TODD WILLIAMSON and GREG WALTER: ARTE DA CAMERA By Peter Frank The courtship dance between visual art and music has gone on almost as long as has human creativity. Unlike the other art forms, which engage multiple senses and complex cognitive and social conditions, music and visual art stimulate singular responses in humans – visual art acting upon the eyes, music upon the ears. They therefore present themselves as entirely discrete experiences and entirely separate disciplines. But – perhaps because they are not adjacent – they reach out to each other with a unique passion. In the last two centuries the gap has narrowed, artistic and musical practices bending toward each other: music has become more picturesque, art more abstract. Supposedly, this mutual accommodation was made possible by the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk – the “total work of art” incorporating all artistic practices in a whole larger than the sum of its parts – unleashed (if not quite originated) by Richard Wagner. But it was Wagner’s near-contemporary Walter Pater who provided the theory that made not only the Gesamtkunstwerk but abstraction in art and description in music inevitable. “All the arts aspire to the condition of music,” observed Pater, acknowledging the unique ability of music to stir emotion (and intellection) out of thin air. Todd Williamson’s recent efforts in marrying music to art – in his case, painting (but with a soupçon of architecture) – in fact maintain a respectful distance between the two art forms. He and his current collaborator, Greg Walter, would give the newlyweds their own rooms. Or, more to the point, they would give art and music a series of chambers in, across, and through which to interact. Williamson considers the realms of music and art as spaces occupied by the formal experience of visual or aural stimulus, and, (literally) in concert with Walter, wants to activate spaces with an overlay of the two stimuli. Williamson and Walter worked at a distance from one another – Williamson in California, Walter in North Carolina – but in constant contact, forging an ongoing discourse that allowed the two to fine-tune their efforts and “bend” them towards one another’s. They were not attempting to realize equivalents of each other’s work, but to fashion experiences that are at once true to their respective art forms and reflective of a common mood or “flavor.” Doing this, they built a kind of spiritual bridge between their efforts, art obliquely reflecting music and music reflecting art as best as either discipline can reflect the other, especially from afar. The physical distance between Williamson and Walter collapses in the assembled presentation of the completed works. The paintings are seen in the context of the musical sound, and the music is heard in the spaces containing the art. This is not a contemporary reconsideration of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk: it does not attempt to blend the efforts of different creative individuals so much as it attempts to align and balance them experientially precisely by maintaining, even emphasizing, their unique, unblendable qualities. Walter’s work would not sound more or less like his were it based on another artist’s art, nor Williamson’s paintings look more or less like Williamson’s based on another composer’s sound. But the art, or the music, would have shaped itself differently, would display the same characteristics in different formation. As it is, old friends Williamson and Walter have realized a mirroring series of reactions – and have depended crucially on the deep distortions provided by a mirror (or is it a window?) that stands between such distantly related realms of artistic expression. In this regard, Walter and Williamson’s quasi-collaboration falls outside the normal categories of art-music interrelationship. It is not an exercise in synesthesia, as it does not depend on the involuntary sensory response of either man to stimulus provided by the other. That is, Williamson did not “hear” yellow or triangles or a smooth texture in Walter’s music, nor did Walter “see” B-flat or the trombone in Williamson’s canvases. Nor does their work amount to ekphrasis on either part: there has been no attempt to capture in one art form the content of work in the other, even though Williamson’s abstract idiom would have easily allowed for broad interpretation. (It will be up to witnesses to discern their own sensory or connotative connections as the music and art are presented together.) Williamson’s paintings have not served as notational frameworks for Walter, nor did Walter’s music give Williamson procedural guidelines for his painting, so the visualization of scoring did not come into play. And there is certainly no stepwise procedure that the two men have shared, no process, conceptual or perceptual, that unites their efforts. Even the idea of ensemble improvisation does not pertain here; the two artists did not riff off each other spontaneously in proximity, but gently guided one another’s production over a long period of time and a across a continent. Modern communications – which, ironically, makes so much possible instantaneously – makes this slow, deliberate back-and-forth interaction possible as well. Doubtless, other collaborating individuals are exploiting this method, and more will yet. But, of course, the method is not as important as the result. Williamson and Walter’s collaboration is designed to engage audiences in both intimate and grandiose settings, settings which cannot help but impact on audience reception. Indeed, while the project-in-process will be first presented publicly in a “chamber space” in Naples, the completed project is to be given its debut in one of the world’s grandest and most expansive cathedrals. In both cases, and others, ambient conditions will impact the work, modeling the music with acoustical peculiarities and the paintings with circumstances of lighting and wall texture (among other givens). That is the point: Walter and Williamson’s collaboration is designed to incorporate such factors, not resist them. There may be optimal conditions for grasping the nuances of Williamson’s painting and/or the harmonies of Walter’s music, but those conditions are themselves nearly mutually exclusive. This exercise in combining and paralleling artistic impulse is founded on a spirit not just of collaboration, but of compromise. Still, however difficult it may be to bring one art form into the ideal presentational context of the other, it is not impossible, and it is worth the try. Notably, it is not a one-time try: the Williamson-Walter collaboration is an experiment, an adventure, not just a relationship, and it is to play itself out with each presentation, with each performance/exhibition. Does it get closer to perfection each time? More likely, it gets closer to the next collaboration. Paintings may have their edges, musical works may have their codas, but Art is never finished. Los Angeles October 2015