Natural Sympathies

David Lidbetter: Aphonic Symphony

“People talk of natural sympathies,” said Mr. Rochester. And we all know that he was just trying to seduce Jane Eyre, but he wasn’t wrong – people do talk of natural sympathies. Not just between people, but between colors and musical notes as well. Certain things just look or sound pleasing when they’re combined, and there can be beauty in small differences, close contrasts.

Piero Della Francesca

Artists through the ages have tried to understand the world through mathematical rules – they understood it in order to draw it, and they understood it by drawing it.  Apparently Paolo Uccello would stay awake at night after his wife had gone to bed, searching for vanishing points, and he’d say, “Oh, what a a sweet thing this perspective is!” And Piero della Fransesca believed in a perfect geometry underlying God’s creation. He saw everything as defined by measurements and numbers, which had mystical properties. Everything was carefully planned, in his art and in the world around him, to be pleasantly harmonious.

Certain colors “hum” when they’re next to each other. Some contrasting colors, opposite sides of the spectrum, even create a beat when placed in proximity – almost a flashing in your vision. Some artists believe that each painting should have one “key note” color, which stands out from all the others, and doesn’t blend with the rest of the picture. We can find a balance between similarities and differences, and create our own harmony.

The visual world is often spoken of in musical terms--humming and beats. In musical history, people believed certain chords together had magical powers.  People used to believe that you are what you listen to, and that you could be driven to certain actions – saintly or diabolical – according to what you heard. Octaves and fifths were pure and safe, and the tritone was the devil in music, and could cause terrible unrest. But even saintly fifths could be tricky. If you take perfect fifths, and sing them perfectly in tune, by the time you get four octaves up, you’ll be a half-step flat. People developed all sorts of tunings to solve the problem (well-tempered tuning) and now we use equal temperament tuning, in which we adjust by making everything equally out of tune in order to stay in tune in the end.

In order to end up on pitch you have to make small adjustments along the way; Just like in life. In an increasingly acrimonious, divided world, perhaps we should learn from music and art, and from nature. We can grow by discussing our differences, and learn from ideas unlike our own. And we can seek the harmonious chords, find the beauty in connection, cultivate sympathy, and make the small compromises necessary to end up on pitch. 

Alex Tolstoy: In Tune


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