Kerry Hirth doesn’t just hear music; she sees it.
Hirth has synesthesia, so when the classically trained musician reads music, every note is its own shade, each chord a unique band of colors. Synesthesia is the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or body part.
Hirth’s art is a representation of her “vision” of music that allows others to see a bit of what she sees in everything from Bach and Chopin to Pearl Jam.
Hirth, who minored in music performance while earning her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri, explains that the colors she sees in written scores have nothing to do with how a particular piece makes her feel — each note has its own color and appears the same way whether the music is happy or sad, slow and melodic or fast-paced.
Hirth emphasized that she strives to preserve the structure of the music itself in her work.
“The paintings I make, in a way they are kind of crafted because I don’t just sit down and paint what I feel,” Hirth said. “It’s structured and planned, thought over and very carefully conceived — it’s a different sort of expression.”
Many of her early pieces were strict translations of short piano works by classical composers because it was music Hirth was familiar with, music she felt she had control over and was deeply inspired by.
Sonatas by Domenico Scarlotti are her favorite.
“They are just amazing to me. They’re joyous, harmonically interesting, sophisticated, beautiful work,” Hirth said.
Hirth also has done work based on Irish fiddle tunes — appealing to her because musicians take a basic tune and add their own harmonies, giving them more influence in what the piece is going to sound and look like, and she found the chord changes interesting.
One departure from her classical choices was a commissioned piece in which Hirth was asked to paint a Pearl Jam cover of a Neil Young song — she had to find a recording of Young playing the song on YouTube and then transcribe the music from there.
Over time, Hirth began to incorporate landscapes layered into the music. Looking at a horizon, she realized it’s a stacked grid similar to the colored bands of her music, with different shades for the sky, structures such as homes or trees, and the horizon line itself.
“It led to me thinking about how is it that music happens anyway … what kind of structure can you make of all the perceptions you have,” she said. “Right now I’m thinking a lot about where music comes from and using colors of music and of landscapes to frame a piece of music in our experiences.”
Hirth will paint a “rough” landscape of the view or scene she has in mind for a particular piece and then incorporate those same colors into the pattern of the music. These paintings are read not just linearly (the music) but also vertically, where, for instance, a sunset over a lake is represented by the blues, and reds and pinks of the sky that are reflected in the water below as the viewer takes in the painting from top to bottom.
She did a painting of someone’s wedding song in which she incorporated a photo of the couple at their outdoor wedding using the colors of the sunset behind them.
For Hirth, the way music is laid out harmonically has meaning the same way sentences and words do, and “somehow I can understand them — they have meaning to me. To me, it speaks almost directly.”
Up to now, Hirth has been translating small sections of that message, focusing on just a short section of a piece of music to represent on canvas. As she continues to evolve as an artist, Hirth said she is now trying to say more than that and to give the music more depth.
“What do two different sections of a piece say to each other?” she said. “I want to put in an entire tune, and what has developed or changed — how does the beginning relate to the end?”
Hirth often exhibits at the Columbia Art League gallery downtown and participates in the organization’s Art in the Park festival each June. Visit Hirth’s website, www.kerryhirth.com, for more information about the artist and her work.