Seeing the colour of sound

Throughout his outstanding career, Michael Smither has explored and instigated complex interconnections between his twin loves—painting and music.

The natural beauty of the white sand of Otama Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula, where Michael Smither has made his home, is a marked contrast to the rugged, restless coast of his native Taranaki, captured in many of his paintings—a coastline of dark sand, rocks and pebbles worn smooth by the incessant surf, and of rockpools, where the surge of the sea pauses briefly as the tide recedes. Smither moved to Otama Beach in 1996 with his partner and fellow-artist, Gian McGregor, and during this time has concentrated on an extended body of work that incorporates his second love—music.

He recalls his childhood in New Plymouth, where he was exposed to art at an early age by his silkscreen printer father, and to music, through family friends who were in the National Orchestra. “I desperately wanted to be a musician and I had a piano at the age of eight. But practicality made my mind up. To make a living with the music I wanted to make was impossible in New Zealand at that time. So, I went into painting. And in New Plymouth in the 1960s it was also damned hard to make a living from painting. Don Driver (who worked in Tingey’s paintshop at the time) and I were founding members of Group 60, a group of local artists who exhibited where we could—libraries and church halls—but if I wanted to sell work I had to load up my truck and head to Auckland or Wellington for a while, and show the work there.”

His paintings of this time chronicled his travels, his family as they grew up, and the commonplace objects and activities of his daily life—paintings that have now become part of our collective consciousness. However, music remained an integral part of his art—at Elam he created abstract colour compositions that related to the dynamics and rhythms of music, and this interest was revived during his Frances Hodgkins Fellowship in 1970. While in Dunedin that year he met Mozart Fellow, composer Tony Watson, who reinvigorated Smither’s nascent theories of colour and sound, urging him to integrate his music into his art. An early harmonic work, 21 Views of St Kilda, which was created during the residency, picks up on the repeating glissading shapes that soon developed to become pure abstracted line, form and colour.

In the late 1970s he ceased painting for a period to concentrate on his music, and in 1978 published 21 Piano Pieces—a collection of short works, many of which he’d written for his children over the previous decade. He was also grappling with the way the colour spectrum and its wavelengths were paralleled in sound vibrations and the musical scale. He continued to transpose musical performances onto manuscript and these arcing, swooping, bright patterns caught the attention of Jim Barr, then director of Lower Hutt’s Dowse Gallery. In Trish Gribben’s book, Michael Smither Painter, the artist recounts a correspondence with Barr. “One of the problems I have is in applying my sound ideas to a more conventional type of music, which seems to be a long, stretched out and linear affair, whereas my training as a visual artist conditions me to shapes that are intelligible in their entirety in one glance. For this reason, over the past year I have made only chord structures which I have, for want of a better description, begun to call polyphonic chords.”

Michael Smither in his Otama Beach studio with works in progress

In the 1980 exhibition, Polyphonic Chords at The Dowse, Smither drew the chords, using different colours for each musician to follow, and the artworks were performed by musicians during the course of the show. He explains, “I made a breakthrough when I decided to notate the spectrum of visible colour to the octave of sound. An octave is achieved by doubling of a note’s vibration and the spectrum of colour is a parallel of this phenomenon.” He took the 12 notes in a musical octave and related them to the colours of the spectrum (the standard seven, plus red/orange, orange/yellow, yellow/green, green/blue and violet/red). During The Dowse exhibition he blindfolded visitors and asked them to touch coloured cards on a table while a musical note was played. Although not everyone reacted as he expected, he saw that many touched colours that related to the various harmonics of the note, so he took his earlier basic octave/spectrum idea and made a chart that also incorporated the simple harmonic range of the colours and notes. His Harmonic Chart was exhibited for the first time at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in 1982 and released as a screen print in 1986.

For Smither the 1980s and early 1990s were a period of personal challenge. His first marriage ended, he was bitterly opposed to the 1981 Springbok tour, and he became involved in numerous local environmental causes in Taranaki. He moved around the country, often setting up rudimentary studios for brief periods. At times his output was fitful and he felt marginalised from the art world, which was by now a far larger, fragmented and commercialised sector than the one he crisscrossed with a truck full of paintings 30 years earlier.

Michael Smither, Red Orange Canvas (Bb), 2008. Acrylic on canvas, Resene Lumbersider Grenadier, 1010 x 1010mm. Image courtesy of Artis Gallery

Settling at Otama Beach has created a stable base for Smither to relax and explore new directions—in both his art and music. From a series of workshops in 2006, where children created coloured paper patterns that were then ‘played’ by musicians, Smither developed a body of 12 paintings. These were exhibited at Artis Gallery in 2008, where each work had the colour of the note at the centre, and a series of concentric coloured circles radiating outwards, denoting the harmonics of each note. In addition each work had a small recording device, which when activated by the viewer, played a short musical work relating to each note.

The following year, in his exhibition Shared Harmonics at the same gallery, he explored further the concept of synesthesia—the condition in which people perceive music and other sounds as colour. Recently he had his first synesthetic experience. “I went to a concert in Wellington a year or so ago; we were sitting in seats with a good view of the orchestra and the whole audience. When the orchestra started to tune up, they tuned to A—well, bugger me, all the people in the audience wearing red started to light up! And I began to understand; either I’d trained myself to associate A with red or it was actually happening—and I couldn’t tell if it was one or the other.”

So, where forward for Michael Smither? At 71 he’s definitely not planning to stash his brushes away just yet. He’s recently completed the second of ten annual DVDs, Michael Smither: the Next Ten Years, with friend and film-maker Tony Hiles. The liner notes state: “a series following Michael as he completes unfinished art, develops conservation projects, sculpts, composes music and paints just what he likes”.

Michael Smither holding an early version of his Harmonic Chart

And to take his harmonics into another dimension he has built harmonic cubes—four small prototypes in 2009, which he showed at the annual Sculpture at Miranda event on the Thames coast. Given the favourable reaction to these, he’s working on a new set of six cubes to exhibit this summer.

“With artists like Len Lye, it was all about doing the moving for the viewer, making machines and projecting images that did all the work. I like to make things that are static that you move around—you become the ‘mover and the shaker’ yourself—because if the plug gets pulled, you’ve got to be able to experience these things for yourself. With these harmonic cubes, you can line up one sequence of colours, then move your head, and then there’s another sequence. I’m writing a string quartet, where I’m imagining each player sitting at a different angle to these sculptures, and picking out his or her own sequences, but what they’re playing is all related, as they’re each focused on the same thing.”

But he doesn’t want to stop there, musing, “I have a real itch to make one into the size of a room, so you can go in and walk around and sit inside—or put a string quartet or choir inside—it’s a real musical environment we’re talking about here. But I’m ruled by my sense of practicality—I think I may need a patron to go to that stage.”

Patron or no patron, there’s an infectious energy around Michael Smither. As well as the harmonic cube project, he’s completing paintings for an exhibition in the South Island over summer, fighting to keep Otama Beach as one of the last undeveloped stretches of the Coromandel coast, and plans to open his studio as part of the annual Mercury Bay Art Escape in the late summer. In his studio there are several large works in progress—larger versions of his rock-pool and Otago mountainscapes from the 1970s are currently on the easel. He explains, “These may be my last rock and mountain paintings—part of me doesn’t want to finish them; there’s an element of ‘goodbye’ to these works.”

Shared Harmonics by Michael Smither is at The Diversion Gallery, near Blenheim, from 30 November, 2010 to 21 January, 2011. The Mercury Bay Art Escape is 25–27 February and 4–6 March, 2011. For details visit

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