Cross-Pollenating Abstraction: Sonata No. 6 Project at Survival Kit
In their Sonata No. 6 Project, curator Christopher Richards and composer Ryan Charles Ramer brought a new piece of music into the world with some fanfare. They also went looking for the power of abstraction to inspire a group of artists, and to see what a selection of artists responding to the same piece of music might express in common. Richards and Ramer provided Amirah Cunningham, Matthew Gallagher, Tiara Grayson, Todd Leech, Katie Mongoven, Kristina Paabus, Judith Salomon, William Martin Jean, and Jan Zorman with an early recording of Ramer’s new Sonata No. 6, for piano, and invited the artists respond. They hired pianist Nicholas Underhill to give the piece its world premiere performance November 12 at Survival Kit Gallery, surrounded by the artists’ works. Besides generally being a great interdisciplinary venture—presenting both the new music and ten interesting artists—it is a fascinating experiment.
Of course there is a long history of different artistic disciplines responding to each other and creating new work, perhaps beginning with dance as a response to music, but certainly including poets responding to visual art via ekphrastacy (as in the ongoing series at Heights Arts), or painters listening to music and painting what they hear, as the late Randall Tiedman famously did. Richards and Ramer’s Sonata No. 6 Project is a specific, somewhat controlled experiment along those lines.
All musical ideas are abstract. Even the most programmatic of melodies and rhythms—think Ralph Vaughan Williams’ beloved The Lark Ascending, for example—are pure abstraction.
Nonetheless, they have the power to make listeners feel a certain way, or even hear specific details of a story. Sometimes this is because of traditions and associations, such as horns associated with arrival, as in a fanfare, or with hunting. But what happens when the music isn’t programmatic at all—what is called “absolute music?” Do listeners still find synesthetic ideas–images, shapes, colors, even tastes–in common? And what if the artists themselves are also making abstract art?
There’s an anything-goes quality with abstraction, and that wide open door led to varied responses. Amirah Cunningham’s Til Death Do Us Part, for example, with its fluid lines combed into black tinted concrete, might seem to be all about the flow, in contrast to the sometimes jarring chords and clusters in Ramer’s music. But the undulations in the black surface represent ocean waves and currents, reminding of the violence of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the multitude of human lives lost to the seas.
The flowing lines in Katie Mongoven’s embroidered work are abstracted from lotus flowers, and they make an allusion to her own Chinese ancestry, representing perseverance and strength: lotus seeds can lie dormant, I learned from Christopher Richards essay, for hundreds of years before sprouting again.
First-generation Estonian American Kristina Paabus interprets music in general as shared, common experience, across cultures and languages. In writing about Ramer’s Sonata, she highlighted contrasts—fast and slow, bright and dark, light and heavy, calm and anxious, etc. Her work also has layers of contrast: it is a matrix of oval forms nested in a grid of lines: the curves and the straight, together in a strong statement of order. Then, drawing with graphite of varied hardness, the lines, ovals, and their backgrounds gradually vary in density, creating a sense of movement and change across the grid, like a journey through the music.
Some of the artists responding to the work evoked notes in a quasi-literal sense. Judith Salomon created a series of plate forms which allude to function, but also–in the shapes and lines and marks on their surfaces–allude to musical notation.
The installation is titled Sonata No. 6. She represents not complete sets of ledger lines, or anything that could be read musically, but in lines and ovals clearly referenced the familiar language of music.
Todd Leech takes the allusion to notes further with two ceramic sculptures – Cluster I and Cluster II, one on a pedestal, one on the wall. These allude to specific moments in the music: Note clusters, where the score has a massive pile of notes all struck together—not a chord, but a cluster. They are accompanied by an instruction from the score: “use forearm.”
Curiouser, though, was the degree to which several artists responded in accord: they used, for example, a common vocabulary of specific shapes and other characteristics within their exceedingly varied works. Somehow, in sound, they found the same geometric forms, and even a number.
William Martin Jean, Matthew Gallagher, Katie Mongoven, and Tiara Grayson all incorporated circles. The circle is a enough common shape, of course. But then Jean, Gallagher, and Grayson all sounded a more profound note in common: All their works included sets of three circles of equal size, arranged along horizontal lines. In at least one of those works, the number consciously refers to the Sonata’s three movements.
Working in dyed rice paper, William Martin Jean’s Circlesect aligned three large circles, centered along a horizontal line. Different shades beautifully complement each other as they divide the space within the circles, and different densities of ink create depth in the layers. Within the three circles are other geometric shapes: rectangular blocks, and sets of lines creating rhythm. And again, the set of three circles itself is repeated at a tiny scale.
Matthew Gallagher’s ink drawing, Cluster, also uses a set of three circles as its structure, their centers equidistant on a horizontal line. In his catalog essay for the show, Richards says Gallagher, who studied in the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music’s Technology In Music And Related Arts (TIMARA) program—intended the number of circles to refer to the work’s three movements, and specifically the classic ABA sonata form.
Gallagher has long experimented with the ways materials can be manipulated by chemistry and physics. He has had a practice of making ink drawings and subjecting them to solvents that cause the ink not only to run, but its color to dis-integrate and make other colors, often ways that may seem mysterious, but of course are perfectly explained with an understanding of the reagents. In his Cluster, the three circles look a bit like views through a microscope, showing different life forms—one in shades of red and orange, one in blues and greens, and a third in shades of blue with flecks of pink. All three of them run and bleed around the edges.
Three circles gathered in a line were a tiny detail in Tiara Grayson’s mixed media piece, fortuitously titled Universally In Sync. In the context of lines, angles, and arcs in her geometric collage of mixed media work, one could find a row of three tiny, white circles scratched into the palimpsest. But they are flanked by larger circles and incomplete arcs, as well as by rectilinear forms, lines, and angles, some made by scratching into the paint, others by the inclusion of bent wire and other objects.
Grayson’s work could almost be seen as a Rosetta Stone of the exhibit: It contains not only those circles, but also a series of rectilinear shapes and angles that connect to another of the exhibit’s common themes, as in the shapes and layers formed within Jean’s work.
Positioned next to each other on the wall, it is impossible not to notice the echo of lines and angles between Grayson’s two-dimensional piece and Jan Zorman’s “drawing” in three dimensions. Zorman draws with yarn, pulling it tight and holding each line in its place with monofilament guy wires. They have something in common with the familiar three-dimensional doodling so many of us have done in school, juxtaposing two squares or rectangles, and then drawing lines from corner to corresponding corner to create the illusion of three-dimensionality. Zorman’s forms are more complex than that, and not only for the implication of tension built into the monofilament guys, pulling the lines in different directions, to different corners of the room. As Richards said in his essay, “she heard a crashing element in the music, and visualized a column-like shape in the process of falling over.” The drawing captures it at three different stages of its tumble. Zorman’s work benefits more than most from being seen in three-dimensional person, because by walking around it, the viewer sees the relationships between the lines and their shadows change.
The project is also an interdisciplinary bundle of engagement. It is a challenge to bring new composed, so-called classical music into the world: to get performances, to get second performances, to make it mean something that people will remember. These projects, with Richards’ curation and Ramer’s composition, have brought those forces together.