Friday 11 December 2015

A climb in progress

A climb in progress

I'm looking out over a vast alpine landscape, with a plan in my mind for a large oil painting of slowly moving dark shapes, strung out across the space. A painting of a mountain climb in progress - where each foot or hand is patiently put in front of the other, in the right place at the right time. A audio-visual contrast between the small sounds of personal exertion, the grappling with the rock, the sound of progress and of the spacious silence in rising clouds of mist.

From the early sixties onwards I spent much time in the mountains to make paintings, teach, ski, climb and eventually build a chalet at 1300 metres, on the edge of the Swiss village of Leysin. For about five months of the year you had to cope with snow, ice, wind and mist, learning where to put your feet, where (not) to drive your car and how to gauge the weather conditions. Sometimes you were at the mercy of nature. A salutary experience.
                                                The view towards my chalet in 1968
My painter's eye became fascinated with diagonal lines dissecting my view. Diagonals suggest movement; and my new painting will also reflect this characteristic of my early work.
"Skiers disappearing over a hill-top", 1966. 
I knew Peter Rae as a student in Switzerland, and when he and his wife Helle Johansen-Baker recently saw some of these early works, where rhythmic shapes crept, zigzagged or danced across my canvasses, they were inspired to commission something similar. So I needed to get back up into the mountains, to sense that space again and do some active research, so that the painting would express a physical experience. 

It was extraordinarily emotional to find myself back in the same mountains where I had lived fifty years ago! It so happened that I even got to see "my" chalet, now inhabited by others, the tiny saplings I had planted around it now towering high or even decapitated. Would it be like this to return from the dead and discover that nature just goes on without you?
Meeting  mountain guide Steve Jones
Heartfelt thanks to my kind guides and mountain climbers Hilary Boardman-Rhodes (who helped me scope out possibilities) and Steve Jones (who roped up for some good demos and useful impressions). I of course didn't do anything hazardous. My struggles began back in my Amsterdam studio (below sea-level) for many hours of setting up the composition, then covering this large canvas in various ways, with my mind still full of those heady vistas. My composition is about the importance of balance in positioning. And balance is certainly something a climber relates to. 
A climb in progress. Oil on canvas, 90 x 130 cm. 2015.

If you stand right in front of a canvas of this size, you have to move your head left or right to take in the grandeur, perspective and depth of the landscape right and centre, then tilt your head upwards to take in the difference in altitude from your point of view in front of the man in the foreground putting on his climbing shoes. So you have to “get your head around” the rhythms and contortions of a very physical activity, as you follow a sort of strip cartoon of the progress of this climbing adventure. It might look a bit humorous. Er, is there enough room on the peak for all those people - and who is roped to whom? The set-up probably breaks all the rules. Still, it gives room for the imagination! My son said it made him think of those old communist posters, where strenuous muscle-power is combined with the message “United, we can do it!”. Actually a professional climber pointed out that the queues on climbing routes really are beginning to look a bit like this.

Quite apart from any imagined story, I wanted to really integrate the men and women into the landscape and into the rocks, so that they become almost abstract elements as part the whole. I also hope you can hear the music echoing round that valley and in the twisted irregular rhythms, beating their way up to that pianissimo peak.
Altogether, this project became a most thought-provoking and fulfilling experience spanning time and space. Am I one of those climbers? If so, the decision on which one depends on whether I'm having a bad day :). My thanks to Peter and Helle, who visited my studio this week to view their new painting. They were thrilled, moved and delighted.

Friday 20 November 2015

Live: Musik und Malerei

Music and Kinetic Painting 
Musik und Malerei in Konzerthaus Berlin

It gives me great pleasure to announce a concert of kinetic painting and discussion with violinist Daniel Hope and pianist Sebastian Knauer in Konzerthaus Berlin, on April 25th 2016. One of seventeen concerts to pay homage to Yehudi Menuhin at the centenary of his birth in 1906. I'm touched and honoured by Daniel's invitation to take part in this historic celebration. Ever since I met Yehudi in 1963, he was very supportive of my work, became a dear friend and the first great musician to ask me to perform live paintings - to his performance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, filmed for French Television by the legendary Bruno Monsaingeon in 1979. 

Now Daniel, after his lifelong personal friendship with Yehudi, has wondrously brought us all together again in music and painting - with William Walton's Violin Sonata, commissioned by Yehudi in 1947.

How timely this celebration is, in our troubled times! Not only was Yehudi Menuhin perhaps the most renowned violinist of the 20th century. He was a great humanist and philanthropist, campaigning ceaselessly for human rights and international understanding. He was the first world-class Jewish artist to play in Germany after World War II, as a statement of reconciliation. Until his death in Berlin in 1999 he believed in the unifying powers of music and in using it to change society for good.

Daniel is following in his footsteps. His fascinating books (in German) Familienstücke and Sounds of Hollywood include accounts of how his ancestors in Berlin and many musicians fled the horrors of the Nazis. And how many of those musicians who migrated to the USA contributed to the creation of the special "Hollywood-sound" for the films of those years, music full of both sadness and hope.
Chatting with Yehudi Menuhin at Symphony Hall Birmingham in 1991
Daniel unites the three of us in my Amsterdam studio
A old clipping from the Luzerner Tagblatt in 1971, when Yehudi opened an exhibition of my paintings at his Gstaad Festival.

Here's the link to the concert Live; Musik und Malerei 
in Berlin on April 25th. See you there?

Sunday 18 October 2015

My Memoir

My memoir on sale at 
 Symphony Hall Birmingham

I'm looking forward to being back in Birmingham on Wednesday October 28th, to autograph copies of my memoir A Life Painting Music and the new Norman Perryman Collection of fine art prints and greeting cards of a selection of my paintings of famous musicians. You will find Valery Gergiev, Andris Nelsons, Luciano Pavarotti, Bryn Terfel, Bernard Haitink, Yehudi Menuhin, a young Simon Rattle, The Mahler Experience and more.
The Symphony Hall Collection started in 1990 after a conversation with Director Andrew Jowett about my passion for painting musical subjects. His commissions to paint some of the musicians he had programmed for his first season eventually led to a collection of twenty-eight large watercolours and the 200 x 160 cm. canvas The Mahler Experience that illustrates my book cover. But my memoir also describes the making of many other works inspired by musical encounters worldwide. Each one has its own tale. Read my book to get the whole story!
For the next six months, you can purchase any of these new products exclusively at Symphony Hall, place orders at or phone +44(0)1216445144. Watch this space for alternative sales locations later next year.

On 28th you will find me in the foyer, during the afternoon, before the evening concert and during the interval (but not after the concert). 

Sunday 4 October 2015

Creative freedom in 2019!

Creative freedom in 2019!

If you can't read this, turn it anti-clockwise. 
It says, of course 
Creative freedom in 1990

Thirty years ago, on my New Year's card of 1989/90, my long splayed brush was not just painting graffiti on a wall - it was my own simple way to slash through the wall of political and cultural prejudice, to freely calligraph a message of optimism, a call for creative thinking in whatever language you speak, write, sing, play or paint; a call to claim freedom from a disastrous political system.

In November 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and we were all carried away with excitement about the consequences. That first celebration of German unity in Berlin saw Rostropovich playing the Bach Cello Suites at the Wall and Leonard Bernstein at the Konzerthaus Berlin conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the final Ode to Joychanging the words from Freude! (joy) to Freiheit! (freedom). Here he is in action in 1989:

But despite our hopes and tears of joy, 
thirty years later, has very much changed? 
Let us not despair. 
These words must still be writ large on walls everywhere.
Think creatively! 
Think out of the box! Through the wall!
An edited version of my blog of 2015

Saturday 12 September 2015

Birds free to migrate!

Birds free to migrate!

Thursday night I was one of thousands who watched, mesmerized, as Yo-Yo Ma playing the six Bach Suites for solo cello in the Royal Albert Hall. After this two and a half hour marathon, he took the microphone to say that in the light of the terrible things happening in the world right now, he wanted to play one more little song, a Catalan song arranged for solo cello by the legendary Catalan cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973). Not only did Casals revive public appreciation of the Bach Suites - he spent a significant part of his life in exile, in protest against the Franco regime in Spain, playing in protest at the plight of refugees around the world. This Song of the Birds has become a plea for freedom, said Yo-Yo, the freedom to live where you would like to live. What a beautiful and simple message in the language of music from one man on an otherwise empty stage.

Birds are free to migrate, singing to each other as they do. Are they trying to tell us something?
Yo-Yo Ma, watercolour 84 x 56cm, 1992. Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection

It's twenty-three years since I made this watercolour of Yo-Yo. Using the diagonal of the cello, this composition is based on triangles. Your gaze follows the dark tones down from the top right-hand corner to his face, listening. Then turns down the fingerboard where his fingers are delicately gamboling down towards his bowing action. It's all about balance.

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Visual mindfulness

A film role brings me back to Mindfulness

Gijs Scholten van Aschat, an old friend of mine and one of Holland's most famous actors, needed an English native-speaker to play the role of a Mindfulness counselor in the 29 minute tragicomic Dutch film Jack (a Journey to Fulfillment). I was offered the part and thought "why not?" 

Gijs stars as Jack, who is desperately trying to combat his fear of failure, his frustration and pain as he tries to renovate his house (and actually himself). Instead of more pills, his doctor recommends the CDs of the popular Mindfulness guru Jon Sabat (no, not that other guy with a similar name).
     photos and cinematographer Marjoke Haagsma

So I become the voice of Jon that Jack, during his emotional predicaments, can hear in his headphones speaking the wise advice that many of us have heard before and then forgotten: "Focus on the wonder of this present moment and on your own potential right now, accept yourself as you are..." and so on. Although Jack doesn't really have time for this stuff, the voice continues to haunt him. Jon even becomes his mainstay, support and inspiration.
But wait, people ask me - are you an actor? Well no, I just pretend. Ah yes, that's what actors do all the time, right? Ha, ha, it's amazing what you can achieve with such a gifted young Director as Jim Süter and with this fascinating script by screen-writer Jeroen Scholten van Aschat. Jim is amazing - he could gently talk me through the psychology of any situation and for him I would do whatever it takes. Not to mention the support of an experienced actor like Gijs. Playing opposite this guy in full emotional swing - and trying to stay calm, is unforgettable. 

It was fun to be involved and fascinating to observe the making of this film, but more than that, getting inside this role made me reflect a lot on real life. We might laugh at Jack's pathetic figure as he gets ever deeper into the troubles he brings upon himself, yet his problems are uncomfortably familiar and he invokes our sympathy. Jon Sabat's message starts to make sense. I had to believe it to play the role. In fact, I needed it myself. I also realized that it reinforced something I've possessed for years - my own form of visual mindfulness, developed through kinetic painting to music - which can only be done (and viewed) by focussing on the now. This real-time art form carries so many risks, but if you dare take them - to quote the musician Nikolaus Harnoncourt - even on the edge of disaster you discover great beauty. 
Film is related to my own kinetic painting in that it's a time-based art form. Film (or in German Kino, for the movies) and my continuous painting only exist in the present moment. Hence my affiliation to Mindfulness. The spectator focusses so intensely on the moving images because she/he knows that they are ephemeral. This exercise in heightened awareness takes you out of this world, my spectators tell me. Quite therapeutic. So am I a therapist? Nah....I just paint with the conviction that the synthesis of kinetic painting and music is good for my well-being - and for yours. It may well lower your blood-pressure or, in the case of the Poem of Ecstasy in the trailer below, get you really turned on!

This year is the centenary of the death of the composer Alexander Scriabin, who fervently believed that music and colour together have a special synergy. In his honour, here's a 9 min. montage from my performance with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy. Go to full screen, turn the sound up, focus and enjoy each moment!


June 30th sees the première of Jack (a Journey to Fulfillment) in the 
EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam. The first night is sold out, but for my Dutch-speaking friends, here's the link to the Keep an Eye Filmacademie Festival with other dates and screening times, to book online. If you can't get in, Jack will also be televised on Dutch KRO-NCRV in mid-September.

Saturday 18 April 2015

The art of letting go

The art of letting go

A particular sadness hits me when I look again at my paintings of those who have passed away. Below is a watercolour study for a painting of Elaine Shaffer, in her day the veritable queen of the flute. I met her at the Menuhin Festival in Gstaad. She often performed with Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin and was very kind to me as I made sketches in 1972 for a large painting - that was not to be. I didn't know that in less than a year later this striking woman with the wonderful sound would die of cancer at 47. 
watercolour 36 x 51cm, 1972

A brilliant creative life cut short and a creative process (my painting) interrupted. Perhaps the minimal form of this study is therefore appropriate, incomplete as it is. I must be thankful that I was privileged to share just one brief session with this great musician and had to let go of what might have been.

As a dear friend reminded me yesterday - letting go is an art in itself, whether it be a failed relationship, the loss of a loved one, or even an experience that you know is designed to finish. Any performance falls into this category, as does my kinetic painting to music, that finishes when the music stops. Spectators used to holding on to a "finished" and framed painting, will tell me after performance: "but we wanted it to go on.... and there's nothing left!" Their comment reminds me that one of my aims in these performances is to practise and to share the "art of letting go". It really does take a lot of practice.

Here's a link to one of the Bach performances that I especially remember, with Elaine, Yehudi, George Malcolm (harpsichord) and Robert Masters, Concertmaster of the Bath Festival Chamber Orchestra. The video is dated 1959, but I heard this work with same ensemble at Gstaad in the sixties. She was wearing the same skirt and blouse!

Wednesday 8 April 2015

The joys of teaching

An old master enjoys teaching again

After many years away from teaching, it gave me much pleasure to teach a master class last week for an international group of twelve students of the Amsterdam Conservatorium. I discovered that a long teaching experience sharing your personal passions and convictions never leaves you, it becomes second nature. 

They crammed into my small studio, so that I could avoid the chore of schlepping my overhead projectors, paints and other gear across town. It was thrilling to see such lively intelligent students taking in every word and keeping me on my toes with bright questions. We started with a potted history of the concepts of Gesamtkunstwerk and synaesthesia, moving quickly from Wagner, Scriabin, Kandinsky, Walt Disney (Fantasia) and Frank Zappa to Perryman, all artists obsessed with bringing together various visual arts and music to create one unique multi-disciplinary art form.

I pulled out a few watercolours to show how, over the years, I had moved from painting illusions of movement and music in watercolour on paper, to choreographing kinetic paintings on the glass plates of my overhead projectors, where the coloured inks literally keep moving. I began to experiment with kinetic painting in 1973, while teaching Art at a very proper Swiss private school, Aiglon College. At exactly the same time the audiences of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were hallucinating to the fluid psychedelic colours of the Joshua White Show in New York. My preference was to combine my painting skills with classical music as an aid to meditation, without any need to enhance the experience with substances.

Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi conducting Debussy with the Netherlands Philharmonic, 
watercolour 70 x 50 cm, 1989. Basses and celli top left; below them percussion and woodwinds; bottom right the strings.
A sequence of kinetic painting towards the end of Scriabin's Prometheus/Poem of Fire. Click this link for the story of that Brussels performance in 2013).
Amazed and delighted groups of students experimenting for their one-minute performance on my overhead-projectors.

This was my assignment: paint me a phrase of any five notes: show me what colour they are, in which direction they are moving, how fast, are they hard edged or a soft flow, spaced or close, and so on. An impossible challenge for one session - even a one-week course wouldn't give you enough time to practise. I've been practising this for forty years and still learning! But they enjoyed getting their toes wet.