the rapid-fire, real-time unfolding of auditory signals. Music is complex and multi-dimensional, if nothing else.

Finger painting on the other hand is a bit more limited. Visual art (and photography) is not prone or designed to represent the flow of ideas intuitively across a designated span of time. It generally captures snapshots of an event, and freezes a single image into a momentary, static memory. The continuum of organized sound on the other hand relies on time to make its case. Other than the example of a musical score which mechanically represents musical information in arcane symbols and instructions to be realized at a later stage, in performance the flow of time is a non-negotiable prerequisite for musical communication. How could one possibly paint a complex musical work on a static page of paper using nothing but your fingers? What’s a first-grader to do?

Listening to what was probably a Beethoven symphony, I knew intuitively that the composer was speaking a different language. The composers’ composition evolved in a logical progression of musical phrases, ideas, and form. All of these interdependent musical elements are at the core of its discourse. I immediately realized that ideas of this magnitude would not easily translate into a primitive finger painting limited to just two dimensions on the single piece of paper.

The complexity of Mrs. Biller’s assignment didn’t faze my fellow classmates. They were already hard at work on their mini-masterworks, busy moving their little arms back and forth according to the musical ictus, and enjoying every moment. As the music got louder, they would mash the paint deeper into the page. Growing bored, they would reach for more water colors to add into the mix, subconsciously searching for visual analogs to represent strings, winds, brass, and percussion. It seemed that their earnest fingers attempted to find true expression in Beethoven’s magical notes, but failed in vain.

I sat alone, staring at the empty page of paper in front of me. The jars of finger paint on my miniature desk beckoned for attention. Out of the corner of her eye Mrs. Biller noticed my hesitation. She smiled in her uniquely annoying way and sternly encouraged me to dive in… “Go ahead Jimmy, it’s not so difficult.”

Looking for a way out, I scanned around the room for encouragement, helpful hints, or a creative solution that I could potentially borrow or outright steal from a fellow classmate.

By now Beethoven’s music was getting more intense. It was still early in the symphonic work, and the movement had not yet reached its development section. Yet, by now all of my classmates had literally covered their pages with thick amounts of paint. Not only was their artwork generously coated, but the different colors of their paint had thoroughly mixed and their pages were quickly transforming into similar shades of United Parcel Service brown.

Mrs. Biller didn’t seem to notice. While the narrative discourse of the music was clearly far from complete, most of the artwork was over-done. The increasingly earthly tones of my classmate’s creations indicated the broad stroke marks of their busy little fingers. Their movements were now occurring with one large hand gesture at a time. Each successive wave of their hand over-wrote the preceding image that previously existed on the page.

Their visual solution did not appeal to me, nor did it represent the music as I heard it in any way. I felt that they were all headed down the wrong path - effectively turning Beethoven’s amazing symphony into mud. All I remember about their finished work is that everyone else in the class came to the same collective result. Miraculously, they arrived at similar variations of the same artwork – “Brown on Brown.”

With an informed feeling from the musical form that the music would continue on, I took my time to think about the sounds, the possibilities of visual expression, and considered an array of images that seemed to express similar feelings as the music. I began creating something with bright colors that was totally abstract, and which seemed entirely appropriate to the situation at hand.

Mrs. Biller was in a quagmire. She could either turn off the music before the movement had ended, or let her students continue to make a mess with brown paint. She decided to let them make a mess and post the results on the bulletin board after the thick crusty brown paint had dried.

In the end I enjoyed listening to the music. I also enjoyed creating a finger painting that was loosely “inspired” by the music. I did not attempt to record, translate, or notate sounds in a visual or graphical way since that would result in what seemed to be an inherently flawed exercise that would never come to fruition. But I did return home after school that day with a better understanding of the differences between music and visual art. These differences are quite profound, and they at the heart of human perception, art, and our interpretation of reality.

On that day I found music to be the more complex of the two art forms. Music contains mysteries that even a first grader will marvel at, if you are wise enough to leave them to their own devices.

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