Monday, 4 February 2019



That beautifully poetic line in the Bible comes to mind, an introduction to the very beginning of creation: "Darkness was upon the face of the deep. The spirit (breath) of God moved over the surface of the waters. He said: 'Let there be light' ". 
With all due respect, in a rather more modest approximation of this dynamic action, today I'm breathing onto my liquid organic watercolours, to spread them over the glass plates of my overhead projectors in my studio, practising how to breathe in synch with the winds and brush-stroke with the strings of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. We shall come together in a Genius Loci (meaning the spirit of a special place), in the magnificent Symphony Hall of course, but more especially in a new shared awareness. For the first time, the whole orchestra and I will tap into the genius of a fellow spirit: artist/composer M.K.Čiurlionis, in a unique audio-visual confluence inspired by his compatriot, Music Director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla as she conducts the symphonic poem The Sea on February 16th. 

The author, philosopher and poet David Whyte*, in his moving book Consolations, suggests that "genius" is not simply a platform of achievement, arrived at through accomplishment. It is to find oneself in the crossing point, he a confluence of inherited flows...the meeting place of our particular body meeting all other bodies, corporal and elemental: a body breathed over by the wind.......

*I apologise to David for disfiguring the flow of his thought-provoking writing. (Read that Book!). I am deeply indebted to him for these thoughts and much more.

(Above) a few more "stills", awaiting their moment of live creation through my lyrical kinetic painting with the CBSO on February 16th. in Birmingham Symphony Hall. Take a deep breath, then let's take the plunge.
Scroll down for earlier blogs on this exciting project.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

The joy of fluid lyrical painting

The joy of fluid lyrical painting 

Of course you know that lyrics are the words to a song. But did you know that lyrical paintings can sing without words and elevate you emotionally? The continuous flow of my kinetic colours is like a song, the tones fluctuating with the help of my instruments (my brushes). As they visualise the rhythms of this music for you on screen, this extraordinary partnership offers you an intensely lyrical experience, maybe even a sense of rhapsody.
A still from my kinetic painting to "Incantation", Part 4 of "Murmurs in the Mist of Memory" 
by Augusta Read Thomas.
Lyrical Abstraction was born of a desire to create a direct physical and sensory experience of painting, one of the many styles of painting that developed in the second half of the twentieth century in Paris and the United States, for example in Jackson Pollock's "drip and splash" painting, or the Color Field movement (poured paint and stained canvasses) pioneered by Helen Frankenthaler. Those paintings reveal an intuitive loose handling in the physical application of the paint, its sensuous organic properties and the breath or energy of the artist in action. You sense their exalted state as they exhale, following the energy of the liquid as it takes on a life of its own. Jackson Pollock listened to jazz for hours, before he walked across his canvasses to make his drip paintings. Click on the link to the PBS video of Jackson Pollock to see the photos and hear the story of the creative act as a kind of performance art. Those huge canvasses now hang on museum walls and still give you some impression of the action, but as you gaze at them, you realise that you've actually come too late. The action has become frozen, fixed on canvas and framed - in a form that is commercially very profitable. 

 Jackson Pollock in action. Photo By Martha Holmes/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty Images
By contrast, my own lyrical moving painting only exists in "real time": an ephemeral performance-art form, its existence determined by the length of the music. When the music stops, it disappears, gone for ever. A truly unique experience for the cost of a mere concert ticket. Admittedly you can put it on video, but the surprise and excitement of the original performance will never be the same. The other feature of my own sort of "lyrical painting" is that is not vaguely inspired by the music in some general way. It's specifically choreographed to each piece of music. Although it is often extremely dynamic, unlike Pollock's work it will likely convey you gently to a more peaceful world.

Here's the Link to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's video of my brief introduction to my painting to The Sea by Čiurlionis. 

Both the dream-like mystical paintings of the Lithuanian composer M.K. Ciurlionis (1875-1911) and his poetic music express emotional torment and a longing for a state of spiritual ecstasy, of exaltation. Every colour evokes a tone that sings the praises of mother Nature. More than any other composer, his paintings and music go hand in hand, his music dying to be visualised and his paintings crying out to be performed live. Like his contemporary Alexander Scriabin with his Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus, he was already looking for a combined audio-visual art form.

I can't wait to stand on stage on February 16th. with my overhead-projector set-up, surrounded by about a hundred musicians of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, to paint/play M.K.Čiurlionis' lyrical, emotional symphonic poem The Sea (1907), my colours "singing" in an audio-visual harmony. I know this will be a deeply emotional experience for me, probably for Mirga on Lithuania's Independence Day (February 16th) and hopefully for you too.

Link to my performance with the CBSO, in Birmingham Symphony Hall, Saturday February 16th.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

More reflections on painting "The Sea"

More reflections on painting "The Sea"

I'm now hard at work choreographing a continuous painting, to be memorised and performed live in concert to the symphonic poem The Sea (1907) by the Lithuanian M.K. Čiurlionis. This masterpiece offers me perhaps the supreme opportunity to tap into the vast reservoir of Nature with my watercolour brushes, using my own natural analogue energy to propel, splash, persuade and release the flow of my fluid colours in synch with this amazing music, to share the composer's "boundless longing" for a sublime experience with Nature.
The link to my 4-minute Trailer of "The Sea" made from a studio practice session will give you an idea of what I'm talking about: 

One very early love was to paint watercolours of landscapes and seascapes on paper, usually a thoughtful search for peace and stillness, often standing outdoors in all weathers, conversing with Nature as crystals of ice would freeze my paint on the paper before it could dry. In an earlier blog Dancing Rhythms, I describe how unexpected sounds in nature have inspired compositional rhythms in my paintings. Coincidence or synchronicity?*

As a student I spent hours, just for fun, balancing and walking on a slack-rope stretched between the iron girders of my nineteenth-century art-college studios. Totally focussed, I could enjoy the exhilarating tension, the sensation of standing in space suspended on a line - the line that I later habitually attached to the edges of my paintings to create an horizon. Actually, balancing in my own space became the challenge of my life, visually and literally.

                                Misty morning on Vancouver Island, 1986
I've always been fascinated by the horizon of land or sea, where at that thin meeting place of the heavens and the depths, something magical happens, whether through a single brush stroke, or by the confrontation and reaction of two pools of colour that may overlap, bleed into or repel each other. I'm often confronted with this critical line in the very flat Netherlands that have become my home and find myself asking -  is this horizon an opportunity to venture into a vast unseen world just out of sight? Or is this my last hurdle, the finishing line of life's marathon? Only to discover that as I round the dyke, there's another hurdle.
                                   Water's Edge in Friesland (watercolour on paper, 1980) 

On February 16th. 2019 (the National Day of Lithuania) my performance with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will offer me once again the opportunity to create an art work through a technique that bears my own signature: a continuous painting to music with liquid watercolours on the glass surface of overhead-projectors, to evoke the immense undulating expanse of the sea: dramatic, stormy, dreamlike, frightening, calming and refreshing, all viewed on a ten-metre wide screen behind the orchestra. I hope that the spectator/audience will feel alternately bathed, swept away or even overwhelmed with the grandeur and whimsical power of the elements of Nature. 
                                                  One giant brush - one wave

I nearly drowned in water as a boy and I've never lost the fear of drowning. How ironic that I've nevertheless learned to swim in watercolour and to take the risk to go with the flow, to battle the elements - in front of a couple of thousand spectators! 

My aesthetic statement is also a very personal spiritual exercise, a passionate quest that may have some roots in my youthful evangelical activities in a Christian church (my initiation into which was by baptism (submersion in water!), from which I long ago emerged to set off on an ongoing search for my own form of spirituality, searching for a oneness with the powers of the Cosmos - for a synergy that, after all these years, I'm best able to express in my audio-visual language - that of a painter and musician. 

Lithuania's national hero the painter/composer Čiurlionis was widely steeped in the cultural philosophies of his day and was also preoccupied with man's relation to divinity in Nature. I can identify with his Pantheistic 
dialogue, in his case visualised in the mystic symbolism of hundreds of paintings of landscapes, seascapes and fantastic architecture, made in the first decade of the twentieth century. Even if the complex meanings of his themes and symbols have been neglected by present-day trend-setters, during his lifetime his work was regarded as one of the precursors of European modern art. 

    Three paintings entitled The Sea Sonata, with thanks to the 
M.K.Čiurlionis National Museum of Art.

While composing The Sea, Čiurlionis wrote a poem that begins:
"Powerful sea. 
Great, infinite, boundless. 
All of the sky envelops your waves with its blue, 
While you, full of grandeur, your existence is infinite. 
The great, powerful, wonderful sea! 
Half the world is looking at you at night, 
Distant suns drown their blinking, mysterious, slumbering Glances in your depths, 
While you, eternal queen of giants, breath peacefully and quietly, 
You know that there is only you and nobody reigns over you".

Čiurlionis was regarded by the composer Stravinsky (who purchased one of his works) as one of the most talented of the Russian school of painting at the turn of the century. Before his untimely death in 1911 he was rapidly becoming an influential figure in the European world of art and music.  His passion was to fuse the arts into one Gesamtkunst form

The majority of his paintings in the National Museum of Art in Kaunas are overflowing with suggested movement, patterns and rhythms, yet these art forms are static, anchored in their frames. That's why I'm sure he would have welcomed my concept of creating my own abstract expressionist painting that literally moves continuously to his music, as I stand with my projectors right in the middle of the orchestra, breathing with every wind instrument, my brush strokes gesturing with every stroke of the bows of the strings. As in the transparent harmonies and tone colours of The Sea, my ever-changing colours are layered over each other with my analogue image-mixer in my right hand, while I paint with my left hand. So for over thirty minutes, my whole body and soul is in balance as I join Čiurlionis in search of a sublime experience.

Here is the Link to two earlier blogs with more details on how this performance on February 16th. 2019 gradually took shape. 

*Did Čiurlionis know the Finnish composer Rautavaara - at work just across the Baltic Sea from Lithuania? Here's the Link to my performance of Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for Birds & Orchestra), where synchronicity between recorded bird-song, visuals and orchestra plays a vital role. Both composers were preoccupied with synchronicity (meaningful coincidences) in the mystic patterns of life.  As it happens, the CBSO will be performing Cantus Arcticus just two nights before my performance of The Sea, as part of this season's theme: Baltic Music. 

Monday, 25 June 2018

How does it feel to be eighty-five?

Norman, how does it feel to be eighty-five?

Well, I don't believe it. I'm puzzled that so many other people get old, but this comes as something of a surprise. How could this happen to me? 

Perhaps a little reflection is appropriate, but it's a long story. I do feel amazed, thankful, frustrated, a little proud, disappointed and from time to time totally thrilled, even though I feel an accumulation of sadness as I lose more and more of those whom I've known, loved and painted.
I'm the shy country boy on the left, with the Hitler haircut (It was quite fashionable in those days). Dressed up for a party in Mum's home-tailored clothes.

Amazed that, despite having being born in 1933, when the Nazi regime achieved absolute power, I've survived a world war; and more recently that I've survived the daily hazards of cycling to and from my studio with (or against) 850,000 other Amsterdam cyclists; that I've made the transition from a shy Worcestershire country boy into a cosmopolitan artist; and have been enriched by so much intense love; and that I get such spontaneous joy from the surprising beauty of kinetic painting and music combined. A therapy guaranteed to keep me young.

1949 first-year Art College show. At the age of sixteen, I make my "stage debut" as a baker dancing with a cream puff and a cherry cake. Goodness, these chicks must now be in their late eighties!

Thankful to my parents who despite their reservations, against all odds set me on the road as a creative artist; for the blessings of the wonderful people I have known and loved, including my children and grandchild; for my good health and the energy to still be fully active creatively; to my body for responding so well to my simple morning exercises. Just thirty minutes and he feels ready to start each day. 
A very sad and serious period in my thirties, reflected in many paintings in black, greys, white and dark browns. The explosion of colours came later. 

Disappointed that despite my parents' assurance that if you work really hard you will be "successful" (meaning in the working class aspirational mind-set that you will become rich), I failed. I worked my butt off, still who knows, before I really get old....? 

Frustrated because, despite some wonderful projects at the highest level, I have failed to interest more producers in the many more creative projects in my head, particularly those that relate painting to music. Ah, so many great ideas that will never come to fruition.
Chatting with conductor Simon Rattle at Birmingham Symphony Hall during the filming of the 1993 BBC TV "Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra"

A little proud that I have worked creatively with some of the greatest artists and musicians of my generation; that I have touched the souls of many with thousands of ephemeral kinetic images and tangible paintings; that I chaired the creation of the Visual Arts Programme of the International Baccaureate, insisting on art education conceived from a world perspective; and that I could pass on my convictions to innumerable students; and oh yes, that I have managed to earn a living as an artist.
Setting up in Essen Philharmonie on June 23rd.

Yes, but Norman, how do you feel right now? Well, rather tired, after months of intensive work to create kinetic paintings non-stop for seventy minutes, for a new German version of Stravinsky'sThe Soldier's Tale, in Daniel Hope's Essen Philharmonie Gala Midsummer Night's Dream on June 23rd. But thrilled that my own Dream came true on 24th., Midsummer's Day, my eighty-fifth birthday.

At midnight the after-party of this performance with Daniel and his superb ensemble suddenly turned into my birthday party, with a rousing "Happy Birthday" from everybody in the production, led by the baritone Benno Schollum. I've never felt such deep collective artistic fulfillment and generous expressions of love after a performance, where we all gave of our best, to a standing ovation - simply unforgettable. Unexpected birthday surprises during last week were also multiple proposals to work together creatively. So rather than feeling that "it's all over now", I feel re-inspired. 

Happy fathers, with my son Chris and the very young, undoubtedly talented Joe Perryman

Of course I have no intention of retiring, whatever that means. It's not in an artist's vocabulary. The creative spark is still very much there, but naturally everything demands more focus, more careful planning and choice of priorities. Naturally? Oh yes, I forgot. I'm supposed to be eighty-five. Really?
(Photo Marjoke Haagsma)

Get the whole story on my blogs going back to 2012, or from my website: