Jotted down in the wake of such epochal premieres as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Paul Klee’s enigmatic “Instrument for New Music” is an evocative visual trace of the birth of musical modernism. Klee was an accomplished amateur violinist, and his images are rife with musical symbolism, as suggested by titles such as Organ Tones, Blue-Orange Harmony, and Polyphonic Architecture. Like many artists of his time, he dismissed as “learned delusion” the long-cherished distinction between temporal and spatial arts, and his “instrument” can be seen as an attempt to infuse the static image with dynamic musical energies.
What manner of instrument is this? One can make out fragments of familiar elements—pegs on the far left, an upside-down bass clef, strings bisecting the center from various angles—yet taken as a whole the image is an impossible jumble. Given Klee’s rather conservative taste in music, the drawing might well be interpreted as a satirical take on the disorderly state of the art in the early twentieth century. From a sympathetic perspective, however, the image could just as well celebrate the liberating iconoclasm of the new music.
Image: Reproduced from Christoph von Bumröder, Der Begriff ‘neue Musik’ im 20. Jahrhundert (Munich: Musikverlag Emil Katzbichler, 1981).