Wednesday 31 October 2012

Sandy: the ultimate four-dimensional kinetic painting

Sandy: the ultimate four-dimensional kinetic painting.

October 29th. 2012.

In New York for portrait commissions and highly civilised and delightful dinners with old friends, Hurricane Sandy has rudely intruded on my schedule.

This time, no romantic watercolours of falling leaves in Central Park. As I write, the elements are providing me with the ultimate expressionistic fluid kinetic painting - and surround sound by a very avant-garde composer. My high-rise appartment is lashed with savage brushloads of wind and rain. The ocean is surging into the lower end of Manhattan, but forget Debussy’s La Mer. The liquid painting on my imagined projector is accented, or rather savaged by honks, screams and a wailing chorus of flashing colours, reds, blues and whites, police and fire-service tape-barriers zig-zagging across my screen. Definitely New York school of painting, but which composer does this remind me of?

From my back window, I can see a broken crane that hangs, unhinged by the storm, above the unfinished sky-scraper on 7th Avenue, dangling like a long paint-brush ready to strike through Carnegie Hall next door on 57th St. The open skeleton of the sky-scraper sounds like a ghostly express-train, tarpaulins flapping frantically.  I feel like I’m inside a horrific Gesamtkunstwerk! All concerts are cancelled of course, whole blocks sealed off, the streets are virtually empty, but the audience is watching it all on television.

Thankfully we have few problems in mid-town Manhattan compared with those poor 220,000 people who are without power, those flooded out of their homes, or victims of crashing trees. The city has never been so quiet. Uncanny. Perfect setting for the “sounds” of John Cage’s 4’33”.

Monday 29 October 2012

“You can’t go to bed with that!” - Painting ecstasy.

“You can’t go to bed with that!” - Painting ecstasy.

It was 1952. We art students were sweating away at our oil paintings of a nude model in the over-heated studios of the Birmingham College of Art. Our painting professor, Bernard Fleetwood-Walker (a prolific late-impressionist painter of portraits and the figure) was on the prowl. One look at the very well-structured but rather stiff, cold painting of the female nude on my easel and he exclaimed: “You can’t go to bed with that!” I was a strictly moral, naïve youth of seventeen and I had no idea what he was talking about. 

He grabbed my palette knife and, with a great show of bravado, started slathering luscious layers of oil paint on to my nude, sighing and groaning in make-believe ecstasy, as he transformed the nude into a shimmering, sensual image.  Although I had feverishly studied the nude paintings of Cézanne, Matisse, Modigliani and a thousand other classical and “modern” styles, I was being too careful. He was trying to loosen me up: he wanted me to let go of my drawing skill and explore the sensual qualities of the paint (and the woman). A new world was opening up to me!

Perhaps better than anyone, the great J.M.W. Turner (1775 -1851) could make his oil paint shimmer transparently. Popularly known as “the painter of light”, he was an early influence in my growing love of the translucent, glowing qualities of watercolour. But many years went by before my love for glowing light led me to discover the sheer ecstasy of transparent colours, when projected from analogue overhead projectors. Their analogue light-source transports us emotionally to places that digital synthetic images cannot reach. The overhead projector works in the same way as natural daylight shining through the stained-glass windows of places of worship. The light source shines through the paint. For centuries, this has created a luminosity that, combined with music, has moved millions to spiritual ecstasy.

The composer Alexander Scriabin was convinced that through the involvement of all the senses and especially the arts, mankind could achieve a higher state of supreme ecstasy. It was fashionable and respectable in his day to interpret this notion as a spiritual, mystical or super-human experience. Scriabin’s Poème de l’Extase (1908) could be seen as an example. 

In my live kinetic painting performance to this esoteric music with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2010, my fluid colours did indeed initially spread upwards and outward on-screen, dreamily reaching to the heavens for a spiritual experience.

But I had also discovered Scriabin’s frequent directions in the score that suggest that he had a double agenda. His original title for this work was Orgiastic Poem – a very different kind of ecstasy. The opening bars are marked to be played “languishing” (as in longing), but as one thing leads to another, we also find the instructions “caressing, gentle, sweetly, with ecstatic sensuality, perfumed, with ever increasing intoxication, almost delirious”. Scriabin is urging us to let ourselves be carried away with his love poem

So I choreographed my continuous visuals and my choice of colours to reflect and enhance his directions. This emotional music begins with a dream, pulsated and surged, the tension growing to repeated climaxes, then resolving into the blissful relaxing state after an erotic experience and finally celebrating the glory of the achievement. You get the picture? Maybe my images will help, but you really need to watch the video, to see what I’ve done with this poem of love: 

Having said all that, in fact those very respectable spectators in a packed Concertgebouw were merely looking (if not drooling) at floating pools of delicate or rich colour, abstract shapes without any figuration. They could perceive them as mystical or majestic, spiritual or erotic. Well, going by the blushes and giggles of some of the audience afterwards, it was rather obvious that the pulsating, organic, sensual properties of the paint and the rhythmic visual synchronization with the music had the desired effect, so to speak. I’m sure my professor would have loved it. I’ve come a long way since my struggle with that lonely nude, sixty years ago.
On January 25th, 2013, I’ll be performing with the National Orchestra of Belgium in BOZAR, Brussels, to the music of Scriabin’s classic Prometheus (The Poem of Fire). Lucifer was the bringer of light and with a part in the score marked luce, the composer prescribes which colours, sheets of flame and the like that he believed should be projected to provide a visual harmony for the music. This is a must for me – I can’t wait to play Lucifer.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Synchronicity continued: Netherlands Symphony Orchestra with birds

Synchronicity continued: Netherlands Symphony Orchestra with birds

It was a joyous three-way collaboration: performing Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for birds and orchestra and, in this case, for kinetic painting). Joyous perhaps in part because my projectors were set up on stage (in front of the winds, behind the strings), so I had become part of the orchestra. The score is such that various sections of the orchestra alternately had nothing to play. So when they didn’t need to watch the excellent conductor Anthony Hermus, they would repeatedly turn round to watch my continuously developing visuals on-screen. They could see, that with my paint brush, I was playing from the same page, so to speak and that moreover, I had memorized the whole piece and was absolutely in unison. I had totally absorbed this work physically and spiritually. This realization meant that they were all so friendly and complimentary throughout the week. Violinist Carla Leurs, their leader, came up to me afterwards almost with tears in her eyes, from her experience of the harmony of my images with their splendid sound. And I really felt that I had become one of them – for a would-be musician, a dream come true. By the end I was emotionally drained.
My "bird" instruments

Some people said that this was my best performance so far. That’s what you always hope they will say, but I think this audience was blown away by the way I apparently harnessed the organic powers of nature. A young lady from Finland said she got an intense feeling of the vast expanses and the northern lights of her homeland. 

Yes, as expected, the synchronization of the taped bird-song with the orchestra was different every time and that was just fine, because the improvisatory element was part of my visual choreography.

I have put my studio-rehearsal of this work on video and will post it soon.

Rautavaara writes in his score “Think of autumn”. Now back home in our fourth-floor Amsterdam apartment, in the tree-tops of autumn leaves, I’m tired but very happy. Tomorrow I’m off to carry out commissions in New York and to enjoy the beautiful falling leaves in Central Park. 

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus - an experience with kinetic synchronicity

Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus - an experience with kinetic synchronicity

This is a work like no other in my performance experience in live kinetic painting. The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara describes it as a concerto for birds and orchestra – integrating the taped cries of Arctic birds with the score in an unusual way, deliberately allowing a certain flexibility for both the musicians and the tape operator. Every time the tape and the music is played there will be subtle differences to the previous performance.  (In the music of the last sixty years or so, this phenomenon is not unusual). Yet in this piece, you can’t help feeling that Nature itself is unexpectedly intervening, providing dissonances, harmonies and synchronicities (what Jung would call “meaningful coincidences”). 
At times this work sounds like glorious romantic film music (yes, my kinetic painting is the movie!), with the brass and strings taking vast strides across the landscape of Finland and the winds provide approximations of bird sounds. But then the real birds pipe up and the composer’s decision to allow chance or synchronicity keeps you guessing, as contemporary music tends to do. Who’s playing what? Is that bird out of tune? Where am I? This is not just a trip to northern Finland. This performance is taking us out of this world.
Normally I write into the score my complete visual choreography (the colours, shapes, brushes, etc. that I plan to use with each phrase). The design for this piece is also mapped out. But however well I’ve memorized the score and however much I practice, Cantus Arcticus really keeps me on my toes, ready to respond to unexpected bird cries and to improvise with both brush movements and paint flow.  The opportunities to improvise creatively are endless. As is the potential for the audience to perceive synchronicity, in every bubble of paint that collides with another, or bursts, right on a musical cue. As a painter of kinetic visuals, I can use my knowledge of paint flow dynamics to set up such oppportunities. If all is going well, during the performance the audience/spectator will often discover synchronicity that was unintentional on my part. (But isn’t it always unintentional?). Those discoveries are part of the magic of kinetic painting in performance and are deeply personal.

I don’t paint any birds, although the flitting movements of my brushes, the splatter of water drops, or dabs of white in the sky might convey the illusion of bird-like activity, of outdoors, certainly of the passing of time.  

During the three movements (The Bog, Melancholy, and Swans migrating), my settings (or abstract “landscapes”) merge, shift in perspective, colour and mood, gradually taking you into wide open spaces and eventually leaving you in lonely monochrome emptiness, after the swans have migrated - a few faint cries still just audible. 


Thursday 4 October 2012

Spectator comment

Comment after a recent performance with live kinetic painting:

“I was aware of the quiet concentration of the other spectators. Very quiet, but in a natural way, not an imposed silence. The colours, the rhythm, the world and atmosphere that you conjured up were so powerfully absorbing, that I found myself drawn into a timeless state. Time and space ceased to exist – just colour, shapes, movement and music – as one whole. As I watched, I found myself becoming part of what I was watching – perhaps it sounds silly, but I felt part of a greater Oneness.”

Mission accomplished.