On Hearing Wildflowers- Artist Spotlight on Andrew Chalfen

     Remember what it feels like to be in a sold-out concert hall moments before the symphony begins? Remember that cacophony of swishing dresses, excited whispers, rustling playbills, and the whining of musical instruments tuning up? Do you remember those sounds dampening as the hall fills with applause when the conductor appears? He shakes hands with the first violinist, proudly walks toward the rostrum with baton in hand, nods to the orchestra, and then all is silent save for one or two suppressed coughs from the audience. It’s a pregnant silence, filled with expectation. Maybe this time you’re there to see Riccardo Muti conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It starts unhurriedly, almost inaudibly; the notes casually trip over each other and circle back playfully, as if running circles around us. And then thunderous revelations. We’re caught off guard, as if we’re in a sudden storm. The Ninth Symphony’s first moments are described by Rebecca Schmid: “The two-note motive of the opening Allegro descends out of a celestial void, as if bearing God’s word through a haze of mountain mist. The clarinet, oboe and flute join the horns one by one to open the way, but less than a minute into the symphony, the timpani and a tutti passage thunder in to bring us back to earth.” [1] How can you truly put words to that musical passage? You are resolute in your feeling that this music bypasses language, that Beethoven, in his tragically ironic deafness, has found a way to arrange the musical notes in a way that resonates directly with the human soul. No translation needed. And just as you become immersed in those uncannily beautiful sounds, believing that words cannot possibly do it justice, you hear the choral movement, Ode to Joy. Those ethereal voices coupled with the orchestral sounds elevate your spirit, as if a concoction of endorphins and LSD are reverberating throughout your brain, as if all of your senses are hijacked to tune in to these melodies. Maybe you feel the same way at a rock concert, or a bluegrass festival, or listening to jazz.

     But what about those other senses? Do you get goosebumps, warm tingling in your fingers, or the sudden urge to stand up and dance? Does the music evoke the scent of wildflowers, or the taste of grass-fed beef with a chimichurri sauce? And what about the kindred sense of sight- what do you see when you close your eyes? Is it a wild dance of colors and forms? Or do you just hear the music as sound echoing throughout your body? Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), an early twentieth century Russian abstract painter, had the unusual ability to see colors when hearing music and vice versa. The rare neurological condition, called synesthesia, prompts consistent involuntary perceptual stimulation in one sensation when a different sensation is stimulated. This unique perceptual ability allowed him to paint the colors and shapes evoked by symphonies. He famously expounded on the power of color, which sounds strangely similar to attempts to put words to Beethoven’s Ninth symphony except rather than translating melody into language he intermingles the sense of sight and sound: “Color is a means of exerting direct influence upon the soul. Color is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano, with its many strings.” [2] Most of us don’t experience such profound, consistent reciprocity of sensory experience, and yet, a powerful visual image or piece of music could potentially bleed into other sensory experiences. Hence the goosebumps and wild dance of color behind closed eyes on listening to Beethoven’s Ninth. Or the imaginative possibility of allusions to sounds when creating visual images, as explored in the work of InLiquid’s Andrew Chalfen.

Symphony Wave, by Andrew Chalfen

     Chalfen’s Symphony Wave seems to visually capture the overarching structure and component parts of a piece of music. This enormous, striking and vibrant painting looks almost like roiling waves in an illusory body of water. Yet on closer inspection, the small seemingly pixelated ripples have similar patterns. There are subtle contrasting and unifying patterns in the shapes, the colors and patterns. It’s as if the overarching shape is the contour of a melody as it rises and falls, leading to crescendos and decrescendos that define its harmonic structure. The swells are like rhythmic material that repeats, called motifs or riffs. The patterns of brilliant color are like the pulsing rhythm, tempo, or timbre of the music, and the colors themselves are like the high or low notes. It’s as if our eyes can literally see the orchestral piece by virtue of the flowing, undulating component parts. Perhaps this visual expression of music captures the power of music to bleed into the visual sense from pure auditory awareness. Is this what you see when you close your eyes during Beethoven’s Ninth? Probably not. Can you imagine some colors and shapes corresponding to musical notes? If you try hard, it’s possible, though probably not as second nature as it was for Kandinsky. It’s like hearing the scent of wildflowers, as one sensation seeps into another. As Chalfen states: “My paintings, drawings, and mixed media pieces focus on patterns that vibrate, bloom, cluster, and break apart, often in dazzling color. At turns constructivist, abstractgeometric, cartographic, op art, and psychedelic, my pieces are obsessively detailed, wryly playful, and musical – full of catchy riffs, hooks, and colliding poetic forms.” And it’s those catchy riffs, hooks, and poetic forms that pull you in so it’s like you’re swimming in waves of music.

Surfacing, by Andrew Chalfen

     Another piece, Surfacing, seems to allude to Chalfen’s process of artwork creation. Unsurprisingly, the artist is multitalented, having been a musician in multiple bands with experience composing and recording instrumental music. Surfacing is a compilation of brilliantly colored, intertwined patterns at the bottom of the canvas, with sheet music entwined throughout and more pronounced in large hexagons near the top. It’s like a boiling pot of mashed art and music- color and notes- stewed to perfection until fully formed melodies are released as gas bubbles. It’s a delectable, art suffused stew that’s so enticing… dare I say, you can almost smell it. Nah, I won’t confound it with yet another sensory experience. As Chalfen’s artistic statement reveals: “[the] process mirrors that of…songwriting and music arranging, involving the repetition of a small selection of formal elements, subtle variation, the timbre of color palate, rhythm, and randomization strategies.” The process of composing music and making art seem to be interlaced for this artist, as captured in this particular work.

     Other works are dazzling in their color schemes and patterns and are again reminiscent of musical scores. Emergence: Refraction is filled with colorful circles, impinging on each other and sharing swaths of color. The geometric shapes in this piece as well as The Rift seem to be comingling and dancing, as if again responding to music. They are beautiful, alive, and vibrant, seemingly drawing on some of the tenets of op art, abstraction, psychedelic art, and with the feel of pixel art. As further noted in his statement: “[the] abstract geometric work revels in precise, dense pattern-making: ripples, radiance, fractal blooms, and clustered shapes reference aerial views, cartography, architectural renderings, musical notation, urban-like densities, circuitry, and other natural and man-made patterns, many spilling out over edges, suggesting unseen continuations.” It’s those complex patterns in the paintings, usually accompanied by intense colors, which seem to capture the structures of the natural world as well as artistic creations such as musical scores.

     Though we can’t be in a crowded concert hall right now, we can close our eyes and imagine the interweaving sounds of the clarinet, oboes, and flutes at the start of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Or, of course, we can watch a concert online, relegating this activity to the dryness of a technological curtain where we can’t hear the whispers, the rustling programs, or feel the moments of shared, expectant silence among throngs of people, or experience the energy of thundering climaxes. We can gaze at Chalfen’s wondrous paintings that seem to transport us into that concert hall. We can also just listen to the music. Maybe, just maybe, if we listen intently, we can begin to see colors dancing in rhythm, feel those goosebumps, feel the need to get up and dance, and even catch the aroma of wildflowers. 

[1] Rebecca Schmid, “Why Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony Speaks to All People,” Listen Magazine, August 21, 2018.

[2] Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) from Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds. Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Ever since I could remember I was always attracted to people and places, but I was not always good with words or finding connection. Photography was my way of fitting in--my way to communicate the beauty I see around me. I’ve traveled the world documenting all types of subjects and experienced many extraordinary people and places.
Richard W. Gretzinger
Richard W. Gretzinger

Ever since I could remember I was always attracted to people and places, but I was not always good with words or finding…

Ever since I could remember I was always attracted to people and places, but I was not always good with words or finding connection. Photography was my way of fitting in--my way to communicate the beauty…

Ever since I could remember I was always attracted to people and places, but I was not always good with words or finding connection. Photography was my way of fitting in--my way to communicate the beauty I see around me.…

Fine art ink on paper drawings of cities and microorganisms by 
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John Howell White is Professor of Art Education in the Department of Art Education and Crafts at Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. He has an M.F.A. from Pratt Institute and a Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University.
John Howell White
John Howell White

John Howell White is Professor of Art Education in the Department of Art Education and Crafts at Kutztown University in Kutztown,…

John Howell White is Professor of Art Education in the Department of Art Education and Crafts at Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. He has an M.F.A. from Pratt Institute and a Ph.D. from The…

John Howell White is Professor of Art Education in the Department of Art Education and Crafts at Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. He has an M.F.A. from Pratt Institute and a Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State…

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