Lissa Tyler Renaud
Editor, “Kandinsky Anew” series
Kandinsky wrote a number of plays, but the only one he chose to publish in complete form was The Yellow Sound. Several productions of it were planned during his life, but they were all stymied by war, revolution, and the accompanying scattering of colleagues, the disruption of theatres and academies, and so on. Fortunately, when he published The Yellow Sound, he published it along with an essay, “On Stage Composition,” in which he explained his thinking about the theatre—thinking he hoped could be directly applied to The Yellow Sound.
With such explicit materials to work from, it is all the more surprising that Kandinsky’s play, The Yellow Sound, seems not to have had an actual production—that is, not of his script, as he wrote it, and according to his expressed intentions. There have been numerous stagings, including some quite well-known ones, that have used both Kandinsky’s name and the name of his play. It is easy enough to find descriptions of those productions, some having photos or even video clips. But the stagings these sources relate are disconcertingly far from both the play text itself and the visual world of Kandinsky’s paintings. There have been light shows, dance performances, performance art pieces and more, funded and promoted as Kandinsky’s play. But where the people involved perhaps meant to honor Kandinsky by using his name, instead it’s hard not to be troubled by their disregard for, or
misunderstanding of, what was so important to him.
Clay Gold, this month’s Guest Writer for this “Kandinsky Anew” series, has written an informed, sensitive evocation of The Yellow Sound. In his essay, he proceeds scrupulously through the text of the play, making directorial and intuitive sense of it. As you will see, Gold’s sense of the play is grounded in his knowledge of Kandinsky’s life, writings and theories, and in the work of a range of other artists. Gold also has the interdisciplinary aesthetic and professional experience needed to bring Kandinsky’s play to life for us. He said of the very original perspective he elucidates in his essay:
“The Yellow Sound is a key work in Kandinsky's oeuvre, despite its not being a painting. It is suggested that the ‘play’ is rather a score for an improvised painting, and further, that the piece notates the evolutionary transition between the representational (material) and the abstract (spiritual) in art, with which Kandinsky was so concerned.”
Materials in a Spiritual World
A Contextual Look at Kandinsky’s The Yellow Sound
“Some indeterminate chords from the orchestra.
The introduction to The Yellow Sound begins like a birth, or a death.
The birth we are witness to is that of Abstraction. The death? Naturalism. The midwife is Wassily Kandinsky's subconscious mind.
The Yellow Sound is a pivotal statement in the career of the artist and he presents it to us in the form, not of a painting or a theoretical essay and, if not exactly a libretto then certainly in the guise of a narrative score; a composition that escorts us through the landscape of a concept-in-progress.
Throughout, objects and figures variously appear and are either discarded or flee from the scene. Landscapes emerge and evolve before they are overwhelmed by colour or completely erased.
twilight becomes darker still and a “small light” becomes brighter and then “deeper”.
One evening around dusk, at the end of the nineteenth century (the very beginning of his career as a serious artist), Kandinsky noticed a painting in his studio. For a moment he was quite unable to make sense of it. It had colour and shape, but nothing to comprehend logically. He quickly realised that the painting had been turned on its side; even so, the impact of seeing the representational work in this unexpected, abstract way, in the half-light, had a profound effect. Retrospectively he wrote about the incident: “I could see clearly that objects harmed my pictures”.
“Behind the stage, a CHORUS is heard...”
Deep and high voices using impressionist language. Impressions of language.
The Yellow Sound is not tethered to the logic of a plot nor to any distracting narrative arc. There are no leading characters, except for maybe five yellow giants who grow and shrink in confidence, related to the purpose of their presence. Unlike contemporaneous work by Kokoschka and the German Expressionist playwrights, the piece is not political. It does not even deal with universal issues. It does however address, and simultaneously document, a great transition in the history of visual art. And by seeking to express the inherent dialogue of that extended moment within a temporal framework, with music and with choreographed movement and lighting, The Yellow Sound invokes a system of symbolic thought which is both inside and outside of time and the physical world. Like Jack Kerouac's Visions of Cody, a long novel which contains all the impressions and memories contained in one single, vital instant;
similar in many ways to Joyce's Ulysses, which deliberately contains more information than can be packed into the single day on which it happens to be set, The Yellow Sound supplies us with an artist's topography of process; a dilemma or tension coupled with emotional or spiritual responses to the creation of five paintings that emerge on stage in three dimensions, before our senses.
“The stage must be as deep as possible.”
“...the background becomes dark blue (in time with the music) and assumes broad black edges (like a picture)”.
For Kandinsky, the purpose of art is to communicate a resonance of the soul, creating “a virtually identical vibration in the receiving soul”. He is however, acutely aware of the potential for other, inevitable forces which interfere with that process. These differences within the souls of the “receiving subjects”, the audience of observers, paradoxically result in the correct understanding of the artist's intention, at a level which is appropriate for each individual.
By allusion... by not speaking directly... by not being didactic or cerebral... meaning is able to bubble to the surface of the soul, to simmer... this is the dot, the crash, the beat... the moment of subconscious or soulful resonance which is not necessarily translatable into (or communicable with) language, but is, according to Kandinsky, transferable with art.
Sympathy and the communication of ideas and emotion happen spiritually and not through any process of logical conclusion or consideration; they are rather instantaneous, immediate. Felt.
Drama, opera and ballet, all being what Kandinsky calls substantive forms, originate from external, considered human experience, and are therefore limited or “impoverished”.
“...no movement, no sound. Then darkness.”
“Five bright yellow GIANTS.”
“...strange, yellow faces which are indistinct.”
Impressions of humanity, of the figure, for the newborn.
The giants are perhaps symbolic of the great urge, present in Kandinsky's thinking from very early on, to communicate his theory of “the spiritual in art”. They are the elephants in the room of Kandinsky's subconscious. In The Yellow Sound he is exploring a new way of bringing them into the material world. Into consciousness.
Yellow is defined as shrill, stimulating and earthly in Kandinsky's theory of colour, 1911. Earthly warmth and shrill seem at odds with each other. And why not? Why should any colour, tone, or chord be singular or specific in its meaning to a human being? Meanings, if any, are relative to one another and to all that occurs around them. Similarly, the resonance within a work of art is only present in relation to the previously acquired knowledge and information which is present in the mind of the observer.
“The music becomes more definite.”
And a repetition from earlier, “...the same wooden chorus becomes audible.”
“The blue mist recedes gradually before the light...”
Consider this, for instance, as an example of describing the production of an improvised painting:
“At this point the background suddenly turns a dirty brown. The hill becomes dirty green. And right in the middle of the hill forms an indefinite black patch, which appears now distinct, now blurred.”
Kandinsky is painting, eyes closed.
“On the left side of the hill a big yellow flower suddenly becomes visible.”
“Later, in complete silence, the flower begins to sway very slowly...”
From On the Spiritual in Art: “A totally dead silence... a silence with no possibilities, has the inner harmony of black.”
A thin “B” tone accompanies the sway whilst a deep “A” represents a leaf. Music is the spiritual resonance Kandinsky hopes to transmit to the observer through his imagery. These notes are the frequencies which he is experiencing and reproducing for the audience. The music is almost unnecessary as it represents something occurring within the artist and should therefore re-occur within any sympathetic soul, like the keyboard and strings he describes in On the Spiritual in Art... an inner music, sensation.
The Yellow Sound is an opportunity for Kandinsky to present, in its purest form, his theory of “the spiritual in art”, the resonance represented by music and the eventual use of synaesthetic language. With the libretto, Kandinsky is free of theoretical constraint and is able to be an artist again, painting with words for the soul without the interference of the psyche.
“Many PEOPLE come on from the left in long, garish, shapeless garments...”
“Close your eyes! Close your eyes!”
The voices are “hoarse”, “possessed and “nasal”, individually defective or distorted. The figurative is now breaking apart in Kandinsky's output; the Abstract, symbolism, is growing stronger, with greater resonance.
“Gradually, the orchestra strikes up and drowns the voices.”
Spirituality is apparently overcoming representation.
“The PEOPLE walk slowly... and separate more from one another.”
Materialism is fragmenting.
“It turns suddenly dark.”
“...the GIANTS... whisper in pairs; sometimes all their heads come together.
Their bodies remain motionless.”
“Everything remains motionless... Suddenly all colours vanish.”
“...the music grows deeper.”
“...nothing but light is to be seen on the stage: no objects. The brightest level of light is reached.”
We arrive at complete abstraction.
“...behind the stage a shrill tenor voice, filled with fear...”
This voice is the sound of bright yellow in Kandinsky's colour theory.
“...shouting entirely indistinguishable words very quickly...”
In the artistic lexicon of Kandinsky, the words sound and colour are interchangeable. He uses the word “sound” to describe the spiritual quality of any art. This is perhaps a way of creating the type of meaning which speaks to the soul as opposed to the mind. Or it could be that his synaesthetic disposition sees no distinction between the two words.
It is however possible for us to identify this “shrill tenor voice” as being the very “yellow sound” of the title. It occurs twice more at important junctures in the piece, and is specifically heard emanating from a human being; it is therefore not unreasonable to think of it as the last cry of naturalism in art, especially when considered at this particular crossroads in the work of the artist. Although it was to be more than ten years before Kandinsky eradicated broadly recognisable figures from his painting, The Yellow Sound may be read as a tortuous psychological wrestle with that very issue. The constant tension between the outer and the inner world is consistent with Kandinsky's character. It is well documented that he came late to art, having first studied law and economics, a judicious attempt, perhaps, to keep one foot in the material world before indulging in the spiritual endeavours of painting and theorising art and colour.
“Pause. For a moment it becomes dark.”
Out of nowhere (darkness), a figurative painting is presented to us:
A simple religious building, with a turret and a “cracked bell.”
A small child, gazing out at the audience is ringing the bell by:
“pulling slowly and rhythmically at the lower end of the rope...”
A fat, white man, dressed in black, demands
of the child, who obeys.
Is the child interfering in some way with the proceedings? Does the man in black represent some authority calling for an end to this adventure in abstraction? The stern man may be read as some kind of outside interference; Kandinsky's conscience pricking him maybe, or a symbol of the suppression of the individual's spirituality by the authority of organised religion: a metaphor for the resistance of culture toward the expression of nature in art.
Maybe the figure is the lawyer that Kandinsky rejected in order to become an artist. I think this is highly likely.
The broken bell represents the imperfect, though vital, transmission of spiritual resonance.
“The CHILD drops the rope.”
This is the only scene of true or traditional drama in the piece and I believe it is strongly resonant for Kandinsky.
“The stage is gradually saturated with a cold red light, which slowly grows stronger and equally slowly turns yellow.”
Kandinsky, in the book Uber das Geistige in der Kunst (1911), says this:
“The element of red, which plays a great part in orange... is like a human being aware of his own power and emanating happiness and health. The appeal, exercised by this colour is like a medium-sized church bell reminding one of a strong alto voice or the singing of alto violins.”
With this in mind, we gain some insight into the previous scene. The colour emerges from the bell and represents the actions of the child resonating still from the outer world (of the bell) to the inner world (of colour). Sound bleeds into light.
Backstage, the fearful (yellow) cry is heard again very briefly. A white, shadowless light is growing and, simultaneously, the giants become “feeble”. They are reduced to a motionlessness, staring out at the audience, before they suddenly “spasm”.
“The music gradually becomes shriller”, which is the same as saying the music becomes yellow. The stage becomes flooded with people, some dressed in black and white or grey; others in bright colours. They behave differently too, in groups, before they become displaced, alone or in smaller groups, looking in different directions. One of the white figures performs a “kind of dance” with rapid movements, drawing the attention of the others until they are all looking at the white figure. The dance ends with a ritualistic movement and there is a spiritual tension between colour, choreography and music at this point.
“In the orchestra, individual colours begin to stand out.”
The people, “overcome by exhaustion”, begin to stand and the groups disperse:
“Many PEOPLE run in haste from the stage, looking behind them. In the process, all the BLACK, GREY and WHITE PEOPLE disappear...”
“In the orchestra – confusion.”
The giants tremble as the yellow shriek from backstage is heard once more.
A rapid, chaotic, ensemble dance ensues and, at the moment of “greatest confusion” in the music and in the lights,
“it suddenly becomes dark and silent.”
The yellow giants remain as the last visible objects
before they then too become erased.
Wassily Kandinsky's mindset at the creation of The Yellow Sound is likely that which is present at the creation of any other “composition” or “improvisation” upon which he worked, any of which could be plays or paintings or symphonies. But here, instead of a brush, he has a pen or a typewriter. And instead of an abstraction, we have here the entire thought process, in plain language, plainer than he has used before or since. And instead of a painting, we have the score for a painting. A score which allows for ideas to be overwritten with new ideas.
Kandinsky's “spirituality” is synonymous with the “unconscious mind”, an expression still new in the parlance of the time. Its use was popularized by the writing of Sigmund Freud after 1900 and spread even further once his work was translated into other languages, from about 1912. Prior to Freud, the psyche was a mystery, explored by occultists, theosophists and thinkers of the era in broadly imaginative ways which owed more to poetry and religious unravelling than it did to scientific analysis. Until The Yellow Sound, Kandinsky perhaps lacked the language of clarification for his philosophy. The framework of a theatrical play eventually freed him to speak using the metaphors presenting themselves to his synaesthete thought processes. The deliberate, conscious construction of similar work, the Gesamkunstwerk of Richard Wagner for example, opposes the instinctive or intuitive methods of Kandinsky. Wagner's use of tropes and specific cultural symbols - the “well-known label” on a bottle, were the Wagner branding. He used narrative text to express his own ideas, a method antithetical to Kandinsky's own beliefs. “Wagner
diminished the inner sense” with his ignorance of colour, as Kandinsky put it; not to mention the practice of subordinating one art-form to another, and the “obstinate recurrence” of musical phrases in his method of characterization. Wagner was a composer typical of the “external”, the superficial style to which Kandinsky was opposed.
This is poignant and pivotal because The Yellow Sound came as Kandinsky was crossing the threshold into pure abstraction; as we know from his early artistic career, he never made a move in the field impulsively. That's not to say that he never intended the piece to be a theatrical performance. I'm sure he did. But in the spiritual unconscious of his artistic drive he somehow unlocked the symbols which represented the greatest leap of his life. And he wrote them into The Yellow Sound.
J.L Styan describes August Strindberg's contemporaneous Ghost Sonata as not being “a play... perceived with the logical mind, [but] one to be savoured with the senses”. This strategy might also be applied to The Yellow Sound. Kandinsky's work is not, however, a dream play, but rather one exploring the tensions between the conscious and the subconscious, the material and the spiritual worlds within the mind of an artist who has reached a vital fork in the metaphorical path of his development. He truly wished to transmit the interior, soulful experience of a spiritual artist to the observer, through the ears as well as the eyes. His apparent desire was the ability to tap into a resonant frequency, to make a true connection with other people. I think he admired the ability of religion to connect with the devout in this way. Religion, using artistic tropes: symbol, metaphor, architecture
and acoustic design, is able to envelop, not to mention humble and overwhelm the dedicated attendee. In many ways religion is the supreme art form, as followers carry their experience into the external world of objects. The chapels of Rothko in Texas and Matisse in Vence testify to this, representing endeavours to enter into this kind of communion.
It's my conjecture that Kandinsky may just as well have expressed his theory as The Unconscious in Art, rather than the Spiritual, given the broad exploration and discovery taking place in the realms of psychology and psychoanalysis at the same time. Regardless, his most important dramatic work, The Yellow Sound, can be read as the score for a synaesthete theatre of the mind.
There are something like twenty-five years between The Yellow Sound and the extraordinary, object-free work of the Bauhaus-era paintings; work which is precise, geometric and finally stripped of all representation. Within that period there exists a transition, recorded in The Yellow Sound libretto, which triggers in my mind the image of the bone in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, tossed into the air by a prehistoric ape, the bone dissolves into a revolving, futuristic space station in a matter of seconds. Within the work of Wassily Kandinsky there exists the great evolutionary stretch between representation and abstraction in the arts, which had further resonance in all other fields. He did not act alone in the process, but the birth trauma, the journey and the questions, the tension and the guilt are all expressed in his
oeuvre. It needed, perhaps, a synaesthete to sense it and create a theatrical, rather than theoretical, record of the transition.
Clay Gold is a British sound designer and writer living in Canterbury, UK.
He has a specific interest in avant-garde theatre and recently co-wrote
Parallelist, a monodrama for music, tape and a live telephone exchange,
with cellist/singer Laura Moody. Parallelist premiered at Aldeburgh Festival 2017 - www.claygold.co.uk
Note: This essay was originally developed at the invitation
of Lissa Tyler Renaud for Dramaturgias journal, Brazil.