The Sound of Color

A Vienna Symphony chamber music novelty, The Koan Project is a work of ‘art in progress’

The Koan Project: Lana Cencic (vocals), Flip Philipp (vibraphone and arrangements) and artist Ty Waltinger in the background, performing at the Brahms Saal on March 9 | Photo: Tobias Ratz

We don’t usually expect the avant garde in the jewel-like Brahms-Saal of the Musikverein, that most perfect of all chamber music concert halls. It’s a small treasure of a room; acoustically vibrant, it also radiates serenity and calm. The sound is due to some perfect combination of its width, length and height, and a wooden floor suspended like a drum over the space below. But its dignity stems from its beauty, its Greek Renaissance design, the greens and reds of the walls, and above all, the gold.

On Mar. 9, those colors came to life as if for the first time, during a treasure of a concert called “The Koan Project,” part of the Vienna Symphony’s chamber music series. Where one might expect a series of string quartets, the Koan Project served up live jazz and live painting. The jazz stage was all there: the vibraphone, the mikes, the sax stand. But here were also pots of paint and a 6½ by 3 meter canvas, a third of it covered in a crescent of gold, 24 carat leaf.

Conceived by the artist Ty Waltinger and composer Flip Philipp, principle percussionist of the Vienna Symphony, the ensemble’s name derives from a term in Zen Buddhism.

“It describes a saying–often enigmatic or paradoxical–that leads one to contemplation,” writes Philipp in the program notes. “Living and listening inwardly, completely free and spontaneous in the here and now – this is what the ensemble would like to present.”

Despite this touch of the esoteric, the acoustic jazz was very straightforward, and very good. Singer and composer Lana Cencic, the epitome of charm, guided us through the ensemble and the pieces with ease, but her shimmering voice left us breathless.

As did a quintet of jazz musicians providing the inspiration for Waltinger and his creation, with Philipp on vibraphone, bass clarinet/saxes Fabian Rucker, Wolfgang Rainer on drums, and Robert Jukic on bass, plus a string quartet, with Nicolas Geremus, Gerald Wilfinger, Michael Buchmann, and Arne Kircher, all members of the Vienna Symphony.

The tone of the strings and the tablas laid a foundation for the shimmering tones of bells, the lingering resonance of the vibes. Sheets of color slowly acquired wisps of feathers and wind. The sax received swaths of ultramarine-violet red, the deep purple blue that is the last color of the sky before the night falls. The higher strings the greens, true Victorian and viridian, the lower strings cobalt turquoise and true deep bordello red. The percussion vine black with lithopone, the voice, ivory. And, of course, the crystal tones of the vibes, the cadmium yellow hues. Engulfed in sensations, the visual merges into the heard.

It was all an exercise of art in progress: Improvisation as music and improvisation as painting. It is nearly voyeuristic to see a painting being born before your eyes. Waltinger uses very rare historical pigments, some more than a hundred years old. Just as an old rose has a fragrance that overwhelms, these old pigments are dazzling. We watched as tempo, rhythm and melody become color. Wait, stop, I wanted to say: it’s perfect now! But just as the music does, the painting continues.

A look at Waltinger’s website makes it clear that transience is a leitmotif: the “Cyclos Pigment Project” involved tossing pigment powder into the wind to spread on the sands of the Sahara, creating color paintings that slowly returned to nature (see the website below and the 2005 documentary film Zeit. Spuren. Pigmente.). Less fleeting is the debut album by Lana Cencic & Flip Philipp, The Dust of a Week, presented last August in Japan. Further Koan Project concerts are planned at Waltinger’s atelier.

On the way out, we stopped to donate to “Contrast,” an organization supporting early education for blind children. Sponsors could purchase one of one hundred “sound paintings” – 30cm by 30cm pieces of the Waltinger painting that had accompanied the concert’s dress rehearsal – hung around the space.

In her final song, “Perpetual Blues,” Lana had kissed away the blues – all of them: the light blues, the heavy blues, and the annoying, never-ending  blues. “Now I feel bliss is real” and indeed I did too. Uplifted and light-hearted we left the hall, wishing to one and all  golden dreams.


For further information on

Ty Waltinger and Flip Philipp projects:

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