Nancy Mooslin's Lyrical Color and Music Fusions

“Everything I do is related in some way to music,” says life-long musician Nancy Mooslin. “I’m either painting an actual piece of music or a harmonic progression of my own devising—whether it be of chords, scales, or intervals of notes.” Nancy who is enjoying her “first residency anywhere—ever,” was drawn to VCCA because of its proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the rich tradition of fiddle music found in the region. 

She first became interested in this type of site-specific work—interweaving landscape into her pieces using photo transfers or drawings—on a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia where she photographed the Mekong River and Halong Bay. “The repetitive rhythmic patterns of moving water began to feel so musical to me.”  Visiting Buddhist temples on the trip, she heard chants. It became a natural progression to combine the two, overlaying the Buddhists chants onto her images of the local bodies of water. “Maybe I was just ready to embrace my surroundings a bit more and not be so cerebral.”

Nancy’s work is centered on a very interesting system of correlating music and color she developed and her earlier work relied on a pure geometric format. The 12-color wheel of primary, secondary and tertiary colors representing the visible spectrum (ultra-violet to infrared) corresponds to an octave because in the musical chromatic scale there are 12 steps. She made C red because C is the first note of the major scale and it will always be the beginning, and so too red light is at the beginning or bottom of the spectrum. C is red, C sharp is red/orange, D is orange, D sharp is yellow/orange, E is yellow, etc. all the way up to B, which is red/violet.

But, as Nancy points out, “that, of course, only takes care of one octave; there are seven and a half octaves on the piano. As you get lower by increments of 1/12, the note get darker and duller, and as you get higher, they get lighter and brighter. For me, this relates to those low notes that are produced by a really long string or a great big instrument. They’re full of overtones—some low pitches can have as many as 64 overtones. They’re rich, fat sounds, which, for me, relate to that rich pigment. The high notes, which might be a little piccolo or a short string, are very thin sounds. You’re only hearing the fundamental pitch with no overtones whatsoever, that’s the thin pigment pale, light color.” 

The reason one C sounds like C only higher is that the sound wave is exactly double the frequency and 1/2 the length; mathematically it’s been cut in half. In the visible spectrum violet light is exactly double the frequency and 1/2 the length of red light. So our visible world is actually a mathematical octave.

Nancy represents the meter of the music by measurement: a note that is held longer, takes up more space on the paper and then the timbre quality of sound instrument versus voice, for example, is usually represented by texture and shape: the violin’s sound all smears together and her lines blend into each other. With the piano where the notes can be more distinct, her lines remain discrete.

“The woods around here are just perfect for an overlay,” Nancy says of Mt. San Angelo. “Because the trees are so close together, tall and narrow; they weave in and out in a rhythmic way that seems to ape the way a fiddle slides around. When I first got here, I spent a couple days photographing the woods in sun and overcast light. Some of those images, I transferred onto paper overlaying on the trees 12-tone melodies much like a Schoenberg system (where you use all 12 tones without repeating). In these works, the music imbues the photographs as a kind of multicolored wash. "I chose a simple fiddle tune and placed the melody on a horizontal access across the center of the page and now I’m pulling those notes through into threes so they’ll end up looking like the pieces I did that didn’t have a specific melody running through. With these, there's more of a distinct melodic line bisecting the image.”

“One of the reasons I never applied for a residency before, is I always worked in oil. And I couldn’t imagine how I could transport my 88 tubes of paint to a remote location.” She had created her music-based palette using oil paint and was leery of venturing outside the medium. Eventually, she discovered that using the oil palette she created as a guide, she could mix the watercolor to achieve the same hues. She prefers using watercolor pencils, which allow her to be very precise, sometimes she’ll use a brush dipped in water to make a thicker or blurred line. She has many pencils each one labeled with its corresponding note.

Though she was wedded to her studio for many years she did a lot of public art in collaboration with choreographers and musicians. Her journey to liberation began when she started printmaking as a means of shaking things up. It worked, opening up the possibility of working outside the studio. Then followed the trip to Asia and VCCA. What Nancy says of her first residency program suggests it won’t be her last: “I am having such a good time here; I’m enjoying the intimacy of working on a smaller scale and responding to the beautiful surroundings.”

Though Nancy is dealing with very complex concepts, she insists she isn’t a math whiz. “It’s amazing what you can teach yourself to do when the idea requires you to know something,” she says. “But I only want to know what I need to know for the work. I say my knowledge is an inch deep and a mile long. I‘m not going to become an astrophysicist or try and understand it all. What I do like to think about is the concept behind the music of the spheres is that the same ratios exist in planetary motion as exist in music. Microcosm and the macrocosm—they’re all using the same proportions and ratios.”


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