Tuesday 25 April 2017

Less is more: Early musical works

Less is more. Early musical works you have never seen:

Less is more: a few floating lines stretched across space can sometimes promise more than a full canvas gives you. Inspired by Asian paintings and prints and a visit to Japan in 1984, this became one of my aims in many early works. Generous and effective use of space in Asian painting also conveys a sense of time passing, or perhaps timelessness. 

I'm reminded of the Zen proverb: "It's the silence between the notes that creates the music". This gives us pause for thought and time to breathe. And breathing creates energy. Here are the links to my earlier blogs on this subject: The beauty of space and silence and Music and space in watercolour paintingBelow are just two of a whole series of watercolours of Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi, former conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic, made during a tour of Japan.


Below a watercolour and ink drawing of Yit-Kin Seow from 1971, when he was studying both piano and viola at the Yehudi Menuhin School, where I made many impressions in the seventies. He has since made a career as a pianist.

Even though it is undeveloped, this spontaneous impression of a dancer improvising to jazz in my studio, made with bamboo pen and pencil, gives an illusion of her movements. I intended to make a painting of it, but actually it's complete just as it is. 

And finally a 1988 watercolour of my friend Mifune Tsuji, where I allowed myself a flexibility and freedom that you get when you're in "the flow", when you barely know what you're doing and you just get carried along by the music.



Friday 21 April 2017

A young man's search

A young man's search in 1963

With intense nostalgia I'm now taking you back more than half a century to an adventurous formative period that took me travelling through Europe in 1963. I was twenty-nine when I was awarded a scholarship by the Dutch Kröller-Müller Foundation to spend a year in France. After I had learned to draw and paint at Birmingham College of Arts & Crafts and spent some years in teaching, this was the first real opportunity to focus on my painting and seriously research what I could do as a artist.  

I was offered "La Maison Jaune" in the tiny village of Murs (Vaucluse), with space for a small studio, large scorpions in the shower, the odour of a sheep pen outside the window, a huge open hearth that filled the house with smoke when the Mistral wind was blowing, but above all, a variety of landscape on all sides. It was a lonely spot in those days, well out of reach of the seductive Van Gogh subjects in lower Provence and long before the area was taken over by wealthy Parisiens as the chique terrain where they could renovate a derelict farmhouse for their summer residence.
After the greys of northern Europe, in the Vaucluse I was confronted with a plethora of new impressions - the rich reds and ochres of Roussillon, the chalk stone of Mount Luberon, ancient sandy-coloured fortifications on every hillside, the greens of olives and plane trees, the twisted blacks of of old vines and lavender galoreSo after a drive over to Cavaillon to pick up a load of canvasses I set to work, painting landscapes in oils. 
Above one of my first unfinished efforts to somehow "get the painting off the ground" - that is, develop the painting from a mere illustration of the visit of the threshing machine, a major event in the village, into something with its own abstract dynamic. I tried a bit of everything in those days, made some nice little paintings that I remember affectionately, but in retrospect some of them were not much more than explorations. I was in the middle of a wide-ranging search. And what do you do when it's bad weather? You paint the glowing embers and ghostly early morning sunlight on the warmest spot in the house. 
After several months my restlessness took me to explore further north-eastwards deep into Les Hautes Alpes, as yet unspoiled by tourism. I discovered the tiny hamlet of Souliers-en-Queyras perched on a steep incline at 1800 metres altitude, negotiated the use of the former village school for my studio and a temporary home, then started to paint everything in sight. The white school-house can be seen bottom-right under the tree in my rather cubist painting of the village, as seen from across the valley of the Torrent de Souliers. I was told that every few hundred years the village was swept away by a landslide and repeatedly re-built. But I took my chances and settled down to work, starting with these houses huddled together into the mountainside for mutual support. 
The only heating and cooking option was a wood-burning stove that became my warm companion. Towards the end of my stay, the regional mayor came up from the valley to award la Médaille de la Famille Française to one of the mothers of the only two extended families in the village. She had produced her thirteenth child. A sheep was slaughtered and I was invited to a celebratory "lunch" that started at noon and continued until well after sunset. The local priest played his flute. Speeches were made in a French dialect that sounded vaguely Italian. Tiny children's cheeks got redder as they too sipped the excellent wine. As the haze of smoke thickened, we ate lamb cooked in a dozen different ways and made endless toasts to la maternité. I had arranged an exhibition of my paintings of the local landscape, evoking animated comments from the farmers about the colours and textures of certain pastures that had been or not yet been mowed.   
At college I had learned to paint in the late impressionist style, simply put: recording visual impressions with colour, form and atmosphere slightly manipulated. I saw the patterns and colours in this endearing little old cart, but hadn't yet figured out a way of turning them into an abstract design, for example.
But with other agricultural machinery like the hay-spinner, you can see that I was looking for a way to express its movements. I'm on the verge of something new. Tossed hay, twisting valleys and torrents.

In the forests I stumbled on many wonderful roots of felled trees, weathered bone-white over the years, their tendrils seeming to reach out from this tree cemetery. Movement was becoming more apparent in my painting as I started to stretch diagonal wriggling lines across the canvas.
Although I was painting mainly landscape for months (and in fact continued to do so for years), little did I know that further on my travels north towards Switzerland in 1963, I would stumble on the amazing Yehudi Menuhin Festival in Gstaad/Saanen. I had been "wandering in the wilderness", had done my apprenticeship and had suddenly reached "the promised land, flowing with milk and honey"! Meeting Yehudi would change my life. It was music that would give my work the dynamic forms and colours I was searching for.

Sunday 16 April 2017

The time of our singing

The magical time of our singing

(I posted this blog in 2014, but I feel it's worth sharing with my friends who missed it).

In 2004 my wife and I strayed from the tourist route for monastery visits on the Greek island of Lesbos and chanced upon this tiny derelict Greek-Orthodox chapel. 
We could easily get inside, where there was nothing much left to be seen. Yet the acoustics of the empty building were extraordinary. Even a whisper sounded special. Curious, I found the "sweet spot" under the centre of the dome and just droned a few tones as I looked up. Every wordless sound, floating up into the hollow space, was magical! Very soon the two of us were improvising some rough harmonies, marvelling at how good we sounded and suddenly feeling that we had somehow keyed into a vibe that was hundreds of years old. When we emerged after ten minutes or so there was a little group of tourists listening outside. They thought it was a concert! Ah yes, the joyful illusions of the "singing in the shower" phenomenon! The architecture did it all for us.

But seriously, what is it about the acoustics of a dome on a cube, perhaps joined in a golden organic relationship, that create such a full, rich sound and take us into other spheres? The Greeks knew so much about acoustics, harmony, art and architecture that we have forgotten, or ignored.

Here's the watercolour I made to commemorate this intensely personal experience. I called it "The time of our singing" (with apologies to Richard Powers, the author of that brilliant novel). As my musical instrument is actually the paint-brush, this may look better than it sounded!
"The time of our singing", watercolour, 50 x 36cm. 2004.

Monday 3 April 2017

Inner Voices

Voces Intimae:
the Inner Voices in the 
Sibelius string quartet

In 1909 the Finnish composer Sibelius wrote two words on a friend's score above the three soft detached E minor chords in the central Adagio movement of his string quartet: "Voces intimae" (inner or intimate voices). Tender, pleading questions? Was he asking himself those questions sooner or later familiar to us all - "why?", or "must it be?" or "is this it?". Was he pondering the possible consequences of a serious throat operation? Sibelius was not in the habit of "explaining" his music, but he wrote to his wife: "It turned out as something wonderful. The kind of thing that brings a smile to your lips at the hour of death. I will say no more". Was this a soulful quest for serenity? 
The Ebonit Saxophone Quartet arranged this string quartet for our programme Nightfall, of which our next performance will be in the Augustinerkirche in Würzburg on April 12th. Nightfall also includes Reger, Webern and Shostakovich, all grouped around three Sonatas from Haydn's masterpiece The Seven Last of Words of Christ on the Cross. And there again we are confronted with that "why". "My God, why hast though forsaken me?" On the day when "darkness covered the face of the earth". And ever since we have been searching for enlightenment. The work was intended to be performed in a darkened space, with one source of illumination, so it makes sense that I should provide this from the kinetic illuminations from my overhead projectors. I elaborate this thought in an earlier blog, written before our first performance of Nightfall, two years ago
The Sibelius is absolutely appropriate in this programme. Full of incredibly moving tender exchanges, you can watch the continuously changing and overlapping of my two kinetic images and a loving "conversation" with two brushes.

At the start, the D minor of this quartet evokes in my synesthetic brain the colour of greenish khaki, interrupted by a brief passage in B flat major, where I automatically hear an optimistic warm clearing glow of sienna. But after many rich exchanges of colour, somehow this movement ends in a pale loneliness, barely breathing. It makes a deeply emotional impact on me, but as I breathe out in synch with this wonderful wind ensemble, I discover a sense of calm and happiness.