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  • Melinda Steffy

The Score Is Not the Music

“The score is not the music.”

This maxim, referenced in a 2011 New York Times essay about non-traditional music notation, reminds us that the heart of music lies in its performance, not just the notes on a page. But if looking at a score lacks some important quality of the music, how else might music be visually conveyed that would capture its essence?

As both a visual artist and musician, I have long been fascinated by ways that visual and musical languages connect. In my current artwork, I have matched the 12 tones of the chromatic scale with 12 colors on a color wheel (primary, secondary and tertiary) to translate J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Cello Suite No. 1 and the Chaconne from Partita No. 2 for Violin, along with Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, into watercolors on paper. The music, usually time-based and heard in sequence, becomes spatial, able to be seen all at once. Unexpected patterns emerge, revealing the tonal and rhythmic complexity inherent in the music.

In reflecting on how the artwork developed, I offer three points of inspiration. Three movements, if you will.


A number of years ago, I saw a series of stunning hand-drawn “Haiku” scores by John Cage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Although obviously music notation, with the usual symbols to provide a blueprint for producing sounds, the scores themselves were masterfully created — elegant composition, gorgeous mark-making, slight exaggeration of line and contour. I could barely take my eyes off of them, and I was struck by the sense that the scores “look” like what music sounds like.


In 2012, I was invited to sing at the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival in a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. As I worked my way through the score in the months leading up to the Festival, I was astonished (and sometimes overwhelmed!) by the complexity of the music. In the alto part, there were almost no measures that repeated elsewhere. Even one note to the next felt new and unpredictable. And yet, over time the bigger picture started to emerge. I understood how my seemingly random assortment of notes created a line and how that line interwove with other lines to create a powerful whole. Around the same time, I was beginning to develop my visual language for music, and I figured if I could make my system work with music as complex as Bach’s, I could make it work with anything.


With so many quilters in my family, it’s only natural that I would inherit a love of colorful geometric patterns. I remember learning how traditional Mennonite quilters would deliberately make an “error” in a quilt — such as inserting the wrong color or disrupting the stitching — as a way to resist pride or vanity. Perfection was reserved for the divine, not for human beings. I love the idea that imperfection or variation is what makes human creativity so exciting. A live music performance has richness that recorded or computer-generated sound does not, precisely because of variations of tone, dynamics and energy. In my artwork, I have chosen to work with deliberate, often tedious hand processes because the inevitable imperfections contribute to the beauty of the work.

Artwork will be on display in Margaret Martin Gehman Gallery (Eastern Mennonite University) and the lobby of Lehman Auditorium from June 14-21, 2015, with an artist talk at 2:00pm on June 14, 2015. Presented in collaboration with the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival.


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