Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Visual mindfulness

A film role brings me back to Mindfulness

Gijs Scholten van Aschat, an old friend of mine and one of Holland's most famous actors, needed an English native-speaker to play the role of a Mindfulness counselor in the 29 minute tragicomic Dutch film Jack (a Journey to Fulfillment). I was offered the part and thought "why not?" 

Gijs stars as Jack, who is desperately trying to combat his fear of failure, his frustration and pain as he tries to renovate his house (and actually himself). Instead of more pills, his doctor recommends the CDs of the popular Mindfulness guru Jon Sabat (no, not that other guy with a similar name).
     photos and cinematographer Marjoke Haagsma

So I become the voice of Jon that Jack, during his emotional predicaments, can hear in his headphones speaking the wise advice that many of us have heard before and then forgotten: "Focus on the wonder of this present moment and on your own potential right now, accept yourself as you are..." and so on. Although Jack doesn't really have time for this stuff, the voice continues to haunt him. Jon even becomes his mainstay, support and inspiration.
But wait, people ask me - are you an actor? Well no, I just pretend. Ah yes, that's what actors do all the time, right? Ha, ha, it's amazing what you can achieve with such a gifted young Director as Jim Süter and with this fascinating script by screen-writer Jeroen Scholten van Aschat. Jim is amazing - he could gently talk me through the psychology of any situation and for him I would do whatever it takes. Not to mention the support of an experienced actor like Gijs. Playing opposite this guy in full emotional swing - and trying to stay calm, is unforgettable. 

It was fun to be involved and fascinating to observe the making of this film, but more than that, getting inside this role made me reflect a lot on real life. We might laugh at Jack's pathetic figure as he gets ever deeper into the troubles he brings upon himself, yet his problems are uncomfortably familiar and he invokes our sympathy. Jon Sabat's message starts to make sense. I had to believe it to play the role. In fact, I needed it myself. I also realized that it reinforced something I've possessed for years - my own form of visual mindfulness, developed through kinetic painting to music - which can only be done (and viewed) by focussing on the now. This real-time art form carries so many risks, but if you dare take them - to quote the musician Nikolaus Harnoncourt - even on the edge of disaster you discover great beauty. 
Film is related to my own kinetic painting in that it's a time-based art form. Film (or in German Kino, for the movies) and my continuous painting only exist in the present moment. Hence my affiliation to Mindfulness. The spectator focusses so intensely on the moving images because she/he knows that they are ephemeral. This exercise in heightened awareness takes you out of this world, my spectators tell me. Quite therapeutic. So am I a therapist? Nah....I just paint with the conviction that the synthesis of kinetic painting and music is good for my well-being - and for yours. It may well lower your blood-pressure or, in the case of the Poem of Ecstasy in the trailer below, get you really turned on!

This year is the centenary of the death of the composer Alexander Scriabin, who fervently believed that music and colour together have a special synergy. In his honour, here's a 9 min. montage from my performance with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy. Go to full screen, turn the sound up, focus and enjoy each moment!


June 30th sees the première of Jack (a Journey to Fulfillment) in the 
EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam. The first night is sold out, but for my Dutch-speaking friends, here's the link to the Keep an Eye Filmacademie Festival with other dates and screening times, to book online. If you can't get in, Jack will also be televised on Dutch KRO-NCRV in mid-September.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The art of letting go

The art of letting go

A particular sadness hits me when I look again at my paintings of those who have passed away. Below is a watercolour study for a painting of Elaine Shaffer, in her day the veritable queen of the flute. I met her at the Menuhin Festival in Gstaad. She often performed with Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin and was very kind to me as I made sketches in 1972 for a large painting - that was not to be. I didn't know that in less than a year later this striking woman with the wonderful sound would die of cancer at 47. 

A brilliant creative life cut short and a creative process (my painting) interrupted. Perhaps the minimal form of this study is therefore appropriate, incomplete as it is. I must be thankful that I was privileged to share just one brief session with this great musician and had to let go of what might have been.

As a dear friend reminded me yesterday - letting go is an art in itself, whether it be a failed relationship, the loss of a loved one, or even an experience that you know is designed to finish. Any performance falls into this category, as does my kinetic painting to music, that finishes when the music stops. Spectators used to holding on to a "finished" and framed painting, will tell me after performance: "but we wanted it to go on.... and there's nothing left!" Their comment reminds me that one of my aims in these performances is to practise and to share the "art of letting go". It really does take a lot of practice.

Here's a link to one of the Bach performances that I especially remember, with Elaine, Yehudi, George Malcolm (harpsichord) and Robert Masters, Concertmaster of the Bath Festival Chamber Orchestra. The video is dated 1959, but I heard this work with same ensemble at Gstaad in the sixties. She was wearing the same skirt and blouse!

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The joys of teaching

An old master enjoys teaching again

After many years away from teaching, it gave me much pleasure to teach a master class last week for an international group of twelve students of the Amsterdam Conservatorium. I discovered that a long teaching experience sharing your personal passions and convictions never leaves you, it becomes second nature. 

They crammed into my small studio, so that I could avoid the chore of schlepping my overhead projectors, paints and other gear across town. It was thrilling to see such lively intelligent students taking in every word and keeping me on my toes with bright questions. We started with a potted history of the concepts of Gesamtkunstwerk and synaesthesia, moving quickly from Wagner, Scriabin, Kandinsky, Walt Disney (Fantasia) and Frank Zappa to Perryman, all artists obsessed with bringing together various visual arts and music to create one unique multi-disciplinary art form.

I pulled out a few watercolours to show how, over the years, I had moved from painting illusions of movement and music in watercolour on paper, to choreographing kinetic paintings on the glass plates of my overhead projectors, where the coloured inks literally keep moving. I began to experiment with kinetic painting in 1973, while teaching Art at a very proper Swiss private school, Aiglon College. At exactly the same time the audiences of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were hallucinating to the fluid psychedelic colours of the Joshua White Show in New York. My preference was to combine my painting skills with classical music as an aid to meditation, without any need to enhance the experience with substances.

Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi conducting Debussy with the Netherlands Philharmonic, 
watercolour 70 x 50 cm, 1989. Basses and celli top left; below them percussion and woodwinds; bottom right the strings.
A sequence of kinetic painting towards the end of Scriabin's Prometheus/Poem of Fire. Click this link for the story of that Brussels performance in 2013).
Amazed and delighted groups of students experimenting for their one-minute performance on my overhead-projectors.

This was my assignment: paint me a phrase of any five notes: show me what colour they are, in which direction they are moving, how fast, are they hard edged or a soft flow, spaced or close, and so on. An impossible challenge for one session - even a one-week course wouldn't give you enough time to practise. I've been practising this for forty years and still learning! But they enjoyed getting their toes wet.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

You couldn't make it?

You couldn't make it? A glimpse of what you missed.

It was a cold night on February 4th, with icy roads and a flu epidemic, but our try-out of the programme Nightfall, (kinetic painting with the Ebonit Saxophone Quartetin the Amsterdam Conservatorium was warmly received by over a hundred enthusiasts. 

For those who couldn't make it, three snapshots from Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ. Here's a 4 min. montage from the performance to tempt you to watch out for the next performance; and the link to the blog I wrote when preparing for this concert. We'll be back!