Music, Meaning, and Modern Art: Part 2 of 3

Tom W. Hartung
Nov 23, 2017 · 9 min read

This is part two of a three part series of articles written for people who love music but do not understand abstract art.

Two Birds — By Wassily Kandinski, 1907 — Public Domain.

Part one features Bob Dylan’s song All Along the Watchtower, and part three features the Talking Heads’ first four albums.

All three articles reference highly-acclaimed works of music and visual art that have stood the test of time. The articles use these well-known works to help explain how musicians and painters use abstractions to add value and meaning to their work.

Depending on your interest level, you can read one, two, or all three of these articles. All of them are about essentially the same thing, but each can stand on its own, so you can read them in any sequence you desire.

Spoiler alert: the secret is, when the meaning in a work of art is not immediately obvious, we are free to add our own meaning to it.

Sound complicated? It isn’t! All it takes is a little imagination.

Exercising Your Imagination

Look at Kandinsky’s woodcut of Two Birds (1907) above and:

1. Listen to this version by Paul McCartney — or if you’re already familiar with the song, just imagine you are listening to Blackbird by The Beatles
2. Rather than being about a bird, imagine the song is about African Americans
3. Rather than representing birds that fly, imagine the birds in the woodcut represent two people — or two groups of people — one black and one white

Easy enough, right? Ok, now we’re ready!

Jazz Can Be More Abstract

Jazz, especially when it’s instrumental and doesn’t have lyrics, can be much more abstract than most folk, rock, and folk-rock. Take, for example, some of the music by John Coltrane.

John Coltrane — “Trane” — wrote the song Alabama in 1963.

Ray Charles and John Coltrane — from .

Although he wrote it in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, today there is no way to tell that from the song itself. Indeed, today it is difficult to even imagine people doing such a thing.

This act of white supremacist terrorism killed four girls and injured twenty-two others.

At the time, everyone knew this was Trane’s motivation for writing the song. Listening to it now, however, you might think its theme is similar to that of the song Georgia on My Mind by Ray Charles. Nothing could be further from the truth!

The passion Coltrane felt for the African-American civil rights movement
surfaces fully a couple of years later, in his magnum opus, A Love Supreme.

John Coltrane — cover of A Love Supreme. Fair use.

The album is very spiritual and contains four songs or “parts:” Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalm.
The whole thing is available on It runs just over 30 minutes.

To understand what John Coltrane is saying in his masterpiece, it really helps to read what others have written about it. One article at reviews it in the context of Trane’s life and other works, and another at describes why it is still relevant after fifty years.

Ultimately John’s bandmate Miles Davis may well provide the best perspective on Trane’s magnum opus.

In his autobiography, Miles Davis offers extremely high praise for John Coltrane’s work on this album and others he recorded during that time. Miles also provides valuable insight into both what John was saying with his music in the mid-to-late 1960s and how the African American community reacted to his message.

Miles: The Autobiography — cover of the book written with Quincy Troupe.

Trane’s music and what he was playing during the last two or three years [1965–1967] of his life represented, for many blacks, the fire and passion and rage and anger and rebellion and love that they felt, especially among the young black intellectuals and revolutionaries of that time. He was expressing through music what H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers and Huey Newton were saying with their words, what the Last Poets and Amiri Baraka were saying in poetry. He was their torchbearer in jazz, now ahead of me. He played what they felt inside and were expressing through riots — “burn baby burn” — that were taking place everywhere in this country during the 1960s. It was all about revolution for a lot of young black people — Afro haircuts, dashikis, black power, fists raised in the air. Coltrane was their symbol, their pride — their beautiful, black, revolutionary pride. I had been it a few years back, now he was it, and that was cool with me.
It was this way for many intellectual and revolutionary whites and Asians as well.
Even his change to a more spiritual music in the music on A Love Supreme — which was like a prayer — reached out and influenced those people who were into peace, hippies and people like that.
— from Miles: The Autobiography, 1990, by Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe (pp. 285–286)

This longish quote provides anyone who was not an African American adult in the 1960s valuable context for understanding John Coltrane’s work during this period.

Truly appreciating A Love Supreme requires a knowledge of some American history. The web and your local library provide access to a lot of this information, totally for free.

For example, watching at least one of these civil rights documentaries from the mid-1960s is a good start:

- History of the Civil Rights Movement (5:52)
- Alabama City Remembered as Climactic Battle of Civil Rights Movement (4:27)
- Birmingham 1963 (4:22)

Also, listening to at least part of at least one of these speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. from that period can provide additional valuable context:

- I Have a Dream — August 28, 1963 (17:28)
- Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech — December 19, 1964 (12:01)
- Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence — April 4, 1967 (53:46)

The more you learn about race relations in America during the early-to-mid-1960s, the more you will be able to appreciate John Coltrane’s music.

Visualizing Racism: The Americans and Heretic

What does racism look like? A couple of works — one each in Modern Photography and Modern Dance — can answer that question quite well.

Cover of The Americans — By Robert Frank, 1958. Fair use.

The cover of Robert Frank's ground-breaking and innovative book of photographs, The Americans (1958), offers a powerful and unforgettable portrait of racism.

This image shows a trolley car in New Orleans in which people must obey the Jim Crow laws
in force throughout the Southern United States from the 1870s through the 1950s.
Ostensibly intended to enforce
separate but equal" treatment of black and white races after the Civil War, in practice the laws were used to make African Americans second-class citizens.

It is well worth your while to search for the image and select a high-resolution copy of it so you can see “up close” the stark contrast between the smug expression of the woman near the front with the more matter-of-fact expression of the man behind her near the back. It is actually these facial expressions that give this photograph such a strong, memorable realism, but it is difficult to see them in low-resolution images such as the one on this page.

Robert Frank’s photograph is of necessity limited by time and place, and it stands in stark contrast with the similarly-themed ballet Heretic (1929) choreographed by Martha Graham and performed by her — wearing the white dress, with her hair down, and in the lead role — along with her dance company.

On the surface, Martha Graham’s ballet has nothing at all to do with racism. Its message is much more abstract.

An astute viewer would quickly perceive that there are no men, no children, no non-whites, no elderly, and no overweight people in this dance company.
A pedantic individual would be justified in claiming Martha’s dance company practices the same type of exclusionary principles the choreographer apparently — and presumably — implicitly disdains in this dance.

Also, with its basis in the word heresy, the title implies that the outcast has a choice in the matter — which is certainly not the case when it comes to skin color. These factors do not by any means limit the relevance or impact of, or the power present in,this work of art.

Cover of Rotten: No Irish — No Blacks — No Dogs — By John Lydon, 1994. Fair use.

It is interesting to consider how people such as the following individuals might each interpret Heretic a little bit differently:

- Susan Fowler, who experienced a great deal of sexual harassment in her work as an engineer at Uber,
- Edward Snowden, who revealed how the United States Government spies on its citizens,
- John Lydon, a singer who, as Johnny Rotten, founded the punk rock band The Sex Pistols,
- Rosa Parks, an African American who famously refused to surrender her seat to a white person in the 1950s, and
- Anyone who has ever been laid off from a job, for that matter,

The fact that each of these people, with their different experiences in being excluded from various groups, could relate to the story Martha
Graham tells in her ballet — in most cases choreographed decades before they were even born — demonstrates the power of abstraction in art.

The point to remember is, as consumers we are all free to interpret all works of art in any way we want.

And as an artwork becomes less specific and more abstract, the interpretation of it becomes more and more up to the viewer, and less and less up to the artist.

So What?

Ok so abstractions are important in music, painting, and other art forms. So What?!?

So What — Live at The Robert Herridge Theater, New York, April 2, 1959 — By Miles Davis, 1959.

Hello, my name is Tom Hartung and I am the creator of and

Like most people, I’ve been a music fan all my life! After learning about painters like Wassily Kandisky, Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian — who is my personal favorite — and many others in graduate school at VCU, I wrote a program that draws images of personalities.

Actually, over the years I have written four versions of the program,
and all too frequently I get strange looks when I tell people about it.
Knowing that most people love music — which by its nature is very abstract — I wrote these articles to clear away some of the mystery behind Abstract Art.

I feel the time has finally come to start actively sharing my idea of visualizing personalities — which are also by their nature very abstract — with the world at large, and am sure I will get some push-back from people who are not yet ready for the idea.

So I wrote these articles to preemptively address the criticism I will surely get from people whose backgrounds are different from mine.

The process of writing these articles was a long one — a few decades, in actual fact.I only hope you have found them entertaining and enlightening!

Thank you for reading this article!

For more about abstraction and meaning in art, see part 1 or part 3.

Bonus Epic Song!

For an epic song about exclusion, listen to and watch this medley of two songs, Cryptical Envelopment -> The Other One — by The Grateful Dead.

Cryptical Envelopment -> The Other One — by The Grateful Dead (Live 5/3/1968 at Columbia University).
Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store