The color of music 

University of Arkansas at Little Rock music professor Bob Boury met The Observer at the front door to his home in the Heights neighborhood with a compliment: "What a musical name you have," he said. We sat down, the professor, artist Marjorie Williams-Smith and The Observer, and watched as Boury matched up the letters in The Observer's names to the Korean scale, which starts on G and includes a B flat (matched to the alphabet A through G, H through N and so forth). He played the name thusly on the piano and then improvised. He was right. It's a very musical name; the result was lyrical and light.

But it was darkness that Boury and Williams-Smith were after, there on their last of six sessions loosely meant to answer these questions: If you listen to a nocturne being played on the piano while you're creating silverpoint drawings for an exhibit called "Nocturne," what will the result be? What is the influence of music on art?

Williams-Smith uses a stylus fitted with silver and other metals to draw, in meticulous detail, dried flowers. Because they're dead (dried to retain some shape), the flowers don't compete with Williams-Smith's fine hand 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. 

A nocturne, as all musicians know, is a piece of music usually composed in a minor key, with dreamy, lower notes and running notes, Boury said. There in Boury's dining room — which is mostly piano — Williams-Smith has been drawing as Boury plays Chopin or Scarlatti and other pieces, including his own work. Sometimes she listens — she was this day, her head moving to the music — sometimes she doesn't. At any rate, what has happened over the six sessions, she said, is a greater spontaneity. Normally Williams-Smith 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 has at times suggested color to Williams-Smith. "Sometimes I see a blue" in a musical piece, she said, which she may add to her drawing 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 — using a key someone created matching notes to color as reported by musicians — has put to music color compositions by Marjorie. (Boury also finds inspiration in his alphabet system, using the name of God in various languages with various foreign scales in a composition.)

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." Boury's music has served artist Warren Criswell as well. Criswell has set some of his animations, such as "Fading," to Boury's work. Criswell says the following poem by Boury could have been written for "Fading," set to Boury's "Invisible Cities."

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.

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. 

Williams-Smith and her husband, artist Aj Smith, will be speaking at Saturday's Festival of Ideas, 1 p.m. at the Historic Arkansas Museum.


Speaking of Bob Boury, Marjorie Williams-Smith


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