Saturday 14 December 2013

The Curse of concert coughing

The Curse of concert coughing

Cough, cough, cough! Right in the middle of the quietest, most ethereal part of the music. The coughing season is with us again!

Last night, as Andris Nelsons conducted a brilliant performance of Britten's Les Illuminations with Ian Bostridge and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, after each of the eight sections, the coughing erupted. The concert was being recorded for television, so Andris had to wait patiently each time until the storm of coughing, then the giggles at the coughing, had subsided. But after the ninth and final section he got his own back. He and Ian Bostridge held the silence for minutes......... so unbelievably long that one might have suspected that he was frozen, unable to move. You could have heard a pin drop, possibly because people thought there was something wrong. He was letting 2200 people know that yes, there had been something wrong, and this is how it might have been! When and how will people ever learn?

Recently, During the whole first half of my performance of kinetic painting Cloud & Light with Toshio Hosokawa, a young woman sitting in the front row, immediately behind me, coughed loudly without stopping. 

Last minute preparations for my performance of Cloud & Light, just behind the conductor.

Toshio Hosokawa uses a Buddhist concept to describe his music, as "a tone that comes from silence, it lives, it returns to silence". Well, forget it. How he (and I) kept going I don't know. I wanted to shout out "Hey, listen to the paintbrush!" This was not only a savage attack on our concentration, but a lack of awareness of the purpose of the occasion, as the rest of the audience tried to appreciate music and the silence. 

Japanese audiences of course, just don't cough. It's unthinkable - part of an inbuilt social awareness. And have you noticed that the musicians never cough? Even if they have tears streaming down their cheeks as they play. How do they do it? In this case, a friend of mine went up to the young lady at the interval and said: "You are sick. You must go home, now". She said she would think about it, but he was so insistent that fortunately she took his advice. 

What can be done about this curse? Free cough sweets at the entrance? A pre-concert announcement like "Please turn off your phone. No photography and no coughing allowed"? Mindfulness training? Any ideas? 

Monday 11 November 2013

"Exactly how I feel when I conduct"

"Exactly how I feel when I conduct"

We did it! On Wednesday Birmingham Symphony Hall and the CBSO (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) organized a delightful post-concert reception, to present my painting of Music Director Andris Nelsons conducting Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. As he viewed the painting after the photo shoot, Andris said “It's an amazing piece of art and exactly how I feel when I conduct”. In case you missed it, scroll down for my own thoughts on the painting and a good reproduction.

I thanked Beethoven and Andris for the overwhelming inspiration of that concert, Jayne Cadbury for the commission and Chief Executive Andrew Jowett for putting together this huge collection (now twenty-nine!) of my works. On Thursday I gave a talk to the Friends of Symphony Hall about how it all started. You'll find the whole story in these blogs.

(Left to right) Andrew Jowett, Roger Burman, Jayne Cadbury, Andris Nelsons and myself.

It means so much to me that my subjects (especially these great musicians) feel an affinity with the results; and Andris was especially warm towards me.
Photos Alan Wood.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Andris Nelsons conducting Beethoven 7.

Andris Nelsons conducting Beethoven 7

On April 20th, 2013, I sat behind the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with my sketchbook (quiet as a mouse, because they were recording Beethoven 7). I could see what they saw – a conductor full of intense joy and enthusiasm for the music, demanding and getting the same focussed engagement from every one of them.
Andris Nelsons, CBSO Music Director, is leaning forward into the orchestra, embracing the music with his arms, shoulders and whole body - just beaming out Beethoven! The light from the score is reflected in his face, intensifying the theatrical atmosphere of the occasion, as though he is standing in the opera pit. My painting is more than a portrait – it’s a painting of a conductor totally enveloped in this music.

Nelsons’ energy is phenomenal! He gives this music precision and power, yet air and transparency. So I’ve tried to keep a lot of space and dynamic freedom in my somewhat calligraphic painting. Sharing his excitement, I’ve made my watercolour splash and flow with the music. The colours rise from the strings, then zig-zag upwards like those soaring sounds.

Back in the studio, as I developed the painting, my brush-marks were literally driven by the dancing rhythms, the power and the delicacy of this music. I couldn’t have painted this without it. Because his own recording is not yet published, Andris suggested that I listen to the recording of one of his idols, Carlos Kleiber. Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is written in A major, suggesting to my synaesthetic sensibility a variety of reds, browns and purples anchored with blacks.

The performance that April evening in Symphony Hall Birmingham provided the ultimate inspiration for this large watercolour (84 x 56cm). It can be seen as a celebration of Andris Nelson's five great seasons as the Music Director of the CBSO orchestra (with another year and a half still to come) and it will be unveiled on November 6th. Commissioned by Jayne Cadbury and funded by The George Cadbury Trust, the painting will then become part of the Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection, that now contains twenty-nine of my “action-portraits” of the great musicians who have performed in this wonderful Hall.

Monday 28 October 2013

A marathon of kinetic painting

Saturday's marathon of kinetic painting.

Saturday night saw my marathon performance of about two hours almost continuous painting, live to the music of Hosokawa and Bach with the excellent Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. And that after a complete dress rehearsal that only finished less than two hours before the concert. I not only survived, but judging by the applause from a sold-out house, it all went very well indeed! Especially Hosokawa's Meditation for the Tsunami victims touched everyone deeply. Here's a snapshot from the audience of Hosokawa conducting Cloud & Light for shō and orchestra:

The week had been crammed with creative discussion, rehearsals and staging issues, in my studio and in two halls. All followed by a film crew, for a documentary about my life and work. It so happened that Toshio Hosokawa's birthday fell on the Wednesday he would visit my studio to view the kinetic painting I had "choreographed" to his three works for performance three days later. So I also gave him a little watercolour on paper, dashed off the night before as a souvenir of his piece Cloud & Light.

That inspirational violinist Gordan Nikolić, brimming with enthusiasm, joins me with Mayumi Miyata and Toshio backstage for the obligatory photo afterwards. 

This was a fabulous project. Toshio's music relates so beautifully to the nature of my kinetic painting, that we already have ideas for further collaborations. Watch this space!

Tuesday 15 October 2013

The Flow of Bach & Hosokawa

The Flow of Bach & Hosokawa

The German word Bach means brook or stream. And Bach's music really does flow, pulsate, unstoppable as water. I'm preparing my kinetic visuals for the concert Cloud & Light on 26th, a lovely juxtaposition of Bach and Hosokawa. The whole programme is about flow (and colour)figuratively and literally, at times a stream, at others a tsunami. Toshio Hosokawa's music has a deep relationship with Nature, with the Asian terms ki, chi or qi, the universal energy that flows through us all - our spiritual or physical force that surges or fluctuates, less or more, depending on our willingness to access it, respect it and focus it. It can be accessed or harnessed in many ways: in martial arts, Chi Kung, meditation, rituals for mind and body, acupuncture, EFT (the Tapping Solution), and creative miracles. We were all born with this analogue energy flow. Digital imitations, by the very nature of their discontinuous separate entities, just can't compete
Extract from Bach's Double Violin Concerto in D minor.
The psychologist and author Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is best known as the architect of the notion of Flow. He describes it as a mental state where you are so completely absorbed in the process of an activity, so immersed in a feeling of energized focus that you lose all sense of time. Nothing else matters. Your coffee gets cold, but you feel deeply fulfilled. This is of course nothing new. Thousands of years ago, Asian calligraphers and craftsmen were aware of this state of being. And Bach must surely have composed in a state of Flow. We feel it in his drive, his understanding of the range of human emotions, from joy to sorrow. He carries us along - in this concert through the splendid violinists Gordan Nikolic and Lisanne Soeterbroek.
Extract from Bach's Violin Concerto in A minor.
You don't need to conjure up images to Bach's music. I've discovered the sheer bliss of accompanying the three Bach violin concertos with my pure liquid colours. Colours that I've simply made to flow, gently, hardly moving, in various directions, with no visible brush or human hand. The slow-motion effect counter-balances the energetic rhythmic flow of Bach and is absolutely mesmerizing. I'm following the Taoist concept of wu wei. Doing by non-doing. Less is more. Allowing my water-based medium take its natural course. And there we have the link to the music of Toshio Hosokawa. In fluctuating coloured water, the programme comes together. It will be the longest performance of kinetic painting to music that I've ever given, but well, I shall go with the Flow.
Extract from Bach's Violin Concerto in E major.
I'm afraid that my still shots cannot possibly convey Flow, but later I should have some video material for you. 

Saturday 5 October 2013

Meditation - for the victims of the Tsunami.

Meditation - for the victims of the tsunami

Toshio Hosokawa's Meditation (for the Victims of the Tsunami 11/3/11) is a haunting composition, awfully relevant, as the immediate tragic losses threaten to be eclipsed by the ongoing drama of radioactive leakage from Fukushima. We have all been shocked by the video footage, but this music touches us at a deeper emotional level, as we consider the future of our planet. 

How can one visualise this? The gradual dawning of a terrible reality demands kinetic visuals, not still photos. My images stem from and are driven by Toshio's music. The still shots below are painfully inadequate, but they might give you an inkling (I like that word, because I'm using coloured inks) of what you need to see as a continuous performance.

The earth splits apart - then Japanese harmony with nature is shaken by a calligraphic shriek from the strings, followed by chaotic fragmentation and so forth.... This is as much about shock and inner turmoil as physical destruction.

In my visualization, the encroaching waters only literally appear in the movement entitled Meditation. The alto flute solo conjured up in me a nightmare flash-back in slow motion, where the calligraphy gradually crumbles apart and floats away. My kinetic painting on seven overhead-projectors spreads off-screen, then all around the podium.

The final movements: Elegy, Tear, then Pray, are terribly sad. My giant brush (the cycle of Nature? The hand of God? The power of the Brush?) gently sweeps everything aside, to create a clean slate, as it were. All quietly presided over, as it were, by Mount Fuji.

I can't wait to work with Toshio, as he conducts three of his own works with Mayumi Miyata, the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and my visual premiere. The Amsterdam concert Cloud & Light on 26th October is already virtually sold out.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Remembering Pavarotti

Remembering Luciano Pavarotti

Tomorrow night at London's Royal Albert Hall a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award for Luciano Pavarotti will be presented to his widow, Nicoletta Mantovani, at the 2013 Classic BRIT Awards ceremony.

This large (86 x 54cm) watercolour was painted for the Birmingham Symphony Hall in 1997. My intention in all of the paintings of great performers for that Collection (now nearly thirty) was to make the painting sing, so that you can hear the music, as it were. But in this one I focussed on the moment of radiant relief and exhilaration just after he has propelled the last note of his concert into the auditorium. The sound of that incredible voice is still fading away, yet even now, it's still in our memory. Possibly the daily inspiration for everybody's O sole mio under the shower.

The handkerchief is an essential accessory in this characteristic gesture, as he moves forward into the spotlights. My festive, theatrical colours are chosen to symbolize the warmth and humour of that larger than life personality, perhaps the most famous voice in the popular concept of the world of opera. Ciao Luciano.

Saturday 7 September 2013

Cloud & Light 2.

Cloud & Light: "A line that sings"

These notes come to you from my studio, as I take a break from an intense creative process, designing kinetic visuals for three works by the acclaimed Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa. It's hot - painting on six overhead projectors - and the music sears through heart and soul. The score is abstract, difficult for a non-professional musician to memorize, so I'm spending a lot of time looking for structure and recognizable cues and listening to the CD again and again, until the music becomes part of me and my hands and paintbrushes react intuitively and a tempo. During a performance painting there no time to look at the score! This is the première of these works in concert with visuals, so I'm curious to know how the composer will react to my treatment of his offspring. But I have reasons to be optimistic.

A practice still from kinetic painting to Toshio Hosokawa's Cloud & Light

For years, Asian art and music have had a big influence on my paintings and performances (Takemitsu, Huang Ruo, Asian watercolours) so this collaboration is a dream come true. When I read in Toshio's memoir Stille und Klang, Schatten und Licht (Silence and Sound, Shadows and Light) that his aim is to compose music "like a calligraphy of sounds on a canvas of silence", then I know that he speaks my language and that we can work together. His book is full of such metaphors. 

In earlier blogs you can read my own thoughts on how I use space (as silence) in my visual compositions: The beauty of space and silence and Music and space in watercolour painting.

Hosokawa quotes a Zen proverb: "It's the silence between the notes that creates the music". The significance of Toshio's silences will hopefully be enhanced by my visuals. For example, just after I make a brush-stroke (synchronous to a tone), the sound will "decay" into silence and you can see on the screen how my fluid paint also slowly spreads and settles, sometimes "bleeding" into another colour. Visual silence, you might say. 

Hosokawa's music grows from his deep oneness with the organic properties of Nature, with its unpredictability, beauty and terrifying power. My kinetic designs often originate in the organic potential of my liquid water-based colours. For example, you can watch pools of colour slowly drying from the heat of my projectors and taking on unexpected forms. I try not to intervene, because our audio-visual harmony will develop intentionally and coincidentally. Yes, I'm following the music, but this audio-visual collaboration is a live art form, so the silence between the notes, between each fragment of our "conversation" will be unique. 
From Cloud & Light (for shō and orchestra): "Premonition of Shadows".

In Hosokama's Cloud & Light for shō and orchestra, the celebrated soloist Mayumi Miyata, clad in white, will sit in front of the projection of my live painting, so she will change colour, warm or cool, according to the tones she plays. She will become part of the visual drama.

Whereas Cloud & Light has a calm, mystical, other-worldly beauty, Hosokawa’s music can also reflect the destructive primal forces of nature, as in his Meditation (for the victims of of the Tsunami & Fukushima).  Rather than just illustrating a tsunami, I'm looking for ways to spread the projections of my floods of colour all over the stage, to envelop us all in the angst of the victims. This tragic music gradually develops into an elegy, a tear, then a prayer.

But I must get back to work. You're always afraid that you won't be ready in time!

Cloud & Light. Bach and Hosokawa. 26th October, 20.15. Muziekgebouw aan 't Ij, Amsterdam. Netherlands Chamber Orchestra (leader Gordan Nikolić). Conductor: Toshio Hosokawa, Shō: Mayumi Miyata, Violin: Gordan Nikolić and Lisanne Soeterbroek. 
Click here For tickets. 

Thursday 22 August 2013

Cloud & Light

Cloud & Light: 
upcoming performance with Toshio Hosokawa.

Save the date! 

On Saturday October 26th. 20.15, I shall flood the stage of the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw with my kinetic colours. Bring a towel - for your tears. For me, this could be the audio-visual performance of a life-time, and I dearly want to share it with you. 
The programme Cloud & Light juxtaposes three beautiful works by the acclaimed Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa with three violin concertos by Johan Sebastian Bach. It includes Hosokawa's Meditation, for the victims of 
Fukushima & the Tsunami. 

The Netherlands Chamber Orchestra: Toshio Hosokawa conductor, Gordan Nikolic leader and violin solo, Lisanne Soeterbroek violin, Mayumi Miyata shō. 

Hosokawa's music grows from the silence and power of nature. He has referred to his music "as the calligraphy of sounds, painted on the canvas of silence". 

I've discovered an fascinating organic relationship between
 his music, his use of silence and my kinetic calligraphic brush-marks, balanced and floating in space. I'll be blogging more about this new-found synergy, as my creative designs evolve in the coming weeks. Please save this date and book here.


Tuesday 2 July 2013

Yo-Yo Ma

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the tragic beauty of Shostakovich.

Recently in London, I couldn't miss the opportunity to hear Yo-Yo Ma playing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No.1, with the splendid London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Michael Tilson-Thomas. Yo-Yo gave this work a tragic beauty of his own, with a personal intensity of expression in the harmonics that was breathtaking. I’ve painted many cellists (including Pierre Fournier, Mstislav Rostropovich, Paul Tortelier, Colin Carr), but there is something about Yo-Yo’s playing that is both awe-inspiring and heart-warming.  You are in the presence of a master who draws you into his own interpretation.  
My late wife Vivian King was a cellist and we had already collected most of Yo-Yo's recordings, including his brilliant and hilarious collaboration with singer Bobby McFerrin, and of course Yo-Yo’s moving recordings of the complete Bach Suites for cello.  So when I made this painting in 1992, I had a wealth of musical inspiration at hand. But it's the Brahms and Beethoven Cello Sonatas, performed in a sublime partnership with pianist Emanuel Ax, that you see reflected in the serious blues, greens and greys floating in the background of this watercolour. 

In this painting I had to leave room for the white heading of the poster announcing his Symphony Hall concert. But you always look for a way to turn restrictions into an opportunity, so I decided to use the obligatory low placement of Yo-Yo in the picture to show how totally grounded and balanced he is.

Yo-Yo Ma 1992, watercolour 84 x 56cm, Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection.

Balance is also the key to this composition.  Yo-Yo often turns his head away from the cello, eyes closed, listening to the musical balance with orchestra as a whole. I have set his face at the intersection of two diagonals.  After your gaze has travelled down from the top right-hand corner to his head, you can make a right-angled turn to follow his left hand as it skips and bounds down the fingerboard - almost playfully, although this is anything but child's play. His left hand is at the apex of a compositional pyramid. In fact everything in the painting is precisely balanced on a firm compositional structure, a basis for my freely painted impression of the vibrato and the agility of his fingering, the vigorous bowing, the concentration demanded and tensions involved in making this Stradivarius cello sing as Yo-Yo does. 

Many writers have described the qualities of this great cellist. For years I've admired him as a personality, imaginative teacher and gifted musician, and I am still very fond of this visual ‘collaboration’ with him, over twenty years ago. So it was lovely to have such warm contact again, backstage at the London Barbican.