Monday 28 May 2012

Written on the Wind

Written on the wind.

Early in 2008 the composer Huang Ruo called me from New York.  He was working on a commission for a piece for the Chinese pipa and voice, for the pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen.  Would I like to join in, make this an audio-visual piece and send him some images? Urgent! Three movements: slow, faster, fastest, about twelve or thirteen minutes.  Written on the Wind: a Multi-media Drama for Pipa, Voice and Kinetic Painting, to be premiered in New York on March 19th

That was the only information I was given, but I knew Min Xiao-Fen’s style and sound (I had heard her perform in Holland several times) and of course I knew Huang Ruo’s style very well.  This was an interesting and really significant role reversal for me: create the images without the music, rather than from the music!  So I created a variety of kinetic visual sequences that to me suggested the sounds, rhythms, tempi, etc. typical of their style.  I heard the sounds in my head and created the whole piece within a week.  But the question was, would it rhyme with what Huang Ruo had in mind? 
Three images from the first sequences of Written on the Wind, for pipa, voice and kinetic painting.  Symphony Space, New York, 2008.

Fortunately, when my DVD arrived in New York, HR really loved the images and immediately found musical potential in them.  By now he and I have such a close creative rapport that our parallel creative efforts in Amsterdam and New York meshed as though we had been working in the same room.  We each gave the images and the music an intrinsic flexibility, so that each time Min Xiao-Fen plays the piece there are numerous possible options for synchronicity and the beauty of surprise.  At the première we felt we had reached a new level of achievement, something much more than mere interdisciplinary accompaniment.  Min Xiao-Fen’s artistry, fabulous pipa technique and dramatic vocal range of exotic sounds, expressed in a mysterious song without words, fulfilled all our hopes. 

Exceptionally, at these concerts I was not painting live: my DVD was projected by a video-beamer.  This was the only option those occasions, but it felt really frustrating.  The image quality was poor and full of pixels and I felt helpless, unable to adjust my visual tempi to Min’s performance. But both in New York’s Symphony Space and in Suny Purchase University it went astonishingly well.  We were thrilled with so many warm reactions from individuals who had been touched by the three-way synergy.  

Huang Ruo wrote a lovely programme note:

What is written on the wind, will be kept and carried away by the wind …”
“We have worked closely together so that the music and images develop simultaneously, sometimes occurring synchronously and at other times happening asynchronously.  The goal is to create a context of artistic freedom and randomness so that the music, kinetic-painting, and live performance each exist freely, but also respond to one another.  An interesting aspect of our collaboration is that neither of us told the others what was written on the wind.  For me, it is my own secret, which has been buried in the music.”

A week later, walking home from my Amsterdam studio, I was thinking about something I learned from having to sit and watch my DVD in New York, instead of painting live.  I had seen it four times (including rehearsals) as Xiao-Fen played.  Each time it was different in terms of synchronization, yet each time it worked beautifully!  The flexible energy both of Huang Ruo’s composition and of my design gave the freedom to the spectator (me, in this case) to discover slightly different relationships/synergy in the piece each time.  I realized more clearly than ever how Huang Ruo and I could trust each other in our creative process, confident that whatever we do will be well crafted and designed, but will also have this potential of flexibility, of spontaneous balance.  Why did it take so long for me to gain this insight?   Some words came to mind, written by the prolific Japanese artist Hokusai (1760-1849):

“From the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life.  I became an artist…and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention.  At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish and of the way plants grow.  If I go on trying, I will surely understand them better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety, I will have penetrated to their essential nature.  At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at hundred and thirty, forty or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.  May Heaven, that grants long life, give me a chance to prove that this is no lie”.

At seventy-eight, I’m just getting into my stride. 


Next Monday: Where’s the Right Critic for my Kinetic Painting to Music?

Monday 21 May 2012

“Elevated to the skies” with Slava Rostropovich

Excerpts from Chapter Fifteen:
“Elevated to the skies” with Slava Rostropovich.

When I saw “Slava” in Washington it was big hugs all round. He was playing at a Washington function for Nancy Reagan and I was painting Plácido Domingo. As we rode up on the elevator of the Watergate Hotel I gave him a little memento of the painting I made of him in 1991. A little while later a basket with a bottle of wine and a note was delivered to my room.

As I recounted this incident to one of my company in Washington, she asked me: “who is Rostropovich?”   Where could I start?  Not only was he perhaps the greatest cellist of all time. With his impetuous and charismatic personality, he was a teacher with an enormous influence on his many distinguished students world-wide, a political dissident with a passion for freedom of speech (his Soviet citizenship was revoked in 1978) who sat down and played the Bach Cello Suites as the Berlin Wall was demolished, the friend and colleague of numerous contemporary composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten and many others whose works he commissioned and premiered ... and so on.  I had made several watercolour studies of Rostropovich years before the Symphony Hall commission, but this one was perhaps the most successful in capturing his intense, almost agonized expression as his fingers flew over the strings. The dark clouds above his head and the earth-coloured orchestra in the background reinforce this mood.  

It was last-minute commission from Birmingham Symphony Hall, where Slava was due to perform in 1991, so I had to work furiously on the studies leading up to the deadline. I finally had a finished version ready, late on Friday afternoon, so that I could catch the Saturday morning flight to Birmingham, just in time for a photo-shoot for the posters of Slava’s concert and to allow time for the framing of the painting.  The length of that sentence reflects my breathless condition on that Friday afternoon.  But there was a nagging feeling that some things were not quite satisfactory.  I had to get the colour of his Stradivarius right, for one thing. After several hours of worrying, I realized that there was only one thing to do: start again!  I still had a sheet of my favourite Arches Satiné watercolour paper stretched and ready. The required size of 84 x 56cm (33 x 22 inches) is quite large for a watercolour and a lot of paint has to dry before the next layer.  Thank goodness for hair-dryers.  I had learned a thing or two about hand, fingering and bow positions from my wife Vivian, who was a professional cellist. So I worked like crazy, deep into the night, until it all came together – and I caught my morning flight.  Talk about brinkmanship! They said it was one of the best of the Symphony Hall Collection so far. What is it about deadlines and creativity?
Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), watercolour 1991, 84 x 56cm


Next Monday: Written on the Wind.

Monday 14 May 2012

In the Washington Opera pit with Plácido Domingo

Excerpts from Chapter Fourteen:
In the Washington Opera pit with Plácido Domingo.

In January 2001 I had a modest exhibition in The Gallery at Lincoln Center, under the Metropolitan Opera. People like Maestro James (Jimmy) Levine would drop by, on their way to their limos. He knew all the musicians I had painted, so for him my show was like a reunion. My show included an earlier painting of Plácido Domingo in action on stage and that month saw the Met’s gala celebration of his sixtieth birthday. They used my painting on their programme (sorry, program) cover.  Despite all the hype and a wonderful reception hosted by my old friend, the late Catherine Curran-Gamble, the show didn’t sell well and I flew home feeling depressed.  People just bought the catalogues, for goodness sake!

Plácido Domingo rehearsing Carmen at the Washington Opera, watercolour, 92x92cm, 2002.

But one lady was deeply impressed by my show.  It was Kathryn Ecenbarger, who contacted me from San Francisco in February 2001, to ask if I would be willing to make another painting of Plácido Domingo.  We spent months discussing how to choose from the many alternative ways to paint this great personality - the personification of opera.  When I heard that in May 2002 he would conduct Carmen at the Washington Opera, it suddenly occurred to me that I could portray another side of the great man at work in rehearsals – not on stage, but “up close and personal”.  Kathryn agreed. I insisted on getting close to the action and the music and fortunately she was able to arrange for me to stand in the opera pit during rehearsals: sketching, watching and listening, as Plácido Domingo coaxed a production of Carmen into shape. This proximity surely contributed to the dynamic energy of my painting and I felt really privileged.  Rumour has it that part of this deal was that Kathryn (who amongst other things was the owner of a coffee plantation on Hawaii) had offered the Washington Opera all the coffee they could drink for a lifetime. That’s a lot of coffee.  Some of it also contributed to this painting! 
Plácido was singing all the parts as he conducted, energetic, benevolent, a man with a clear vision of the colorful and emotional opera in which he had performed so many times. I lived Carmen day and night for the month or so that it took to put this painting together.

My large (near one meter/three foot square) watercolour places the spectator at the center of the action, on an undulating diagonal from bottom left to top right.  We are at the heart of a creative process, very close to this sympathetic Maestro, whose warm expression radiates understanding and encouragement.  We follow his sensitive hands as they mold the sound, taking our gaze right up on to the stage, for a glimpse of the mysterious lighting and shadows of this drama.  With the red plush of the opera house at his back, he is standing in a sea of movement: the dynamic bowing of the strings and the splatters of paint that might be seen as notes, or as a hint of the bloody events about to take place on stage.  In the variety of reds, browns and ochres I’ve tried to evoke the earthy passion and tragedy of this intense opera.

After finishing the watercolour in my Amsterdam studio, I flew back to Washington with the painting rolled up as hand-baggage and with an appointment to show it to Kathryn the day after my arrival.  Carrying your latest fragile creation on a flight is always an anxious time, especially one of such size.  I used to take paintings on board in a large portfolio and asked for it to be slotted into the business class wardrobe. A lot of talking and a hint of the “enormous” value of the work of art often worked well, but nowadays, with all the security regulations, this method has become impossible. 

All went well. After a very late arrival I had to put the painting into a provisional frame (ordered in advance) in my hotel room that night, ready for a morning presentation.  It was a short night and at ten o’clock, Kathryn Ecenbarger arrived; I sat her down in a comfortable chair and unveiled my painting of her idol.  She burst into tears - I knew it was okay.  Even better - Plácido Domingo himself liked it enough to pencil his autograph along the lower edge, after a gala at the Washington Opera.  Mission accomplished!

Back at the Washington Watergate Hotel, where I was staying (the scene of the 1972 Watergate scandal), I walked towards the lift where a familiar figure was standing with a white cello case – yes, it was Mstislav Rostropovich! But that’s another story.


Next Monday: Elevated to the skies with Slava Rostropovich.

Monday 7 May 2012

The Case of the Lost Painting

The Case of the Lost Painting.

Was it destroyed, or just dumped in a cellar? It was a seven-metre-long painting composed of eight irregularly shaped panels, to be hung so that the spacing formed an essential part of the design – to suggest a flowing rhythm. The dancing shapes were “stepping stones” across which the dancers leapt; they were hung at a slight distance from the wall so they seem to float free. A tribute to the Netherlands Dance Theater in The Hague, commissioned by the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra, as it was then called, in 1987. The image represents the relationship between the conductor and orchestra in the pit and the dancers on the eighteen-metre stage of their theatre.
The dancers of NDT I in 1987, standing with me (left) in front of my mural (acrylic on wooden panels, seven metres long).  photo: Ben Vollebregt

The floor of my Amsterdam studio was exactly seven metres long, so that determined the maximum size of my mural.  I laid out the panels on the floor and walked across them, trying to feel the dance in my body and in the gestures of my brushes, which were taped to very long sticks.  I thought of Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, who also worked on very large canvasses in this way. This was my biggest painting ever and the experience was so exhilarating! But alas, it was probably too big for the available space in the Netherlands Dance Theater and quite a challenge for the technicians hanging and spacing the irregular shapes, exactly according to my design.

For a while - on gala nights - the dance studio where the mural was installed would be opened to the public, as a temporary foyer and bar, so my mural did get some exposure. But (of course) the function of the bar very quickly expanded and with a variety of decorative lighting it soon took over the space completely. My painting was, sadly, literally dumped in the cellar.  This discovery was quite a shock. After my protests, I was allowed to clean and restore it, then it was briefly hung on a different wall. It has long since disappeared for good. It’s a depressing feeling when one of your creations – a piece of yourself - is destroyed.  Philosophising that dance and music are also temporal by nature offers some consolation.  Probably none of the dancers in the photograph are still dancing.  They have retired or are teaching or directing.  It was great while it lasted: moving across that seven-metre painting on the floor of my studio was perhaps the closest I got to actually dancing.  However, I too was to move on, developing the form of the transient, time-based performances of kinetic painting, projected on a huge screen, the dancing with a brush that has become my trademark.

Because my partner Vivian King played in the Ballet Orchestra, I had acquired virtually unlimited possibilities to observe the inspired modern dance of the NDT artistic director and choreographer Jiří Kylián.  From the early eighties the dance studios became my second home and this brilliant company provided me with a definition of modern dance that has become my ideal.
One of my paintings (1987) of Kylián’s “Overgrown Path”, set to four hauntingly beautiful solo piano pieces by compatriot Leoš Janáček.

I made hundreds of sketches: at times virtually abstract line drawings, just following the essential line of the movement. After hours of such intense work, absorbing the music and every movement in my whole being, I would walk out of the studio on air, feeling like a dancer, with my head up, relishing my space.  Watching this dance company, create, rehearse and perform inspired many watercolours and led to several exhibitions in The Hague.  One characteristic of Kylián’s work that appealed to my own sense of pictorial composition, was his talent for bringing together two or three dancers into a group that resembled a beautiful calligraphic symbol, or maybe a knot tied in the way we so often see in Japanese gift wrapping.  The group would then dissolve and move into another knot, just as a calligrapher gracefully moves with a lilting rhythm across the space between one symbol and the next.  It was as though Jiří was making brush drawings in space.
‘Invention’- a modern ballet for live kinetic painting and dancers, co-designed with choreographer Philip Taylor in 1989 for the opening of the Holland Dance Festival. 

Then in 1989 came the opportunity to show Jiři Kylián what I was also doing in performance painting. He was intrigued and agreed to the idea that I should co-create a modern ballet with the young choreographer Philip Taylor. Rather than just projecting my live kinetic paintings on to a backdrop, I designed three huge white panels shaped in irregular curves that could hang above and behind the dancers. For each of the eight movements of Eight Inventions for Percussion by Miloslav Kabelač, I gave these panels a different position. The resulting shapes became my projection screens. In the photograph you see me standing in the pit, painting on to overhead projectors, that project my colours onto the changing shapes and on to the white-costumed dancers of the NDT I group. They are bathed in my projected colours and have a dialogue with my brushes, disappearing into or emerging from the colours on cue. The eleven performances were some of the most exciting I have ever experienced.

Janet Sinclair and Leo Kersley wrote in Dance and Dancers magazine:

Surprise and Delight – Something New in Dance
“This was one of the most amazingly novel stage spectacles of the writers’ experience, surprising the eye to a degree that can only have been paralleled in this century by the astonishment aroused by the decors of Bakst for Diaghilev when the Ballet Rousse first hit Europe… This adds a complete extra dimension in ballet theatre… an absolutely fascinating collaboration.”

“Norman Perryman treats his brushes and paint just like a choreographer…they move synchronous with the exciting percussion music of Miloslav Kabelač. This provides not only an exceptionally exciting interaction (with the dancers), but also dramatic effects that reinforce each other.” 
Haagsche Courant

Invention introduced a new era in choreography. With this earthshaking ensemble of dance, music and performance-painting, Taylor and the painter Perryman almost persuaded their public that the world was created not in six days but in eight (Kabelač’s Eight Inventions for Percussion). Three enormous panels served as the framework from which heaven and hell were revealed and in which the dancers survived the excesses of paint and light in a total happening.  After almost half an hour of existential dance, where man and gods appeared and disappeared as if by magic, in a no-man’s land of unconventional rhythms, tones and timbres, Taylor and Perryman ‘saw that it was good’”.  
De Telegraaf

This was a huge milestone in my creative work.  Consider this - these paintings were “lost” after each performance! But it didn’t matter. My “real-time” kinetic painting had now joined music and dance theatre as an art form that is intrinsically ephemeral! After conductor Simon Rattle saw this, his agent phoned me with the message: “He wants to work together”.

Breaking News! They just found my painting! Stored in one of their huge scenery depots. This is so emotional. Now to restore and exhibit it.


Next Monday: In the Washington Opera pit with Plácido Domingo.