Seven Ways of Listening to a Klee 

By Richard Kopf, Guest Reviewer

Clover LeafIn association with its fine exhibit, “Klee and America” (running through September 10), the Phillips Collection presented a very interesting Thursday lecture by lecturer-composer-performer-jazz/classical-Third Stream Guru Gunther Schuller on the subject “The Harmonies of Schuller and Klee”. No ego involved here: music was the main focus, so Schuller gets listed first.

Paul KleeSchuller was indeed an apt choice to explore the interface between painting and music. Not only is he a long-time Klee aficionado (as made clear by his remarks), his affinity for Paul Klee’s painting and drawing inspired him to compose “Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee” commissioned by the Minneapolis Orchestra back in 1959 (or, as the 80-year old Schuller put it, ‘50 or 60 years ago’, an obvious attempt to cheat Father Time). That piece, illustrated with recordings of four of the Studies and projections of the paintings themselves, was the focal point of the talk.

Schuller made several overarching points, all quite valid: that music and painting have an ancient history together; that the influence between two goes in both directions, i.e. music inspired by paintings and painting inspired by music and its performance; and that it is literally impossible to translate visual art directly into musical notation (he cited Scriabin’s obsession with assigning specific colors to each note of the scale).

None of this stops a good composer from trying, however, and Schuller’s attempt is as good as any. Schuller found a personal affinity in Klee’s musical background (amateur performer with folks like Paul Hindemith) and in the fact that Klee, by Schuller’s count, created 700 works with reference points to music and musicians. Paul Klee’s art, characterized by fine detail, abstraction anchored in familiar images, and often archaic-looking technique (metallic tones, wood-block styles) is actually pretty good material for musical extrapolation. The four pieces Schuller shared with his audience—“Antique Harmonies”, “Pastorale”, “Abstract Trio” (the only painting Schuller used that is included in the Phillips exhibit) and “Twittering Machine”—all are rendered in rather pointillist music, mostly chamber-like. Though “Seven Studies” calls for full orchestra, that large ensemble is used with exceptional restraint.

Paul KleeSchuller put a lot of emphasis on both the rhythm of Klee’s work (as in ‘Pastorale’ which layers a thin line of blue – i.e. sky – on top of repeated rectilinear displays of abstracted organic figures – i.e. stick trees, etc.). He also notes that while color and sound have no direct correlations, light and dark indeed can be rendered in music: “[in] antique harmonies…the use of subtle color gradations from light to dark to light invites the viewer to ‘read’ the picture from lower left to upper right…the color progression from near black through ochre and green-tinged brown to bright yellow (and back again) finds its parallel in a timbre progression from low, dark strings and woodwinds to the bright ‘yellow’ of high trumpets and strings…” The quote is from Schuller’s liner notes to the old Leinsdorf/Boston Symphony recording of “Seven Studies” but pretty much duplicates what he said at the Phillips.

Interesting stuff, and indeed given the visual clues from Klee one can hear what Schuller means throughout this piece. Those who are intrigued by the idea should see the exhibit, a very fine cross-secion of the artist’s work (third floor of the new Phillips Annex, unfortunately a bit harshly lit for some of the more delicate works). Those who enjoy “Pictures at an Exhibition” should also hear Schuller’s music, readily available on his own GM record (CD) label conducted by himself (an all-Schuller program recorded in Frankfurt, Germany) or in a Mercury bargain box of major orchestral works recorded by Antal Dorati (5 CDs, a mixed bag ranging from Stravinsky to Schuller and Berg to Bloch and Albeniz).

The event, by the way, was one of the Phillips’ ‘Artful Evenings’ which start at 6 p.m. Thursdays. In this case there was also a 6 p.m. piano recital Gilles Vonsattel, with works by Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Martin, and Debussy (all with some arguable connection to the artist). Unfortunately this was not advertised on the Phillips website, not to mention that one could not attend both the recital the lecture. Too bad—both clearly are aimed at the same audience, and lots of folks missed out as a result of the schedule conflict.

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