Multimediality of Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly delights

Approaching arts – and human experience in general – from the perspective of multimediality can be fruitful in opening different ways of understanding these experiences. We perceive the world first through our bodily senses and then construct various understandings and experiences of this sensory data through complex cognitive processes. While much of these experiences are non-conceptual I will here discuss mostly the ways in which music is conceptualised by using terminology from other artistic media. I. e we understand – or communicate our understandings of – music using words originally, or more often, used to describe other artistic media or realms of human experience.

Multimediality in music begins with one of the oldest ways of music-making; singing.  Although, as discussed before, singing may actually have preceded language and been a sort of “protolanguage”, singing as we usually think of it includes text, lyrics.

Intermediality and intertextuality

Multimediality cannot really be discussed without also addressing some neighbouring terms. Intertextuality became hip in the academic discussions of arts since at least in 1980s. It’s a helpful tool in analysing and understanding the ways in which meanings are created in multifaceted ways by various techniques such as quotation or some sort of reference. As discussed before, these techniques have been central to black American music-making since the times of slavery to the contemporary hip-hop.

Intertextuality tends to fall short when applied to performing arts. While there are certain benefits in reducing everything to “texts”, two dimensional layers of meaning, this comes with a cost when studying music as a performative phenomenon, e.g. through Christopher Small’s “musicking”. Multimedality is a more helpful concept in helping us study and understand how different artistic media are used, and can be used, to reflect and create rich human experiences by drawing from the tools and strengths of the different media in our disposal.

Multimediality in music

Multimediality in music is an old idea as music has always been a part of some “extramusical” performance or context such as a ritual. In fact “pure” music is one of those 19th century Romantic ideas still to some extent holding our experience of music captive. But more about that another time.

The gesamtkunstwerk of Richard Wagner‘s opera remain perhaps the most iconic examples of effort to bring all the art forms together. Whereas Wagner’s operatic works might stand as the ultimate artistic expression of modernity, the 21st century post-modern artists produce more fragmented works.

Whereas black American music has got from the cotton fields to White House (see below), western Classical music is now performed by native orchestras and singers all over the world – here also conducted by a woman, something which in Wagner’s time was quite unthinkable. Multimediality here includes also video projections and TV production.

Earlier I discussed how Jacob Collier presents his multifaceted talent in his YouTube videos and how Janelle Monáe implies multiple – or perhaps fragmented – identities in her performances of the song Tightrope with means of music production, the “music itself” (e.g. melody, harmony, groove), lyrics, video, live performance, etc. The Dutch group Tin Men and the Telephone is also a very interesting example of musical art that draws from multiple media in a very interactive way on and off stage.

Janelle Monáe’s performance in the White House by Barak Obama’s invitation has various multimedial layers. As discussed earlier, her performance style is rich in references to other black American artists, perhaps most notably in the James Brown steps in her dance moves. In this performance the “Funkiest horn section of Metropolis” becomes that of White House, opening up a myriad of interpretations.

Here’s Jacob Collier embracing the social medium of music making in a contemporary digital manner enabling music-making together across temporal and spacial boundaries.

Tin Men and the Telephone do various things with different media from “musicalising” recorded speech and other sounds to typing with the piano keyboard and collaboration with their audience through a special app.

Music in literature – Toni Morrison’s Jazz

One interesting form of multimediality is that of music in literature; the use of description of music in literature and use of musical techniques in writing. Describing music in words requires quite an effort from the writer and reader alike to convey and share an artistic experience across the media. To describe art of one medium with the means of another requires sharing cultural understanding on a deep level and the ability to imagine, in this case, music described with words.

One interesting form of multimediality is that of music in literature; the use of description of music in literature and use of musical techniques in writing. Describing music in words requires quite an effort from the writer and reader alike to convey and share an artistic experience Jazz by Toni Morrison, 1st edition cover across the media. To describe art of one medium with the means of another requires sharing cultural understanding on a deep level and the ability to imagine, in this case, music described with words.

When I first tried to read Toni Morrison’s Jazz, in the age of around 15 or so, I expected it to be “about jazz”. I didn’t understand much about it and quickly gave up.

Jazz by Toni Morrison, 1st edition cover

Recently I picked up the book again and was better able to appreciate the ways in which Morrison took jazz as a metaphor and method and used its compositional and performative techniques to tell the story of her book.

Amiri Baraka’s Blues People elaborates on the idea of music as the history of black Americans.

Like a jazz performance the book has a main theme, a story it wants to tell. However, the main characters are also given “solo spots” to elaborate on their personal stories giving depth to the main story and enabling the reader to approach – perhaps even experience – the story from the individual perspectives of the characters; much like in jazz performance the “tune” is approached differently by each of the soloists.

Jazz in Morrison’s book is also a metaphor for the black American struggle and experience. As briefly discussed before, jazz has come a long way from an unappreciated folk music symbolising the worst of human kind – even among some black Americans – to be heralded as the “American Classical music”. Whereas Amiri Baraka in his Blues People elaborated on the idea of “music as the history of black Americans”, Morrison gives the bones of this history the flesh of her characters.

At the time I’m typing this the first black American president has just stepped aside to make space for yet another white male, one whose rhetoric and first deeds clearly show how the struggle for human rights is far from over. Morrison’s story takes place in a period prior to the Civil Rights era when many – as some of the characters in the book – still had vivid personal memories of the Jim Crow treatment of blacks.

Music and visual arts

The painting on top of this article is the Garden of Earthly Pleasures by Hieronymus Bosch from 1500.  As sound is difficult to picture music in visual arts is mainly pictured through instruments and musical acts such as dancing and singing. Bosch’s painting is a classic one portraying music as a sinful – or at least not respectable – activity through placing some instruments of the time together with people busy with Earthly orgies.

The pianist Bill Evans wrote liner notes for the 1959 Miles Davis quintet album Kind of Blue, I’ve also discussed earlier. In his text Evans makes an analogy between the Japanese calligraphy shodō and jazz improvisation. He stresses the temporal nature of both media; just as the stroke of a brush leaves its mark on the paper and cannot be undone or altered, a musical sound cannot be taken back. Further challenge in jazz improvisation is the group setting in which it most often happens; there are in fact many “brushes” making strokes simultaneously to the “canvas” of temporal framework set, in this case, by Miles Davis.

Music and Film


I’ve been lately intrigued by the different ways in which music is used in films and would like to share some of my thoughts in light of a few specific examples.

Most films and tv series have a theme song or music in the beginning and end, but there are others, mostly outside or in the margins of the mainstream films, in which music is used very sparsely. In many films music is also participating in the storytelling, or even has its own agency. Such techniques were already perfected by Richard Wagner with his aspiration for “Gesamtkunstwerk”; an artwork where all the artistic elements – music, poetry, acting, staging, lighting, etc. – serve more or less equally in the telling of the story. Some film composers, such as John Williams (e.g. Star Wars, E.T., Harry Potter), have taken their cue from Wagner and Wagnerian devices such as leitmotifs can be found in their works.

2001: A Space Odyssey

The opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, without the preceding Ligeti piece.

The director Stanley Kubrick, on the other hand, chose to use mainly existing compositions in his films. While there may have been an economical motivation for this practice at some point of Kubrick’s career, the artistic rationale for his choices of music are intriguing. For instance, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) begins with a fragment (ca 3 min) of György Ligeti’s Atmosphères while displaying a blank screen. This is followed by the “Sunrise” fanfare from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, beginning the composition’s journey towards one of the most used pieces of music in films up to the point of being a cliché. Both compositions are used in the film as leitmotifs. There juxtaposition, however, add another layer of reference to the film – with a real life element. While Ligeti admired Kubrick’s work, he wasn’t fond of being placed in such proximity with 19th century composers (Johann Strauss II’s famous waltz An der schönen blauen Donau is played during a scenes picturing a moonwalk and docking to a space station), nor the fact that Kubrick failed to obtain the rights for using Ligeti’s music in the film.

The space station docking scene with Strauss’ An der schönen blauen Donau. I love the way he takes his time with this scene. Something you don’t see in contemporary films very often.

These juxtapositions, however, are very powerful in anchoring the film’s depictions of future to the cultural heritage of the viewer (in a rather western-centric manner), but also supporting the main storyline of human evolution. Music in this film is also able to draw lines between the distant moments in the human evolution the film portrays and centre them to the present.

A Clockwork Orange

Poster of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwor Orange from 1971.
Poster of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange from 1971.

In A Clockwork Orange (1971, also by Kubrick) music has an important agency. (Spoiler alert: The end of the film is revealed.) Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the culmination of symphonic composition, plays an important role as part of the “cure” of the overly violent main protagonist. The Hollywood hit Singin’ in the Rain, on the other hand, is sung by the protagonist while performing his violent acts.

The Singin’ in the Rain scene from A Clockwork Orange.

While this juxtaposition of a popular, happy song from a family film and extreme violence is certainly effective in underlining the madness of the protagonist, one could also argue that the music in this film adds another dimension to the story about a man who doesn’t fit into the society (to put it mildly). Musically, the film would seem to claim that popular culture is the problem and the Classical music and culture (including science) are the solution, or “cure” – for the protagonist in a very concrete way. But this “cure” is applied by re-conditioning Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (fourth movement), which the main protagonist also listened quite voluntarily earlier in the film, through the Ludovico Technique. In fact, it is his keenness on music – and “Ludwig van” particularly – that “cures” him as he is forced to witness the violation of this art in the test.

The Ludovico Technique scene from A Clockwork Orange.

So the question remains, whether the music used in this film is a statement of the particular kinds of music and their place/role/status in the society or is that relation arbitrary in the overall scheme of the film to portray the fringes of our social norms? In short, nothing in Clockwork Orange is quite what it seems and I’d recommend you to not only watch it, if you already haven’t (and if you can stomach it), but also to do some reading on the contradictory reception of this film. My apologies for spoiling the end here, but the film is more about the process the main protagonist goes through rather than the end result, in my view.

Deux jours, une nuit

As the icing on the cake as well as a form of catharsis, two exquisite musical interludes drift into the dialogue-fuelled effort as a way of re-setting the momentum. Sarah Ward (

While Kubrick was certainly aware of the interpretative layers music was adding to his works, and the extent to which they were in his control, many film makers – mainly outside of Hollywood – seem to be rather cautious in their use of music. I recently saw Deux jours, une nuit (2014) by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which is a great example of this. First, there’s no music during the opening or closing credits. In fact, the film has music in only two scenes, both of which happen in a car and the music is played by the protagonists through the car stereo. Music in this film is part of the storytelling, but it’s not telling the story but rather part of the story, part of the protagonists’ life:   In the first scene, the husband of the main protagonist plays music from the car stereo while they’re driving, but the main protagonist asks him to turn it off as in her current mental state she cannot handle it. On the other scene there’s a third person in the card as well, things are looking promising and Van Morrison’s Gloria from the radio provides them with an opportunity to enjoy and celebrate the moment.

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