Tuesday 30 December 2014

Bartók solo

Starting the year with violinist
 Tiziana Pintus in a fragment of Bartók

On January 3rd. in the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw I share an audio-visual taster of a developing project with the violinist Tiziana Pintus, inspired artistic leader of the Carmenae Collective and many other projects. We shall play/paint just four minutes of the Melodia from the Bartók Sonata for Solo Violin, as part of the Splendor Amsterdam Parade an afternoon of samplers of the many talents programmed year-round in the jewel of a creative music centre Splendor, just across from the Rembrandt-huis in Amsterdam. (You can become a member for very small annual contribution!)

Menuhin plays Bartók in the Marc Chagall Museum, Nice. watercolour (detail),1976.

In the summer of 1976 I made the acquaintance of this work (commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin not long before Bartók's death), when I attended a splendid recital of Bach and Bartók by Yehudi in the Marc Chagall Museum in Nice. The above watercolour was the result. An "early" work, perhaps rather too anecdotal, but it did become part of the Menuhin collection. As Yehudi played, standing in front of Chagall's monumental stained-glass windows full of iconic Old Testament stories, I was just flabbergasted as I contemplated the combined riches of musical-visual talent displayed on that night. Feeling totally overshadowed, I surreptitiously made the humble sketches that preceded this painting. Chagall's "Jacob wrestling with the angel" (Genesis 32:22), visible behind Yehudi's back, reminds me of how I wrestled to do justice to these godlike musicians/artists on that momentous occasion.

Bartók was dying with leukemia as he wrote this solo work. The Melodia starts with the warm colour of B-flat, then gradually becomes more and more ethereal. Is his angel already shimmering in those harmonics? Above are two snapshots from my practice sessions. But wait - you haven't seen Tiziana yet, standing in these projected colours as she plays...... See you Saturday?

Chagall was a grand master with light and colour. The vivid pure coloured light of his stained-glass windows moves us in ways far superior to any digital synthetic image today. I'm proud to tag along in his shadow, as I too paint on glass with the transparent colours glowing from my analogue overhead projectors - to hopefully offer illumination for our souls.

Saturday 13 December 2014


All my thanks,Yehudi.

Recalling memories happy or sad, I reflect on those who have played a significant part in my life. One indelible memory is of  Friday 12th March, 1999. I’m sitting in a packed Amsterdam Concertgebouw for the evening concert. Maestro Bernard Haitink walks down the long stairway to the stage, to conduct one of the concerts in honour of his seventieth birthday. However, instead of going to his podium, he goes to a microphone. Strange, there’s something wrong. Bernard is not one for speeches.

“Ladies and gentlemen”, he begins (in Dutch) “today one of the greatest personalities in the world of music of our century passed away". (Oh no, oh no!) “Yehudi Menuhin”.  An enormous shockwave, a collective gasp of sorrow, goes through the hall.

Briefly, Bernard pays tribute to Yehudi, then pianist András Schiff (the soloist for the evening) sits down to play a deeply moving fragment of Bach.  Never has the Concertgebouw been so silent. When he finishes - the orchestra and audience rise to their feet as one, for a minute of silence, broken only by an occasional muffled sob.

Yehudi Menuhin, watercolour 84 x 56cm., 1991, Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection.

I realise that this temple of music, where Yehudi had so often performed and that for multiple reasons has almost become my second home*, is the only place where I would want to be, at this terribly sad moment. 

I met Yehudi in 1963 and he soon became a good friend, one of the first to understand and support my efforts to transpose music into images. I painted him many times - performing in the Gstaad Menuhin Festival, or as soloist in the Chagall Museum in Nice. He would provide opportunities for me to make paintings of him playing with the sitar legend Ravi Shankar (West meets East, 1966), he opened my exhibition at his Festival (1971), he purchased paintings, invited me to join him in an audio-visual recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, for French Television (1976) and finally in 1996, he unveiled my huge watercolour Elgar's Dream (inspired by The Dream of Gerontius and commissioned by Robin and Jayne Cadbury) at Birmingham's Symphony Hall. I cherish the amateur recording of this occasion (by the late Will Blagburn), not only because of the priceless comments Yehudi made about my work, but because it was the last time I saw him.

Yehudi unveiling my "Elgar's Dream" (1996)

My final painting of Yehudi (the above 1991 watercolour) was an attempt to somehow bring together many reflections of his unique musical and spiritual wisdom in one watercolour. As one always does, I asked his approval of the result, before it could be made public.

Quite soon afterwards, a miserable grey morning in my Amsterdam studio was suddenly illuminated, with a message on my answering machine: “Norman, it’s just Yehudi, to tell you that I love the painting… it’s one of the best portraits that have been made of me…all my thanks”. On other "grey" days in my studio (all artists have them), I can still hear his voice and I take courage. Yehudi, my dearest thanks to you, for your ongoing inspiration.
* I've often performed my lyrical abstract painting live to music in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw (sometimes working there at night to set up my gear); I've also spent hours there sitting behind the orchestra to make sketches for my paintings of Haitink, Chailly, Kreizberg, Giulini, Solti; I had a small exhibition there in 1978; my late partner the cellist Vivian King played there with the Netherlands Philharmonic & Chamber Orchestra; both my sons have worked there. Ah yes, it's a very convenient 15 minute walk from my home.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

A visit to the studio

A visit to the studio by someone who really gets the message

Bob Shingleton, author of the excellent classical music blog On an Overgrown Path, was in the Netherlands recently and his latest blog includes an account (with his own photos) of his visit to my studio and home. His skillful inclusion of multiple links ("paths") to his earlier blogs on audio-visual relationships, to my own convictions and to my video trailers of performances, has created one of the most complete surveys of my live kinetic painting to music to date - and places my kinetic visuals in the context of current discussion. To express my appreciation I'm reproducing Bob's text here.

"My first destination was Norman Perryman's studio in Amsterdam. Norman's experiments in fusing kinetic art with classical music have long appealed to me, and when I wrote about his Aldeburgh Festival appearance with Pierre Laurent-Aimard I asked Has classical music finally found its contact high? 

Norman works exclusively in the analogue domain. He paints on multiple overhead projectors, and the audience can watch the creation and dissolution of his fluid images on a giant screen in real time, as his brushwork flows, pulsates convulses in time with the music.
Quite understandably, there is currently a backlash against the distracting accretions that marketeers are imposing on live classical music. But it would be very unfortunate if Norman Perryman's pioneering work is swamped by this backlash. As explained in an earlier post, a paper titled Acoustic Space - Explorations in Communication Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan described how most of our thinking is done in terms of visual models, even when using an auditory one might prove more efficient. Since that paper was published in 1970, the swing from the auditory to the visual has been accelerated by the universal adoption of graphic interfaces for computers. Yet classical music has done very little to acknowledge this inexorable swing from aural to visual acuity. 
Perryman's other work: watercolours on paper of great musicians, for the Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection.

The role call of musicians who have embraced Norman's marriage of kinetic art and music include Simon Rattle, whose 1993 City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra performance of Pictures at an Exhibition was given a kinetic dimension by Norman - a performance described by the Times music critic as "an ingenious audio-visual experiment, with brilliantly conceived imagery".

Currently fashionable accretions such as balloons and tweeting in concerts do not complement live classical music: they fight against it. By contrast Norman Perryman's kinetic art is an extension of the performance: he is part of the performing ensemble with a brush as his instrument. Norman's work in progress includes adding a visual dimension to a transcription of Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross by the Ebonit Saxophone Quartet, and below is his annotated score for the Haydn.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

A day in a music warehouse

A day in a music warehouse

You have three minutes, starting......now! The Ebonit Saxophone Quartet (counting me, now a Quintet) launches into the rich colours and sounds of Haydn’s masterpiece The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross. One of the most profound dramas of history that makes time stand still. We haven’t even reached the bottom of the first page of the Introduction, when our time is up. With a last deep breath, I blow onto the red paint on my glass plate, spreading it with our final long A, and hold the kinetic image for a moment to steal a couple of extra seconds of silence, then snap off the projector. Applause.
     Photo: Ronald Knapp

What is wrong with this picture? We have just made an absurdly brief pitch – one of many during the two days of the Buma Classical Music Convention, in Utrecht’s shiny new Tivoli-Vredenburg: a stack of five multi-purpose concert halls and many foyers that can accommodate classical, pop, jazz, rock, dance, world music, standup comedy, education projects, dinners, fashion shows, live radio, TV and every sort of Convention you can think of, on seven floors. Wow! 

It’s a mass-production factory and today it’s thronged with promoters, all networking neurotically, to sell or trade Classical Music. This is where deals are made and promising young talent is shared around. Honoured with the exposure to the great and powerful in the classical music-business and music-media, musicians scramble from one miniature gig to another, to pitch a new programme, to spread fliers or to dance to the wishes of their agents. "Keep smiling! We all need each other". Fragments are broadcast live, non-stop on the radio. The information overload is at its peak for 48 hours. But by tea-time on the first day, you can already see even the hardiest agents drooping, possibly nauseous at the sight of trays of sandwiches illuminated green or purple from the omnipresent "cheerful" coloured lighting.

So was it naive of us to imagine that we could inject a few minutes of quiet beauty into this maelstrom? A tiny glimpse of our first programme together: Nightfall - with works by Shostakovich, Reger, Webern and Sibelius grouped around three of the Sonatas of Haydn's quartet. Originally written for strings, you won't believe the beautiful sound, as it's been transcribed by this excellent saxophone quartet  But this was a gathering for music managers to discuss strategy, rather than for artists to discuss creative ideas. So naturally, I felt rather out of place. Furthermore, I had the audacity to take the stage with the "young and promising"! Well, there's much to be said for all generations to share experience and youthful brilliance. 

The location of our pitch couldn't have been worse - daylight in a tiny foyer instead of blackout, a refusal to turn off the decorative coloured lights, and no proper screen. Yet with just a few words, followed by two and a half minutes of audio-visual Haydn as I crouched over just one roll-on overhead-projector, we communicated! 

We can't wait for the tryout of our new programme Nightfall. It's just been fixed for February 4th, 2015, 20.00 in the Bernard Haitink Hall of the Amsterdam Conservatorium. More details to follow.