Seeing the music: how visual art can inform performance

Pianist and artist Roman Rabinovich on the connections between visual art and music.

Seeing the music: how visual art can inform performance
Roman Rabinovich (Credit: Robin Mitchell)

When I was growing up I was not sure whether I would be a musician or a visual artist. Luckily I didn't have to choose one or the other. I’m a pianist who paints and, for me, one art form feeds the other.

Although I never formally studied painting I’m very serious about it. I was always attracted to canvases and paints, to their physicality and concreteness.

Creating something with my bare hands was a meaningful addition to playing music written by someone else. As a kid, drawing and painting for me was compulsive.

Naturally, there are certain fundamental differences between painting and music. Firstly, music unfolds in real time, while painting presents its content to the viewer instantly. Sound is transient - you play a note and it disappears.

A painting is there for a long time. You can come back to it and it will stay the same. You will change, but the painting will remain. This was one of my main attractions to painting. It gave me the illusion that I had more time. Materials need time to develop their own narrative. You can't force it. With music on the other hand, you have to be totally spot-on during a performance. There is no second chance, other than the present moment. It is, in a way, the most beautiful thing about it.

'Surfaces I' by Roman Rabinovich

Of course, there are so many parallels between the two arts. It can be described best with the concept of synesthesia, the blending of the senses, which was very influential in the development of abstract art. Artists like Kandinsky and Klee used musical terms such as polyphony and rhythm to describe the foundation of their works. They used repetitive gestures just as composers used rhythmic patterns.

I find it quite helpful to visualise the form of a piece of music, to differentiate the main notes or the core harmonic structures from the ornamental ones. This is the basis of Schenkerian analysis. Just like in a drawing there are certain ‘pillars’ that are holding the structure; there is a hierarchy and some notes are more important than others. Analogously in art, the eye notices the main elements first and everything else becomes secondary. One has to differentiate the textures in music. You can’t play an accompaniment with the same intensity as the melody. The same in painting: the variety of textures in a painting is essential. If everything is equal, the eye will not know what to hold on to.

The sense of proportion and balance is extremely important in both art forms. In music, this could be helpful with decisions about tempos, repeats, or duration of fermatas. Or the ability to build an interesting and attractive recital programme - the relationship between the pieces and how they ‘converse’ between themselves.

Colours have a profound effect on us. I love the way Kandinsky talks about an ‘inner resonance’ that colours cause in us - a spiritual effect that touches the soul itself. Colours have tonalities. Picasso’s Blue Period or monochrome paintings by Brice Marden come to mind. Of course, these things are extremely subjective and they can mean something different to each person, but the effect is undeniable.

In art, one constantly makes references to the past. Gubaidulina refers to Bach in her Offertorium just like David Hockney pays homage to Picasso. In performing arts, playing a piece of music is a way to enter the composer’s mind and soul, a portal.

Having these imaginary conversations with your favourite artists is great fun. I say conversations, but it’s more of a meditation, one way. It’s like this joke: When we talk to God, we're praying. When God talks to us, we're schizophrenic.


Roman Rabinovich will be Artist in Residence at Lammermuir Festival, from 9 to 18 September 2016 in East Lothian, Scotland. Alongside his concert series of 25 of Haydn’s piano sonatas, there will be an exhibition of artwork by Roman, created especially for the project via iPad. Click here for more information.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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