Try out These Art and Music Pairings to Get More out of Both

Resolved to be more cultured in 2016? Try these art and music pairings to learn to savor more of both.

Try out These Art and Music Pairings to Get More out of Both

You didn’t always like wine or scotch or whatever spirit moves you. Maybe you acquired that taste by combining it with more familiar tastes, probably your favorite foods. When done right, pairings — wine and food, liquor and food, wine and chocolate; pick your poison — somehow end up greater than the sum of their parts while allowing you to appreciate those parts even more. If you’ve resolved to be more cultured in 2016, perhaps by sophisticating your taste in art and music, here are some art and music pairings that might help you reach your goal.

The idea of pairing art and music isn’t new, of course. Research focusing on the “synergizing” of music and art arrived at some interesting conclusions about increased appreciation and understanding and, for the initiated, new perceptions that shook up previous judgments. Many museums feature music (usually period-appropriate music) as part of their overall presentation. Taking the art-music coupling to another level, artist-musician Yiannis Kranidiotis created a computer program to translate the colors in a painting into corresponding sound frequencies so you can “hear” what a painting would sound like.

Like any kind of pairing, mine is totally idiosyncratic and reflects my own biases. Your sommelier might not admit that, but I will. The purpose is to give you a starting point from which you can form your own opinions and biases. Here are some other ground rules:

  • I’ve tried to stick to abstract art and instrumental music to avoid narrative content that might distract you from the combined experience.
  • I’ve only used artists or art movements that would be represented in most larger museum collections. So, even if you don’t live in New York City, you’re probably going to be able to find something from the Abstract Expressionist school nearby, if not an actual Jackson Pollock painting.
  • I’ve put the five pairings in order of what I consider most accessible (1) to least accessible (5), but you can start anywhere you wish or even mix and match. As with wine-food pairings, everyone will find their own level of comfort and challenge with time and effort.
  • Image: Jackson Pollock. Autumn Rhythm (No.30), 1950. Image Source: Wikipedia.

    Pairing 1. Jackson Pollock and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suites (1717-1723) (Pablo Casals version or Yo-Yo Ma version)

    By pairing up the modern Pollock drip paintings (such as Autumn Rhythm (No.30), shown above) with Bach’s baroque music, I’m trying to draw a connection between the complexity and fluidity of both art forms. More importantly, I’m trying to make you feel the rhythm in both Pollock’s brush strokes and Bach’s Cello Suites. If you’ve never taken to Bach before, you probably miss how much Bach moves. The movements of the Cello Suites all come from types of baroque dance: allemande, courante, sarabande, minuets, bourrées, gavottes, and a closing gigue. So, try to see the dance in Pollock’s painting while you hear the dance of the cellist’s bow (old-school soulful if you go with Casals; crystalline-pure emotion with Ma).

    (Note: The obvious art-music pairing for Pollock is usually the Bebop Jazz that was contemporary with his art. If you go in that direction, listen to classic Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. If you’re looking for a higher degree of jazz difficulty, however, listen to Ornette Coleman's 1958 album Something Else!!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman [full album here]. Jazz is still trying to catch up with Coleman, who just passed away in 2015.)


    Image: Mark Rothko. Four Darks in Red, 1958. Image Source: Wikipedia.

    Pairing 2. Mark Rothko and Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder (1901-1902)

    If you really want to encounter and feel a Rothko (such as Four Darks in Red, shown above), you need to ramp up the Romanticism. Rothko himself loved Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and would blast Mozart’s operas while painting, but he also had a soft spot for the more Romantic Franz Schubert. You can’t go wrong with Mozart or Schubert, but if you really want emotion, listen to the last of the great Romantics (and first of the great Modernists), Gustav Mahler. All of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder drip with emotion, but I suggest standing face to face with a Rothko and listening to baritone Thomas Hampson’s version of “Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen” (in English, “I have lost touch with the world”). You’ll get in touch with emotional depths you never knew resided in your jaded, chilly soul.


    Image: Wassily Kandinsky. Composition VII, 1913. Image Source: Wikipedia.

    Pairing 3. Wassily Kandinsky and Charles Mingus “Better Git It in Your Soul” or “Haitian Fight Song.”

    Kandinsky’s usually criticized for being too calculated, too coolly composed, yet there’s a definite rhythm to his works that makes them deceptively musical. They’re not just musical — they actually swing! Duke Ellington may have said “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” but I’m going with Duke disciple Charles Mingus’ more riotous works, such as “Better Git It in Your Soul” or “Haitian Fight Song.” Just try fighting the urge to move to the groove when you stand before one of Kandinsky’s innocently titled “compositions” (such as Composition VII, shown above) and listen to Mingus and his band tear it up. 


    Image: Agnes Martin. The Tree, 1964. Image Source: WikiArt.

    Pairing 4. Agnes Martin and Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert (1975) (full album here)

    Here’s where the art-music pairings get a little more challenging, but still can be enjoyable. Minimalism’s a tough sell for people who want big and bold. If you learned to love Pollock and Bach and Kandinsky and Mingus earlier, Agnes Martin and Keith Jarrett might feel like someone hit the brakes too hard, or they might be the perfect counterpoint to add depth and new dimensions to your art-music education. Jarrett’s 1975 solo piano album The Köln Concert begins simply and barely with just a man playing a motif on a piano, but you can feel the layers build and depths reveal themselves over time. Martin’s minimalism requires the same kind of time and dedication, but promises the same kind of reward. 

    (Note: The obvious art-music pairing for Martin and minimalism is any of the classical minimalist composers, most notably Philip Glass. Try Glass’ Glassworks. Better yet, try John Luther Adams’ mesmerizing, more recent Become Ocean.)


    Image: Cy Twombly. Fifty Days at Iliam. The Fire That Consumes All Before It, 1978. Image Source: WikiArt.

    Pairing 5. Cy Twombly and John Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra (1950-1951)

    This final pair is the toughest challenge. It’s the one pairing that the sommelier slips into the meal that’s meant to disturb and discomfort you. Cy Twombly’s art and John Cage’s music definitely push me to the edge of my own zone of appreciation, but it’s a good hurt in that it stretches my aesthetic muscles. If you’ve ever turned and ran from Twombly’s scribblings (one example shown above) or covered your ears from Cage’s compositions, maybe two negatives make a positive in this case. How do you know the cocktails you’ll never order again from the ones you’ll love forever? You have to taste them for yourself. Give these artists (and insert the name of any other challenging artists here) a try. You may surprise yourself.

    Finally, the most important thing about this exercise is to have fun and keep an open mind. If this feels like homework, stop. Wait for a moment when it feels like an adventure where the reward is learning something new about yourself, which is what resolutions (which shouldn’t be reserved for January 1st) are really all about. Please share in the comments your results with these pairings, any tinkering you may have done with my suggestions, and any new pairings you come up with. Sharing is caring.

  • [Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]
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    • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
    • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
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    Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

    Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
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    This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

    In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

    But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

    In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

    Popularizing medical language

    What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

    To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

    If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


    "Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

    "We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

    "These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

    The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

    "If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

    Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

    But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

    Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

    In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

    "That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

    "Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

    Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

    Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

    "It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

    Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

    People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


    There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

    For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

    "For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

    "Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

    In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

    "None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

    "I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

    Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

    "The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

    "And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

    This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

    "Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

    Learned helplessness

    The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

    "The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

    So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

    "A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

    Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

    "If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

    But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

    For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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    The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

    According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

    Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
    Strange Maps
    • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
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