Berlioz, a Bit of Cloth and 500 Gallons of Water

Many artists have regarded music as the greatest visual medium because of its uncanny ability to make the listener see in ways that no painting or sculpture, tapestry or fresco, possibly can. Because it springs so directly from the imagination, without dependence on such external objects as a paintbrush or a welding torch, and because it plays so freely with our sense of time, music is more capable than any of the other arts of conjuring up visions and activating dreams. The painter Vasili Kandinsky spoke for many artists when he turned to music-as he often did-to describe what he was trying to achieve in his abstract paintings: “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

This quotation appears in the program of one of the most remarkable tributes to the power of music by a visual artist that I have seen in a long time. The work is called “Symphonie Fantastique” after the famous symphony by Hector Berlioz, which inspired the occasion, courtesy of a recording by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The artist is Basil Twist, a young puppetmaster. And the magic that he and three other puppeteers are creating at Here, the enterprising gallery and theater complex in SoHo, is absolutely bewitching.

Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” is, of course, the Romantic programmatic masterpiece par excellence. Written in 1830 when the composer was a stage-struck 27-year-old, it owed its inspiration to his desire to emulate Beethoven by producing a large-scale unified work of lyrical and dramatic weight; to his intense admiration of Shakespeare, whose Hamlet was then on the boards in Paris; and to his unrequited passion for the Ophelia of the production, an Irish actress named Harriet Smithson. Doubts persist about the extent of autobiographical inspiration in the work, but in a lurid program note he wrote for the first performance that did his reputation lasting harm, Berlioz unwittingly opened up a whole new avenue for what, in today’s terms, might be called tell-all composition.

Describing the symphony as an “episode from the life of an artist,” Berlioz wrote that its five movements charted the protagonist’s passage from infatuation with an unattainable woman, to a ball where he is haunted by her, a moment of hopefulness when he hears two shepherds piping to each other, an opium-fueled hallucination in which he envisions himself marching to the scaffold and, finally, to a grotesque, satanic orgy.

It all gives the theatrical imagination plenty of room for a series of quasi-realistic tableaux that might have you reaching for the smelling salts. But fortunately, Mr. Twist, whom the program identifies as a third-generation puppeteer, devised no scenes of swirling fops or prancing witches. Instead he has, in effect, deprogrammed Berlioz by staging the music in an aquarium populated only by pieces of cloth, strips of mylar and feathers that dance, flutter and swoon to Berlioz’s score in a medium in which the composer’s feverish imagination seems entirely at home-500 gallons of water.

Berlioz was the great illusionist of spontaneity. His sense of harmonic color apparently sprang from sources known only to himself. His melodies seemed designed to generate new melodies in spontaneous profusion. His rhythms throb with what Schumann, in his definitive essay on the composer, called “trenchant energy.” Despite the sometimes gaudy, even violent effect of his music, Berlioz’s writing admits no extraneous detail; it is as concise and taut as a fever chart, which-musically-is what the “Symphonie Fantastique” most resembles.

Mr. Twist and his fellow string-pullers, who manipulated their abstract puppets from an invisible perch behind the 30-by-40-inch aquarium glass screen, captured this vigorous yet elusive work-its kaleidoscopic range of hues, its bluster and shimmerings, its fierce surges and delicate shadings-to such an uncanny degree that I found myself listening to the old warhorse as if for the first time. Illuminated by eerie lighting effects arising from unseen sources, their materials moved with preternatural sensitivity to the music, complementing the score’s interplay of themes and colors with ghostly shapes that suggested somnambulistic sea anemones or disembodied ball gowns.

Yet, at the same time that human hands were manipulating the entrances and exits, the water was creating its own choreography. Here was not just an extraordinary visualization of a musical masterpiece but a demonstration, as it were, of the very act of musical creation-what happens when rigorous intention finds unsuspected beauty through the unbidden release of imagination. Mr. Twist’s waterborne rendition has been extended until July 31; for the long hot summer, it must be the coolest show in town.

As an enactment of what it takes to compose greatly, “Symphonie Fantastique” doesn’t tell the whole story. Filling out the rest of the mysterious tale is a splendid show at the Morgan Library of music manuscripts of 20th-century compositions from the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. Mr. Sacher, a distinguished and wealthy conductor who is now in his 90’s, has been, without doubt, the century’s most impressive benefactor of new music. His foundation’s immense collection of manuscripts, letters and other documents relating to the music of our time-a significant portion of which he commissioned himself-contains essential material from more than 50 composers. In addition to such Americans as Elliot Carter, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Colin Nancarrow and Henry Brant, it includes just about the entire Who’s Who of the European modernist canon.

The Morgan’s show is not for the musically unwashed. The manuscripts are beautifully displayed and are augmented, in places, by recordings audible through earphones. But not even the most fluent readers of music will be able to make sense of most of the scores under glass, many of which are executed in the tiniest of notation marks and come replete with evidence of second thoughts.

Still, for anyone who knows the difference between Béla Bartók and Luciano Berio, Claude Debussy and Henri Dutilleux, Arthur Honegger and Heinz Holliger, Aribert Reimann and Wolfgang Rihm, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, Edgar Varèse and Sander Veress, Anton Webern and Stefan Wolpe, the exhibition-even when casually surveyed-will be enthralling. It provides flashes of insight into the work process of such vexing figures as Elliot Carter, whose arduous pattern of doubt and correction is vividly manifest in a page from his Concerto for Orchestra of 1965-69. And purely on an esthetic level, many of the manuscripts are revealingly beautiful; the most ravishing is a page from Cage’s “Music of Changes” for piano (1951), on which one can positively hear the composer’s sensual sensitivity to silence behind the faint, meticulous pencil marks.

The show’s Mona Lisa is undoubtedly a page from modernism’s most sensational work-Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” (1910-1913). To gaze upon these deceptive, quietly registered notes, which caused such a furor nearly 80 years ago, is to be reminded, painfully, that there was once a time when new music could produce something so powerful that not just one’s eyes and ears but one’s spirit were in flames.

Berlioz, a Bit of Cloth and 500 Gallons of Water