Listen To The Painting: Paul Klee’s Influence On Contemporary Music

Posted November 7th, 2011


“During his life and work, the painter Paul Klee was surrounded by music and musicians”, writes Marie-Aude Roux for Le Monde/Worldcrunch. “It follows that the unique rhythms and expressions in the artist’s work — and his intellectual musings — would eventually influence generations of composers and performers. To this day.

He liked Bach, Brahms and Mozart. In 1906 he acquired a magnificent Testore violin dating back to 1712, which he played every morning before painting, thus incorporating the living art of sound into his paintings. Even if, in Paul Klee’s opinion, the golden age of music disappeared with Bach and Mozart in the 18th century, the Swiss-born artist nevertheless followed the music of some of his contemporaries (Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire), even becoming friends with some of them, including Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartok. In turn, music was bound to follow him.

Klee left a body of work of more than 9,000 paintings and drawings, as well as innovative writings, including Theory Of Modern Art and Contributions To The Theory Of Pictorial Form. His thoughts and paintings would end up serving as inspiration to many contemporary musicians. From Pierre Boulez to Bruno Mantovani, from Sandor Veress to Tan Dun, and many others, including Japanese jazz pianist Takashi Kako (with Klee: Suite For Piano in 1986) and Bad News From The Stars by the French musician Serge Gainsbourg, named after the title of a drawing by Klee, which Gainsbourg himself owned.

The first to have openly made reference to Klee was the French composer of contemporary classical music, Pierre Boulez. “The writings of Paul Klee, his determination to create a world where thinking guided spontaneity, fed my musical thinking,” says the composer. Boulez was never directly inspired by the paintings themselves, but put into practice the theoretical exercises Klee developed during his lectures at the German Bauhaus design school. In 1989, he dedicated a book to the German painter titled The Fertile Country. Paul Klee.

Perspectives, color, space… All these acoustic elements that are woven into Klee’s paintings, also form the basis of the Tribute to Paul Klee that the Hungarian Sandor Veress composed in 1959.

The visual impact of the German painter’s work served as a sensitive trigger for some. After viewing Klee’s works exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Chinese contemporary composer Tan Dun wrote Death And Fire in 1991. “I wanted to establish a dialogue between myself and Klee’s paintings (…) whose line is closer for me to Chinese aesthetics, which is linear and searching for the soul of the work, rather than mere surface effects.”

Something similar happened to Bruno Mantovani, a young French composer born in 1974 who found himself completely shaken following a visit to a Klee exhibition at the Museum in Bern. The Five Pieces For Paul Klee that he composed in 2007 for the pianist Shani Diluka and the cellist Eric-Maria Couturier “are studies on the notion of a line.”

Read the original article in French

Photo by Dittmeyer: A music and dance performance at the Paul Klee museum in Bern, Switzerland