InLiquid Artist Member Melinda Steffy is currently showing at The Crane Arts Building in her solo exhibition The Score is Not the Music, a show that asks, in the words of the artist, the question: If the score—a visual tool—lacks some necessary quality of the music, how else might music be visually conveyed that might better capture its essence?
It is hard to imagine a more literal way to actually see music, beyond the score, the sound-waves, or the performance, in a way that is equally enjoyable as it is audibly. For Steffy, self-named as an “information painter,” she uses the means of color to show musical notes to her viewers. In her current work, a series she calls The Bach Project, her paintings of ROYGBV-colored graphs translate musical scores with color patterns. As she explores ideas of translation and how music theory and color theory intersect, the result becomes closer and closer to a cartographer’s catalog of self-induced synesthesia!
Steffy’s process begins by matching the 12 notes of the chromatic scale with 12 hues on a color wheel. Using mathematical constructs like grids and pie charts, she translates masterworks by composers J.S. Bach and Béla Bartók into vibrant color patterns. With inspiration rooted from a life in both classical music and painting, in addition to The Bach Project, Steffy has also brought her passion into her daily work, as she runs the Philadelphia-based non-profit Live Connections, an organization that creates unique programs built to inspire learning and community-building through collaborative music-making. In speaking with Steffy, we discussed everything from what inspired her to create The Bach Project to if whether or not she has knack for seeing sounds or hearing color!
Elizabeth: What is your background in Classical Music?
Melinda: As a child, I took piano lessons for 7 years, which was my first introduction to a range of classical composers and eras. I then studied voice in both high school and college and have sung with numerous choirs over the years. I’ve also worked for a community music school and now run a nonprofit [Live Connections] that presents new and boundary-crossing “classical” music, among other genres. (Classical in quotes because we’re very fluid about what that means.) I actually really love modern and contemporary music — my undergrad senior voice recital was all 20th-century cabaret music — as well as blues, jazz, folk, and some of my most meaningful music experiences have involved learning from and singing alongside experts from various cultural traditions, such as Cuba, South Africa, and African-American spirituals and gospel.
E: What initially inspired you to weave music with art—do you think you might have synesthesia?
M: I do not have synesthesia, although for a while I thought I might self-induce it by painting so many colored squares! My ideas are primarily rooted in science or language: I’m interested in creating systems that can be replicated, in ideas of translation or interpretation from one creative “language” to another, in flattening time (i.e. music) into spatial patterns. I was initially inspired by some hand-drawn scores by John Cage that, to me, looked like what I imagined the music sounded like. Soon after, I was singing some really complicated music by Bach, and felt like I needed a visual to understand what was he was doing with all of those dense, overlapping layers. So that was the beginning.
E: How did The Bach Project begin? What is your mission?
M: I recently adopted the label “information painter” for myself. I’m interested in taking complex data and turning it into a visual format, but doing so in a way that opens possibilities (e.g. painting), rather than solves problems (e.g. graphic design). I started the Bach Project with a lot of research. I read about sound and light waves, brushed up on music and color theory, researched J.S. Bach’s history and interpretations of his music. And then I experimented with materials and marks and layout. There were a lot of rough drafts before I settled on the process I used for most of the pieces.
E: have you collaborated with other artists or musicians during your journey?
M: My husband Matthew Lavanish, who is a classical guitarist, and I put together a brief performance a few years ago to accompany my first shows of the artwork. I also collaborated with artist Gerard Brown on a multi-faceted, multimedia installation that was based on a 19th-century “universal language” called Solresol. And I’ve been talking with another guitarist about an artwork+performance project rooted in minimalism.
E: Who is your favorite composer?
M: I love 20th-century Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. He wrote terrifically abstract music that referenced folk traditions and was also rooted in Bach’s use of counterpoint, a type of polyphony that weaves together multiple lines of music (versus relying on chords to create harmony). Kind of random story, but when I was in grad school and had a lot of writing to do, I somehow discovered that this one album of Bartók violin sonatas was the ONLY music I could listen to and write at the same time. Something about the angular, abstractness of it works with the way I write.
E: If you could choose to have dinner with one composer and one artist, who would you choose and what would you talk about?
M: Tough question! I’d probably pick Anna Magdalena Bach as the composer — or at least, there is speculation in certain circles that she may have been a composer, although it’s hard to tell given cultural/historical forces that prevented women from being recognized. One scholar, I ran across believes she may have written some of the music attributed to her husband J.S. Bach. Regardless, she was clearly very talented and I would want to hear from her what her life was like, how she balanced her own creativity with her other family and social obligations, whether she really wrote the Cello Suites. As for an artist… I guess I’d like to talk to Barnett Newman. His “Stations of the Cross” and ideas about capturing the sublime have definitely influenced my own trajectory.
E: Where can we see more of The Bach Project?
M: I’m currently working on a big 100-painting commission for the Centennial of Eastern Mennonite University. So if you’re in Harrisonburg, VA, in October, stop by to check it out. It’s based on Mennonites’ four-part harmony hymn-singing. I’ll also be showing at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in December, in conjunction with their performance of Bach’s Christmas oratorio.
You can view Melinda Steffy’s exhibition The Score is Not the Music until May 28th at Crane Hall