Sunday, 18 January 2015

Gazing at pain

Gazing at pain: Haydn's "Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross"

The slow steady rhythm of Joseph Haydn's profound music, the sense of impending doom, is with me day after day in the studio, as I create kinetic paintings to three of the seven "sonatas" from The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross. There's no going back - this man's fate is sealed. Self-evident as you watch the painfully slow flow of my descending colours on screen. Rehearsing this tragic event and this music again and again, as I prepare for my next concert, is an emotionally draining process. That's the way I work - identifying emotionally with the subject and in this case also emotionally revisiting the Christian faith I grew up with. I must confess that I still find it painful when friends hasten to tell me that "of course" this didn't really happen. But however sure of this they are, the point is - in the performance of my abstract kinetic art form right now - it really does happen - a lonely emotional experience invoked by moving colours and terribly haunting music. Oh, man!
Sonata 1: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"

The seven "words" are actually seven phrases spoken by Jesus as he hung dying for hours on the cross (as recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Whether you believe them or not, these literary jewels reflect compassion, an intense awareness of the human predicament, idealistic endurance, despair - all vivid soundbites from an iconic event that for better and for worse had worldwide repercussions. And it inspired thousands of artists and musicians. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ was physically horrible in itself. Add to that the extraordinary spiritual message (expressed by this person until his last gasp), set this to music, and we have a drama that still grabs you, even these days, accustomed as we are to the media horror-stories of torture and death. 
Sonata 3: "Woman, behold, thy son; son, behold thy mother"

The talented Ebonit Saxophone Quartet will be playing Haydn's own quartet arrangement of this work, as part of our programme Nightfall. Luke recorded that when Jesus died "the sun failed. Darkness covered the whole land". A unique "Nightfall". According to Haydn, his Spanish patrons in 1785 intended this work to be performed in a totally darkened space, with one dramatic illumination. Well, what could be more appropriate today, than to perform this with the coloured illuminations of my overhead projectors in the darkened Bernard Haitink Hall of the Amsterdam Conservatorium. One way or another, we are all desperately in need of enlightenment.
Sonata 6: "It is finished"

The classic question remains: how is it that through the arts this subject can be transformed in such a way that we are inspired and enlightened? Why does one of Haydn's greatest works inspire me to dig so deeply into my artistic soul, and find it so satisfying? You tell me, after the concert, over a free drink. It could be a long discussion!
This is a free concert (no reservations necessary) on February 4th at 8pm. Amsterdam Conservatorium. The seven works in our programme: Shostakovich, Haydn, Reger, Haydn, Webern, Haydn, Sibelius.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Bartók solo

Starting the year with violinist
 Tiziana Pintus in a fragment of Bartók

On January 3rd. in the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw I share an audio-visual taster of a developing project with the violinist Tiziana Pintus, inspired artistic leader of the Carmenae Collective and many other projects. We shall play/paint just four minutes of the Melodia from the Bartók Sonata for Solo Violin, as part of the Splendor Amsterdam Parade an afternoon of samplers of the many talents programmed year-round in the jewel of a creative music centre Splendor, just across from the Rembrandt-huis in Amsterdam. (You can become a member for very small annual contribution!)

Menuhin plays Bartók in the Marc Chagall Museum, Nice. watercolour (detail),1976.

In the summer of 1976 I made the acquaintance of this work (commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin not long before Bartók's death), when I attended a splendid recital of Bach and Bartók by Yehudi in the Marc Chagall Museum in Nice. The above watercolour was the result. An "early" work, perhaps rather too anecdotal, but it did become part of the Menuhin collection. As Yehudi played, standing in front of Chagall's monumental stained-glass windows full of iconic Old Testament stories, I was just flabbergasted as I contemplated the combined riches of musical-visual talent displayed on that night. Feeling totally overshadowed, I surreptitiously made the humble sketches that preceded this painting. Chagall's "Jacob wrestling with the angel" (Genesis 32:22), visible behind Yehudi's back, reminds me of how I wrestled to do justice to these godlike musicians/artists on that momentous occasion.

Bartók was dying with leukemia as he wrote this solo work. The Melodia starts with the warm colour of B-flat, then gradually becomes more and more ethereal. Is his angel already shimmering in those harmonics? Above are two snapshots from my practice sessions. But wait - you haven't seen Tiziana yet, standing in these projected colours as she plays...... See you Saturday?

Chagall was a grand master with light and colour. The vivid pure coloured light of his stained-glass windows moves us in ways far superior to any digital synthetic image today. I'm proud to tag along in his shadow, as I too paint on glass with the transparent colours glowing from my analogue overhead projectors - to hopefully offer illumination for our souls.

Saturday, 13 December 2014


All my thanks,Yehudi.

Recalling memories happy or sad, as we approach the end of another year, I reflect on those who have played a significant part in my life. One indelible memory is of  Friday 12th March, 1999. I’m sitting in a packed Amsterdam Concertgebouw for the evening concert. Maestro Bernard Haitink walks down the long stairway to the stage, to conduct one of the concerts in honour of his seventieth birthday. However, instead of going to his podium, he goes to a microphone. Strange, there’s something wrong. Bernard is not one for speeches.

“Ladies and gentlemen”, he begins (in Dutch) “today one of the greatest personalities in the world of music of our century passed away". (Oh no, oh no!) “Yehudi Menuhin”.  An enormous shockwave, a collective gasp of sorrow, goes through the hall.

Briefly, Bernard pays tribute to Yehudi, then pianist András Schiff (the soloist for the evening) sits down to play a deeply moving fragment of Bach.  Never has the Concertgebouw been so silent. When he finishes - the orchestra and audience rise to their feet as one, for a minute of silence, broken only by an occasional muffled sob.

Yehudi Menuhin, watercolour 84 x 56cm., 1991, Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection.

I realise that this temple of music, where Yehudi had so often performed and that for multiple reasons has almost become my second home*, is the only place where I would want to be, at this terribly sad moment. 

I met Yehudi in 1963 and he soon became a good friend, one of the first to understand and support my efforts to transpose music into images. I painted him many times - performing with his son Jeremy in the Gstaad Menuhin Festival, or as soloist in the Chagall Museum in Nice. He would provide opportunities for me to make paintings of him playing with the sitar legend Ravi Shankar (West meets East, 1966), he opened my exhibition at his Festival (1971), he purchased paintings, invited me to join him in an audio-visual recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, for French Television (1976) and finally in 1996, he unveiled my huge watercolour Elgar's Dream (inspired by The Dream of Gerontius and commissioned by Robin and Jayne Cadbury) at Birmingham's Symphony Hall. I cherish the amateur recording of this occasion (by Will Blagburn), not only because of the priceless comments Yehudi made about my work, but because it was the last time I saw him.

Yehudi unveiling my "Elgar's Dream" (1996)

My final painting of Yehudi (the above watercolour) was an attempt to somehow bring together many reflections of his unique musical and spiritual wisdom in one watercolour. As one always does, I asked his approval of the result, before it could be made public.

Quite soon afterwards, a miserable grey morning in my Amsterdam studio was suddenly illuminated, with a message on my answering machine: “Norman, it’s just Yehudi, to tell you that I love the painting… it’s one of the best portraits that have been made of me…all my thanks”. On other "grey" days in my studio (all artists have them), I can still hear his voice and I take courage. Yehudi, my dearest thanks to you, for your ongoing inspiration.
* I've often performed my kinetic painting to music in the Concertgebouw (sometimes working there at night to set up my gear); I've also spent hours there sitting behind the orchestra to make sketches for my paintings of Haitink, Chailly, Kreizberg, Giulini, Solti; I had a small exhibition there in 1978; my late partner the cellist Vivian King played there with the Netherlands Philharmonic & Chamber Orchestra; both my sons have worked there; my wife Coco sings there twice a year with the K.C.O.V. choir; not to mention innumerable other concerts.... ah yes, it's a very convenient 15 minute walk from my home.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

A visit to the studio

A visit to the studio by someone who really gets the message

Bob Shingleton, author of the excellent classical music blog On an Overgrown Path, was in the Netherlands recently and his latest blog includes an account (with his own photos) of his visit to my studio and home. His skillful inclusion of multiple links ("paths") to his earlier blogs on audio-visual relationships, to my own convictions and to my video trailers of performances, has created one of the most complete surveys of my live kinetic painting to music to date - and places my kinetic visuals in the context of current discussion. To express my appreciation I'm reproducing Bob's text here.

"My first destination was Norman Perryman's studio in Amsterdam. Norman's experiments in fusing kinetic art with classical music have long appealed to me, and when I wrote about his Aldeburgh Festival appearance with Pierre Laurent-Aimard I asked Has classical music finally found its contact high? 

Norman works exclusively in the analogue domain. He paints on multiple overhead projectors, and the audience can watch the creation and dissolution of his fluid images on a giant screen in real time, as his brushwork flows, pulsates convulses in time with the music.
Quite understandably, there is currently a backlash against the distracting accretions that marketeers are imposing on live classical music. But it would be very unfortunate if Norman Perryman's pioneering work is swamped by this backlash. As explained in an earlier post, a paper titled Acoustic Space - Explorations in Communication Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan described how most of our thinking is done in terms of visual models, even when using an auditory one might prove more efficient. Since that paper was published in 1970, the swing from the auditory to the visual has been accelerated by the universal adoption of graphic interfaces for computers. Yet classical music has done very little to acknowledge this inexorable swing from aural to visual acuity. 
Perryman's other work: watercolours on paper of great musicians, for the Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection.

The role call of musicians who have embraced Norman's marriage of kinetic art and music include Simon Rattle, whose 1993 City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra performance of Pictures at an Exhibition was given a kinetic dimension by Norman - a performance described by the Times music critic as "an ingenious audio-visual experiment, with brilliantly conceived imagery".

Currently fashionable accretions such as balloons and tweeting in concerts do not complement live classical music: they fight against it. By contrast Norman Perryman's kinetic art is an extension of the performance: he is part of the performing ensemble with a brush as his instrument. Norman's work in progress includes adding a visual dimension to a transcription of Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross by the Ebonit Saxophone Quartet, and below is his annotated score for the Haydn.