How do you “see” music? I’m not just talking about watching a live performance. I’m talking about experiencing the music itself visually. (And If this blog is about anything, it’s about experiencing things you thought you knew in new ways.)
I’ll admit I’m not the biggest fan of John Coltrane, whose music I’ve often found too abstract for my taste. So he’s a good test case for me. Will the things I talk about below help me better understand and appreciate his music?
First I want to dismiss the idea of obligation — the sense that I should like this music because a lot of musicians consider Coltrane a genius. All art is personal, and it’s foolish and pretentious to try to like something just to seem sophisticated. That said, if all these musicians think he’s great, maybe there’s something really cool about his music that I’ve been missing.
So with that in mind, here are two animated videos of “Giant Steps,” which, I think, transform the song into new experiences.
The first video is based on a very simple idea – just follow the sheet music:
It probably helps if you read music at least a little. Childhood music lessons taught me the basics, but I was never especially good at sight reading, and the chords that are shown mean little to me. Still, in watching the notes I found myself more focused on what was happening in the song and how it was developing, and even that little change made a big difference.
The second video is more daring. Artist Michal Levy has a rare neurological condition called synethesia, in which stimulation in one sensory pathway triggers another. In her case, it allows her to “see” music. To her mind, the notes and the melody literally have color and shape. So she created this video to give us some sense of how she experiences “Giant Steps.” Her abstract, geometric art fits perfectly the artsy 1960s mood of Coltrane’s performance.
An article at Brain Pickings tells more about Levy’s work. Levy’s own website has more of her art, plus another animated music video, “One” by Jason Lindner, which I find even more wildly imaginative than the Coltrane video.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find a video of Coltrane performing “Giant Steps,” which would have been the perfect complement to the videos shown here. Because yet another way to better appreciate music is to watch the musicians who are making it, especially if you have good camera work that really lets you see them producing the sounds, getting you closer to the experience of being there at the concert.
I wouldn’t say I’ve become an obsessive Coltrane fan as a result of this, but it did deepen my appreciation of his music. I feel like I “get” him a little better. We’ll never understand what was going on Coltrane’s mind when he created this music — and certainly not by watching him play or looking at the printed music or even at a visual artist’s interpretation. But these are things that bring even non-musicians a bit deeper inside the music.
(I’ve barely scratched the surface of musical animation. See how the Music Animation Machine treats classical music, for example. Feel free to suggest others in the comments.)