What We Talk About When We Talk About Rhythm and Harmony

The word “rhythm” often refers to the way a piece of music flows, a song with rhythm or “good” rhythm sounds inherently pleasing to the listener. Thinking about that in visual terms, a painting, photograph, or composition in a film, can give a viewer that same feeling. Although personally I do not find much rhythm in the Mondrian the Kandinsky painting on page 20 holds a certain rhythm by the way the viewer’s eye catches on to the blob in the top right and all the objects around seem to gravitate around that. That composition feels natural to the viewer and in the way I described rhythm earlier, it embodies a natural state of enjoyment.

Similarly, “harmony” describes something basic, a natural state of balance. Also a music term, harmony is used outside of the subject much more than “rhythm.” All good visual composers have to base their work on balance, either achieving it, or disrupting it. A teacher at film school will start out the first day by stressing that filmmakers maintain balance in their shots to keep it visually appealing, for example, do not set two characters on the far left of the frame and then leave a heap of unused, vacant space on the right side. Therefore, where the Kandinsky held a certain amount of rhythm it completely lacks balance, instead feeling more chaotic. The Mondrian on the other hand, while I found very little rhythm, possess complete balance through its mathematical exactness. That is not to say that any painting that possess balance and/or rhythm is inherently good art. However, the Matisse on page 19 manages to find both balance, the contrast between the woman in black and the man in white, as well as rhythm in the way the eye of the viewer catches onto the face of the woman first and then follows her sight line to the face of the man on the other side of the painting.

The Mondrian painting focuses on bringing about harmony through a mathematical balance. It uses straight and exact lines, forming visually (not actually) perfect ninety-degree angles. That makes the painting harmless, it avoids being unappealing because it holds just perfect balance and thus feels safe, achieving a sort of harmony.

Just as Mondrian uses geometry to achieve Composition with Red, White, Blue, and Black, music, rhythm, and harmony can be broken down into numbers. All sound can be quantified. Tone, pitch, loudness, these all are given measurements and certain levels are naturally more appealing to the human ear. If these were not quantifiable, much of the music put out today would not be possible. If a computer program can be used to put out a song using no real instruments, than that means perfectly pleasing rhythm and harmony are not some unreachable goals, they can be achieved. A producer can know that tone X, pitch Y, bass level Z, etc. are automatically going to be polite to the human ear. Every single aspect of sound can be broken down into a number. This is slightly harder to do with something visual but once again, we have the ability to create images from no physical source (no paint, film, etc.) therefore, every aspect of a visual composition can be translated as data.

Viewing art in this manner does, as Butler comments about the work of Mondrian, “deny individual expressionism” in favor of “universality.” It suggests that certain works of art can be created which everyone must enjoy. It ignores the emotional trigger of art and perhaps even the purpose of art. Mondrian may think that he created a universal work through a painting of harmonic rectangles however; the painting does not connect with me emotionally. Rectangles do not make me sad, happy, scared, or angry. That is why I described it as not unappealing; it is the most perfectly inoffensive piece of art. As Butler suggests, “our enjoyment of Mondrian depends on our feel for harmony and balance. (Butler 24).” Mondrian’s own words though suggest a desire to ignore that individual feel. If anything, Mondrian’s painting reminds me of the subjectivity of art, which I think might have been the opposite of the effect he wanted to have.

Some additional research (not cited): http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/06/science/06sound.html?_r=0

– Julian Rosolie


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