Krasner’s Right Bird Left and Kirchner’s Flutings for Paula
by Alyson Walbridge
When looking at Lee Krasner’s Right Bird Left while listening to Leon Kirchner’s Flutings for Paula, details not noticed when experiencing each work on its own begin to appear. These details become overwhelmingly apparent when the two senses of looking and listening are combined. Flutings for Paula creates a narrative to help the viewer of Right Bird Left interpret the painting in a new and innovative way.
The expressive style and bright colors of Krasner’s Right Bird Left are intensified by the colorful tones and unusual sound effects of Kirchner’s Flutings for Paula. The chirping notes of the flute in Kirchner’s music mimic the call of a songbird, hinting to the idea that Krasner’s abstraction does, in fact, include a bird. Right Bird Left creates an atmosphere of mystery that is complemented by the use of whimsical effects in Kirchner’s piece.
The first and most obvious connections that can be made between these two works of art are in the titles, Flutings for Paula and Right Bird Left. The flute is commonly associated with birds due to its ability to make sounds that are very similar to the songs of a bird. In Flutings for Paula, the flutist uses a technique referred to as flutter tongue, where he or she rolls the tip of the tongue as fast as possible to create a “FrrrrFrrrrr” sound that can be compared to the call of a bird. Kirchner’s use of extra notes added as small embellishments, also known as grace notes, create a chirping sound similar to that of a bird. These notes are scattered throughout the composition, making it seem as though a bird is tweeting in the background during the entire musical piece. These seemingly random chirpings throughout Flutings for Paula remind me that this painting, although abstract, is meant to represent the life of a bird.
Lines may be drawn by pencils, woven into fabrics, or made by a group of people standing in an orderly fashion, but lines are typically not a natural occurrence in nature. Lines are formed by the human mind. Like nature, Right Bird Left appears to have very few, if any, completely solid lines. It becomes apparent that Krasner was not interested in creating forms out of lines, but rather lines out of forms. Any line that appears to be solid from afar becomes a sketchy stroke of Krasner’s brush when viewed more closely. The lack of solid lines in this painting creates a feeling of instability and uneasiness. This instability is echoed in Kirchner’s piece by his decision to have a fluctuating tempo. Flutings for Paula has a constantly shifting tempo, causing it to feel very jerky and unsteady. The lack of a steady tempo in the musical piece paired with the lack of any stable line in the painting brings the feeling of uneasiness to the forefront of my attention. The instability of these two pieces can also be related to the natural life of birds; throughout their hectic lives, birds struggle to survive by constantly searching for food and shelter.
Although there are no solid lines in this image, there is a different type of line called an implied line. The human eye can create an implied line by connecting the outline of forms that are close together. An example of an implied line appears in the bottom right of Right Bird Left and stretches to the upper left corner of the canvas. This implied line becomes extremely noticeable to me when listening to the ascending notes of Kirchner’s Flutings for Paula. As the flutist follows the upward slope of the notes, my eye catches the drift of the implied line and with the ascending sound of the flute, follows the implied line from the bottom right up to the top left. The significance of this single implied line is that it brings my attention to what very well could be the “right bird” sitting on the left side of the painting, making sense of Krasner’s seemingly unrelated title Right Bird Left.
At first glance the bright colors of Krasner’s Right Bird Left seem to dominate the painting, but the more time spent looking at this artwork, the more obvious the dark hues become. The deep violet, once noticed, suddenly becomes overwhelming. It is everywhere. It fills in even the smallest areas of negative space, swirling and writhing against its brighter competitors. The darkness of the violet gives Right Bird Left a hint of mystery that breaks up the happy-go-lucky vibes that accompany Krasner’s use of orange and pink. Although it is not as apparent as the violet in Right Bird Left, the percussion in Kirchner’s Flutings for Paula also provides a form of relief from the happy aspects of this piece. The constant chirping of the flute is balanced by deep bangs on a drum and moments of complete silence. Although there are only a few instances where the drum appears in Kirchner’s piece, its deep tones match those of the deep, almost ominous violet in the painting. The moments of silence in Flutings for Paula can be interpreted as voids in the music, which can again be related to the deep voids created by the dark violet used in Right Bird Left.
In stark contrast to the foreboding violet are the happy pops of pink that appear sporadically throughout Krasner’s composition. Most commonly, pink is meant to evoke a feeling of happiness or tenderness, but when paired with the clashing colors of orange and green, this happy pink becomes awkward and almost unnerving. Its usual embodiment of happiness is no longer apparent; it is replaced with a feeling of uneasiness and dissonance that is further accentuated by the bright color of orange used by Krasner.
Looking at the intensity of the orange in this image for too long (especially when listening to Flutings for Paula) could very well cause you anxiety, due to the fact that orange is a very emotionally charged color that is full of excitement and vigor. These emotions compete for my attention by the equally enthusiastic and unnerving high tones of the flute that occur a handful of times during Flutings for Paula. These piercing notes cause the piece of music to become “charged with emotional impact and explosive power that is almost frightening in intensity” (Ringer, 10). When the flute is at its highest pitch, it forces me to see the colors of pink and orange turn extremely vibrant against the dark violet background. These colors seem to resonate with anxiety caused by the violently high pitch of the flute. At its highest pitch, the timbre of the flute changes from being breathy and majestic to sharp and piercing, which in turn causes the pink to shake with restlessness and the orange to vibrate with angst. The intense emotions portrayed by orange and pink are contrasted by the calming effect put forth by the white used in Right Bird Left.
White, or cream, although sparse, holds a great deal of importance in this painting. It is the negative space between all other colors. It is neutral and pure. White is often seen as a symbol of purity and perfection, and its presence in Right Bird Left gives the feeling of clarity to the viewer. This clarity turns into a mysterious sense of whimsicality when the wind chimes are struck during Flutings for Paula. The small areas of white seem to glisten during the silvery sound of the wind chimes, creating a feeling of mystery not noticed before. These whimsical wind chimes create an unusual feeling that the staccato notes of the wood block interrupt and transform into an exotic sensation. The sounds of hollow wood bring the presence of a light, muddy shade of brown to my attention. The comparatively small amount of brown in the left side of this painting coincides with the short performance of the wood block in Flutings for Paula. However less dominant it may be, the combination of the brown color with the short wood block performance creates an exotic feel that captivates me. This feeling of captivation leads me to believe that maybe this abstract painting is not just giant blobs of color, but rather a representation of something exotic, like a tropical forest. Or, to go even further, the colors on this canvas accompanied by the sound of the flute inspire me to believe that this painting is possibly a representation of an exotic bird perched on a tree in this tropical forest, whistling its colorful songs to the bright flowers below.
As you can see, Flutings for Paula creates a narrative for the painting Right Bird Left by stimulating multiple senses. Although this interpretation is my own, I encourage you to create your own narrative by looking at the painting and listening to this piece of music again. What else do you notice? How is your interpretation different from mine? Our ideas will certainly differ, and this is expected, but one thing to take into consideration is the idea that this is not the only narrative available to Right Bird Left. If you were to pair this painting with a piece of music from a different time period, you could very well discover a drastically different analysis. So go ahead, look, listen, and discover.
Ringer, Alexander. “Leon Kirchner.” The Musical Quarterly 43, no. 1 (1957): 1 – 20.