Friday 5 April 2013

Your instrument: the paintbrush. The challenge: play together with the orchestra

Your instrument: the paintbrush. 
The challenge: play together with the orchestra.

Painting doesn’t traditionally belong to the performing arts (music, theatre and dance). It may attempt to convey the illusion of movement or music, but the end-result of this creative activity is static, nailed into a frame. The spectator has arrived too late. Don’t you sometimes wish you could have seen the artist in action? (Well, you can now, if you click here).

The performing arts are by nature flexible and adaptible. Even though the intentions at each performance are the same, the interpretation of the notes, the choreography or the script turns out differently each time. The performers are adapting continuously to a number of variable factors (the hall, size of the stage, the timing of their fellow players, even the reactions of the audience. If you turn painting into a flexible, kinetic art form, painted live to music, you are faced with a lot of problems – not only how to make the paint move, the coloured projections cross-fade and the brushes move “in real time”, but how to adapt to the other performers. You’ve got to think like a musician, or a dancer. Actually you don’t think – if you've practised enough, your body reacts intuitively, but it's not easy.

From the first rehearsal, it’s a fast-track learning curve. Like libretto writers and composers, I’m used to doing the preparatory work alone, hoping anxiously that when the piece goes live, I’ll somehow get the chance to have a say in bringing everything together. In the nature of things, a kinetic painter is his own director. But in music-theatre you may have another director and a conductor to reckon with.

I thought I was ready. I had practised the way my brushes move, memorized the score and it all looked great. But now, on stage, I discover that the hall is too dry, so the paint dries too fast, and passages with a flow of paint are too slow! (Solutions: more paint or water, a thicker brush, a steeper slope for the plate, but only during that passage, but not for the rest). The musical accents that I had emphasized visually  are now minimized by this conductor. Oh no, he's taking those bits faster than my familiar practice-CD, so my colours don’t have time to settle, blossom, or gently spread as I would like. In split seconds, I need to make a huge number of adjustments. It’s not easy to adapt - to create unison, especially if it’s your own creation. How many painful compromises can I make, before saying no? Then even if we've reached agreement in rehearsal, I sure hope everyone  remembers to make those tiny adjustments “on the night”. I may just have to improvise a little with the paint, without losing touch with the tempi, the beat and the concept as a whole.

If you're used to working in the studio, with all the time in the world, it's enough to drive you crazy. But it all gets a bit easier after forty years of practice! The positive side of setting up your four-metre-long "work-desk" of overhead projectors in or next to the orchestra, is that you can finally watch the soloists or the conductor for cues and hear everything, rather than half-guessing what a CD is going to do (as in my video-clip).

When it all works well, it’s bliss. My favourite example is that of performing Piano Colours in duo with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. He shows so much respect for my visuals, watching the screen and swopping cues, while at the same time inspiring me to adjust to what I’m hearing, so that we have a real audio-visual give and take – and yes, it’s slightly different every night, because both of us felt it was good that way.

Here are some excerpts from a recording of one of my studio practice-sessions for a recent performance of kinetic painting with Scriabin’s Prometheus: Poème du Feu are now online. After four rehearsals on stage with the orchestra, it got a lot better! 

Prometheus: Poème du Feu is actually a double concerto – for pianist and colourist (and orchestra). The composer has written his desired colours into the score (marked luce). (for more on this, see my blog of January 25th) It’s a tough piece, for everybody. Usually the conductor doesn’t have time to even glance at the projections of my live kinetic painting. Did he notice that I’m right with his beat, that the movements of my colours beautifully reflect his diminuendo or dramatic emphasis? No, he has too many other problems, guiding his orchestra through the difficult score. And whatever is agreed during rehearsals, a conductor is only human, and if he gets carried away with his own enthusiasm on the night, everybody has to follow. Me too. And that sometimes leaves you with mixed feelings and pause for thought on how you can all do better next time. 

Most orchestral musicians have no idea that I usually know the score as well as they do (or better!), nor that I’m painting in synch with them. (My screen may be out of their sight-lines). But during rehearsals, the musicians with not so much to do will watch, discover the synchronous nature of my role, then suddenly become more friendly. Ha – he’s one of us!

Actually, despite all sorts of problems, on the first night of my performance of Prometheus - Poème du Feu, we brought the house down. Martine Mergeay wrote in the Belgian LaLibre:

Perryman visualized the drama coming from the orchestra, the piano and the choir, and formed a liaison with the dynamics of the score. (This was) a concert that one dreams of: surprising, polymorphic, innovative.


  1. What a great challenge again my friend, this new portrait. Cant wait to see it!. Michael