Friday 9 December 2016

My Mahler Experience

The making of 
The Mahler Experience 

A few weeks ago, with over two thousand others, I was shuffling towards the exit of Birmingham's Symphony Hall, slightly dazed, the sounds of Mahler 1 still going through my whole being. Mirga Gražinyté-Tyla had just conducted the CBSO in another fabulous concert. They brought the house down!
We pass by my painting The Mahler Experience - Symphony Hall. "Look", a woman in front of me says to her group, "I think that may be Mahler 2, with Simon Rattle". "That's right", I mutter. "Are you sure?" "Yeah, I painted it". The crowd comes to a standstill. "You painted it! Hey, he painted it!" Handshakes all round. I find this reaction rather amusing, but it happens every time I'm in Birmingham. A group of teenagers is hanging around. I try not to feel prejudiced about their demeanour. One of them eventually approaches me and says: "Sir, I just have to tell you: that painting changed my life. I now love classical music". A novelist wants to include the painting as the sublime emotional experience of her main character. Could we do a photo in front of the painting? And so on. I feel rather happy for all of them, but strangely, it's as though some else painted it, long ago in the history of art. Everybody wants to know more, but I want to say to them "ah, you should see the next one that I'm working on!" (Watch this space).
The 1993 commission came from Mike Dernie of Midlands Electricity, then one of the main sponsors of Symphony Hall. Mike was a member of the CBSO Chorus. (You can just make him out in the back row). He became a good friend and I'm writing this for him, in appreciation of what he did for me and many thousands of viewers in the last twenty-three years. He drove over to my Amsterdam studio to collect the finished work personally in his van. There was no suitable wall to hang it in the entrance mall, so they built a fake one. Now the painting gives you a glimpse of the Hall without going inside and a glimpse of the experience that might be yours if you a buy a concert ticket.
People often ask "how do you start?" The inspiration came from two experiences of hearing Mahler 2 (the so-called "Resurrection" symphony), first at the opening of Symphony Hall in 1991 with Simon Rattle conducting the CBSO, then later with Mariss Jansons. I made a number of preparatory studies of course, but then standing in front of this rather large white canvas (200 x 160cm.) I felt dwarfed, aware that I had to do justice to the musicians and the Hall that I was about to paint. The awful moment of truth. I needed to hear the music, so I pressed the button, Mahler 2 blasted out full volume and I was away, going with the flow of those first transparent washes of acrylic. This was to be an ode to the architecture and superb acoustics of one of the best halls in the world. The perspective of those irregular curving shapes was a challenge, but it was sheer joy to paint that cloud of floating sound, zigzagging upwards, spreading across the adjustable ceiling, every sound enhanced by the expertise of the legendary acoustician Russell Johnson (1923-2007). His acoustic design determined the architecture.
Here are a few more shots from my diary, showing some of the developments and changes :

Friday 2 December 2016

The Philosopher

The philosopher of the piano

One of the early commissions for the Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection, in 1992, was to paint Alfred Brendel. I portrayed him as the learned philosopher of the piano, searching for and expounding profound issues in music, gazing into space, with his characteristic raising of the eyebrows, listening intently as he attempts to elevate us to the sublime. His gaze, accented by the heavy line of his spectacles, follows the direction of the undulating rising diagonal line from his tails, past the little flourish of the far end of the keyboard, left of the sloping piano lid to the four soft clouds of pale blue in the top right of the picture.  The white surface of the keyboard provides a counter-diagonal, to balance the whole composition. 

In my painting, Alfred Brendel is a natural extension of his great instrument – altogether, quite a lot of black. So I've tried to give those blacks and greys transparency, floating them over the mists of subdued olive green which swirl around him. His Steinway seems to be loaded with gold. Between heaven and earth, at the centre of everything, are those sensitive hands, with poor battered fingers taped, creating magic. His left hand is rising after placing a majestic chord from Liszt's 'Années de Pèlerinage'. Can you hear its dying sound? Brendel conjures up the grandeur of the echoing mountains and the stillness of the lakes of Switzerland and Italy - scenes which I know well. So it was Liszt, rather than Beethoven or Mozart, for which he has such a reputation, that became one of the main sources of inspiration for this painting.

This watercolour took quite a bit of research. I had been part of Brendel's audience years ago, but I had no opportunity, before the deadline for this commission, to observe him closely in live performance or rehearsal.  This was long before YouTube! Then Brendel's record company, Philips Classics, offered me the use of some wonderful video material in which his Liszt recordings were interspersed with thoughtful introductory talks.  The inspiration was there! But unfortunately the setting and lighting in which the recordings were made were totally different to the concept and colours I had in mind.  So began a long process of sifting and transforming impressions, through three or four studies, before the final watercolour took shape.

Twenty-four years on, looking back at this rather serious painting, I reflect on how inadequate any attempted representation of this erudite cultural giant would be, with his love of literature, languages and art, his sense of humour and much more. After the Birmingham concert for which this was painted, we were commiserating on the bad reproduction of my painting in a local newspaper. "It's the same with a recording", he said, "you are never satisfied".


My brush with Kandinsky, Magaloff & Josefowitz

My brush with 
Kandinsky, Magaloff & Josefowitz

It was an eerie drive through the snow, winding through the dark pine trees to Nina Kandinsky's chalet above Gstaad, Switzerland. My partner Vivian King, an American cellist studying with Pierre Fournier in Geneva in the mid-seventies, had been invited to a chamber music evening and dinner by David Josefowitz. An extraordinary, extremely wealthy Ukrainian entrepreneur and philanthropist, he was in the habit of inviting young musicians to play chamber music on his quartet of Stradivarius instruments. The 1735 cello was slightly shorter than usual and Vivian was excited to be invited to try it out. Rather intimidating though, because the great pianist Nikita Magaloff was also a guest. I tagged along with my sketchbook and paints, to seize the opportunity of making some musical impressions. 

The door opened to a babble of Russian, French and German and the dinner was multi-lingual. Nina provided us with liberal quotes from Kandinsky's ideas on the relationships between music and painting. As a comparatively lowly painter of musical themes, I became terribly aware that I was on holy ground. The intellectual giant of modern art himself had of course passed away in 1944. How I wished I could have met him.

Anyway, the idea was to sight-read some piano quintets with Magaloff. I remember the Schumann, but I'm hazy about the others. It had been a very good dinner - and it was delightful to hear how many mistakes even the greatest can make on a crazy evening like this - and just laugh them off. But Magaloff's sound and style was unforgettable, what has been described as his "limpid tone and a certain controlled impetuosity". Little of my impetuous brushwork was worth keeping, but I still have these fragmentary line sketches of Magaloff to remind me of that amazing evening. We drove home with the feeling that we had been deep into the heart of Russia.

(Below) Vivian and the author in the seventies. In the background, my painting of Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra with Stravinsky's "Firebird".

Following Kandinsky's death, the value of his work rocketed and with her new-found wealth, Nina soon acquired a reputation for collecting fine jewellery. Imagine our shock and horror when, a few years after our visit, we heard the news that Nina's chalet had been broken into and that she had been murdered. No priceless paintings were missing - only her latest million-dollar diamond necklace. A mystery that has never been solved. It feels strange, that of all the people in the chalet that evening, I may be the only one still alive.

Saturday 20 August 2016

Sejong plays Murmurs in the Mist of Memory

Sejong plays
 Murmurs in the Mist of Memory

Augusta Read Thomas is a widely acclaimed and prolific composer in whose music I find a wealth of lyrical colours and a palette of textures. It was a stroke of genius by Hyo and Kung Kang, Directors of the Sejong Soloists*, to invite me to create and perform kinetic paintings to Gusty's Murmurs in the Mist of Memory, commissioned for this brilliant young string ensemble, based in New York. In 2007 we took it to the Great Mountains Music Festival in South Korea and our performance was very well received. The media were all fascinated that I possessed brush skills that were apparently distant relatives of their own calligraphic traditions. 

It's with some trepidation that one ventures to give visual form and colour to the work of a living composer, but so far the contemporary composers that I had contact with about their work: George Benjamin, Toshio Hosokawa, Tristan Murail, Rautavaara, Huang Ruo and Augusta Read Thomas - have all been enthusiastic. This is what Gusty (to her friends) wrote about my treatment of her Murmurs:
“Norman, I love your work so dearly!!! I was in shock.  When I got your DVD in my Chicago mail, I opened it right away and was totally thrilled. It is truly amazing. I was in tears too! Your work is the most beautiful thing anyone has ever done with my work, for sure”.  
I had sent her a DVD for feedback, but I only got this message after the concert, so that was a relief! And the start of a creative friendship.
This week I have been working with Amsterdam video producer Bob Aardewerk to record and edit a new performance of Murmurs with the Sejong Soloists in October, for the new Lotte Hall in Seoul. This time, to avoid the long flight, jet-lag and freighting of my gear to Seoul, I have provided Sejong with a HD video recording. If I performed on stage, I would follow their cues. But now our roles are reversed. The ensemble will follow the projection of my kinetic images as they play, confident that my paintings are synchronized to their own sound-track (it's been my practice material for weeks). With four cameras on me and my projectors, almost as in live-streaming, the audience will watch me painting to the music, as though I am in the hall.

This work for eleven players has four movements: Ceremonial, Lullaby, Ritual and Incantation. Flowing memories of tenderness, spice, tears, determination, beautiful songs and miniature dances, full of irregular rhythms and colours and quite tricky to paint to. Here's the video link to Incantation, the haunting fourth movement. (View it full-screen).
* named after the 15th century Korean Emperor Sejong the Great, known for his contribution to the arts.  

Friday 12 August 2016

Black Rain

Black Rain

August 6th has passed again, the awful day when in 1945 the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, creating unprecedented destruction and a horrible death for many thousands. And a dramatic warning that mankind could now easily annihilate itself. The radioactive fallout from that bomb - the "black rain" - became the title of a Japanese film, for which Toru Takemitsu composed his beautifully tragic music.

On that same date in 2007, when I was performing live kinetic paintings to Takemitsu's Black Rain in the South Korean Great Mountains Music Festival, that disaster felt very close indeed. Only just across the Sea of Japan in fact. Thousands of Korean forced labourers in Hiroshima also died from that bomb and some of their descendants were watching our performance on television.

The brilliant young string-players Sejong Soloists and I joined in paying tribute to all those victims and our audience was deeply moved. I felt a deep identification with Takemitsu's music and grateful for the opportunity to make a statement in my own visual language - the language of the brush, that my Korean audience understood very well. 

That terrible event of August 6th 1945 was a news-flash that made all other news pale, although its significance was not yet fully understood. Even though today's power-wielding maniacs may be unable to "see the light", we artists need, more than ever, to continue to speak, play, paint this message - an annual reminder of the fragility of human life. Words fail me, so here's the five-minute video of my studio painting rehearsal for Takemitsu's Black Rain, (with acknowledgements to Marin Alsop's recording of his Three Film Scores) with the Bournemouth Symphony). Turn the sound up and play it full screen.

(Below) Two images from Black Rain, by Toru Takemitsu. Total devastation. In the final image, the red sun has turned white.

More next time on another upcoming project with Sejong. 

Sunday 17 July 2016



It was so inspiring to perform again with Daniel Hope and Sebastian Knauer on July 8th, this time in the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, as part of Daniel's concert series "Familienstücke" in Lübeck. We did Walton's thirty-minute Sonata for Violin and Piano and it went like a charm, with a lovely togetherness and synergy. I found that the music was thoroughly coursing through my veins and this confidence provided space for the occasional improvisation.

Then we did Maurice Ravel's Kaddish, one of his Deux mélodies hébraïques, a Jewish prayer of mourning and praise. Daniel introduced this work with a poignant story about his dear friend and mentor the late Yehudi Menuhin. After performing in Düsseldorf together on March 7th 1999, Yehudi encouraged Daniel to play an encore and he spontaneously chose the Kaddish. Yehudi listened sitting in the orchestra. It turned out to be their last concert. Five days later Yehudi passed away. 

I had long wanted to create and perform a piece in honour of Yehudi, in memory of a dear friend, the first great musician to invite me to perform together. Daniel gave me the perfect opportunity in Lübeck and as I painted this mournful and agonizingly beautiful work, I found it difficult not to be overcome with emotion, as my kinetic colours flowed gently away, for ever. Then a very slow fade out, to a hall in total silence. We had created a worthy tribute.
Here is the five minute video of my studio rehearsal, using Daniel's passionate recording with Jacques Ammon.   

Friday 24 June 2016



Eighty-three years ago today I came into the world blue in the face. (No, not because of the political situation in Europe in 1933). The midwife had to untangle the umbilical cord from around my neck before I could gasp for my first breath. It was a home-delivery and she then gave me sips of brandy from a spoon! Ah, there you are then, my family likes to joke - with the characteristic Perryman sense of humour - that explains the brain-damage. That first struggle to make myself heard and seen was to be one of many over the years and I haven't finished yet! That's an artist's lot.

So I'm still breathless, racing against time, to give creative form to so many more ideas before my time runs out, yet I'm also pleasantly surprised that I'm still going strong. Happy to have found my form in time-based art: in live kinetic painting, cradled in music. It's quite a challenge, but I love it. But why do you make life so difficult for yourself, they say. Um, I was born that way, ha, ha. Actually, kinetic painting is probably the ideal therapy for me. Not only does it boost my dopamine levels. As any Asian calligrapher will tell you, it's your breathing that gives every stroke of your brush beauty and power.

My own performing art-form is, by its very nature, continuously moving on, passing by, short-lived. Afterwards, there's nothing left, just like music. What a pity? Not at all. Life is like that. Those audio-visual sensations will live on in the hearts and memories of thousands who have watched my ephemeral art form. Yes, I do love it when a viewer (usually a woman) comes up to me after the concert and says: "you just took my breath away!"

Here's the link to some fragments (perhaps not the best) from the exciting Berlin Konzerthaus performance on April 25th, the first with Daniel Hope and Sebastian Knauer, introduced here in Sarah Willis' reportage on Deutsche Welle TV . You can catch me at 3.09 mins into the video and again at 9.49. 

Our next performance is at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival in Lübeck on July 8th.

Monday 2 May 2016

Four great milestones

Four great milestones.

Birmingham, Amsterdam, Geneva, Berlin. Four different projects in quick succession. Each a significant milestone that made me pause, look back thankfully and marvel at inspiring friendships - and at the closing of some great chapters in my life. 
In Birmingham Andrew Jowett retired as Director of Symphony Hall, where he commissioned thirty-two of my paintings. On stage for the unveiling of my painting of Andrew, as described in my previous blog.

Back in  Amsterdam I shared the Dutch TV music programme Podium Witteman with Lis Perry and Liviu Prunaru, both former students of Yehudi Menuhin and now concertmasters of great orchestras, to speak of our friendship with this wonderful man, then join in an audio-visual extract from Bach's Double Violin Concerto. Here's the link - it's in Dutch.
Norman Perryman & Lis Perry celebrate Yehudi Menuhin at 100.
Then it was quite nostalgic to re-visit Geneva, where I lived, exhibited, taught art, set up the Visual Arts programme of the International Baccalaureate, collaborated with left-wing journalist friends in NGO activities in the 1970's and made film around my kinetic painting with music for Télévision Suisse Romande in 1976. Wow, a significant period of my life.

Now, forty years later, I'm invited by WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), an agency of the United Nations, to put on a performance of kinetic painting at a major conference in their beautiful new hall. How fulfilling. But was it a little bit of the devil in me to propose l'Histoire du Soldat (composed by Stravinsky on the Lake of Geneva in 1918)? How appropriate for this city of wealth and power, the story of how the soldier sold his violin (his soul) to the Devil, in exchange for a book that "tells you things before they happen" and provides "wealth untold"! Alas, the soldier become millionaire realizes that after all, in reality he has nothing. Terribly familiar? It was great to share the stage with the Ludwig Ensemble, but especially with my son Chris King Perryman, playing the Narrator. His mother Vivian King, whom I met in Geneva in 1974 when she was studying with the cellist Pierre Fournier, would have been so proud.

From Geneva I flew straight to Berlin, for a performance with Daniel Hope and Sebastian Knauer, one of the wonderful series in honour of our dear Yehudi Menuhin, who would have been 100 on April 22nd. There I met many old friends and his daughter Zamira, with whom I was able to share memories of my friendship with Yehudi, illustrated in my memoir "A Life Painting Music". Two of my paintings of him were illustrated in the Konzerthaus Festschrift.

The banner on the facade of Konzerthaus Berlin announces "Music heals, brings comfort and joy". That's what Yehudi lived for. What joy he and Daniel brought to me as I shared in this great festival! Our performance to a packed hall and discussion with audience was received with enormous enthusiasm - they just wouldn't let us go! Warmest thanks to the whole production team. The concert was recorded for television by Deutsche Welle and hopefully will be screened later this month.
Konzerthaus Berlin
Rehearsing with Daniel and Sebastian in the Kleine Saal.

Tuesday 22 March 2016

A great Director retires

Andrew Jowett in Symphony Hall Birmingham

Last night was a momentous occasion, as hundreds from the world of classical music gathered on the stage to celebrate the achievements of the retiring Director of Symphony Hall Birmingham. This was a milestone for me too, a celebration of my long friendship with Andrew Jowett, going back to his first commissions in 1990, for what was to become the largest collection of my work in the world: thirty-two paintings of great musicians he programmed to perform in this great hall - Simon Rattle, Valery Gergiev, Yehudi Menuhin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Bernard Haitink and more.

During the last twenty-eight years Andrew Jowett and Symphony Hall became inseparable. So I’ve portrayed Andrew standing with disarming modesty, proud yet relaxed, as he warmly welcomes us into his second home. His gaze betrays the understanding and wisdom of his long experience as Director. I see him as a pillar of strength amidst the music that swirls around him in the renowned acoustics and beautiful colours of ”his” concert hall. The free brush-strokes of this watercolour also reflect an imaginative and dynamic entrepreneur, still full of ideas, even as he retires. The background is a reference to my painting The Mahler Experience - perhaps the most popular of all the paintings he commissioned me to paint for the Symphony Hall Collection. See you around, Andrew - we know that you have much more to offer the world.

Andrew Jowett in Symphony Hall Birmingham
Watercolour 70 x 52 cm, Norman Perryman, 2016.