When Music Inspires Art: Sonata #5 Project on View at Survival Kit

Patricia Zinsmeister Parker, It’s Music To My Ears, 2020, Mixed media on canvas, 48 x 36 inches.

“Let me just say right off the bat, that I’m not sure I can make art without music. And I say that because I’ve never tried….I need music to function.” – Patricia Zinsmeister Parker


Sonata #5 Project was conceived by Cleveland composer Ryan Charles Ramer, whose new musical piece, a sonata for piano in four movements, was given to nine area artists to interpret visually; as Ramer explains: “I wanted to see what my music looked like.” The results of this experiment will be on view for Third Friday at 78th Street Studios at Survival Kit, and open by appointment through October 24th.

The artists, curated by Christopher Richards, include: Leslye Discont Arian, Justin Brennan, Pat Broughton, Eileen Dorsey, Mark Keffer, Brian P. Matheny, Patricia Zinsmeister Parker, Eric Rippert, and Danté Rodriguez. Each was given a recording of Sonata #5, performed by the amazing pianist Leah Marie Frank, and asked to create a new work based on the music.

Drawing a direct connection between music and art is nothing new – I’m immediately reminded of Whistler’s Nocturnes: evocative, nearly abstract night paintings that were loosely inspired by Chopin’s piano Nocturnes. Whistler’s paintings, in turn, inspired Debussy to compose his own Nocturnes, a three-part piece in which the music evokes the movements of clouds at night and the sea in the moonlight, which he had seen so poetically suggested in Whistler’s paintings. I am also reminded of Kandinsky’s rocky friendship with composer Arnold Shonberg, or Pollock’s love of jazz, or Andy Warhol’s relationship with the Velvet Underground, etc. etc.

The difference here is that the Sonata #5 Project is very intentional – a directly crafted exercise in the connection between the two arts, and the results are, well, somewhat surprising. I’m not sure what I expected, but looking at the work as a whole I suppose I was hoping to see a thread of connection, some sort of similarity – but instead, what you get is incredibly personal interpretations of the music, as varied as the people that created the work.

For the project, individual videos were made of each artist discussing how they went about creating their piece – they are delightful glimpses into the artists’ studios, and a wonderful chance to hear the artists speak in depth about their experience. For example, Patricia Zinsmeister Parker (above), who admits she always listens to music while she paints, chose to create a portrait – “It’s all about energy. I got energy listening to Ryan’s piece, and that energy converted into art.”

Eileen Dorsey, My Cliff, Your Bouquet, 2020, Acrylic, 36 x 36 inches.

Eileen Dorsey also listens to music while she works, but usually her brightly colored, energetic compositions are made to a soundtrack of heavier rock music. For this project, she focused on the First Movement, and a bit of the Second, letting it play on repeat in her studio – and the results definitely reflect the difference in musical style to her normal painting playlists. The palette is more muted, and the marks more carefully controlled than usual. Her brushstrokes were directly guided by the movement of the music: “I found myself almost dancing with it.” Of all the works in the show, Dorsey’s painting, for me, most “resembled” the music – but again, that is a highly personal opinion and totally subjective. One of the more interesting results of this experiment is just how personal the interpretation of music can be – we all hear it differently, and connect to it differently.

Leslye Discont Arian, Entr’acte, 2020, Collage drawing, 46 x 54 inches.

Leslye Discont Arian is a classical music fan – admitting in her video that it’s the only genre of music she listens to regularly. But interestingly, Arian prefers to work in silence. She titled her work “Entr’acte“, which means the pause, or silence between movements, which is descriptive of how she worked on the piece. She only worked during the pauses – in complete silence – focusing on the mysterious Third Movement, and cites its repetitions, pauses, lights and darks as inspiring the work. She internalized the music, and worked from the impressions it left, unlike Dorsey, who used the music to inspire physical mark-making.

When you go to see the show at Survival Kit, spend some time watching/listening to Leah Marie Frank’s performance (which will be playing in the exhibit), her movements are almost dancelike – entrancing to watch – yet another example of an artist transforming the notes on the page, which, added to the nine visual artworks in the show, allows Ramer (and all of us) to literally see a musical composition come to life.


To attend Third Friday, you need to buy a ticket here. 

Or schedule an appointment at www.sonata5project.com.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.