The word arabesque is not technically an example of onomatopoeia, but it feels like it is. A French rendering of the Italian arabesco—“in the Arabic style”—its three syllables are aerated, airborne. There’s a bit of rubato in the word, and the sensation of an endless curve. The arabesque has found its way into music, where it is a compositional reverie or flight, and into dance, gymnastics, and figure skating, where it is an iconic position that is poised on one leg while the other is raised high to the rear, a lifting line that takes momentum from the curve in the small of the back. In classical dance, the arabesque is practically a logo of the art form.
As a design, the arabesque has been around since the Hellenistic period, but it was brought to bracing dynamism in the art and architecture of Islam. Drawing upon the spiraling life force of plants—their carefully curving tendrils, leaves, and blossoms—Islamic arabesques interlace into energized op-art fields, echo chambers of infinite regeneration. Just as Erik Satie wrote his distinctly Orientalist Gnossiennes without time signatures or bar lines, so these curvilinear patterns are timeless, soundless music.