Monday 30 April 2012

Murmurs in Korea - Augusta Read Thomas

Excerpts from Chapter Twelve:
Murmurs in Korea - Augusta Read Thomas.

It was long flight from Amsterdam to Seoul, then a four-hour drive up into the wooded mountains of PyeongChang, set in an area of pristine beauty called Daegwallyyeong (recently chosen to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games).  Here, for nearly three weeks of the 2007 summer season, a little concert-hall and music school swarmed with world-class professors and soloists and their talented young summer-school students, gathered for master-classes.  In these mountains the sound of music was everywhere and the South-Korean hospitality delightfully and impeccably organized.  I was immediately taken by surprise at the opening Press Conference, where I joined a panel of eminent music professors.  So many of the questions and cameras were directed at me (a painter!) that I became slightly embarrassed. “What was this music-making with a brush?  How did this work?  Had I ever done this before?” Meaning, of course, are you totally crazy?  Could a westerner possess skills that seemed to be related to their calligraphic tradition? 

Through an interpreter, I must have given a dozen interviews and done numerous photo-shoots during my stay, in addition to dealing with the non-English-speaking KBS television crew that was filming all our concerts.  But however carefully I tried to phrase the explanation of my work, however appreciative the interviewers appeared to be, I was usually left with a strange frustration and suspicion of “lost in translation”. But then, I’ve had this feeling with English-speaking interviewers too, when trying to explain what I do. 

I was somewhat put out when I discovered on arrival that the New York-based Sejong Soloists, the brilliant young string players that formed the resident festival orchestra, had no idea what exactly I was doing there.  But as I sat in at their rehearsals of my programme and discussed the score from the point of view of someone who knew it intimately, they realized that this was going to be a true audio-visual harmony.  Furthermore, as soon as a few of them had viewed my rehearsal DVD, the atmosphere became warm, with tremendous mutual respect.  With my new-found friends, I performed Murmurs in the Mists of Memory by the American composer Augusta Read Thomas on the opening night, a hauntingly beautiful piece (commissioned for the Sejong Soloists) demanding high technical skill from the orchestra. The performance was described in the JoongAng Daily as “one of the most memorable moments” of the evening.  And from that evening on we were all buzzing with delight at our new audio-visual ensemble.  I had been worrying about what Augusta would think of my treatment of her work.  I had sent her a DVD beforehand of my studio rehearsal of Murmurs but had somehow missed her emailed reply. 
Kinetic image from the first movement of Murmurs in the Mists of Memory by Augusta Read Thomas.

It was only after the concert that I found her message (all the exclamation marks are hers): “Norman, I love your work so dearly!!! I was in shock.  When I got your DVD in my Chicago mail, I opened it right away and was totally thrilled.  It is truly amazing.  I was in tears too!  Your work is the most beautiful thing anyone has ever done with my work, for sure”.  It’s a very special feeling to get a reaction from a living composer and it was a relief – you are so much aware that you are handling someone else’s “baby”.   Thank you, Gusty! 

Then on August 6th, the anniversary of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, we played Three Film Scores by Toru Takemitsu.  The second of these pieces was written for the film Black Rain, which features the awful after-effects of radioactive fall-out.  This is such a moving work, inspiring a short visual sequence that is perhaps one of the most expressive and profound pieces I have created so far.  Afterwards the audience was both tearful and ecstatic in their praise – there was a real appreciation of what my brush was expressing – it was a language my Korean audience recognized!   My deep satisfaction came from a sense of identification with Takemitsu’s music and the joy of achieving an absolute ensemble with these gifted young musicians.  We all swore we would play together again.

(Below) Two images from Black Rain, one of Three Film Scores by Toru Takemitsu, as performed at the South Korean Great Mountains Music Festival in 2007.  Total devastation. In the final image, the red sun has turned white.


Next Monday: The Case of the Lost Painting.

Monday 23 April 2012

Meet Alex Scriabin, Pierre-Laurent Aimard & the gang

Meet Alex Scriabin, Pierre-Laurent Aimard & the gang.

Had he lived today, Alex (1872-1915) would have been an international multi-media star.  He had all the requirements: ambitious projects, romantic involvements, cultivated mystique and illusions of grandeur (“I am God”). 

In September 2010, I was standing in the conductor’s room, exhausted, joyful and relieved, after a performance with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (George Benjamin conducting), shaking hands with a line of happy people.  Then, one word -  “Magnifique!”.  There is the master pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, beaming with delight. He had just performed in the first half, then run back to watch me after the interval. He loved it. And immediately invited me to perform at the U.K. Aldeburgh Festival, of which he is Artistic Director. Wow... I’m breathless!

Anyway, with this terrific orchestra I had just been painting continuous kinetic visuals for twenty minutes to Alexander Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy – one of the works to which Scriabin wanted to add projections of colour.  This is why I was invited. The musical Poem might be interpreted as expressing spiritual ecstasy, but the composer includes directions in his score that suggest he has a double agenda. His original title for this work was Orgiastic Poem – another kind of ecstasy!

The opening bars are marked to be played “languishing” (as in longing), then we also find “caressing, gentle, sweetly, with ecstatic sensuality, perfumed, with ever increasing intoxication, almost delirious”.  So Scriabin is urging us to let ourselves be carried away with his love poem.  And my choreography for continuous visuals and my choice of colours reflect his directions.  This emotional music begins with a dream, pulsates and surges, the tension growing to repeated climaxes, resolves into the blissful relaxing state after an ecstatic experience and finally celebrates the glory of the achievement. Aided by synaesthesia, I translated these sensations into a stream of kinetic images. 

Having said all that, in fact you are merely watching floating pools of delicate or rich colour, abstract shapes without any figuration. You can perceive them as mystical or majestic, erotic or spiritual. The organic properties of the paint have a therapeutic effect and create a natural synergy with the music. Altogether a beautiful, powerful, multi-sensory, holistic experience that may touch you deeply, yet defies definition.

At the Aldeburgh Festival, on June 22nd 2012, Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9 (‘Black Mass’) will be the centre-piece of a audio-visual recital Piano Colours, by Pierre-Laurent and myself.  We shall also perform Liszt (La Lugubre Gondola II), Tristan Murail (Cloches d’adieu, et un sourire ... In memoriam Olivier Messiaen) and George Benjamin (Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm). Pierre-Laurent will also play excerpts from Debussy Préludes, Book I and II.  I explained to Pierre-Laurent that I would need a little time to change plates and brushes before each piece. “No rush” he said with a smile, “I shall play a Prelude while you’re preparing. After all, that’s what Preludes are for”. We all know that he will turn them into something much more than a mere transition.
Here’s a sneak preview of a still from George Benjamin’s “Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm”. In fact, the streaks of colour escaping from the screen stretch much further, but my studio isn’t big enough to show you that!

So last Saturday I finally had the chance to show PLA what I had prepared for our programme. To my joy, he loved my presentation. Then, demonstratiing his masterly insight into our repertoire (on a Yamaha stage piano - my studio doesn’t hold a Steinway - ha, ha!), he gave me some excellent suggestions for small improvements.  After years of performing, this was the first time a musician had taken the time to compare my kinetic painting projections to the score in a detailed creative discussion!

It’s a joy to work with a pianist who masters such a magnificent palette of tone colours and who brings both intelligence and sensibility to everything he touches. He is an outstanding example of the musicians of which Luciano Berio (1925-2003) wrote. “The best solo performers of our time – modern in intelligence, sensibility and technique – are those capable of acting within a wide historical perspective, and of resolving the tensions between the creative demands of past and present, employing their instrument as means of research and expression”.

I can’t wait for our recital on June 22nd. in Aldeburgh. Book quickly!

Cloches d’adieu – et un sourire. In memorian Olivier Messiaen. (Tristan Murail)


Next Monday:  Excerpt from chapter twelve - Murmurs in Korea – Augusta Read Thomas.

Monday 16 April 2012

Huang Ruo and the Asian Connection

Excerpts from Chapter Eleven:
Huang Ruo and the Asian Connection.

Asian design, the use of space, the harmony of elegance and strength that conveys a feeling of stability or timelessness – all these speak to my soul.  And of course, the dynamic language of Asian brush calligraphy is close to my own language with a paintbrush.  After visiting Japan and China, in 2007 I finally got the opportunity to take my performance work to Asia, specifically South Korea.  I was convinced they would understand my use of the brush in kinetic painting – and they did! More on this next time, but first the Chinese connection.

After my performances of John Adams’ El Dorado with the Flemish Radio Orchestra, I sent a DVD of this piece to Adams’ publisher, Boosey and Hawkes in New York, asking for his reactions to my visual interpretation of his work.  I never heard from him, but someone working at Boosey’s showed the DVD to a friend of hers, the young New York-based Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo, with the message “Hey, you’ve got to work with this guy!”  She knew that Huang Ruo thought very much in visual concepts and intuited that we would get on well together.  Immediately he sent me a long e-mail proposing that we create a new work together.  This marked the beginning of a great friendship and creative collaboration.
About eighteen bars into Huang Ruo’s Confluences, for live kinetic painting and ensemble, performed with the ASKO Ensemble in the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw in 2005.  Note the sprinkling of Chinese noodles on the left.

I replied: “Dear Huang Ruo, I’ve been sitting in a sunny Amsterdam park, meditating a bit and thinking about our new piece.  I’m sending you lots of elementary ideas, as food for thought.  No composer has ever written a work for paintbrush and ensemble before!  To avoid the clichés of film background music, or of mere illustrations of the music, the brushes and instruments can alternately take the lead.  Like the violinist’s bow, the brush is an instrument made of wood and hair and it makes its own sounds: dragging, scratching, slapping, dripping, pounding rhythmically or juddering.  Brushes could also be used as wind chimes.  Brush characteristics in action can be threatening, caressing, dancing, swimming, whimsical, rhythmical, surprising in exits and entrances, moving with diminuendo, crescendo, or rubato.  The brush makes signs that carry power.  The Way of the brush and the Song of the brush carry many ideas for us.  I now have to leave for a performance in Eindhoven with Japanese drums and a beautiful huge Odaiko (1.86 metres in diameter).  Then I’m on tour in Belgium.  More later…” 

After reading my reply, Huang Ruo wrote: “… my mind is spinning.  I love your e-mail and am amazed by your ideas.  If I didn’t know you I would guess you are Chinese.  Brush is such an important factor in the Chinese arts.  A Chinese character is very similar to the actual object, such as the word “fire” looks just like fire.  People are not only able to see the object through calligraphy, but also the painter’s character, mood and level of practicing.  In the film Hero, a man’s calligraphy reveals the secrets of his swordsmanship.  There is a Taoist master who is the curator of the Tai Chi Sword.  He creates his own Kung Fu by drawing poems with a sword in the air, using his weapon as a brush. When he reaches the highest level, he only uses his fingers instead of a sword.

Just as we see the music, one can also hear the brush when it’s moving. The soloist in our new work – in this case you and your brush – can sometimes agree with the orchestra or sometimes go against it, can accompany or lead.  Why not have a cadenza for the brush alone?   So many ideas, I am overwhelmed.”   There was much more, but this is how we started.

We were so swept away with enthusiasm to get started that we agreed to collaborate in a performance of an existing work by Huang Ruo, in September 2005, in the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw, with the ASKO Ensemble: Confluences: Concerto Number Four for fifteen players (and kinetic painting – added later by Huang Ruo).
Bar 239, just after the double-bass and cello duet of Confluences, by Huang Ruo.

Several months later I joined Huang Ruo in a composer portrait evening organized by the Sejong ensemble in the Samsung showroom at the New York Time Warner Center. Surrounded by a plethora of Samsung super high-tech audio-visual products, I couldn’t help chuckling to myself as I stood with my low-tech, comparatively primitive overhead projectors to demonstrate my simple message.  It was an evening of live music and some kinetic painting.  Although my contribution was a modest one that evening, it had significant repercussions.  After the concert, the renowned violin teacher Hyo Kang and his wife Kyung Kang (the visionary directors of the Sejong ensemble) came up to me with an invitation to join them in 2007 at their Great Mountains Music Festival in South Korea.  I felt honoured and delighted with the opportunity to take my brushes back to one of the origins of the art of the brush. But more on this later.


Next Monday: Meet Alex Scriabin and Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

Monday 9 April 2012

The beauty of space and silence

Excerpts from Chapter Ten:
The beauty of space and silence.

I’ve always been fascinated by the ways Japanese and Chinese artists compose lines, shapes, rhythms and patterns in space, so that the space – where there’s nothing – becomes an essential and beautiful part of the picture.  This gradually started to have considerable influence on my work. “Composition” is a term we use for both music and painting.  It has to do with arrangements in both time and space. The generous and effective use of empty space in Asian painting frequently conveys a sense of time passing, or perhaps timelessness.  This gives us pause for thought. Painting needs space and music needs silence, from time to time, between the statements. 
The apparent freedom and seemingly ‘empty’ space in some of my works may mislead you into thinking that the painting is casual, sketchy or unfinished. Wrong. It’s all very carefully organized, according to an inner sense of design developed over many years.  I arrange the ‘empty’ space around my subjects to create balance, tension, excitement or simply relief from all the action.  This space is a vital part of the composition of the painting.  There’s nothing more infuriating, than to discover that my special space has been cropped by a thoughtless newspaper arts editor, to fit the width of a number of columns. This happened at my very first one-man show, despite the headline, that read in big letters: “Perryman’s painting is about spatial arrangement”.
When Roy Oppenheim, in 1972 Head of Cultural Programmes at Swiss Television (Zurich), introduced an exhibition of my work in Fribourg, Switzerland, I felt that he really understood my work. 
“Perryman’s compositional energy... is fortunately controlled by his poetic and musical nature.  As in Kandinsky’s work, one must look for the secret of this oeuvre in the intimate musical harmony of its author, which gives him a very special view of the world...  The sensitive, lyrical rhythm in his compositions has an effect similar to that of a page of music”.

‘Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi conducting’, watercolour diptych, 100 x 50cm, sketched in Tokyo during a tour with the Netherlands Philharmonic and completed in Amsterdam, 1985.  Private Collection, Netherlands.

Some ancient paintings on scrolls can be viewed by unrolling them, bit by bit, as though you are watching a sequence of events.  In a flat painting your eye also scans the space as though you are watching a time-based performance, one thing after another (as in my performances of kinetic painting).  I’m sure this sense of time was one of the reasons why I was attracted to Asian painting and why many Asians find my work attractive.
“Okasaka Quartet”, watercolour 50 x 70cm, 1988. Private Collection 
I became familiar with the profound beauty of the haiku poem – an example of an art form reduced to the essentials.  A haiku, in Japanese always constructed of three lines and totalling seventeen syllables, contains a visual impression or observation that suggests the passing of time and usually a sound.  A haiku will always make you quietly reflect on life.  The great master of haiku was Basho (1644 - 94):

    The warbler sings                                     The old pond
    among new shoots of bamboo                  a frog jumps in -
    of coming old age.                                    the sound of water

I began to use Chinese brushes and to study the great Chinese masters of watercolour, to be aware of the need to breathe, in order to produce the energy of the brush-stroke.  You must really concentrate, to reduce the painterly activity to a few essential brush strokes.  I learned about ways of bundling the graphic elements of the painting in one spot to create tension, then relaxation, as connecting lines move across the remaining empty space.  I learned to develop the confidence to deliberately allow the watercolour to flow or merge “accidentally” on the paper (as in the Taoist concept wu wei, which means knowing inwardly when to act or not to act, or effortless action).  Such a “bleed” of colour can unintentionally produce a lovely abstract suggestion of movement. As it fades away, you could compare it to the decay (the fading away) of a musical sound.

The Zen masters have demonstrated in their watercolours that concentration and practice is required to place a dynamic splash in your composition so that it conveys drama and energy, rather than messiness. The discipline required to reduce chaotic movement to a single brush-stroke, or a group of musicians to a silhouette of bare essentials, is enormous.  It takes years of practice, of trial and error.  I’m still working on it!  

It’s even harder when you’re painting in “real time”, painting kinetic visuals live in concert. (There’s no second chance in performance art). I’ve also practised this for forty years. I’ve learned to sit quietly before the concert, to visualise the whole sequence of images, the “choreography” of my brushes, the timing, musical cues, everything. All performers have their little rituals. With the EFT technique, I tap on my meridian energy points to call up the powers we all possess. Then you take a deep breath, go out and do it without stopping.

Every semblance of spatial design was reduced to rubble when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th 1945. On the anniversary of this horrific event, I painted live images to Toru Takemitsu’s film music “Black Rain” with the Sejong chamber ensemble in 2007, at the Great Mountains Music Festival in South Korea. (For the studio rehearsal on this video-clip, I used the recording by Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conductor Marin Alsop).

Next Monday:  The Asian Connection.

Monday 2 April 2012

Music and movement in watercolour

Excerpts from Chapter Nine:
Music and movement in watercolour.

You often hear the absurd statement “It’s only a watercolour”, prolonging the myth that a real painting (in Western culture) is in oils and it’s worth more.  Watercolour is often thought of as the feeble medium of the dabbling Sunday painter. But watercolour is a magnificent means of expression!  Think of the innumerable great Asian, American and English watercolour masterpieces – large, small and priceless.
Watercolour gradually became my preferred medium because of the nature of music. Music, movement and watercolour have something in common. The fluidity of watercolour can convey the illusion of movement, while the transparent glow and subtle layers reflect the transience of music.  This medium can vary in intensity from the most delicate tones to tremendous bursts of luminous blazing colour: if you like, from pianissimo to fortissimo.  Handled freely, it can reflect the energy of the activity of making music.  Laid down with sensitivity, it compares with the calm beauty of the slow movement of a string quartet. 
My earlier watercolours suggest a preference for the understatement, chamber music rather than symphonic grandeur, the misty view rather than brilliant sunlight. But the large, richly coloured watercolours of the Symphony Hall series or other recent works sing out strongly.  The brilliance of white paper, shining through a transparent glaze of watercolour, has a powerful emotional effect, comparable to the intense glow of light shining through the colours of a stained-glass window, or to the sound of the pure song, a chant or a ringing bell.

Valery Gergiev, 2005, watercolour 84 x 56cm, Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection.

I started to use exclusively Arches Satiné 300 grams watercolour paper, which allows the paint to float on the surface longer and gives it a brilliant transparency.
Like making music, watercolour painting requires great concentration, skill, fast reactions and inspired spontaneity.  Whereas a painter in oils or acrylics can plod along, painting over anything that is not quite right, watercolourists have to stay alert, aware of how the paint is spreading or drying in unexpected ways.  Changes often have to be made while it’s still wet, and it dries faster in some climates than in others. You can’t relax for a moment - it’s one of the most difficult media to handle well.
The organic qualities, freshness, luminosity and calligraphic effects of watercolour speak to our emotions very directly, in part perhaps because they are close to our common sensory experience of writing and also to our familiarity with the qualities of water in our everyday lives.
Roberto Benzi in action with the Netherlands Phil., watercolour 50 x 70cm.
For many years I’ve also been painting musical themes in a semi-abstract way, and I believe that graphic rhythms and certain colours have a synaesthetic effect, That is, abstract images can convey the illusion of sounds, and draw you into the action, even if you don’t immediately recognize what they are.  My hope is that the finished painting sings: that the spectator will not only recognize the performer’s characteristic traits and gestures, but will also hear the music.  To this end, the abstract swathes, splatters and splashes of colour surrounding many of my figurative paintings of musicians are just as important as the main figure.  The viewer may recognize music stands or violin bows here and there, but many of these brush marks are often my intuitive reactions to the music, echoing the movement - a sort of participation in the performance, with my brush as instrument.

One day, I left the studio, having abandoned my struggle with the first version of a painting of the famous cellist Paul Tortelier.  I left the painting laid out on its drawing board to dry, perplexed because I couldn’t get the painting to “sing” – my watercolour of this lively personality just looked dead.  Soon after I arrived home I received a phone call from a cellist friend: “Have you heard the news – Tortelier is dead”.   No wonder I couldn’t make my watercolour live!  I had been so deeply involved in this painting that it took me quiet a while to recover from the shock of this news.  Eventually, I made this second version in memoriam, more transparent, perhaps more spiritual.

Paul Tortelier (1914-1990), watercolour 84 x 56cm,1990/91, Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection. 

Next Monday: Excerpt from Chapter 10: The Beauty of Space and Silence.