Music had a deep influence on Montreal painter Yves Gaucher (1934–2000). In an interview from 1996, he recalled, “It was only in music that I came to understand what a profound aesthetic experience really was. I heard concerts that marked me, that opened my ears and eyes. A very strong sensorial experience. Then in my work, I sought to recreate this experience which made me forget time, space, physicality.” Throughout his life Gaucher retained a deep commitment to jazz, Indian music, and contemporary classical music.
Gaucher described rhythm, in the context of both life and art, as the basis of aesthetic experience. During his first visit to Paris in 1962, he attended a concert of music by Pierre Boulez, Edgard Varèse, and Anton Webern. It was Webern’s music that most profoundly disturbed him and challenged the basic preconceptions that heretofore had driven his artistic expression. As he recalled: “The music seemed to send little cells of sound into space, where they expanded and took on a whole new quality and dimension of their own.”
The experience provoked a crisis and an intense period of work, leading Gaucher to create the series of prints entitled In Homage to Webern. For a long time he experimented with drawings until he arrived at a dynamic formal solution in which the composer’s “cells of sound” found their visual equivalents in the “signals,” the system of pure notations of lines, squares, and dashes that he disperses across his paper sheets. It is not that Gaucher is illustrating music that he had heard; rather, it is as if in his mind’s eye Gaucher had envisaged visual equivalents for Webern’s aural sensations as they dispersed themselves in the space of hearing.
Also of note are the close visual analogies between Gaucher’s prints and the graphic score for December 1952, by the American composer Earle Brown. Brown invented and used various innovative musical notations: his score for December 1952 is made up entirely of points and horizontal and vertical dashes of different shapes and sizes, separated in space and spread out over the page. Brown’s score shares the Webern prints’ non-centred dispersal of their symbols in such a way, as the musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez describes it, that it “invites the performer to play the different elements in random succession and therefore escape from the linear constraints of a ‘normal’ score.”
Gaucher had also begun to listen to Indian music sometime around the beginning of the 1960s, in conjunction with reading Indian philosophy. He described the Indian raga as another of the strongest musical experiences he had experienced, valuing it for its constructive discipline. In the concerts of Ali Akbar Khan, his favourite performer, however, the results became “free and creative,” until listening intensified into an “ecstatic experience.”
Gaucher, nevertheless, despite his passion for music, became cautionary when people started to describe him as “a musical painter.” He had originally used musical titles because, as he said, “I felt they were more abstract, and it backfired.” By 1967, therefore, he largely abandoned titles, substituting letter and number combinations, such as JN-J1 68 G-1, 1968, that would be meaningless except to himself, for whom they served as codes to identify the colours he had used in each painting, for reference, in case of future repair work.
In 1968, as a guest artist, he joined the graduate program in electronic music at McGill University, intrigued by, among other things, the electronic equipment that could read drawings and translate them into music, and vice versa. But he found the exercises finally meaningless, reinforcing his dictum that “true art should be a purely visual language, just as music is a purely auditive [sic] language…. Art must speak only to the eyes, and to nothing else, to reach the soul.”
This Essay is excerpted from Yves Gaucher: Life & Work by Roald Nasgaard.