Thursday 26 January 2012

A Dream Fulfilled

Norman Perryman: Excerpts from a memoir.
 A Life Painting Music

"I know no other artist who can catch the essential movement and meaning of an artist’s playing motion and gestures as well as Norman Perryman.  This is a tribute to his life-long dedication to translate music into colour and line”.
                                                                        Lord Yehudi Menuhin (1916-99)

“Norman’s continuous kinetic painting with music could be the future of opera decors”.
Sir Simon Rattle, 1993

"Perryman's works witness to a deep inner experience.  They particularly excel for their unusually fine linear rhythm. We seldom meet such incredible musicality in visual artists".
Neue Berner Zeitung, 1966 


I’ve created my first blog to be able to share with you these excerpts from my memoir. A retrospective of how my dream to unite painting with music gradually took shape, over many years. At first in paintings on paper, later in huge projections of kinetic visuals painted live in concerts.  Some of the best moments in my life have been the thrill of creative synergy with musicians in performances.  I’ll put some video-clips on line in future blogs to illustrate this, but if you can’t wait, go to my website:   
I look forward to your comments.


Excerpts from Chapter One: 
A Dream Fulfilled.

I’m standing at the edge of the huge stage of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw - the hallowed temple of classical music saturated with the vibes of so many great composers and musicians. I’m sure they’re all watching me - especially Stravinsky. Because I’m a visual artist who paints music.
The house lights fade to complete darkness. Behind the seven musicians on stage my huge eight-metre projection screen is suddenly filled with a circle of glowing fluid vermilion watercolour.  The brush in my hand is poised, loaded with black, trembling a little.  A nod from the violinist and my brush zigzags across this circle with four strokes. One! Two! Three! Four!  March tempo.  Without missing a beat the ensemble picks up the rhythm of my brush and the Soldier is marching with determination, on his way home.  We are performing The Soldier’s Tale (l’Histoire du Soldat) by Igor Stravinsky and for the next hour I shall be painting live kinetic images, synchronized with this exciting music. As the drama progresses, my brushes take on the characteristics, colours and movements of first the Soldier, then the Devil, then the Princess.  I am part of a performance of this delightful work, written by Stravinsky in 1918 as music-theatre.

A composite image from four projectors for The Soldier’s Tale.  My first four brush-strokes zigzag down across the strings of the violin, and the jagged road along which the Soldier (my brush) will tramp towards the horizon is just fading in as the music starts.
My projectors, paints and brushes, carefully arranged for immediate action.

Disillusioned with war, the Soldier is heading back to his home village with his beloved violin in his rucksack. Along the way, he is tricked (by someone who turns out to be the Devil) into exchanging the violin (his soul) for all the riches in the world. He also meets his Princess, but alas, she disappears the moment he reaches the frontier of his homeland.  A story full of frustration, doubt, anger, romance and deep sadness, just what my paintbrush is looking for. Expressed in flowing colours and live dynamic visuals, with brush-strokes full of sensuality, humour and provocation, this story joins the music to produce an emotional synergy.

In front of me, the brilliant violinist Gordan Nikolić is leading the seven members of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and the narrator is the gifted actor Gijs Scholten van Aschat; so we have a great team. One challenge is for me to integrate my painted “décors” with the action, as the images are projected on to a single screen - centre-stage.  I’m working at five overhead-projectors, and my talented vision-mixer Alex makes the images dissolve or re-appear continuously, while another assistant changes the glass plates as soon as I’ve painted them full.  Everything is carefully charted on a storyboard. Every pot of colour and the right brush is lined up for immediate action cued to the music.  As the projected image of my brushes moves across the screen and create these kinetic paintings, the spectators watch every move, every surprise, with baited breath.

All goes well.  We have the audience in our hands.  Totally entranced by an hour of music with non-stop ever-changing images, everyone is thrilled and afterwards, we are totally exhausted. The morning after, I loved the opening sentence of De Telegraaf in its review:
“Stravinsky would have undoubtedly given his approval to the fantastic synthesis of paint, theatre and music this weekend in the Concertgebouw…. With a superbly chosen combination of abstract and concrete images that flow into each other in an ingenious manner, Perryman follows the structure of the music, but at the same time allows the development of his interplay of forms and colours.  Rhythmically he moves his brush along the route the soldier is following. When the devil cuts across the route, the brush is transformed into a threatening black monster”.
The brush monster.
Playing cards with the devil for his soul/violin.

Am I crazy? For a watercolour painter the challenges and risks of a performance like this are enormous.  Nobody told me how to paint with music in real time. I invented it myself. Everything can go wrong!  Not to mention the stagefright in front of a hall filled with two thousand spectators. Why am I doing this?  Because, in my fifty-something-year career as an artist dedicated to music, this is what I love doing more than anything else – sharing the sensation of the unique creative moment with an audience as I produce live visual music.

As I write this in Amsterdam at the age of seventy-eight, I’m amazed at how rich, problematic, multi-coloured, surprising and fulfilling my life has been so far.  The dreams of a small country boy in Worcestershire, England have taken on forms he couldn’t have imagined.  I’ve had the opportunity to work creatively with many great musicians and these inspiring collaborations continue to give me exceptional energy.  In fact I feel that I’m just getting into my stride, with many more exciting plans in development. Sharing some of these highlights with you has made me reflect a lot about my life painting music and, somewhat to my surprise, it has reinforced a sense of achievement.  After all, I seem to have produced quite a body of work, both on paper and as performance art.

I sometimes ask myself, with a sense of disbelief, what this Englishman is doing here in Amsterdam. It was especially the variety of cultural opportunities and the liberal socio-political atmosphere that persuaded me to make my home here in 1978 with the American cellist Vivian King.

 I still live within easy walking distance of the Concertgebouw, in a typically tall, narrow Dutch house, built in 1911.  The sixty-three steps leading up to the third and fourth floors make a fine “exercise machine”.  Our street is lined with huge plane trees, a hundred years old and leaning towards each other in a graceful archway that is quite splendid in every season.  Virtually living in one of the treetops and watching it swaying just outside the window, the woods of Worcestershire don’t seem far away.  That’s where it all started, seven decades ago.


February 6th: Excerpt from Chapter Two - Boyhood Memories (1938 – 44).