Monday 26 March 2012

A unique collection: Great musicians portrayed in action

Excerpts from Chapter Eight:
A unique collection: Great musicians portrayed in action.

Over the last fifty years, I must have made at least three hundred paintings of various musical subjects on paper and canvas; more than enough to make a sizeable exhibition – a retrospective of my life’s work.

Twenty-nine of these works are in the Birmingham (England) Symphony Hall collection. Opened in 1991, Symphony Hall has been recognized as one of the great concert-halls of the world. It was still in scaffolding when the director, Andrew Jowett, gave me the guided tour; even unfinished, the place was was awesome.

The Mahler Experience; acrylic on canvas, 200 x 160cm. 1993.
A tribute to the acoustics of  Symphony Hall. Sir Simon Rattle conducting Mahler 2, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Chatting afterwards, we came up with the idea of creating an archive of portraits of the great personalities he had booked to appear in his first season, a record of the early musical history of Symphony Hall.  To our knowledge, there existed no other collection of portraits like this - all by the same artist. The challenge I set myself  was to integrate my portrait skills with a free style of painting of the action and musical atmosphere. To respect the likeness and characteristic gestures, yet somehow fill the painting with the sound of music. No easy job. Watercolour was clearly the right medium for this commission.

I was thrilled, as an ex-Birmingham man, to return to my birthplace and to the haunts of my college days.  Decades later, the old grimy, war-scarred industrial city of Birmingham was changing into a dynamic cultural centre. The story of my association with some of those changes and my work with music was soon to be recorded (in 1993) in a fifty-minute documentary for BBC Television: ‘Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra’.   Not only did the film link a number of my paintings to the sound of the music that inspired them (so that you heard the painting, as it were).  It also included a performance of kinetic painting with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

Riccardo Chailly, watercolour 84 x 56cm, 1990. 

The first commission was to paint the conductor Riccardo Chailly with the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - the first foreign orchestra to visit the Hall. The Concertgebouw was just down the road from my home in Amsterdam!  This made it easy for me to sit in at rehearsals and make sketches and photographs. That first painting was very well received and further commissions followed: the conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra of course, Simon Rattle, Jessye Norman, Kyung-Wha Chung, Carlo-Maria Giulini, Evelyn Glennie, Yehudi Menuhin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Bernard Haitink and many more.  I tracked these people down, talked my way into rehearsals to make sketches and immersed myself in the artist’s repertoire on CD and video. It was usually this music that influenced my choice of colours.  For example, while painting Kiri Te Kanawa I played her recording of Richard Strauss’ infinitely beautiful ‘Four Last Songs’, which took me to the dominance of old-rose in her painting.  The personality of certain musicians also lead me directly to a colour: for example, Alfred Brendel - olive greens; José Carreras - reds; Cecilia Bartoli - Italian burnt siennas; Yehudi Menuhin - ethereal blues complemented with ochres.

Yehudi Menuhin, watercolour, 84 x 56cm, 1991
Most of my subjects will never know the intensity of the process I went through to attune to his or her personality.  Whether you’re painting an apple, a landscape, a nude model, or a musician, you have to love your subject, believing at that moment that he/she/it is the most fascinating subject you have ever seen. I’ve patiently studied their every feature and gesture and stroked their faces for hours (with my brush, of course!).  Naturally, the love affair only takes place within the painting, and lasts only as long as it takes to finish it.  Then I’m on to another relationship. 

You always worry about what they will think. But when these great musicians finally saw the results, they all responded very positively. Phone messages: “Norman, it’s just Yehudi, to tell you that I love the painting – one of the best that’s been made of me. All my thanks”.  Cecilia Bartoli, pressing my hand to her bosom: “Norrman, mille grazie per tutto”.  From Milan: “Ees Giulini here. Ai want to thaank yu for thees beeutiful disegno”. 

The painting of José Carreras was a very emotional process.  Reds for passion, life and death. Commissioned in 1995 for a gala concert at Symphony Hall in aid of the José Carreras International Leukaemia Foundation.  José was one of the “the lucky few” who not only survived leukaemia, but also returned to the podium.
José Carreras, watercolour, 84 x 56cm, 1995
The timing of the commission was uncannily appropriate for me personally.
In 1995 my wife Vivian was in hospital with – yes, acute leukaemia, and I was under incredible pressure.  Half the day at the studio, trying to finish the painting whilst expecting yet another phone call from the hospital, announcing a new crisis.  The rest of the day, and often during the evenings, I would be at Vivian's bedside. Yet, in these dire circumstances, of all the subjects I had been commissioned to paint, this was probably the only one I could concentrate on.  Here was a fellow musician whose survival was legendary.  He sent us his good wishes, and sang to Vivian as she endured radiation and chemotherapy.  His voice also filled my studio for weeks, giving the two of us harmony, courage and inspiration.  When you look at this painting, think of Franck's 'Panis angelicus', Puccini's tragic aria 'E lucevan le stelle' (Tosca) and, in particular, 'Che gelida manina' (La Bohème). 

Because José Carreras is a singer, everything revolves around his breathing.  Despite the swirling colour, José's characteristically extended hands give great stability to the painting, like the base of a pyramid.  Our eye is drawn up to the apex of the pyramid, which is just in front of his open mouth.  We expect, at any moment, to hear that powerful voice.

This watercolour was literally painted with many tears, and the droplets that may look like blood are no coincidence.  I completed and signed the picture on the day that Vivian received her new rich-red bonemarrow, a day of hope which, alas, was not to be fulfilled.

Next Monday: Excerpt 9 - Music and movement in watercolour

Monday 19 March 2012

Edward Gardner conducts Elgar’s “friends pictured within”.

When I was a boy, a favourite spot for our walks and Sunday picnics was the Malvern Hills. This is where Sir Edward Elgar composed his Enigma Variations in 1899 - a much-loved masterpiece that established his reputation as a major composer. The theme and fourteen variations were inspired by the idiosyncrasies of a number of his friends.

So I was thrilled to be invited to create a thirty-minute sequence of kinetic visuals for live performance in concert with the Rotterdam Philharmonic on March 10th. The link to my Worcestershire roots felt just right and the inspiration flowed. How appropriate too, that the terrific Edward Gardner, who also grew up virtually within view of the Malvern Hills, should be the conductor. We both have Elgar in our blood, you might say - the “dream team”! 
In the dreamy undulating theme of “Enigma” it’s easy to imagine the Malvern Hills.
I had already made a painting based on the “Enigma” - a multiple portrait of Elgar surrounded by his friends - the large canvas commissioned by Michael and Inge Messenger for the Elgar Birthplace Museum, near Worcester. So I knew the piece well – but creating a live performance was a different challenge. Rather than merely creating a series of illustrations of the “friends pictured within”, as he put it, I visualised the characteristics of the music in abstract terms of colour and dynamics. As always in my kinetic visuals, people see what they imagine in the tiniest figurative hints.
The cellist BGN – where my brush moves with up-bow or down-bow of the soloist.
Is this a steamship disappearing over the horizon? From the heart-wrenching “Romanza” Variation – a goodbye forever to a dear lady-friend.
The morning after. Exhausted but happy after a long complicated get-in and set-up in Rotterdam and just five hours sleep before the dress-rehearsal. This is a top-class orchestra and Edward Gardner really is a great conductor. It was an inspiring night. We had excellent communication, as I followed his beat, or as he went with the sweep of my brush or waited a second for me to switch brushes. Fading to the black devastated emotion at the end of Nimrod, the hall went totally silent. My wife said people were wiping away their tears. Great! That’s exactly what I wanted to achieve with this emotive synthesis of colour and music. 

There are already more projects hatching. Watch this space!


Next Monday: Excerpts from chapter 8 - A unique collection: Great Musicians portrayed in action.

Monday 12 March 2012

Concerts of kinetic watercolour

Excerpts from Chapter Seven:
Concerts of kinetic watercolour.
A kinetic image, projected twelve metres wide, from From me flows what you call Time by Toru Takemitsu. Performed with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in 2004.

Painting watercolours on paper while listening to music in the studio is a challenge. But it’s easy compared with creating paintings in real time in a concert hall full of two thousand spectators.  These images are flowing, kinetic: moving on continuously. There’s no time for reflection or corrections.  As I work, everybody’s watching the projection of my paintings on a screen, in synch with the music; and with a live performance everything can go wrong.  An artist’s worst nightmare, you might say.  

But it’s a deliberate choice on my part.  I’ve left the security of my studio (to which visitors are normally invited to see a painting “when it’s finished”), because I want the audience to share the moment of creation and the complete process of the evolution that follows. When it’s finished, you’re too late!

I’m actually painting on the rather small working areas (28 x 28cm) of a number of overhead projectors and the audience looks over my shoulder as I work (see Blog 1 for an illustration). When projected, the enormous magnification of my small visuals is magical in itself. Tiny bubbles of paint become planets floating through space on a collision course – it’s hypnotic. So the spectators, in a constant state of surprise, will focus intensely on the present moment, terribly aware that that they will never see any of these images again. Like a passing sunset, this provokes intense nostalgia. 

The ability of being able to completely focus on the now has a long tradition in Asian philosophy. This experience has a beauty of its own. It can be compared to watching the falling cherry blossoms, so beautiful, yet transient – like life. There’s nothing left to see (or buy) at the end of the performance. Both images and music have gone - for ever.  Yes, you can put it on video, but it’s nothing like the live experience.

Two stills from Hallelujah Junction (for two pianos), by John Adams.  Actually these only really exist as kinetic images, changing with the music.

To perform in this way you have memorize the music, create a choreography for your brushes, create a storyboard, then practise and practise, until every gesture becomes part of an ongoing, flowing rhythmic performance - like making music. You must be completely organized in advance - in my case with a variety of brushes and pots of colour exactly arranged so that in a split second I can seize one brush, then another carrying just the right amount of ready-mixed colour, without missing a beat.  I use mostly transparent water-based inks on glass plates and I know from experience how these will work: the flow rate, the interaction of wet paint on wet, wet on dry, splash on dry, fine liner on wet or dry, etc.  The magnified organic movements of these liquids are fascinating, especially if they are geared to pulsate or explode to the tempi of the music.  I’ve called this live kinetic painting because you see the movement of the brushes and the wet painting continues to move as you watch.  I love it when musicians tell me afterwards “ Hey, I could see my solo moving past!” This art form only exists “in real time”, so still photographs lack both the movement and the music.

Another attraction of this art form is its visceral, sensual nature.  We relate to the visibly organic interaction of these liquid watercolours because we too are largely made up of water. Today, when everyone is going nuts about digital technology, I am saying - look, these low-tech analogue visuals feel good, in a way that synthetic visuals made up of digital pixels cannot approximate.

From me flows what you call Time, for 5 percussionists & orchestra, 2004.
My pure transparent colours, linked with music, also evoke a strong emotional response from the audience that is very similar to the combined effect of choral music and slowly moving multi-coloured light, projected across a cathedral from its stained-glass windows.  Cathedrals and churches provided some of the earliest light-shows!  I’m proud to be able to achieve a similar experience – indeed I feel it sometimes borders on a spiritual experience.

What drives me to keep on doing performances of live painting?  The urge stems from a love of music and modern dance, from a desire to literally get involved in the performance and from the sheer joy from the glowing colours.  It’s also a personal challenge to test my skills, to confront my nerves and the awareness that so many things can go wrong.  This might sound masochistic, but then the words of conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt come to mind: “You can often discover great beauty on the edge of a disaster”.  I’ll take that risk. The energy I get from performing keeps me young and after years of experience, I know deep down that I have an arsenal of solutions in my hands, an ability to bring everything to a creative and entertaining conclusion.  But you have to be slightly crazy to enjoy doing this! 

Next Monday: Edward Gardner conducts Elgar’s “friends pictured within”.

Monday 5 March 2012

Painting Through Music

Excerpts from Chapter Six:  
Painting through music - how it all developed.

One hot day in 1957 I walked into the Great St. Bavo Cathedral in the centre of the Dutch city of Haarlem and found myself in the huge, surprisingly quiet, cool nave. Facing me were the tall pipes of the beautiful organ on which Mozart, Handel and Mendelssohn had played. I sat down to make a sketch.
Organ of the Great St. Bavo, Haarlem, before its restoration. Gouache, ink, 1957.

Suddenly, as if on cue, a magnificent sound burst forth – the first notes of Johan Sebastian Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor!  I had never heard it before and I was transfixed – and deeply moved.
Click here to listen (organist Henrik Behrens)

Back home after a quick purchase at the nearest record shop, I put on the Philips long-playing record of this work.  Looking at the conventional design on the record sleeve, it occurred to me that Philips needed something to express the essence of the music more effectively, so I started to doodle with some colours to these dramatic sounds. As I worked, I began to realise that I could give forms to the music through a sort of ‘automatic writing’ with a paintbrush. Without thinking, I just allowed my hand to respond to the rhythm and melody. The choice of colour came intuitively, without any conscious deliberation.  It dawned on me that maybe I could develop a whole vocabulary of visual equivalents to musical sounds. After all, we use the terms rhythm, colour, tone for both. Even though Philips didn’t buy my idea, a whole new world was opening up for me.
How do you decide which colour represents a sound?  It’s intuitive - certain colour-sound equivalents just seem right and some people literally see them.  Although there is no general agreement about exact equivalents, most of us, if we had to choose, would agree that a low bass sound is, say, dark brown and a high sound, say, light blue/green; a major key warm; a minor key cool.  It’s also obvious to me that all numbers and letters have their own colour (Wednesday is definitely apple-green while Friday is reddish-brown), but few people will agree on exact equivalents like these.

Like many before me, I believed that these sensations or illusions were my very own discovery.  In those days I had no idea that this intertwining of sensory experiences is called synaesthesia (from the Greek syn: with and aesthesis: feeling) and that in fact many artists like Kandinsky, Dufy, Kupka and composers such as Messiaen and Scriabin had experimented with this concept for years.  Scriabin probably didn’t have synaesthesia but he planned colour projections to accompany several of his works. After attending a concert of music by Schoenberg in 1911, Kandinsky contacted the composer to discuss this interdisciplinary crossover.  Schoenberg’s “atonal” music was undoubtedly a major influence in Kandinsky’s tendencies towards non-figurative art that were already developing at the time.  Colourful lyrical abstractions based on feeling, rather than on observation or storytelling. Kandinsky saw a direct parallel between the abstract forms of both music and visual art. I myself learned to appreciate “modern” music through my understanding of abstract painting.  It was subsequently contemporary music that gradually, over a much longer period, pushed me towards my lyrical abstract style of kinetic painting in performance.

Then I discovered that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, artists in Europe and the United States were constructing colour organs to project light with music.  Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, Mary Ellen Bute and Norman McClaren are a few of the many film-makers who experimented with what came to be known as “visual music” (or “color music” in California) in the 1920’s and 30’s.   Without getting the credit he deserved, Fischinger also did major work on Walt Disney’s 1940 animation film Fantasia, now a classic example of how sounds can become coloured shapes that dance or vibrate.  Actually, for the original version of Fantasia, Disney had commissioned the composer Stokowski to orchestrate the very same Toccata and Fugue I had improvised to. The great authority on this subject was the late William Moritz, with books like The Dream of Color Music and Machines that Made it Possible.  A more comprehensive survey can be found in the lavishly illustrated book Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music since 1900 and in the extensive archives of the Center for Visual Music (CVM) in California.
Still, in 1957, the conviction that all this was “my” discovery provided me with the inspiration I needed to make more abstract paintings of the sound of the music, rather than the appearance of the musicians.

After meeting and painting the young cellist Edith Neuman in 1965, she introduced me to the promising young conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink. I began a series of him action that over the years became more and more abstract. In the painting below, I’m still using elements from the observed movements of the musicians, but in general I’m more concerned with the sound, the explosions of colour and shapes from Stravinsky’s Firebird.
Bernard Haitink conducting Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’, oil on canvas, 100 x 65cm,  Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 1977.  Collection of Prof. Cees Hamelink, Amsterdam.  The observed colours and shapes of the orchestra are combined with those of the sounds I could hear.
Later, the Dutch percussionist Michael de Roo introduced me to the lively contemporary, experimental music scene in Holland in the seventies.  Percussion sounds (in all their adventurous variety) often play a prominent part in modern music (meaning, as we usually do, music from about 1900 onwards) and seem to be particularly graphic. I could see irregular shapes and colours jumping and moving in all directions to the unconventional sounds in contemporary music.  Wow! Here was a freedom in picture-making that you didn’t have when just painting from observation. 
Painted in watercolour and ink in 1978, this picture (70 x 50cm) was inspired by a performance of Luciano Berio’s ‘Circles’, with two percussionists, soprano and harpist. The performers can be discerned amidst the pattern of rhythms and words (by e.e. cummings) scattered about the paper.  Collection of Michael de Roo, The Hague.


Next Monday: Excerpt 7 - Concerts of Kinetic Watercolour