Georgia O’Keeffe’s Favorite Music

I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum for the second time in 2010, while I was in New Mexico shooting footage for a multimedia video piece relating to O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings. While filming the locations that formed the basis for many of her paintings, I sought to gain some insight into the sources of her inspiration. O’Keeffe paintings are somehow very musical in character, and I’ve wondered how, if at all, music had influenced her (even if indirectly). I knew that she had some personal interest in music, as is obvious from the titles of paintings such as Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, or Blue and Green Music. O’Keeffe herself had played the violin at an earlier point in life, and she considered singing to be “the most perfect means of expression”.

While in Santa Fe I met with museum curator and prominent O’Keeffe scholar Barbara Buhler Lynes, who was kind enough to point me towards some leads for research. I described the video project to her, and how my work is propelled by a musical response to O’Keeffe’s paintings – the musical texture, timbre, and harmony that I imagine as the musical environment in which her visual world would exist.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918)
Georgia O'Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918)

Ms. Lynes directed me to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center Library, where I read an essay on O’Keeffe and music by a former curator for the museum, Heather Hole, which was written for a program by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. The library also had a complete log of the LPs that were found in O’Keeffe’s possession after she passed away in 1986. This essay, the list of musical recordings, and my later tour of O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, helped to illuminate the role that music played in her life.

Ms. Lynes explained that O’Keeffe was influenced by the concept of synesthesia – the experience of “crossed senses”, i.e. hearing images or seeing sounds – as it had been explored by European modernists such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). These artists sought to find the equivalents of music in color and imagery, and to find a universal language in art that transcends the specificity of language or direct representation.

According to Heather Hole, O’Keeffe had been influenced by one of her teachers at Teachers College of Columbia University, Alon Bement, who had played music in his classroom and directed the students to “draw what they hear”. From early in her career, O’Keeffe appreciated the abstract quality of music because it seemed somehow essentialized or pure, and freed from the superficial details of representational art.

O'Keeffe's Abiquiu home

Once she had permanently settled in New Mexico in the late ’40s, O’Keeffe had a high-quality McIntosh stereo system installed in a peaceful and spacious room in her Abiquiu home. There she would lay in her favorite lounge chair, gazing beyond a wall-sized window at an elegantly framed salt cedar tree, and absorb recordings with full attention. She supported the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival early on in its existence (during the latter decade or so of her life), and invited musicians to perform for her in her home, where she would listen to them, often with eyes closed. In Hole’s article, one of the musicians related how she would listen with a striking intensity of focus.

Her large library of LPs included primarily classical music. Interestingly, O’Keeffe didn’t seem to listen to very much music by then-contemporary composers. Perusing the catalog, I spotted just one or two records each of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Gershwin, and Ives, as well as an Edith Piaf album and some odds and ends.

Although she was friends with Aaron Copland, and owned a record that he conducted, she didn’t seem to be a fan of his music – despite the fact that today’s listener would likely consider her landscape paintings “Coplandesque” in their evocation of American pastoral sensibility, or a classically American earthiness and simplicity of language.

Above all, O’Keeffe collected music of the 18th and 19th centuries – Beethoven, Schumann, Haydn, Bach, etc, and surprisingly to me, a quantity of Monteverdi madrigals, sacred music and operas (including multiple recordings of the opera “The Coronation of Poppea”) – which were relatively obscure at the time she was listening – as well as Verdi and Wagner operas.

Although O’Keeffe is associated with the Modernist and Abstract movements in visual art, it seems natural that her musical tastes reflected the lush, lyrical, conventionally emotive quality of earlier music, rather than the harmonic and rhythmic explorations of the early-mid 20th century. The shapes in her paintings are rounded and flowing, the colors rich, and her paintings are often strikingly passionate and direct in their emotive quality – yet always balanced, elegant, and poignant in simplicity, like a Classical sonata or Romantic Lied.

Seeing Music in O’Keeffe

I’ve been aware of Georgia O’Keeffe for as long as I can remember thanks to my parents, who hung a poster of Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 in my childhood home. But her artwork first grabbed me in 2004, when I saw an exhibit of her paintings at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. I was captivated by the elegant undulating forms in her paintings, and was especially intrigued by her surreal images of magnified animal bones and flowers looming over skies and distant landscapes.

Georgia O'Keeffe, From the Faraway Nearby (1938)
Georgia O'Keeffe, From the Faraway, Nearby (1938)

A few years later I found myself mining visual art as a source of inspiration in my music, and exploring the idea of creating musical works that acted as an equivalent or a translation of visual experiences. I began imagining a musical language or aesthetic that would relate to O’Keeffe’s visual world.

My first O’Keeffe-inspired piece was an orchestral tone poem, written in 2009. Since this initial work, I’ve composed two more pieces in the search to create a musical equivalent to my experience of her artwork (To Create One’s Own World and Into nowhere), the latest of which developed into a video project fusing my musical and visual interpretations of O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings.

I’ve taken a cue in my works from O’Keeffe’s idea of “The Faraway Nearby” (from the title of a painting, above). I feel that this phrase refers to a certain quality, which is captured in her juxtapositions of delicate, emotionally evocative objects (flower blossoms, animal skulls and bones, twisting tree branches) with landscapes of monumental, seemingly infinite, scope.

For me, the idea of “The Faraway Nearby” is the feeling that an object, place, artwork, or experience that is vast (epic?) can also be deeply intimate, and understood in a personal way that transcends explanation. Master symphonists have been noted for their ability to evoke an epic-yet-personal quality (Beethoven and Mahler come to mind).

I feel that this quality relates to the virtually universal human response to nature or landscape as spiritual, powerful, and mysteriously significant. O’Keeffe clearly experienced this response more poignantly than most. She wrote that she wanted to explore through her art “the unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big far beyond my understanding – to understand maybe by trying to put it into form. To find the feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill.”