Dancing About Architecture

Nathan Langston writes about Ekphrasis and Synesthesia in Art

Playing in a band, my friends and I were often asked an uncomfortable question. It goes like this: "Oh, you're in a band? What's your band sound like?" Leaving aside the discomfort of trying to brag about yourself, you are literally being asked to use words to describe the sound-sensations that your music creates. Attempting to answer this awkward little question leads to some spectacularly clumsy answers.

"Well, we're sort of prog-reggae with a hint of blues-metal." Or, "It's like if Paul Simon and Tom Waits and Janis Joplin had a baby together, who then had a baby with Lady Gaga. Now imagine if that third baby was dressed like Mr. Rogers and was on mescaline." Or, "Think of a Latin, hippie, Frank Sinatra, playing the hammer dulcimer at the speed of light." It's a good natured question but one that's incredibly difficult to answer in any useful way. In 1979, Gary Sperazza wrote about a duo named Sam and Dave in the rock & roll magazine "Time Barrier Express."

All quick, very natural, and captured on vinyl. It's so hard to explain on paper, you'll just have to find the records and listen for yourself (because I truly believe – honest – that writing about music is, as Martin Mull put, like dancing about architecture).

That same year, in Arts Magazine, the critic Thomas McGonigle wrote a piece about the painter Michael Madore.

So with Madore we have the classic situation: no limits, thus all limits, or to slightly alter the famous Martin Mull dictum: Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture.

In fact, the musician and actor Martin Mull did not originate this simile. It's been around forever and has been attributed to everyone. In 1918, a critic in the New Republic wrote, "Strictly considered, writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics." In an interview with Playboy shortly before his death in 1980, John Lennon said, "Listen, writing about music is like talking about fucking. Who wants to talk about it?" There are others. "Writing about art is like knitting about music." Or, "Talking about music is like singing about football."

It's all to say that it's exceptionally hard for one form of expression to convey an equivalent, or even an approximation, of the information contained in and expressed by another form.

Even translation from one form of expression to the same form is hard. One of my favorite poets is the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca but, because I have only a paltry grasp of Spanish, I have to rely on translations. I like to get different translations and compare them in an attempt to triangulate the original meaning. So one book translates a line as "Heaven-Murdered One." The next book translates those same Spanish words into the English words "Cut down by the sky." Both are pretty explosive but it just goes to show that there is no such thing as a perfect or exact translation. You could also say "The Sky Murdered Me!" or, "Heaven Cut Me Down!" There's no accounting for personal association in a translation. So linguistic translation happens like this: Spanish words of the poem line → Contextual idea about what those words mean → English words of poem line. And that's just from one language to another language.

Translating music or visual art (or anything non-linguistic) into words is a vastly more difficult affair. That's not to say people don't do it. People write about and describe music and art and film and sculpture and dance all the time. You could fill vast libraries with Bible-length books and magazines and doctoral theses that have been devoted to this very thing. It's just a goddamned tricky endeavor and some people don't do a very elegant or sensitive job of it.

On the other hand, some people do an extraordinary, almost supernatural job of it. In ancient Greece, students of rhetoric were instructed in the practice of ekphrasis. 'Ek' means 'Out' and "Phrasis" means 'Speak' so ekphrasis simply means "Speak Out," or I suppose you could say "Give Voice To." This practice involved putting the student in front of a painting or a sculpture and asking the student to describe that visual object with words. The goal was to get so skilled at doing this that a student could convey a visual object vividly enough that a person who had never seen it before felt as though they were standing in the presence of that object. This was the first formal analysis and was also one of the earliest forms of art criticism.

But the description didn't just end with the physical object. There was also the matter of speaking to the image as though it was a person, "giving voice to" the image, interpreting it, meditating on the moment of viewing it and so on. Students became so adept at this practice that they could also perfectly convey imaginary objects.

The oldest and most famous example of this sort of ekphrasis was Homer's description of the Shield of Achilles in book 18 of the Iliad. The shield is covered in ornamentation. Homer starts in the center and moves outwards through the shield's concentric rings. On the shield, we see the Earth, the sky, the sun, moon, constellations, two cities, a wedding, a court trial, a siege, a battle, a field being plowed, the king's harvest being reaped, a vineyard of grape pickers, farmers and dogs fighting off two lions that are attacking their herd of bulls, a sheep farm, a dance party full of dancing men and women, and the endless depths of the ocean. The shield contains the entire world. It's an astonishingly vivid linguistic depiction of a visual object.

Three thousand years later or so, we have such splendid and detailed replications of paintings and songs online and in books that ekphrasis doesn't occupy quite as prominent a position as it once did back when we didn't have the capacity to travel all the way to Rome to see the Parthenon or all the way to the British Isles to see Stonehenge. But at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, ekphrasis is still actively practiced in the education department. There, they give tours of the museum's galleries to blind and partially sighted groups. The idea of blind people going to "look" at art galleries seemed amazing to me and so I met with Carrie McGee who works at MOMA in the Community and Access Programs branch of MOMA's Department of Education.

"Well, MOMA's had touch tours since 1974," she says. "Touch tours consist of groups putting on thin gloves and getting a sense of the size and shape and style by running their hands all over the object. Most of our bronze and some of our stone works have been approved by conservators for touch."

I remembered the clip that I had watched on the MoMA website in which a visually impaired woman talked about how breathtaking it was to get to put one's hands all over a masterpiece of sculpture.

"It was about 8 years ago, I was an intern then," says Carrie. "We were just starting our Art Insight program and we started focusing on a lot of visual descriptions. In a touch tour, if someone had no residual vision, as they are touching the object, you would also be giving them a description of the work so that they could better conceptualize what their hands were 'seeing.' So if you're touching a figure, I would be giving you a description and guiding your hands as I talk, if that's what you wanted. And then we realized at some point, people really wanted- even people with no sight whatsoever- wanted to be in the galleries, you know, 'seeing' and experiencing all of the other shows that everybody else was. So we started training our lecturers, people who have PhDs in Art History, to deliver touch and descriptive tours.

"Okay, so let's say I was describing this picture." She stops and gestures to a work on the wall behind where I was sitting.

"The first thing is to imagine this as a blank screen and you're trying to fill it in. So you can't jump around. You maybe give a general overview and then you start on the lower right side and work methodically clockwise. Use relative sizes that everyone can relate to. If I say this painting is a 150 inches by 95 inches, it doesn't mean anything to anyone but if I say it's about the size of a refrigerator turned on its side, a blind person is going to have a sense of that. So 'It's as wide as your outstretched arms,' 'It's as tall as a person,' 'It's taller than life-size.'

"And we work a lot with trying to explain difficult, visually abstract concepts. So as an example, you could explain how light was falling on an object in a painting by referring to a shower head and how when the water is hitting you in the shower, that part of you that's getting hit with water has the light on it and everywhere else is darkness. So we're thinking of ways to use analogies to make visual information tactile and to explain visual concepts that are, really, intangible without sight."

I suggested that describing a Jackson Pollock to someone who couldn't see it must be very difficult but she disagreed. With most Pollock's, there is a fairly consistent technique throughout the entirety of the work. So once you describe the technique of drip painting that Pollock used, you can keep relating back to that as you describe the work. It's much harder to describe a painting that employs a large number of different techniques because each of those techniques would need to be extrapolated.

"When we get a really good art historian," Carrie went on, "they're already a very proficient 'looker.' And what we say to people is that 'this will make you a better educator and better viewer and a better art historian. Our eyes trick us into thinking that we get it right away but you will be astonished, when you start giving verbal descriptions, how many details you will notice that you never noticed before.'

"I teach this to medical students to hone their eyes and observation skills and we do this 'draw and describe' exercise where one person is facing a painting and one person is facing away and one describes it and the other has to draw it. Eventually they turn around and look at the drawing and we talk about it. The sort of visual description we become expert at slows you down and makes you look closer and forces you to think about the specificity and importance of your words."

Carrie, who was incredibly gracious in speaking with me, recommended a group called Art Beyond Sight, which is one of the authorities on this type of teaching. The information provided by their site is fascinating.

Writing or talking about music or art might seem useless or illogical or complicated but, for someone who has no other way to experience Picasso, Matisse, Kahlo, Rothko, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rodin, Rembrandt, or any of the other miracle workers from the vast history of art, this translation from one sense to another, imperfect as it may often be, is the only way to interact with some of the most profound expressions of the human experience.

While ekphrasis has been traditionally located at the intersection of language and visual (usually with language describing the visual), there are actually an enormous number of varieties of ekphrasis. In his 1996 book, Iconotexts: Essays on Ekphrasis and Intermediality, Peter Wagner writes, "If critics agree at all about ekphrasis, they stress the fact that it has been variously defined and variously used and that the definition ultimately depends on the particular argument to be deployed." Really? Okay then Wagner, here's my definition for Ekphrasis:

Ekphrasis is the process by which the information contained and expressed by any form of art is translated into the vocabulary of any other form of art.

Whoa! This really opens the floodgates! In my (broad and un-academic) definition, ekphrasis doesn't just mean language describing visual art. It can also mean that ekphrasis is when music describes language or when dance describes film or when theater describes photography or when visual art describes language or… when dance describes architecture. After all, a ballet about the Empire State Building or about the Burj Khalifa in Dubai or about the Pyramids of Gaza could be astonishing.

As regards this very inclusive definition of ekphrasis, there really doesn't seem to be a sufficient amount of scholarship on these multitudinous methods of exchange from art form to art form. Of course, you've got a few libraries-worth of writing about traditional ekphrasis. Perhaps the most famous example is Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn," or my personal favorite, Shelly's "On the Medusa of Leonardo Davinci."

Then you've got a substantial amount of work dedicated to (what I suppose you could call) reverse ekphrasis, meaning visual art attempting to translate language. Think of any Biblical painting based on text. Think William Blake. There's some deep thinking on this score by W.J.T. Mitchell, who is a very smart and generous art historian. Regarding drawing about dance, you should check out this essay about the drawings of experimental choreographer Trisha Brown.

If you're looking for ekphrasis that consists of music describing visual art or literature, I might point you over to Siglind Bruhn, who is a professor at University of Michigan, holds a masters and two doctorates, is a concert pianist, is a musicologist and music analyst, and is a full-time researcher in the fields of "Music and Literature" and "Music in Interdisciplinary Dialogue." Here is an excerpt from the abstract of her paper, "A Concert of Paintings: Musical Ekphrasis in the Twentieth Century."

Not only poets may respond to a work of visual art with a creative act in their own medium, transposing the style and structure, the message and the metaphors from the visual to the verbal. Composers, more and more frequently in our century, are also exploring this interartistic mode of transfer. Although the musical medium is reputedly abstract, composers, just like poets, can respond in many different ways to a visual representation. They may transpose aspects of both structure and content; they may supplement, interpret, respond with associations, problematize or play with some of the suggestive elements of the original image.

Dr. Bruhn spends a lot of her paper talking about the different aspects of a musical vocabulary and how they relate to aspects of a visual or linguistic vocabulary. Then she looks a number of examples of how various composers grappled with the fantastic difficulty of trying to translate from one art form into another. This strikes a chord (pun intended) with what Mitchell says in his 1994 paper, "Ekphrasis and the Other."

We think, for instance, that the visual arts are inherently spatial, static, corporeal and shapely; that they bring these things as a gift to language. We suppose, on the other side, that arguments, addresses, ideas, and narratives are in some sense proper to verbal communication, that language must bring these things as a gift to visual representation. But neither of these "gifts" is really the exclusive property of their donors; paintings can tell stories, make arguments, and signify abstract ideas; words can describe or embody static, spatial states of affairs, and achieve all the effects of ekphrasis without any deformation of the "natural" vocation (whatever that may be).

One lesson a of a general semiotics, then, is that there is, semantically speaking (that is, in the pragmatics of communication, symbolic behavior, expression, significiation) no essential difference between texts and images; the other lesson is that there are important differences between visual and verbal media at the level of sign-types, forms, materials of representation, and institutional traditions.

Mitchell's second paragraph reminds me very much of what the music teacher tells Joseph, the main character of Hermann Hesse's Nobel Prize winning novel, "The Glass Bead Game." The teacher tells the young student, "Our mission is to recognize contraries for what they are: first of all as contraries, but then as opposite poles of a unity." Mitchell is proposing that, while there do exist "important differences" between the forms, there is also "no essential difference between texts and images."

It's interesting that, when both Mitchell and Bruhn get down to the real mechanics of ekphrastic translation in their respective papers, they begin talking about the very physical, sensual means by which each art form conveys its information. Some of these are as simple as the air vibrating via a musical instrument, which touches the small hairs in the inner ear. Visual art has its foundation in sight. Music has its foundation in hearing. Dance has the three foundations of sight, sound and touch. Some forms, like language, are more complicated and rely on complex cognitive pathways and patterns that have been developed in culture and in the human brain over tens of thousands of years.

Thus, at a fundamental level, ekphrasis is when translation happens from one sensual or cognitive pathway into another: language becomes sound, color becomes timbre, texture is translated into shape, and so on.

From a neurological standpoint, this sort of translation, this exchange between the senses, is manifest in the very real and widespread condition called Synesthesia.

Syn-es-the-sia
n. 
  1. A condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color.
  2. A sensation felt in one part of the body as a result of stimulus applied to another, as in referred pain.
  3. The description of one kind of sense impression by using words that normally describe another, as in "A loud shirt."

So the poetic tradition of using metaphor and simile is, in fact, a synesthetic technique!

Synesthesia, like ekphrasis, is also a Greek word meaning "together" and "sensation" and, in neurology, it is a condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to an automatic, involuntary experience in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who have synesthesia are known as synesthetes. One well-documented and frequently studied synesthete, Solomon Shereshevsky, experienced synesthesia that linked all five of his senses. Just try to imagine that: the taste of lemonade would set off an involuntary sound, color, texture, and smell.

Synesthesia is not listed in the DSM-IV because it usually doesn't interfere with daily activities. It's like color blindness or perfect pitch in that the condition typically doesn't mess up your life that badly if you have it. Actually, many people don't even realize they have synesthesia until they are older and realize, suddenly, that not everyone hears the key of G as being blue or sees a series of numbers as having a particular shape. Many people that have synesthesia are thankful for it and think of it as a gift and a "sixth sense." It's often a very useful condition for artists. Nabakov had it. So did Duke Ellington, Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Liszt, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Stevie Wonder (who has Sound/Color synesthesia and can actually "see" color even though he's blind), Oliver Messiaen, Itzhak Perlman, Nikola Tesla, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire… the list goes on for a long while.

You can have Grapheme/Color synesthesia in which you see letters, words and linguistic passages in colors. There's Sound/Color synesthesia, where a sound induces a color or shape so that clattering dishes might trigger a firework of color and shape in your mind. There's Number/Form synesthesia, when a person sees an automatic mental map of numbers. Daniel Tamment, the savant who set the European record for reciting the digits of pi, has synesthesia and uses his automatic, colored number map to navigate the numerical "terrain" of pi. You can have Ordinal-Linguistic Personification synesthesia, in which sequences, letters, dates are associated with a sense of personality and personal traits. You can have a type of synesthesia in which spoken language can cause taste sensations in your mouth! There are over 60 types of synesthesia that have been identified because it can occur between any two sense or perceptual modes. Also, one in 23 people has some sort of synesthesia. So you probably know a few synesthetes.

My artist pal Olivia Pepper is one of these gifted people. I emailed her to ask a few questions about how she perceives the world. She told me that the note that I had sent her was light blue but one of the sentences was green. When she wrote back, she wrote back entirely in lower-case letters.

NL: Firstly, if you can, please describe a little bit about the type of synesthesia that you have?

OP: i have the graphic type of synesthesia: to me, each letter and number has its own unique personality, a colour and a textural feeling sometimes; curiously, fonts affect these sometimes. the more classic "a," with its hood on, has a different feeling than the stripped down sometimes found in casual handwritings. each arrangement of letters and words can also take on a particular colour or feeling, thus lending a poem a "purple" quality or a feeling of sandiness. additionally, live music often has a textural feeling for me...i experience sensations in my palms according to different soundscapes. each note itself has a particular effect. i feel sometimes like i am touching autumn grass, gone to seed, the tops prickly but compelling...or sometimes like i'm pressing my palms against cold glass, smooth and faintly wet with condensation. or velvet, or rusting metal, or horsehair or any number of things. it used to be so overwhelming that i didn't go to shows much, but with time and a certain sort of aversion therapy, it has lessened.

Olivia's description reminds me of Friedrich Mahling's description of Franz Liszt as a conductor in Weimar:

"When Liszt first began as Kapellmeister in Weimar (1842), it astonished the orchestra that he said: 'O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!' Or: 'That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!' First the orchestra believed Liszt just joked; more later they got accustomed to the fact that the great musician seemed to see colors there, where there were only tones."

NL: Oftentimes synesthetes don't realize that they perceive the world any differently than anyone else. When did you realize that you were experiencing something that not everyone experiences?

OP: it was my experience that people thought of me as whimsical, sometimes oppressively so. (this may still be true.) i believe that for awhile, people thought that my urgent commentary about books being overly crimson or articles being "stifling, like drowning in pillows," were poetic affectations rather than true experiences - which opens its own can of worms, because when is one divisible from the other? if a person has the idea that an essay on philosophy can feel "like drowning," is that an untapped synesthetic experience? i don't know.

NL: You are an artist. Please describe how your form of synesthesia effects both your creation of artwork as well as your perception of it.

i have noticed that i "understand" the written works of synesthetes better than non-synesthetes do. as an example, nabokov has always been very accessible to me, even some of his work that is considered more vague or "difficult." i have been challenged by other "complicated" works of literature written by non-synesthetes, but nabokov writes from a sensory experience similar to my own, and therefore i feel his work resonates. as i've begun working a little with music in my adult life, i've found that most musicians, even those that don't identify as synesthetes, are very adaptive to my way of understanding music. when [my friend and I] were playing together this past halloween, improvising with a harpist friend, i said to them: "i want to do a song that is about jack the ripper. it should smell bloody, but also like industry. i want it to feel like you are trapped out in the cold without a thick enough jacket, and then the sadness that you don't have a better jacket anywhere should hit you. i want it to be desperate, i want you to feel hungry and lost. i think if the music was in your hands it should feel like when you are touching a snake. it should move, but subtly, dangerously." the song was perfect.

Olivia brought up the author Vladamir Nabakov. In his autobiography, Speak Memory, here's how he describes his 'fine case of colored hearing:'

"Perhaps 'hearing' is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag bag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites. I am puzzled by my French on which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass. Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k." Nabakov goes on at splendid length through the entire alphabet, finally concluding that: "The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow, is in my private language the hardly pronounceable: kzspygv"

Associations are often not consistent from one synesthete to another. In fact, Rimsky-Korsakov supposedly got into an argument with Liszt about the color of certain keys. I would have loved to be witness to that argument. However, synesthetic associations are automatic and are measurably consistent for an individual. Neurologists adore studying synesthesia because it helps them map a uniform skeleton of sensual associations within the human brain. So smell relates to taste in this way. Sound relates to color in this way. Language relates to shape in this way. Numbers relate to direction in this way. And so on for more than 60 known iterations. Synesthesia, as a condition, is helping neurologists understand how various parts of the brain communicate with one another.

I am not a synesthete that I know of but I do have synesthetic reactions from time to time. When I was little and playing the violin with my dad at the piano, I would suddenly disassociate from a complicated passage and see my fingers dancing on the fingerboard in front of my face. My mind would wander as I played and I would "see" shapes, usually the shapes of animals I had seen at the zoo. As I poet, I sometimes try to describe a certain shade of green based on its taste or sound. When I'm writing music, I think "this should sound sharp, angular, and with intense red colors." I remember that I never really "got" or enjoyed paintings by Mark Rothko until I went into a room at SF MOMA that was full of them. Suddenly, I "heard" them humming at me with their colors and "felt" them vibrating and radiating. I do not bring these experiences up because they are extraordinary but because it more amazing to me that these synesthetic reactions are quite common.

Even as artists, critics, and art historians attempt to consciously achieve ekphrasis, to translate one form of art to another, this is a process that happens naturally, automatically and neurologically in many people's brains.

In the same way that scientists study synesthesia to understand how different senses and cognitive structures relate, it could be helpful for artists to study ekphrasis in order to better understand how the various art forms relate to one another. So on the one hand, you have the translation from one sense or cognitive pathway to another and on the other hand you have the translation from one form of artistic expression to another. The result might be a more whole and flexible expression in which various combinations of art forms joined to convey a wider spectrum of experience in the same way that various combinations of senses provide a better perception.

This is not a new project. Such communities as the Bauhaus School and Black Mountain College, among others, have addressed the question of combining art forms and disciplines into a gesamtkunstwerk or "total art work." Nevertheless, this difficult and vast question of ekphrasis is one that the Satellite Collective hopes to address anew. Here's the process by which we've attempted to do so in our last three ballets.

The group selects a general subject. Our librettist composes a long, narrative poem. The musicians take small pieces of that poetry and interpret them as "musical objects." From those objects or sketches, we select passages that can be expanded into larger movements that convey the narrative arc of the poetry. Our choreographer then translates the music into dance. Finally, the visual members of the Collective create a visual representation of the music, the choreography, and the poetic narrative as a whole.

All of these processes happen parallel to one another, often simultaneously. So what happens with choreography effects the music. What happens graphically effects the story. What happens with the music effects the graphics. The Satellite Collective is primarily interested in finding out how all the forms relate and tracing them back to a central source. Quite by accident, our very first ballet was loosely inspired by "The Manhattan Transcripts," a series of narrative sketches by the famed architect Bernard Tschumi.