Friday, 2 December 2016

The Philosopher

The philosopher of the piano

One of the early commissions for the Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection, in 1992, was to paint Alfred Brendel. I portrayed him as the learned philosopher of the piano, searching for and expounding profound issues in music, gazing into space, with his characteristic raising of the eyebrows, listening intently as he attempts to elevate us to the sublime. His gaze, accented by the heavy line of his spectacles, follows the direction of the undulating rising diagonal line from his tails, past the little flourish of the far end of the keyboard, left of the sloping piano lid to the four soft clouds of pale blue in the top right of the picture.  The white surface of the keyboard provides a counter-diagonal, to balance the whole composition. 

In my painting, Alfred Brendel is a natural extension of his great instrument – altogether, quite a lot of black. So I've tried to give those blacks and greys transparency, floating them over the mists of subdued olive green which swirl around him. His Steinway seems to be loaded with gold. Between heaven and earth, at the centre of everything, are those sensitive hands, with poor battered fingers taped, creating magic. His left hand is rising after placing a majestic chord from Liszt's 'Années de Pèlerinage'. Can you hear its dying sound? Brendel conjures up the grandeur of the echoing mountains and the stillness of the lakes of Switzerland and Italy - scenes which I know well. So it was Liszt, rather than Beethoven or Mozart, for which he has such a reputation, that became one of the main sources of inspiration for this painting.

This watercolour took quite a bit of research. I had been part of Brendel's audience years ago, but I had no opportunity, before the deadline for this commission, to observe him closely in live performance or rehearsal.  This was long before YouTube! Then Brendel's record company, Philips Classics, offered me the use of some wonderful video material in which his Liszt recordings were interspersed with thoughtful introductory talks.  The inspiration was there! But unfortunately the setting and lighting in which the recordings were made were totally different to the concept and colours I had in mind.  So began a long process of sifting and transforming impressions, through three or four studies, before the final watercolour took shape.

Twenty-four years on, looking back at this rather serious painting, I reflect on how inadequate any attempted representation of this erudite cultural giant would be, with his love of literature, languages and art, his sense of humour and much more. After the Birmingham concert for which this was painted, we were commiserating on the bad reproduction of my painting in a local newspaper. "It's the same with a recording", he said, "you are never satisfied".


My brush with Kandinsky, Magaloff & Josefowitz

My brush with 
Kandinsky, Magaloff & Josefowitz

It was an eerie drive through the snow, winding through the dark pine trees to Nina Kandinsky's chalet above Gstaad, Switzerland. My partner Vivian King, an American cellist studying with Pierre Fournier in Geneva in the mid-seventies, had been invited to a chamber music evening and dinner by David Josefowitz. An extraordinary, extremely wealthy Ukrainian entrepreneur and philanthropist, he was in the habit of inviting young musicians to play chamber music on his quartet of Stradivarius instruments. The 1735 cello was slightly shorter than usual and Vivian was excited to be invited to try it out. Rather intimidating though, because the great pianist Nikita Magaloff was also a guest. I tagged along with my sketchbook and paints, to seize the opportunity of making some musical impressions. 

The door opened to a babble of Russian, French and German and the dinner was multi-lingual. Nina provided us with liberal quotes from Kandinsky's ideas on the relationships between music and painting. As a comparatively lowly painter of musical themes, I became terribly aware that I was on holy ground. The intellectual giant of modern art himself had of course passed away in 1944. How I wished I could have met him.

Anyway, the idea was to sight-read some piano quintets with Magaloff. I remember the Schumann, but I'm hazy about the others. It had been a very good dinner - and it was delightful to hear how many mistakes even the greatest can make on a crazy evening like this - and just laugh them off. But Magaloff's sound and style was unforgettable, what has been described as his "limpid tone and a certain controlled impetuosity". Little of my impetuous brushwork was worth keeping, but I still have these fragmentary line sketches of Magaloff to remind me of that amazing evening. We drove home with the feeling that we had been deep into the heart of Russia.

(Below) Vivian and the author in the seventies. In the background, my painting of Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra with Stravinsky's "Firebird".

Following Kandinsky's death, the value of his work rocketed and with her new-found wealth, Nina soon acquired a reputation for collecting fine jewellery. Imagine our shock and horror when, a few years after our visit, we heard the news that Nina's chalet had been broken into and that she had been murdered. No priceless paintings were missing - only her latest million-dollar diamond necklace. A mystery that has never been solved. It feels strange, that of all the people in the chalet that evening, I may be the only one still alive.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Sejong plays Murmurs in the Mist of Memory

Sejong plays
 Murmurs in the Mist of Memory

Augusta Read Thomas is a widely acclaimed and prolific composer in whose music I find a wealth of lyrical colours and a palette of textures. It was a stroke of genius by Hyo and Kung Kang, Directors of the Sejong Soloists*, to invite me to create and perform kinetic paintings to Gusty's Murmurs in the Mist of Memory, commissioned for this brilliant young string ensemble, based in New York. In 2007 we took it to the Great Mountains Music Festival in South Korea and our performance was very well received. The media were all fascinated that I possessed brush skills that were apparently distant relatives of their own calligraphic traditions. 

It's with some trepidation that one ventures to give visual form and colour to the work of a living composer, but so far the contemporary composers that I had contact with about their work: George Benjamin, Toshio Hosokawa, Tristan Murail, Rautavaara, Huang Ruo and Augusta Read Thomas - have all been enthusiastic. This is what Gusty (to her friends) wrote about my treatment of her Murmurs:
“Norman, I love your work so dearly!!! I was in shock.  When I got your DVD in my Chicago mail, I opened it right away and was totally thrilled. It is truly amazing. I was in tears too! Your work is the most beautiful thing anyone has ever done with my work, for sure”.  
I had sent her a DVD for feedback, but I only got this message after the concert, so that was a relief! And the start of a creative friendship.
This week I have been working with Amsterdam video producer Bob Aardewerk to record and edit a new performance of Murmurs with the Sejong Soloists in October, for the new Lotte Hall in Seoul. This time, to avoid the long flight, jet-lag and freighting of my gear to Seoul, I have provided Sejong with a HD video recording. If I performed on stage, I would follow their cues. But now our roles are reversed. The ensemble will follow the projection of my kinetic images as they play, confident that my paintings are synchronized to their own sound-track (it's been my practice material for weeks). With four cameras on me and my projectors, almost as in live-streaming, the audience will watch me painting to the music, as though I am in the hall.

This work for eleven players has four movements: Ceremonial, Lullaby, Ritual and Incantation. Flowing memories of tenderness, spice, tears, determination, beautiful songs and miniature dances, full of irregular rhythms and colours and quite tricky to paint to. Here's the video link to Incantation, the haunting fourth movement. (View it full-screen).
* named after the 15th century Korean Emperor Sejong the Great, known for his contribution to the arts.  

Friday, 12 August 2016

Black Rain

Black Rain

August 6th has passed again, the awful day when in 1945 the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, creating unprecedented destruction and a horrible death for many thousands. And a dramatic warning that mankind could now easily annihilate itself. The radioactive fallout from that bomb - the "black rain" - became the title of a Japanese film, for which Toru Takemitsu composed his beautifully tragic music.

On that same date in 2007, when I was performing live kinetic paintings to Takemitsu's Black Rain in the South Korean Great Mountains Music Festival, that disaster felt very close indeed. Only just across the Sea of Japan in fact. Thousands of Korean forced labourers in Hiroshima also died from that bomb and some of their descendants were watching our performance on television.

The brilliant young string-players Sejong Soloists and I joined in paying tribute to all those victims and our audience was deeply moved. I felt a deep identification with Takemitsu's music and grateful for the opportunity to make a statement in my own visual language - the language of the brush, that my Korean audience understood very well. 

That terrible event of August 6th 1945 was a news-flash that made all other news pale, although its significance was not yet fully understood. Even though today's power-wielding maniacs may be unable to "see the light", we artists need, more than ever, to continue to speak, play, paint this message - an annual reminder of the fragility of human life. Words fail me, so here's the five-minute video of my studio painting rehearsal for Takemitsu's Black Rain, (with acknowledgements to Marin Alsop's recording of his Three Film Scores) with the Bournemouth Symphony). Turn the sound up and play it full screen.

(Below) Two images from Black Rain, by Toru Takemitsu. Total devastation. In the final image, the red sun has turned white.

More next time on another upcoming project with Sejong.