Sunday, 30 September 2012

The blind man on the train

The blind man on the train

Around 1973, travelling the ferry-train from Paris to Calais to London, I found myself in a compartment with a blind man. Striking up a conversation, he asked me what my work was. “A visual artist? Tell me about your work”. Alas, every sentence I started was interrupted by the realisation that my description was totally inadequate. “I can appreciate sculpture”, he said, moving his hands in space as he modelled the shapes and forms he “saw”. “But what is this transparent, glowing watercolour you’re talking about?” 
Well, er, it’s like a stained-glass window, but with white paper shining through the transparent colours. “Really? How do you experience a stained-glass window?” And so on. He was blind from birth.

I felt as stupid as George W. Bush must have felt, after he spontaneously waved to Stevie Wonder. I had to force myself to abandon all my arty clichés and to search for alternative descriptors, linked to our feelings for heat and cold, our senses of space, taste and in particular, to the sounds of colour. Now he was in his element. He was a piano-tuner.

We found each other through my (partial) synaesthesia. I could enthuse about the shimmering blue-green of a high F# and he was with me, shivering in delight; or the warm bath of burnt sienna drawn from a B- he snuggled down into his overcoat; or the khaki of a D#, hesitating somewhere between the taste of golden syrup and olives, before moving on to E major juicy apple green. His gestures reflected the transition. Not that he always agreed with my audio-visual equivalents – but we had found a common language!

Just stare at the expanding blob of white in this kinetic projection. What does it sound like?
He could also hear the sway and rasping drag of my brush, making contact with or lifting off the paper, at various speeds, dancing in all directions, sometimes dry, sometimes squelchy. He sensed abstract forms beginning to emerge from my choreography. Ha! Now we had both form and colour.

Enough for his imagination to complete the work of art, even after the train had pulled into Victoria station and we had parted company. I had left him with all the elements of a continuous painting – a painting that would sing and that he could accompany at the piano.

Some years went by before I realized that this was to become a major aim in life – to make kinetic paintings with music that have no final tangible form. When they have faded to black at the end of a performance, like the music - they have gone - for ever. This ephemeral art form nevertheless retains a dynamic presence in your memory, your imagination and your soul.

I shall never forget the challenge and joy of that conversation with the blind man in the train. How satisfying it can be to open up to a stranger and discover a common language! Perhaps a useful tip for any of us today, in a world that seems to be awash with suspicion, fear and mistrust of those different from ourselves, or those with whom we don't see eye to eye.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Wartime memories (1938-45) of a young artist-to-be

Wartime memories (1938-45) of a young artist-to-be.

(At the risk of repetition, I’m posting this version of Chapter Two from my autobiography A Life Painting Music. It may interest those U.K. readers who have similar wartime memories, revived by BBC’s Wartime Farm There aren’t so many of us still around).

Why am I so deeply touched by the current BBC Television series Wartime Farm? I was there! In every cleverly reconstructed detail, I recognize the world I grew up in, so childhood emotions come flooding back and nostalgia for the strong extended family that cradled my early life. I was born in Birmingham in 1933, but grew up in the countryside of Worcestershire, with a distance view of the Malvern Hills. These formative years left a deep love for nature and a sense that we need to show it more respect.

Outside our little Worcestershire bungalow in 1942, in our Sunday best, ready for a trip to church in the city. That’s me on the far right.

In 1938, anticipating the Second World-War, my grandfather initiated a family exodus from my birthplace Birmingham.  He and my father had good jobs at the Austin car factory (we had a little Austin Seven), but they were conscientious objectors to all things military and had no desire to build tanks or armaments. So Henry Perryman and five of his sons moved with their families to the tiny Worcestershire hamlet of Ockeridge. My parents, Tom and Flossie, rented a little two-bedroom bungalow for twelve and sixpence a week (about 65p in today’s money) and my father took work that was also of national importance, as an agricultural labourer, tolerant of the insults that were often hurled at conscientious objectors and determined to make do with a lower wage.  He was a good organizer and was soon put in charge of teams that travelled from farm to farm with virtually all the agricultural machines we see on Wartime Farm. He would come home exhausted, covered with chaff and dust, and would wash in the soft rainwater we collected. Tom Perryman got to know farm machines so well that he was later asked to design a numbered card-index and storage system for spare parts (quite an innovation in those days) and became deputy manager at the famous agricultural machinery firm - J.C. Baker Ltd. in Worcester City. International Harvester machines were their speciality. Desperate farmers, stalled in the middle of harvest, would phone him for one essential link, blade or bracket that fitted their make of machine. He could find it immediately and have it sent out.

At harvest-time for hops, potatoes, peas, apples - you name it - my mother joined groups of woman scattered over large areas, who would be transported in old buses to wherever they were needed. Sometime we four children were persuaded to go along. The farmers needed every hand available and we probably earned a little pocket money.

So I had the good fortune to grow up far from the horrors of the bombing-raids on the big industrial cities. But if we looked northeast, we could see the night skies reddened unnaturally from the fire-bombing of Birmingham, thirty miles away, where some family still lived. We visited them occasionally on a Sunday – it was awesome to stand next to the giant searchlights and barrage-balloons under repair. Then we “played” air-raids in the dank Anderson shelter in my auntie’s garden. But we never experienced the night-time horrors.

Food was rationed, but at Ockeridge we soon became self-supporting in fruit, vegetables, meat, goat’s milk, bread and eggs.  I learned how to use the colours of beets, onions, blackcurrants or spinach to paint, to decorate eggs, or even for coloured paper-chains – our standard decoration for any celebration. Our little bungalow, set in the middle of enormous woodlands, had no running water or electricity, The nearest water supply was in a field fifty yards up the road, but as the tap was often frozen in the winter, we made frequent use of rainwater. The cast iron stove and one oil stove for heat and a paraffin lamp for light in two rooms were all we had – and candlesticks of course.

A youthful sketch of our oil stove in the bedroom.

We all had to work hard at tending the garden, feeding the pig, goats, rabbits, ducks and chickens and collecting firewood from the surrounding woods. It sounds like fun, but country life in those days was tough. We walked four miles to school every day and later we cycled everywhere. We hated having to carry our obligatory gas-masks to school. You could barely breathe in those things!

Although my parents struggled to make ends meet, my vivid memories of that country home are not of hardship but rather of happiness: the smell of fresh bread and cake, baked in our wood-burning, black-leaded, cast iron range; the taste of fresh goat’s milk; the frosted-up windows early in the cold winter mornings we had in those days; the whirr of the Singer treadle sewing machine and the sound of my mother’s lovely voice, singing as she worked, sometimes in Welsh. One of twelve children, her family had many Welsh connections.  Trained as a professional seamstress, Flossie Perryman (née Jenkins) would work into the evening making gentlemen’s three-piece suits to order, in the light of the dim paraffin lamp. And of course she made all our clothes.

My mother’s Singer sewing machine, sketched later when we had moved into town.

The other central feature of the living room was the old upright piano, on which my father played transcriptions of the popular classics.  We would sometimes gather round to join in folksongs and hymns or attempt fragments of Handel’s Messiah. I’m sure that my mother sang her babies to sleep, but the lullabies that I remember came from the piano.  Some of my fondest memories are of falling asleep at night with my father playing one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, Schumann’s Traümerei, or other soothing melodies.  This was truly home.  No wonder music has always touched me at a deep emotional level.  Since childhood, my home is music – a place where my inner child can find solace, pleasure and inspiration for my wildest dreams.

We children led a very sheltered life, socially and culturally, but we all learned to play the piano.  Music was in the family genes and my father played the organ at church. But pop-music, jazz, theatre and dance were thought to be too “worldly” in our Bible-reading family.  I didn’t even hear any live classical concerts until I was a teenage student. Our crackling radio could barely transmit the wartime news and the now famous King’s Speech.  Watching that film recently, emotional memories came flooding back of us all huddled round the radio to catch his every word.

My parents seemed to have the ability to repair things and design or improvise solutions for virtually anything. You had no other choice in those wartimes. Necessity was the mother of invention and stimulated our imagination. Creative enterprise, patience, integrity, perseverance and the need to seize opportunities, were all things they passed on to us. I am deeply indebted to them.

As a small country boy I spent a lot of time looking for drawing paper. No wonder – during the Second World War, the production of drawing paper didn’t really have priority.  My family couldn’t afford it anyway. But we had books! I discovered wonderfully blank pages inside the front and back covers. So when nobody was around, I surreptitiously filled these with little line drawings, mainly from imagination - tiny men constructing bridges over deep canyons and solving engineering problems. Actually, solving problems and creating ways to reach the seemingly impossible would play a major part in my life, for the next seventy years or so.

I was a dreamer, a budding romantic, dawdling and playing in the grasses and hedgerows of country gravel roads on the daily walks to and from school, lying on my back in the gently swaying branches of the big oak tree in the woodlands that surrounded our house and listening to the sounds of nature.  The distant drone of a plane would immediately prompt the question: was it ours, or was it a German Heinkel bomber that had lost his way returning from a raid?  I would dream of other places, distant lands that then seemed to be outside the scope of possibility for a very shy country boy with parents of limited means. I was fascinated with the German and Italian prisoners of war, set to work on nearby farms.  They would chat with us in heavily accented English and give us presents of the little wooden toys they had carved.  An exotic world was somewhere out there for me.  Little could I imagine that I would later travel world wide to teach, exhibit and perform and that today my best friends are in all corners of the globe!

In 1944, at the age of eleven, I won a scholarship to the Worcester Royal Grammar School (for boys only in those days). After the little one-room village school of Little Witley, where the heroic Mrs. Cave taught all pupils from five to fourteen, the WRGS was terribly grand and quite intimidating for a country boy. I had to cycle through all weathers to catch the early bus into town, yet still arrive looking smart in cap and uniform. I got my “Oxford School Certificate”, but it was already abundantly clear that I was to be an artist. So at the tender age of sixteen I returned to my birthplace in 1949 to study at the excellent Birmingham College of Arts and Crafts. I became a painter of landscapes and portraits, but especially of musical subjects:

I feel proud that, forty years later, in 1990, I was commissioned to paint a huge collection of musical celebrities for Birmingham’s new Symphony Hall. Just one example of how I was able to unite my love for music with my visual art.
Elgar’s Dream, watercolour, 1996, donated by Robin and Jayne Cadbury.

In 1996, I was asked to make an unusually large watercolour (203 x 158cm.) for Symphony Hall, inspired by Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. It became a triptych, with the Malvern Hills in the left panel and Worcester Cathedral and the River Severn in the right hand one. The setting that saw the birth of this great work and the hills I knew so well. Music is everywhere in nature and I suppose you could say that Elgar is in my blood.
The painting was commissioned by none other than Robin and Jayne Cadbury (yes, Cadbury’s chocolate). I was subsequently amazed to discover that they were virtually our neighbours at Ockeridge, farming at Doverdale Manor. Such a happy coincidence!


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Amsterdam Yellow-Lounge Adventure

The Amsterdam Yellow-Lounge Adventure

By the end of this remarkable night on September 11th, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and I  - and everyone else in this cavernous former printing factory converted into a night-club - just couldn’t stop smiling! I’ve never seen hundreds of young people so happy after listening/watching, entranced with classical music. Don’t tell me there isn’t a future audience for the classics – and we’re talking about modern classics too! They were totally focussed throughout and apart from those lounging, most of them had standing room only. Some standing in the visuals. With all those colours creeping over them, they had to feel involved - they had become part of the drama.

Pierre-Laurent played and I made kinetic paintings, as we would in a concert hall.  My analogue light-source projected my glorious saturated colours straight on to the screen behind the piano (well, except for those bits that were designed to escape "out of the box"!).

But on this occasion, VJ Niek Das picked up my kinetic visuals and projected ghostly other-coloured fragments on to multiple gauze screens hung throughout this huge space. This audience could “see” music reflected in every corner of the building.

There was much appreciation for the way in which Pierre-Laurent introduced himself and his repertoire. It was refreshingly low-key, friendly, yet so informative. First Tristan Murail’s Cloches, then his Debussy Préludes, then Scriabin (the composer obsessed with music and colour), then me, another man whose life's passion is to synchronize coloured visuals with music.

We each said a few words about this concept, then embarked on George Benjamin’s Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm, with Niek dispersing my visual rhythms to illuminate every dark corner and anyone standing in the way.

A special word of thanks to Paul Popma of UNIVERSAL MUSIC.

All photos copyright Ingvild Molenaar.