Chaos and Calm as Seen and Heard in Migrants and “Memories”
To fully understand the relationship between chaos and calm in Kurt Seligmann’s painting titled Migrants and Kai Engel’s music “Memories” the viewer must first recognize the narrative of each work. In the center of the canvas, there is a group of figures surrounded by an empty landscape. At this point, the music can aid in one’s understanding of the narrative. At the beginning of “Memories,” the calm, slow, oscillating tones of the piano may be understood as the footsteps of the figures in the painting. One could conclude that the figures shown in Migrants are on a journey.
Each figure in the center of the painting is composed differently; representing people from all different ethnicities and backgrounds. For example, the figure in the center of the canvas looks like an American from the 1800s or possibly a British soldier from the same time period. The figure on the very right of the canvas has the appearance of a pirate, and the figures to the left of the central figure appear to be from the Middle East due to the fact that the majority of their bodies are covered. The child on the far left of the canvas does not seem to allude to a certain culture, but he or she is playing a musical instrument, which is very interesting. It almost seems as if the child wants the viewer to listen to music while looking at the painting.
The title of the painting, Migrants, could reference the increase in migration to the United States during World War II. As mentioned on the label to the right of the painting, Migrants was painted by Seligmann as a response to the war, a time where many people tried to escape war-torn Europe and the Nazi regime. This is the journey the group is on; each trying to leave their current place to make a better life for themselves. Each lanky, distorted figure is wearing what appear to be loose articles of clothing, with almost all of the figures carrying nothing else with them. Due to the lack of personal belongings, these individuals may have left in a hurry. Light appears to be ahead of the figures, and a road is located behind them. This references the idea that the group does not know what lies ahead on their journey, but whatever they are going to encounter is better than the situation or people the group left behind; the group now has hope. This same feeling of hope is enhanced by the music. “Memories” was composed in 2013 by Kai Engel, an 18-year-old Russian citizen. He completed this piece in 2013 during a time when corruption and social instability began to dominate news from Russia. Engel has posted this along with other compositions to multiple web pages, making them accessible to the global community. The composition of something so beautiful during a time of tension in Russia, gives one hope that Russia will return to better times.
Overall emotional connection and narrative are not the only parallels between the music and the art; formal qualities of both Migrants and “Memories” can also be related. When the viewer steps closer to the painting, he or she will begin to notice that each shape Seligmann has created is composed of layered colors of paint. In most cases, the top layer of color has been thinly applied allowing for the under color to show through. The same thing happens in the music when the piano is accompanied by the cymbals and bass drum. Although these instruments are much louder than the piano, the piano’s melody can still be heard.
The colors seen in the group of figures in Migrants are not the natural colors of human beings. This can be related to how Engel composed his piece “Memories.” In all cases, the sounds are not acoustic instruments, but rather electronic versions of instruments. Engel composes and performs his pieces, including “Memories,” directly on a MIDI, a type of synthesizer. It is important to note that Engel composes Memories based on his intuition, even though the basic structure could have been previously planned.
With the addition of percussion instruments, specifically the cymbals and bass drum, the music “Memories” becomes much more chaotic. Perhaps this tension, which the percussion creates when it intersects with the piano, represents the psychological anxiety the figures in the painting felt on their journey. They do not know what lies ahead, which could be very difficult to process, but the figures eventually accept that their future is unknown. This transition between anxiety and acceptance can be heard in “Memories” when the composition returns to the same calm, slow piano melody heard at the beginning of the piece.
The repetitive lines in Migrants can be related to the repetition of the melody in “Memories.” In the music, the melody heard at the beginning of the piece repeats throughout the composition, but each time it is heard there is some variation. No single version of the melody is exactly alike. As the piece continues the variations of the melody get louder and the tempo increases, up until the last variation. When the piece returns to the melody it began with, the tempo decreases sharply and the volume gets considerably softer. Similarly, Seligmann’s painting is characterized by a variety of lines. In many areas, short, black lines are repeated to form shadows in the figures. These lines are all different lengths and widths defined by the shapes the shadows are contained in.
Perhaps the most intriguing argument that can be made regarding the parallels between the art and music relates to the composition of the two works. When the viewer looks at the overall composition of the painting, he or she will notice the chaotic nature of the figures in the foreground in relation to the calm, emptiness of the landscape in the background. The figures contain a variety of line styles, shapes, and colors, which makes the center of the canvas very chaotic. In contrast, the background only contains two colors feeling empty. The blue seen in the background can be interpreted as sky and the shade of brown dominating the lower half of the canvas is the ground plane. The combination of these two subdued colors creates a very calm feeling for the viewer and provides a sense of relief, which contrasts with the chaotic center of the painting. Similarly, “Memories” begins with the calm tones of the piano, quickly followed by the addition of chaotic percussion instruments. The cymbals and bass drum provide a harsh contrast against the tone of the piano creating an uncomfortable listening experience. This uneasy feeling can also surface when viewing the painting’s segmented extremities and the biomorphic shaped, faceless heads of the distorted figures. However, this feeling is quickly put to rest when the slow piano melody is heard at the end of the composition. A sense of calm overcomes the listener, which is the same feeling the viewer of Migrants achieves when focusing on the landscape.
The color choices, line, shape, and composition all play particular roles in terms of how Migrants is perceived by the viewer. This same relationship can be seen in the way the formal elements of the music influence the way the listener interprets the music. Both works convey feelings of calm and chaos to the audience, and these emotions are heightened when the two compositions are listened to and looked at simultaneously. The chaos, especially in the music, causes a feeling of discomfort in the listener that lessens as the slower tones of the piano are heard near the end of the composition. The resulting balance within the composition can also be seen in the painting Migrants. The empty landscape surrounding the figures provides relief from the complex center of the canvas. Together, these relationships between calm and chaos may enhance the audience’s interest in understanding of the artworks.
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