Taking in Turner to Cezanne through the Tonalities Experience

Nancy Anderson, 62, has never seen a Vincent Van Gogh painting, and never will.

At the Everson Museum of Art's Turner to Cezanne exhibition, though, Anderson, who is legally blind, is able to experience one of his paintings, "Rain--Auvers," for the first time.

Syracuse University musicians have recorded short musical "descriptions" meant to accompany paintings by Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and others, a project which the museum believes could be the first ever of its kind.

"It's opening up a whole new part of the world that's been closed off to people with low vision or no vision at all," Anderson said after listening to a preview of the pieces.

The compositions were based on the writings of Louis-Bertrand Castel, a 19th century French mathematician who believed there is a natural relationship between colors and musical notes. In his system, for example, blue is C, and green is D.

The project, called the Tonalities Experience, is the brainchild of Barre Hunt O'Neill, a local painter, actress and jewelry designer with no musical training.

"Color, that's my bag--just delving into the colors and studying the relationship," she said. "This takes everything that I've ever done and applies it--even the glint of jewelry is in this."

For each piece, Hunt O'Neill, an opera aficionado whose parents were artists, wrote down the colors in the painting and the corresponding notes. She and the musicians then improvised in deciding how to best arrange the notes to "describe" each painting in about half a minute.

Each piece also has a description, narrated by Hunt O'Neill that helps introduce the color correspondences.

Erica Smithson, an SU graduate student whose grandmother is blind, conducted the music and played several instruments. She said the color-note correspondences still left room for interpretation.

"If you're the person who's supposed to be blue, you want to make sure it reflects the energy of the painting," she said. "Is it a dark, stormy painting, or is it just some lilies?"

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