Friday, 26 May 2017


One that got away: 

The Drama of The Raven

Remember Edgar Allen Poe's poem The Raven?

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, 
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— 
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping 
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. 
'Tis some visitor, I muttered, tapping at my chamber door - Only this and nothing more....... 

First fear, then curiosity takes over. The knocking continues. Who's there? It turns out to be a raven that flies in and refuses to leave. Yet amazingly he can talk - although with only one word: "Nevermore". Was it a comment on the narrator's mourning of his lost love?
Inspired by this poem, in 2012 Toshio Hosokawa composed an intensely thrilling and scary monodrama for the mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant and ensemble. I saw several video recordings of outstanding performances, but one thing appeared to be missing. A dramatic kinetic atmosphere to enhance the nightmare of the story-line. 

So in 2013, after my performances of kinetic painting Cloud & Light, with Toshio conducting, were so well received, and with a newly discovered affinity with Toshio's music, I proposed setting his The Raven to kinetic painting. I think he liked the idea. Thoroughly inspired, I got the score and hired a model simply to pose (not move) in a few abstract static studio projections (some of which you see here), mere "sketches" to illustrate my ideas. 
Multiple emails and international meetings with producers, agents, Charlotte and Toshio himself followed. 
And it all came to nothing. After all those efforts, the disillusion was intense.

You often never discover exactly why creative proposals (and there have been so many) don't come to fruition. There may be hidden agreements or contracts that are never revealed. Did the managers feel that their singer would be over-shadowed? Was it the production costs? Was it because I didn't have an agent negotiating essential support in the performance jungle? Or was my pitch on the dramatic potential of kinetic painting to music not good enough? In this case it might have been the decision of one man in a major venue, that closed the door on this proposal. I was left frustrated, baffled and somewhat bitter.
And that's just one example of a classic disillusion. I know, I know, I'm in good company of many creative artists through the ages whose ideas were not seized on by the right producers. You need the right connections, good timing and good luck. And then the courage not to give up.

But to end on a positive note, over the years I have in fact experienced glorious exceptions: those visionaries who "got the message" and who were also a joy to work with, including Yehudi Menuhin, The Netherlands Dance Theatre, Sir Simon Rattle, TV Director Jonathan Fulford for BBC, Hans Ferwerda for the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Hyo and Kyung Kang of the Sejong Soloists, Ronald Vermeulen in Amsterdam and Bergen, Sven Tepl for the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Daniel Hope, and now (next season) Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla with the CBSO. My heartfelt thanks to all of them.

Sunday, 14 May 2017


The loneliness of creativity

This is an edited version of a blog from 2013. Today, every artist, writer, composer will still recognise these problems. 

"It must be lovely to be able to paint". Ha - you have no idea! Creativity is a lonely business. Hours and weeks of working alone in the studio. Succoured only by habit, by some sort of inner discipline, by the need to earn a living and by the encouragement of each little creative discovery. “Oh yes", my wife will tell you, "he always feels depressed when he’s trying to start a new work”. The fact is that every time, you feel at a loss to know how to start and nobody can help you. In your desperation you forget that this feeling is a creative prelude. You sweep the floor, drink coffee, eat chocolate, procrastinate, wonder why you became an artist, listen to music, mess around with sketches and colours, just playing…..until unexpectedly, interesting little things start to appear in the messy kinetic painting. Your coffee gets cold. An hour or two goes by before you discover this, then you realise that you’re in the flow. Read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s brilliant book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and InventionIt’s a long story, but “flow” is a state of deep satisfaction and drive, brought about by a synergy of factors, experienced from time to time by scientists, street-sweepers, artists, carpenters, writers – you name it. It comes from being totally absorbed in a search for creative solutions, then better solutions. And not allowing yourself to get distracted. There’s no easy recipe for how to get started, but once you find the “flow” you're up and away. 

Krishnamurti once said that true creativity can only happen in a “free fall” situation. A unconditional leap in the dark, letting go of the worries about what people will think of this piece, whether it will provide bread on the table next month, what the critics will say. You don’t know what you’re doing and the unknown necessitates creativity.

Sometimes I just follow my intuition, in a state of wonder at what is happening up on my rehearsal screen in the studio. A sort of ecstasy (from the Greek "standing outside yourself"), as though somebody else, or perhaps the music, is doing this. If this is difficult to imagine, watch some of my rough studio tryouts on YouTube. It's that ecstasy that makes me want to exclaim: "oh - you should see this!"

It's that ecstasy, those moments of creation, that I try to take to the concert hall, standing on stage in a performance with my overhead projectors and the musicians. Yes, I do have my visual choreography, a lifetime of painting skills, weeks of practicing, and I’m more or less following the music. Well, which is it? More, or less? (Both, actually). You have thousands of people, including television viewers, following the movements of your brush, wondering - what will it do next? You let the audience watch the sensual visuals evolve and dissolve - they may be closer to a unique creative moment than they’ve ever been before. I’m exposing my emotions, my passion and my vulnerability and as I paint, I can feel the reactions in the hall, sense their blushes, their joy or their angst. This is the ultimate form of my "flow", the therapy for my loneliness - the opportunity and joy of being able to share my kinetic works immediately as they take shape. The loneliness of the studio was, after all, a stepping stone to a shared emotion through performance.
On a screen of 9 x 6 m., my kinetic images to Scriabin's "Poem of Ecstasy" flow and shudder and fall apart like a prolonged gigantic orgasm. Oh dear, in front of two thousand people in the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw? Hey, it was Scriabin's idea! All the details are in the score, the original of which carried the title "Orgiastic Poem".

The applause has died down and the series of “very nice” reactions have come your way. You go back to your dressing room and have to scramble to get out, because the hall is closing down. You’re no longer welcome. You’re lucky if there’s a drink afterwards or really lucky if you’re invited to dinner - if the restaurants are still open. Back at the hotel or home, exhausted, the adrenaline drying up (or whatever adrenaline does), you try to remember anything meaningful of the well-meant compliments on your performance. "You took me out of this world - I don’t know how you do it!” You tell me.

But what I really miss is enlightened discussion with fellow artists! I write blogs that seem to be read worldwide. But who comments? “I’m at a loss for words”, one sighs. Should I take that as a compliment? Write to me, you spectators, readers, composers, writers, artists! How does the creative process work for you? Let's help each other.
I challenge you:!

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Early musical works: less is more

Early musical works you have never seen:

Less is more: a few floating lines stretched across space can sometimes promise more than a full canvas gives you. Inspired by Asian paintings and prints and a visit to Japan in 1984, this became one of my aims in many early works. Generous and effective use of space in Asian painting also conveys a sense of time passing, or perhaps timelessness. 

I'm reminded of the Zen proverb: "It's the silence between the notes that creates the music". This gives us pause for thought and time to breathe. And breathing creates energy. Here are the links to my earlier blogs on this subject: The beauty of space and silence and Music and space in watercolour paintingBelow are just two of a whole series of watercolours of Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi, former conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic, made during a tour of Japan.


Below a watercolour and ink drawing of Yit-Kin Seow from 1971, when he was studying both piano and viola at the Yehudi Menuhin School, where I made many impressions in the seventies. He has since made a career as a pianist.

Even though it is undeveloped, this spontaneous impression of a dancer improvising to jazz in my studio, made with bamboo pen and pencil, gives an illusion of her movements. I intended to make a painting of it, but actually it's complete just as it is. 

And finally a 1988 watercolour of my friend Mifune Tsuji, where I allowed myself a flexibility and freedom that you get when you're in "the flow", when you barely know what you're doing and you just get carried along by the music.



Friday, 21 April 2017

A young man's search

A young man's search in 1963

With intense nostalgia I'm now taking you back more than half a century to an adventurous formative period that took me travelling through Europe in 1963. I was twenty-nine when I was awarded a scholarship by the Dutch Kröller-Müller Foundation to spend a year in France. After I had learned to draw and paint at Birmingham College of Arts & Crafts and spent some years in teaching, this was the first real opportunity to focus on my painting and seriously research what I could do as a artist.  

I was offered "La Maison Jaune" in the tiny village of Murs (Vaucluse), with space for a small studio, large scorpions in the shower, the odour of a sheep pen outside the window, a huge open hearth that filled the house with smoke when the Mistral wind was blowing, but above all, a variety of landscape on all sides. It was a lonely spot in those days, well out of reach of the seductive Van Gogh subjects in lower Provence and long before the area was taken over by wealthy Parisiens as the chique terrain where they could renovate a derelict farmhouse for their summer residence.
After the greys of northern Europe, in the Vaucluse I was confronted with a plethora of new impressions - the rich reds and ochres of Roussillon, the chalk stone of Mount Luberon, ancient sandy-coloured fortifications on every hillside, the greens of olives and plane trees, the twisted blacks of of old vines and lavender galoreSo after a drive over to Cavaillon to pick up a load of canvasses I set to work, painting landscapes in oils. 
Above one of my first unfinished efforts to somehow "get the painting off the ground" - that is, develop the painting from a mere illustration of the visit of the threshing machine, a major event in the village, into something with its own abstract dynamic. I tried a bit of everything in those days, made some nice little paintings that I remember affectionately, but in retrospect some of them were not much more than explorations. I was in the middle of a wide-ranging search. And what do you do when it's bad weather? You paint the glowing embers and ghostly early morning sunlight on the warmest spot in the house. 
After several months my restlessness took me to explore further north-eastwards deep into Les Hautes Alpes, as yet unspoiled by tourism. I discovered the tiny hamlet of Souliers-en-Queyras perched on a steep incline at 1800 metres altitude, negotiated the use of the former village school for my studio and a temporary home, then started to paint everything in sight. The white school-house can be seen bottom-right under the tree in my rather cubist painting of the village, as seen from across the valley of the Torrent de Souliers. I was told that every few hundred years the village was swept away by a landslide and repeatedly re-built. But I took my chances and settled down to work, starting with these houses huddled together into the mountainside for mutual support. 
The only heating and cooking option was a wood-burning stove that became my warm companion. Towards the end of my stay, the regional mayor came up from the valley to award la Médaille de la Famille Française to one of the mothers of the only two extended families in the village. She had produced her thirteenth child. A sheep was slaughtered and I was invited to a celebratory "lunch" that started at noon and continued until well after sunset. The local priest played his flute. Speeches were made in a French dialect that sounded vaguely Italian. Tiny children's cheeks got redder as they too sipped the excellent wine. As the haze of smoke thickened, we ate lamb cooked in a dozen different ways and made endless toasts to la maternité. I had arranged an exhibition of my paintings of the local landscape, evoking animated comments from the farmers about the colours and textures of certain pastures that had been or not yet been mowed.   
At college I had learned to paint in the late impressionist style, simply put: recording visual impressions with colour, form and atmosphere slightly manipulated. I saw the patterns and colours in this endearing little old cart, but hadn't yet figured out a way of turning them into an abstract design, for example.
But with other agricultural machinery like the hay-spinner, you can see that I was looking for a way to express its movements. I'm on the verge of something new. Tossed hay, twisting valleys and torrents.

In the forests I stumbled on many wonderful roots of felled trees, weathered bone-white over the years, their tendrils seeming to reach out from this tree cemetery. Movement was becoming more apparent in my painting as I started to stretch diagonal wriggling lines across the canvas.
Although I was painting mainly landscape for months (and in fact continued to do so for years), little did I know that further on my travels north towards Switzerland in 1963, I would stumble on the amazing Yehudi Menuhin Festival in Gstaad/Saanen. I had been "wandering in the wilderness", had done my apprenticeship and had suddenly reached "the promised land, flowing with milk and honey"! Meeting Yehudi would change my life. It was music that would give my work the dynamic forms and colours I was searching for.