If you listen to a nocturne being played on the piano while you are drawing on black paper for an exhibition called “Nocturne,” what will the result be?
Artist Marjorie Williams-Smith and composer Bob Boury, colleagues at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, worked together this summer to see what influence music might have on art. Williams-Smith draws in silverpoint, using a fine point of silver to draw her meticulously detailed dried flowers. Because they’re dried, the flowers don’t compete with Williams-Smith’s fine lines for beauty. Because she’s been drawing on paper primed with black gesso, the works in “Nocturne,” which will be shown at UALR’s Fine Arts Center starting Oct. 10, have a definite mood.
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A nocturne is a piece of music usually in a minor key, with dreamy, lower notes and running notes, Boury said. The music, the artist said during a recent session in Boury’s dining room — which is mostly piano, has produced a greater spontaneity. Normally she works in pencil first and then in silver or other metals, like copper, to create the image, a process that can take days. Maybe the music is informing the brain in the way a sketch would.
The music may also suggest a color to Williams-Smith. “Sometimes I see a blue” in a musical piece, she said, which she may add with a bit of conte crayon. It was a response that didn’t surprise Boury. Liszt famously saw color when he heard music, a neurological melding called synesthesia, as did Olivier Messiaen and Itzhak Perlman. For fun, Boury and Marjorie put a mandala she’d colored in to music using a table someone had put together on what notes provoked what colors and came up with a joint composition. (Boury also finds inspiration in a system of his devising, matching the alphabet to various foreign scales; he composed a quick piece using the letters of my name in a Korean scale that starts in G and the improvised result was truly beautiful. He uses the method to improvise on the name of God in various traditions.)
Boury suggested the collaboration and he and Williams-Smith got a grant for six two-hour sessions. At one point, Williams-Smith decided to work abstractly while she listened, but returned to working figuratively.
Williams-Smith wants to carry the mood and rhythm of the nocturne into the physical set-up — the colors of the walls, the placement of the drawings — the “visual beat.” “I want it to be an experience,” she said. Boury may play during a reception for the show, which will run through Nov. 24 in Gallery II.
“I love to play for Marjorie,” Boury said. “We are the same personality type — introverted, intuitive.” Like Smith, Boury has been teaching at UALR for more than three decades. Smith came from Washington, D.C., to Arkansas; Boury from Wheeling, W.Va. They see Arkansas as a place with plenty of creative people. “Sometimes it takes coming from somewhere else to recognize it,” Boury said.
Boury’s music has served artist Warren Criswell as well. Criswell has set some of his animations to Boury’s work, such as Criswell’s “Fading,” set to music from Boury’s “Invisible Cities.” Criswell says the following poem by Boury could have been written for the “motion painting,” as Criswell calls it.
The clouds at sunset stand on end,
Secret Alphabets in the air
That speak a word, a line — a Psalm,
Hebrew words without a sound.
The trees they stand in three or four,
Birch or Ash — we can’t be sure.
And into night the moon appears.
Our path retreats in rearview mirrors,
For every sunset glows and dies.
The road continues, stars arise
Like ancient writing in the skies.