Hearing colours. Seeing sounds.

by Güher & Süher Pekinel

At the beginning of the 20th century, the tonal basis of classical music – “the tyranny of the major and minor modes”, as Stravinsky described it – changed dramatically. The development of serialism and the introduction of twelve-note technique ushered in a new era.


At that time, Béla Bartók, a music ethnologist with a strong affinity for the German tradition, developed a synthesis all of his own: a style of composition that united elements of folk music, classicism and modernism. By combining rhythmically and melodically asymmetrical chromatic harmonies, he was able to develop a complex musical language that found its expression in the Concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra written in 1940. With its inner logic, its lucidity and its expressiveness, the work has almost classical features. It is characterised by a distinct linear polyphony that results from the different pitches of the solo instruments. Sophisticated polyrhythms and systematic shifts of emphasis create tone colour melodies which – as also in Stravinsky – produce unfamiliar rhythms and melodies. Bartók’s piano concertos include consistent use of percussion as melody instruments, which additionally enriches the musical language. As one of the co-founders of ethnomusicology, Bartók, together with Zoltán Kodály, collected the folk songs of different cultures and researched into their peculiarities and similarities. For example he visited towns and villages in Anatolia accompanied by the Turkish composer Adnan Saygun in 1936 and selected 67 songs which he later took up again in his works. Paul Hindemith also made a valuable contribution to this archive, which is now part of the Bartók Museum in Osmaniye.

The painter and ethnologist Wassily Kandinsky also used folk elements as a basis for his early works. As his paintings became increasingly abstract, he developed a form of synaesthesia which allowed him to work in non-objectivity. The example he followed here was that of music. His aim was to hear colours and see sounds. For this purpose, he arranged colour sounds into colour symphonies. Other artists, including Klee, Mondrian, Miró, Matisse and Jawlensky, took up this compositional technique and implemented it individually in their work. Like Berg, Webern, Reger, Debussy, the Russian avant-garde or the French expressionists, Bartók too followed this development and these synergies with great interest. In particular the paintings of Mondrian and Kandinsky confirmed his belief that “ostensibly simple forms of drawing can be products of a very complex creative process”. His writings, particularly the Harvard Lectures “Revolution and Evolution in Art” (1943) convey these thoughts on music theory in a very understandable manner

Personal motivation

Between 1970 and 1985, we were driven by an inner need to spend our free time painting and studying the abstract expressionism associated with Kandinsky and were inspired by his two most important writings “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (1911) and “Point and Line to Plane” (1926). While we were living in Munich, we visited exhibitions and attended lectures at the Academy of Art and the Lenbachhaus gallery (Blauer Reiter collection). This enabled us to renew and intensify our inner imaginative faculties both figuratively and musically. Our enthusiasm for Bartók and the recording of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion for Teldec/Warner stem from this period. Our paintings “The Sonata” and “Harmony of Contradictions” were also produced at that time.