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Cleveland composer creates Sonata #6 Project to connect music and visual art

Sonata #6 - installation view
Christopher Richards
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The Sonata #6 Project is a visual art exhibition curated by Christopher Richards, based on an original solo piano composition by Ryan Charles Ramer. Nine Cleveland artists created works in response to the sonata.

An art exhibition is on view at Cleveland's Survival Kit Gallery featuring nine local artists who translated a three-movement piano sonata into visual works.

“Sonata #6” was composed by Ryan Charles Ramer over a three-month period, followed by six months of inputting the work into a music notation software.

Ramer conceptualized a project tied to synesthesia, where he could see what his music looked like through the eyes of a painter or sculpture.

“I was interested to see how the passion in the music was going to be portrayed in art and the visual art."
Ryan Charles Ramer

He notated in the score various physical gestures, which the pianist would follow to play the piece.

This includes striking the piano keys with the player's elbows, palms or fists.

Independent curator Christopher Richards heard the 26-minute sonata and visualized sharp, angular sounds that called to mind geometric abstraction, an art form focused on shapes rather than a particular subject.

He reached out to nine visual artists in Cleveland whose work captured the angular sounds he heard in the music, and they responded to the piece based on their own reaction to the piece and their personal experiences.

Christopher Richards, curator, and Ryan Charles Ramer, composer, created the Sonata #6 Project to explore how artists interpret a piece of music and translate it into a visual medium.
Audrey Warrenfeltz
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Christopher Richards, curator, and Ryan Charles Ramer, composer, created the Sonata #6 Project to explore how artists interpret a piece of music and translate it into a visual medium.

Coming up with the concept behind the project

Ramer developed a similar idea last year, called the Sonata #5 Project, where artists interpreted his original composition as a way to connect music with visual artforms.

“The whole concept was that we wanted to see if there would be similarities between what artists created, all listening to the same piece of music,” Ramer said. “So we didn't let any of the artists communicate with each other so that all of it was [an] independent invention.”

While "Sonata #5" focused on color, "Sonata #6" involves shape.

Artists had nine months to work on an original piece for the Sonata #6 Project, which Ramer noted is the “typical human gestation period.”

They were given an audio recording and video of the sonata, performed by Cleveland pianist and composer Nicholas Underhill, as well as a copy of the 30-page-long score.

“I was interested to see how the passion in the music was going to be portrayed in art and the visual art,” Ramer said.

The score includes deliberate notation for the performer to use their entire upper body to play the piece, which sounds somber, expressive, repetitive and fluid.

“What really struck me most was not just the finished pieces—they're all beautiful—but was the personal narrative that each of the artists was putting behind their work that was informed by what they heard in the music,” Ramer said.

He said the reactions to his piece were personal, but the completed artworks drew on more universal concepts and experiences.

Interpreting a composed score into visual artworks

Richards made a list of around 30 artists he felt worked in the same vein as the geometric abstraction he visualized when he heard “Sonata #6” for the first time.

He narrowed it down to nine, all of whom reside in the Cleveland area. The artists are Amirah Cunningham, Jan Zorman, Judith Salomon, Katie Mongoven, Kristina Paabus, Matthew Gallagher, Tiara Grayson, Todd Leech and William Martin Jean.

"Everyone definitely poured their own identity into each of their works in a really intriguing way."
Katie Mongoven

Richards’ background is in auction houses and art galleries. He had a folder of images from different artists’ portfolios to pull from for this project.

“Seeing what artists I thought worked best with each other and who told different interesting stories, not necessarily just about their personal lives, but also how they use geometry to challenge the way we view the world around us,” Richards said.

He said the artists come from different backgrounds and stages in their careers, but the common thread is that they live and work in Cleveland and use abstract shapes in their pieces.

“And they each bring something unique to the project ... whether it's painting, drawing, ceramics, installation, art,” he said. “And they all kind of have this quality of exploration of time and also their own personal experiences.”

Richards said there are similarities between the pieces even though the artists didn’t communicate with each other or share ideas while working.

The circle is a prevalent form throughout, as well as swooping motions.

Ramer added that the piano piece begins and ends on exactly the same note.

“There’s a circularity to the structure of the music that I feel was represented really consistently throughout all the nine artists,” Ramer said.

Katie Mongoven - Sonata #6.JPG
Katie Mongoven
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Fiber artist Katie Mongoven's hand-dyed indigo cotton embroidery piece, titled "Sonata #6," was inspired by the physical labor involved in performing Ryan Charles Ramer's "Sonata #6" and the work that goes into dyeing thread with indigo.

Mongoven, one of the artists featured in the project, said she gravitated toward circles and fluidity when visualizing the shape of the notes.

She is a fiber artist born in China and based in Cleveland Heights. Her piece, titled “Sonata #6,” features indigo embroidery in a noticeably circular shape.

When she was presented with the sonata, she was drawn to the notations in the score.

“I had to have the sheet music in front of me while watching the video and then also listening to the recordings just because I think, as an artist, I need to have that visual component as well,” Mongoven said.

She said watching the video of Underhill performing the piece called to mind the physical work that goes into dyeing with indigo, which inspired her work.

“When looking at the sheet music and then watching Nicholas perform, there's instructions about how to cover the piano keys with, like all of your fingers, your elbow ... it’s like, it's a very labor-intensive piece,” she said. “You're using pretty much almost your whole body to play it. And when you're using the indigo vat, you're kind of doing something similar.”

headshot.JPG
Katie Mongoven
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Katie Mongoven is one of nine artists featured in the Sonata #6 Project. Her works are semi-abstract, hand-dyed embroidery.

Mongoven said using indigo dye involves dipping the thread in a vat and holding it for two minutes, letting it dry for two minutes in the sun, dipping it back in the dye and repeating.

This repetitive process is similar to the repetitious notes in Ramer’s “Sonata #6.”

“You're just like, you know, you're sweating, you're like holding your phone timer,” Mongoven said. “And so the similarities there were kind of striking, so I thought the indigo would be a good fit.”

She said using indigo involves shifting color changes and intensity, and she heard that in the music as well.

Mongoven said while all the visual artists were given the same files to view and listen to, everybody came up with different interpretations.

She said this was her first collaborative piece, and she worked to find a balance between expressing Richards’ vision, interpreting Ramer’s piece and staying honest to herself as a person and artist.

“It was it was really fun being able to talk with everyone about their inspirations and, you know, there are similar things that you can tie in from everyone's work,” she said. “But at the same time, everyone definitely poured their own identity into each of their works in a really intriguing way."

Experiencing a live performance of the sonata

The artists and musicians involved with the Sonata #6 Project attended an opening reception for the exhibition in November.

It was the first time the artists could view one another’s visual interpretations of the sonata and watch Underhill perform the piano piece live.

Ramer said he met Underhill through the Cleveland Composers Guild and had a lot of respect for him as a performer and composer.

I knew that he had sort of the athleticism and the sort of muscular presentation to to give the work what it needed,” Ramer said.

He said Underhill took the piece “under his wing” and fell in love with the music, so he was an obvious choice to perform Ramer’s composition.

Underhill teaches composition, theory, counterpoint and orchestration at Cleveland State University and previously taught piano at Mount Union and Hiram Colleges.

He has been commissioned by multiple musicians and groups, including the Cleveland Orchestra, and has performed in venues such as Carnegie Recital Hall and Merkin Concert Hall.

Underhill said when he was contacted about performing the piece for a project involving visual artists, he was interested in the idea.

“I found it very emotionally and physically involving,” Underhill said. “I find, especially the first movement, very compelling in the sort of dramatic boldness of and romanticism out of the beginning.”

He said he is familiar with the sonata’s distinctive feature of using arms and elbows to perform the piece, but this concept is used extensively throughout “Sonata #6” in combination with a “harmonic language.”

He said the score is dense, even for a trained musician, and he was interested to see how visual artists would interpret it.

Mary Kak and Nick.jpg
Nicholas Underhill
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Pianist and composer Nicholas Underhill performed "Sonata #6" by Ryan Charles Ramer for the Sonata #6 Project.

“Most of them wouldn't relate to it as sound in the way, you know, when I see a score I hear the music in my brain,” Underhill said. “If I see words on a page, I hear the words in my brain, but they're not going to hear that necessarily.”

He said a sculpture featured in the exhibition stood out to him because it was a “wacky and clever way” of interpreting part of the score that appears as a smudge that instructs the performer to “whack” the piano to play 30 or 40 different notes.

“And so with that, it was simply, literally, transform that visual image into a sculpture that went up upwards from the pedestal that it was presented on,” Underhill said.

He said other pieces were more visual interpretations of what the performers heard from the recording of Underhill playing the piano.

“Another one had these little circles with the notes on, with notes written on each circle. Music notes that didn't make any sense and purely musical terms, but it was a fanciful, you know, adaptation of the idea of music and visual things,” he said.

Underhill said he thought of water when he played the first movement because of its dense textures.

“It's like if you had a painting that it was a representation of a landscape and then you put a wash of watercolor over it,” he said.

Performing the sonata live at the opening reception was interesting for Underhill because he often performs works for the first time for new audiences.

In this instance, more than 10 listeners had already heard the piece multiple times as they were listening to it for the project.

“You know, my mother-in-law hears me practice every day. She lives with us. Here is a knowledgeable listener. But, you know, normally you don't have like 10 listeners who have heard every note you're going to play. They can hum along with it. So that was a little different,” Underhill said.

Sonata #6 - opening night (1).jpg
Christopher Richards
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An opening reception for the Sonata #6 Project exhibition was held at the Survival Kit Gallery in November. The event seated 40 attendees who experienced the piano performance live while viewing the participating artists' work in person.

Experiencing the project 

Richards said he hopes the public will take away an understanding of the artists’ backgrounds and interpret their abstract works on a deeper level with this project.

“It helps us to understand our own responses to audio and visual stimuli,” Richards said.

Ramer said he was interested to see how the pianist’s performance of his score would translate into works of stationary art.

Like the artists, the viewing public can interpret something different from both the music and the visual art based on their own interpretations and experiences.

Mongoven said she brought several friends to the opening reception who all worked in the medical field.

“They're asking all these questions, but at the same time, they were sharing so much, like really interesting insights. They're like, ‘Oh, like your piece reminds me of like the shape of a CD,’” she said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don't think you understand what you just said and how crazy that is!’”

She said this project puts a spotlight on collaboration between art and music, and she hopes it inspires more opportunities for creators and performers to come together.

“I hope that people take away that music and art … they are two different ways of expressing yourself, but at the same time they can be connected in such a deep and meaningful way,” Mongoven said. “I think there's so much room for collaboration, and I think it's just barely being touched upon now. “

Underhill said the project emphasizes the relationship between music and art, which he views from an educational lens.

“When you study music history in school, it’s kind of dry. But then you go over and study art history, and art history is much more interesting,” he said.

Underhill said people can get an instant emotional response from viewing a piece of artwork.

“Whereas a piece of music, you've got to listen to it for half an hour to get to really get the flavor of what it is,” Underhill said. “And the relationship between art and music is much more interesting than one subject just by itself."

Underhill said the Sonata #6 Project was the first time he’s done something in this particular format.

“It’s a fascinating idea and one which I hope they'll continue,” he said.

The Sonata #6 Project will be on view at the Survival Kit Gallery, located in the 78th Street Studios at 1300 W 78th St. in Cleveland, through Dec. 17.

The gallery features an open house every third Friday of the month where the public can view exhibitions from 5-9 p.m.

“It gets a lot of people, like into the thousands. So third Fridays are a big opportunity for us to show off the work to a broad spectrum of people,” Ramer said.

The Sonata #6 Project show includes a televised video of Underhill performing the piano sonata, so patrons can hear and observe the physicality involved while taking in the visual works.

“I think that's one of the biggest reasons to come see it in person, and especially because the installation is temporary,” Ramer said. “You know, it was just installed in the space.”

Richards said they’re considering extending the project through the third Friday in January 2022. Underhill will perform “Sonata #6” at two different programs in March.

Ramer said each artist featured in the project was able to get a stipend through the Char and Chuck Fowler Family Foundation.

He said it was important to be able to support Cleveland-based artists.

A 40-page catalog of the exhibition is available on Amazon, and videos of each artist talking about their contribution to the Sonata #6 Project is available to watch on YouTube.

Brittany Nader is the producer of "Shuffle" on Ideastream Public Media. She joins "All Things Considered" host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene.
Amanda Rabinowitz is the host of “All Things Considered” on Ideastream Public Media.