In Rodney Graham’s eight-minute film A Reverie Interrupted by the Police (2003) the artist, handcuffed and in a stripy prison outfit, furtively plays a piano whose innards have been ‘prepared’ à la John Cage: stuffed with metal resonators, paper clips, and cutlery. While Graham gingerly picks out some sad, buzzing notes, a policeman stands guard on the stage of the tiny theatre where this curious event is taking place. Graham punctuates his furtive keyboard manoeuvres with tense backward glances, before – time’s up! – he is escorted off-stage. As a downbeat coda to ‘Sons et Lumières’ (Sound and Light), an ambitious and exhaustive survey of relationships between visual and sonic thinking during the 20th-century, it tells you all you need to know about public attitudes to music that goes beyond the conventional ideas of narrative, tone and timbre. Such is the fate of sound as art (as opposed to pure music): generally unloved and unwanted, in comparison with contemporary plastic arts, where a Jackson Pollock or mid-1990s ‘Brit Art’ retrospective can pull mass audiences.
Curated by the Pompidou’s Sophie Duplaix with the Louvre’s Marcella Lista, the show required a good three or four hours to absorb, with its bombardment of sensory and intellectual input, including painting, sound sculpture, sound/light automata, film and video, and room-size installations. The tangled and complex narrative of contemporary sonics was unpicked and arranged in three sections like separate essays – ‘Correspondences’ (abstraction, colour music, animated light), ‘Imprints’ (transformations, syntheses, traces) and ‘Ruptures’ (chance, noise, silence) – which explored aural currents rippling through more established art narratives. If sonic practice often holds out for galleries the promise of an escape route from object-based work, here you left glutted with materializations and depictions of sonic information. Paul Klee’s paintings of melted geometries c.1930 were revealed as by-products of his graphic transcriptions of J.S. Bach’s ‘Inventions’ and hung alongside Josef Albers’ Fugue II (1925) and Henri Nouveau’s Klavier No. 1 (1944), both anticipating 1960s computer scores – recast Klee in a prophetic light.
Literal correspondence between image and sound came in a section devoted to prewar animation. Rudolf Pfenninger, a music scientist depicted in a nerdy pre-Nazi German newsreel, drew wave-forms and oscillation patterns onto the sound strip of film stock to generate pure tones, juddering noise and swooping vibrations when played through a projector. Animator Oskar Fischinger took up the baton once he had fled Hitler’s Germany for Hollywood to make animated symphonies for Walt Disney, including Fantasia (1940). Preparatory sketches for a section of Modest Mussorgsky’s symphonic poem Night On Bare Mountain (1867) demonstrated the painstaking thought patterns required, with freehand drawings transmuting pure sound into morphing shapes that pulsed, contracted and soared in perfect sync with the music. Postwar animations by Harry Smith, the Whitney brothers, Norman McLaren and Len Lye took this sense of four-dimensional concentration into more rarefied zones.
Convergences of colour and harmony were a central ingredient of the post-Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. Strategies of colour/sound equations tapped into a hermetic tradition of esoteric correspondences between harmonics, colour spectra and, by extension, natural/cosmic ratios. Wassily Kandinsky’s early abstractions illustrating transcendental theories of chromaticism are familiar in this context, but he was not alone. Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné’s Optophonic Piano (1922–3) projected light through a series of mica plates on which paintings were executed, in quest of ‘artistic unity’ (as the accompanying press release hyped it). Miroslav Ponc’s ink and watercolour Chromatic Turbine In Eight Notes (Drawing No. 1) (c. 1925) is an extraordinary image of a burrowing device (perhaps the subterranean mechanism behind the Fredersens’ giant organ in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), a Jules Verne/Flash Gordon mechanical worm fusing chromatic/acoustic science with a very 1920s vision of supremacy through technological efficiency. Josef Matthias, Alexander László and Stanton Macdonald-Wright explored equivalences between the tempered scale and the colour wheel. Macdonald-Wright moved on to design the Synchrome Kineidoscope (Colour–Light Machine) (exhibited version built 1960–69) and was one of many artists, along with former Dadaist Raoul Haussmann, to translate such concepts into three dimensions.
These impotent contraptions presaged the sensory confusions now gleaned from TV, cinema, computer games and night-club environments or psychedelic rock shows. Thomas Wilfred’s evolving Luminous Machine (1965–6), with many intersecting paths of mirrors, metal plates, reflective metal and light bulbs, was geared to throwing trippy smoky swirls on a translucent screen – the hidden mechanics take one year, 315 days and 12 hours to enact all their permutations. The section ended with technological innovations skewing artistic practice towards disorientation: Brion Gysin’s Dreamachine (1960–76), Paul Sharits’ Shutter Interface (1975), La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House installation (1962–90) – a humming room in purples and pinks – and Bill Viola’s Hallway Nodes (1972–2004), subsonic frequencies telescoped to a synapse-pounding focal point.
The ‘Ruptures’ section opened with a blast of the art of noise, with Luigi Russolo’s Futurist instruments, then jumped ahead to the tabula rasa of Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting (Two Panel) (1951) and John Cage’s original score for the ‘silent’ 4’33” (1952). Cage’s drawings on transparent plastic sheets, overlaid to produce the infinite performance permutations of Variations I (1958), Fontana Mix (1958–9) and other breakthrough works of the 1950s, attempted to reduce compositional consciousness to absolute zero. These graphic scores became Utopian maps, revealing free territories whose pathways were manifested in sound rather than ground.
At this point the show became overtextualized and carried away with itself in a large room dedicated to Fluxus’ sonic strategies, themselves re-readings and annihilations of Cage’s pioneering networks. Curatorial control might have edited out, for example, the selection of boxed artefacts and card instructions for happenings. But photos of naked cellist Charlotte Moorman arrested for indecency in New York segued neatly into Rodney Graham’s concluding reverie.