Pythagoras Sings the Blues
It was Goethe who concisely stated that “Geometry is frozen music”, advocating the integration of the plastic, visual arts with geometric harmonies.
Music, it seems, is the structure and mechanics of the physical world.
From the dimensions of cell walls to the distances and movements of the planets – the music of the spheres – to the fundamental nature of matter as waveforms, where scientists can best describe their discoveries as intervals and overtones arising from a fundamental note; the science of musical harmony.
It is not surprising then that music, of all artforms, can invoke the most intense of emotional responses.
So how do three, large curvilinear sculptures represent the rudimentary musical consonants of the octave, the perfect fourth and the perfect fifth? And why the quirky title Pythagoras Sings the Blues?
Why would a mathematician / philosopher declare that he “woke up this morning, had a mean ‘ol theorem on my mind”.
Inevitably he did wake up one morning and took a stroll though town, where he happened past a blacksmiths workshop and was particularly taken by the sonorous notes made by their hammers striking the anvil.
Being of an inquisitive mind he stepped inside the workshop and asked if he might examine their hammers.
The blacksmiths obliged and Pythagoras determined, by weight, the proportion of one sized hammer to the next.
He reasoned that the difference, or interval, in their sound would then be in the same proportion and deduced these to be the octave, or diapason [the half / double relationship of the root note to the whole tone], the fourth note or diatessaron [the relationship of three quarters to the whole tone] and the fifth note or diapente [the relationship of two thirds to whole tone].
From this serendipitous, prosaic, industrial experience Pythagoras founded the diatonic eight note scale, based on a succession of fifth harmonics, giving us the greater part of our understanding of music.
He extrapolated this in his treatise on music to see the universe as a manifestation of mathematically derived musical relationships – ideas that dovetail with those of scientists today, whose technological advances have only given greater currency to this perception.
Musical qualities are present in language with Greek being the first language to differentiate between vowels and consonants. It is consonants, not vowels that are the harmonic sounds, vowels being the dynamic sounds that distinguish the consonants.
Pythagoras’ musical treatise quickly found its way into the plastic arts in Greece and Rome. we now regard as classicism was at the time the precept for universally harmonic order – the refinement of area and volume into proportion.
The theoretical books of Vitruvuis are the only surviving manuscripts of the formulae of these proportions and fifteen centuries would pass before being implemented again.
Twelfth century Cistercian monks as precursors of the Renaissance were, to some degree, incorporating the ethos of Vitruvius into their architecture.
They rigidly applied musical ratios to their buildings under the edict “there must be no decoration, only proportion”.
Hence their churches became acoustic resonators where people constructed from certain ratios, chanted musical ratios in buildings of corresponding proportions to the heavenly bodies distributed along these ratios and a human choir became a celestial choir.
Two centuries later the renaissance did arrive and the architect, artist, musician and writer Leon Battista Alberti, well versed in Vitruvian architecture, had written his own ‘How to’ manuals for the architects and artists of his time.
So great was his influence on Renaissance thinking that the phenomenon took his namesake – Albertism.
New subject matter and new technology crystallised in an old stable geometry, now new again, was embraced with alacrity by artists emerging from the mystical, superstitious mentality of the middle ages into the humanism of the Renaissance.
These artists preferred simple ratios in whole numbers with which to articulate clear, exact ideas and objectives within a rational and scientific milieu.
Musical ratios rather than the irrational golden mean, so popular with the more transcendental medieval artists, would provide the vehicle to unify painting and architecture with the major art of music.
Cadence, harmony and rhythm applied as discreet, intimate poetry beneath the colour and form, permits an artwork perfect composure and allows the viewer to see and, if you will, hear a single experience and thus intensify the emotional response.
The use of musical ratios in painting lasted well into the Baroque era, but not with the same purist, literal vigour of the Renaissance.
Romanticism, the age of reason and the industrial revolution were a formidable gang with which ratios that smacked of classicism could not compete and they fell from favour. Ironically this happened at a time when they were being used with great panache – in visually compositional terms they had discovered swing music.
Also at this time J. S. Bach brought about the next major musical innovation by uniting gypsy and classical music, giving us our modern scale and keys.
Since then the musical ratios have largely lived in exile from the visual arts. Geometry in general, the golden mean in particular, continued to enjoy some usage, turning up the most surprising of places.
However, in music itself the progression of octave, fourth and fifth was to make its stellar appearance.
Oppressed blacks in the deep south of the USA found this progression to their liking and started to compose a new type of folk music to express their despair and sorrow. They named this style of music after an obscure medieval term meaning a misfortune suffered at the hands of the devil; they called it the Blues. They gave the world a new kind of music derived from an ancient discovery and curiously it also, by virtue of geographic location, became known by a Greek letter/word' – Delta Blues, and the influence of this music would be immeasurable.
The forms are designed not by whim, fancy or intuition, but a dedication to the traditions of harmonic proportion. They are inspired by a fascination of the intrinsic presence of universal harmonics in the creation and composition of all things, their use in the arts over many centuries and recent, vindicatory discoveries that they are the soul of matter.
Science transposes into art and urges a return to the humanist, more than the classical, values of the Renaissance. In a discordant, dangerous, quasi medieval world three curly, shiny stones bespeak universality. Sensuous lines take the eye and hand cathartically along given harmonics. The crystalline structure of stone is not really inert, but buzzes with intervals, overtones and fundamentals of concord - a portrayal of sound as solid form and geometry as frozen music.