Sunday 30 September 2018

More reflections on painting "The Sea"

More reflections on painting "The Sea"

I'm now hard at work choreographing a continuous painting, to be memorised and performed live in concert to the symphonic poem The Sea (1907) by the Lithuanian M.K. Čiurlionis. This masterpiece offers me perhaps the supreme opportunity to tap into the vast reservoir of Nature with my watercolour brushes, using my own natural analogue energy to propel, splash, persuade and release the flow of my fluid colours in synch with this amazing music, to share the composer's "boundless longing" for a sublime experience with Nature.
The link to my 4-minute Trailer of "The Sea" made from a studio practice session will give you an idea of what I'm talking about: 

One very early love was to paint watercolours of landscapes and seascapes on paper, usually a thoughtful search for peace and stillness, often standing outdoors in all weathers, conversing with Nature as crystals of ice would freeze my paint on the paper before it could dry. In an earlier blog Dancing Rhythms, I describe how unexpected sounds in nature have inspired compositional rhythms in my paintings. Coincidence or synchronicity?

As a student I spent hours, just for fun, balancing and walking on a slack-rope stretched between the iron girders of my nineteenth-century art-college studios. Totally focussed, I could enjoy the exhilarating tension, the sensation of standing in space suspended on a line - the line that I later habitually attached to the edges of my paintings to create an horizon. Actually, balancing in my own space became the challenge of my life, visually and literally.

                                Misty morning on Vancouver Island, 1986
I've always been fascinated by the horizon of land or sea, where at that thin meeting place of the heavens and the depths, something magical happens, whether through a single brush stroke, or by the confrontation and reaction of two pools of colour that may overlap, bleed into or repel each other. I'm often confronted with this critical line in the very flat Netherlands that have become my home and find myself asking -  is this horizon an opportunity to venture into a vast unseen world just out of sight? Or is this my last hurdle, the finishing line of life's marathon? Only to discover that as I round the dyke, there's another hurdle.
                                   Waters edge in Friesland (watercolour on paper, 1980) 

On February 16th. 2019 (the National Day of Lithuania) my performance with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will offer me once again the opportunity to create an art work through a technique that bears my own signature: a continuous painting to music with liquid watercolours on the glass surface of overhead-projectors, to evoke the immense undulating expanse of the sea: dramatic, stormy, dreamlike, frightening, calming and refreshing, all viewed on a ten-metre wide screen behind the orchestra. I hope that the spectator/audience will feel alternately bathed, swept away or even overwhelmed with the grandeur and whimsical power of the elements of Nature. 
                                                  One giant brush - one wave

I nearly drowned in water as a boy and I've never lost the fear of drowning. How ironic that I've nevertheless learned to swim in watercolour and to take the risk to go with the flow, to battle the elements - in front of a couple of thousand spectators! 

My aesthetic statement is also a very personal spiritual exercise, a passionate quest that may have some roots in my youthful evangelical activities in a Christian church (my initiation into which was by baptism (submersion in water!), from which I long ago emerged to set off on an ongoing search for my own form of spirituality, searching for a oneness with the powers of the Cosmos - for a synergy that, after all these years, I'm best able to express in my audio-visual language - that of a painter and musician. 

Lithuania's national hero the painter/composer Čiurlionis was widely steeped in the cultural philosophies of his day and was also preoccupied with man's relation to divinity in Nature. I can identify with his Pantheistic 
dialogue, in his case visualised in the mystic symbolism of hundreds of paintings of landscapes, seascapes and fantastic architecture, made in the first decade of the twentieth century. Even if the complex meanings of his themes and symbols have been neglected by present-day trend-setters, during his lifetime his work was regarded as one of the precursors of European modern art. 

    Three paintings entitled The Sea Sonata, with thanks to the 
M.K.Čiurlionis National Museum of Art.

While composing The Sea, Čiurlionis wrote a poem that begins:
"Powerful sea. 
Great, infinite, boundless. 
All of the sky envelops your waves with its blue, 
While you, full of grandeur, your existence is infinite. 
The great, powerful, wonderful sea! 
Half the world is looking at you at night, 
Distant suns drown their blinking, mysterious, slumbering 
Glances in your depths, 
While you, eternal queen of giants, breath peacefully and quietly, 
You know that there is only you and nobody reigns over you".

Čiurlionis was regarded by the composer Stravinsky (who purchased one of his works) as one of the most talented of the Russian school of painting at the turn of the century. Before his untimely death in 1911 he was rapidly becoming an influential figure in the European world of art and music.  His passion was to fuse the arts into one Gesamtkunst form

The majority of his paintings in the National Museum of Art in Kaunas are overflowing with suggested movement, patterns and rhythms, yet these art forms are static, anchored in their frames. That's why I'm sure he would have welcomed my concept of creating my own abstract expressionist painting that literally moves continuously to his music, as I stand with my projectors right in the middle of the orchestra, breathing with every wind instrument, my brush strokes gesturing with every stroke of the bows of the strings. As in the transparent harmonies and tone colours of The Sea, my ever-changing colours are layered over each other with my analogue image-mixer in my right hand, while I paint with my left hand. So for over thirty minutes, my whole body and soul is in balance as I join Čiurlionis in search of a sublime experience.

Here is the Link to two earlier blogs with more details on how this performance on February 16th. 2019 gradually took shape. 

*Did Čiurlionis know the Finnish composer Rautavaara - at work just across the Baltic Sea from Lithuania? Here's the Link to my performance of Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for Birds & Orchestra), where synchronicity between recorded bird-song, visuals and orchestra plays a vital role. Both composers were preoccupied with synchronicity (meaningful coincidences) in the mystic patterns of life.  As it happens, the CBSO will be performing Cantus Arcticus just two nights before my performance of The Sea, as part of this season's theme: Baltic Music. 

Monday 25 June 2018

How does it feel to be eighty-five?

Norman, how does it feel to be eighty-five?

Well, I don't believe it. I'm puzzled that so many other people get old, but this comes as something of a surprise. How could this happen to me? 

Perhaps a little reflection is appropriate, but it's a long story. I do feel amazed, thankful, frustrated, a little proud, disappointed and from time to time totally thrilled, even though I feel an accumulation of sadness as I lose more and more of those whom I've known, loved and painted.
I'm the shy country boy on the left, with the Hitler haircut (It was quite fashionable in those days). Dressed up for a party in Mum's home-tailored clothes.

Amazed that, despite having being born in 1933, when the Nazi regime achieved absolute power, I've survived a world war; and more recently that I've survived the daily hazards of cycling to and from my studio with (or against) 850,000 other Amsterdam cyclists; that I've made the transition from a shy Worcestershire country boy into a cosmopolitan artist; and have been enriched by so much intense love; and that I get such spontaneous joy from the surprising beauty of kinetic painting and music combined. A therapy guaranteed to keep me young.

1949 first-year Art College show. At the age of sixteen, I make my "stage debut" as a baker dancing with a cream puff and a cherry cake. Goodness, these chicks must now be in their late eighties!

Thankful to my parents who despite their reservations, against all odds set me on the road as a creative artist; for the blessings of the wonderful people I have known and loved, including my children and grandchild; for my good health and the energy to still be fully active creatively; to my body for responding so well to my simple morning exercises. Just thirty minutes and he feels ready to start each day. 
A very sad and serious period in my thirties, reflected in many paintings in black, greys, white and dark browns. The explosion of colours came later. 

Disappointed that despite my parents' assurance that if you work really hard you will be "successful" (meaning in the working class aspirational mind-set that you will become rich), I failed. I worked my butt off, still who knows, before I really get old....? 

Frustrated because, despite some wonderful projects at the highest level, I have failed to interest more producers in the many more creative projects in my head, particularly those that relate painting to music. Ah, so many great ideas that will never come to fruition.
Chatting with conductor Simon Rattle at Birmingham Symphony Hall during the filming of the 1993 BBC TV "Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra"

A little proud that I have worked creatively with some of the greatest artists and musicians of my generation; that I have touched the souls of many with thousands of ephemeral kinetic images and tangible paintings; that I chaired the creation of the Visual Arts Programme of the International Baccaureate, insisting on art education conceived from a world perspective; and that I could pass on my convictions to innumerable students; and oh yes, that I have managed to earn a living as an artist.
Setting up in Essen Philharmonie on June 23rd.

Yes, but Norman, how do you feel right now? Well, rather tired, after months of intensive work to create kinetic paintings non-stop for seventy minutes, for a new German version of Stravinsky'sThe Soldier's Tale, in Daniel Hope's Essen Philharmonie Gala Midsummer Night's Dream on June 23rd. But thrilled that my own Dream came true on 24th., Midsummer's Day, my eighty-fifth birthday.

At midnight the after-party of this performance with Daniel and his superb ensemble suddenly turned into my birthday party, with a rousing "Happy Birthday" from everybody in the production, led by the baritone Benno Schollum. I've never felt such deep collective artistic fulfillment and generous expressions of love after a performance, where we all gave of our best, to a standing ovation - simply unforgettable. Unexpected birthday surprises during last week were also multiple proposals to work together creatively. So rather than feeling that "it's all over now", I feel re-inspired. 

Happy fathers, with my son Chris and the very young, undoubtedly talented Joe Perryman

Of course I have no intention of retiring, whatever that means. It's not in an artist's vocabulary. The creative spark is still very much there, but naturally everything demands more focus, more careful planning and choice of priorities. Naturally? Oh yes, I forgot. I'm supposed to be eighty-five. Really?
(Photo Marjoke Haagsma)

Get the whole story on my blogs going back to 2012, or from my website:

Tuesday 29 May 2018

A New German text for Stravinsky's Soldier

Première of a New German text 
for Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale"

It's such an honour to be invited to create live kinetic paintings with such eminent artists as bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff (Narrator), the amazing actress Katja Riemann (the Devil) and of course the indefatigable creative spirit Daniel Hope (violin and the Soldier) and ensemble, all directed by Leonhard Koppelmann with the text-writer Peter Jordan. We are just one part of June 23rd Gala programme in Essen Philharmonie entitled: Ein Sommernachtstraum: Heimat (A Midsummer Night's Dream: Homeland). Check that link.

I've performed  this piece several times before - here's another Link to my blog from a Stockholm performance in 2014. The original story conceived by C.F. Ramuz in 1918 is well-known, but this totally new German version of The Soldier's Tale by Peter Jordan has inspired quite a number of new kinetic images. The stills without the story-telling and music are nothing more than teasers. 
                                        Marching on the zigzagging roads home
Stravinsky's score is alternately humorous, wistful, crazy and full of irony. It seems to me to reflect the visual art style Cubism, where the subject is fragmented then re-structured as geometric forms, seen from multiple viewpoints. Stravinsky must surely have seen Picasso's early Cubist works in Paris, ten years before he composed The Soldier's Tale in Switzerland in 1918. By then the first signs of Art Deco were also taking shape and this awareness had an influence on my designs and cut-outs, through which my mysterious and ever-surprising fluid paint flows.

On home-leave just before the end of World-War 1914-18, the Soldier trudges along a long and dusty road, takes a break (the Petits Airs) and encounters the Devil who persuades him to exchange his violin (his soul) for an illegible book that nevertheless makes him unbelievably rich. We feel the Soldier's hope, disillusionment and despair. 
My brush for the Devil with his illegible yet enriching book
Petits Airs
On hearing that the king's daughter is terribly sick - possibly from listening to the Devil's violin playing - the Soldier heads to the royal palace, retrieves his violin and using his musicianship as therapy, get's the Princess to open her eyes and dance with him to Tango, Waltz and Ragtime. It's a long story and of course the Devil wins in the end.
The Royal Palace
The deadly ill Princess
Towards the end of the "Petit Concert" the Princess starts to open her eyes
The Soldier's Tale is the Essen Philharmonie finale of a festive Midsummer Night's Dream. Especially magical for me, because all being well, the morning after, on Midsummer's Day (June 24th) I celebrate my 85th birthday. What a wonderful birthday present. Thank you Daniel! 

Wednesday 9 May 2018

Painting The Sea

Painting "The Sea" 
with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla & the CBSO
February 16th. 2019

I'm delighted to share the announcement of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra that in February 2019 I shall be making kinetic paintings live in concert to The Sea, by the Lithuanian composer/painter M.K.Čiurlionis (1875 -1911), conducted by Music Director Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla in Symphony Hall Birmingham. The date for this UK première is now confirmed as Saturday February 16th. 2019, which by the way is Lithuania's Independence Day.

It's still a work in progress of course, but here's the Link to my first 4-minute Trailer on YouTube for a few quick glimpses of the beginning and the end of this twenty-nine minute work.   

And here's the Link to my blog from last September - Serendipity: Mirga, Norman and Čiurlionis, written after I had done some serious research in Lithuania on the audio-visual work of this prodigious creative spirit. Čiurlionis had a significant influence in early abstract art, symbolism and art nouveau and became a cultural legend in Lithuania. As a synaesthete, he was so finely tuned to the correspondences between visual art and music, that had his life not been tragically cut short at the age of thirty-five, I'm sure he would have become one of the composers of early film music. At last, in 2019, I shall be creating the movie to his music. Music that is ideally suited to my flowing colours. 

Čiurlionis probably had Chromesthesia, as I do. I'm not going to copy his paintings, but rather create my own kinetic flowing images inspired by my own automatic involuntary reactions to his music. How wonderful it would have been to meet! You can imagine that we might have embraced as brothers.

Mirga's concerts with the CBSO are regularly sold out, so here's the Link to book your concert tickets early (from June 4th. for general public). After all, this concert has a somewhat unusual added visual attraction! It's been twenty-five years since I performed with the CBSO in Symphony Hall under Sir Simon Rattle, televised by BBC in 1993 as Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra. Born in Birmingham nearly eighty-five years ago, this is quite an emotional milestone in my career in visual music and I shall be thrilled to be back in Symphony Hall.


Saturday 7 April 2018

Portrait of a dear friend

The arts and science of communicating

Cees Hamelink: world-renowned Emeritus Professor of Global Communication, esteemed author, jazz musician, collector of my art works, theologian, dear generous friend, a politician's nightmare, devil's advocate, media critic and globe-trotter with a wicked sense of humour, is a brilliant educator whose tutorials have become legendary.

How can you possibly try to compose a portrait of such an erudite and many-sided personality? I asked him how he would like to be portrayed and remembered. Without hesitation he said - as a teacher. So I asked him to give me a tutorial during our "sitting", actually making life quite difficult for myself, in that he would be moving non-stop around the studio, talking with hands and heart on the passion of his life - global communication. 
Prof. Cees Hamelink. Watercolour 70 x 49 cm. 2018.

 So here he is in action: a fairly relaxed professor, thoughtful, raised eyebrows always questioning, his friendly eye-contact full of wisdom and humour, using persuasive body language, his sensitive hands conjuring up surprising truths, then firmly giving shape to untruths.  No notes of course - his thought bubble is bursting with ideas. I've tried to paint this watercolour with a freedom that would suggest his dynamic energy, but here and there I had to zoom in for some precise details. Don't you wish you could be one of his students?

I met Cees back in 1974, when we were both resident in Geneva. I had just painted my large watercolour and ink impression of a performance in Geneva of the world hit Misa Criolla, sung and played by the Agrupación música Ariel Ramirez. I was blown away by the variety of Latin American rhythms, instruments and voices that were to dictate the tiny textures, deep bass notes and floating echoes of the magnificent voices of this passionate group. It was one of my early attempts to include graphic rhythms in my paintings. This one immediately became the first of Cees' large collection of my work. Turn the sound up for the full sonorous bass tones, enlarge the picture, then click on this link to hear what this painting sounds like. Misa Criolla.
Misa Criolla, watercolour and ink, 69 x 99 cm. 1974.

I wonder whether Cees could have imagined that, forty-two years later, he would marry a wonderful Mexican lady who cheerfully carries such rhythms in her heart and soul. 
Gabriela Barrios, watercolour 62 x 45 cm. 2016

Thursday 15 March 2018

The Unseen Collection

The Unseen Collection 

Last Monday I enjoyed the opportunity to give a new friend a guided tour of my collection of thirty-one paintings in Symphony Hall Birmingham. Although he's a regular concert-goer, he had only seen a couple of them before. The earliest of my action-portraits of great names in classical music, all programmed to perform at Symphony Hall, were painted in 1990/91, commissioned by the first Director Andrew Jowett, now retired. The most recent in 2013.

Despite popular demand for a public exhibition of the collection and despite various proposals during the last twenty-eight years, only a privileged few occasionally get to see a handful of my works at receptions in the Director's Lounge; even less see the paintings in the back-stage corridors. There are just two on semi-public view.

Elgar's Dream, my largest watercolour ever, inspired by The Dream of Gerontius, commissioned by Robin and Jayne Cadbury and unveiled by Yehudi Menuhin in 1996, has limited access on the Level 4 Foyer while you grab your drink during the concert interval. An Elgar fan, my guest was delighted to finally get my detailed description of his favourite painting. 

My Mahler Experience can be glimpsed on the ground floor but is often cordoned off, eclipsed by the blinding bright panels of advertising in The Mall and Convention Centre. I wonder with some trepidation what will happen to these major works, when the spacious new foyer is built (see below). A radical re-hanging, presumably. An artist is often powerless to intervene, once his works have left the studio, when he discovers it with a horribly wrong frame or wall colour. Right from the beginning I was fortunate to be able to consult with the excellent Birmingham Framers Gale & Co. Ltd (Est. 1845) about the framing of this Collection.
photo: Page\Park Architects

Yes, you can now buy some cards and my memoir A Life Painting Music, if you can find them amongst the Chopin Boards, Victoria Eggs, coffee mugs and toy Ukuleles in the little Gift Shop

But as a Birmingham man approaching his eighty-fifth birthday this year, I guess this is one last plea for a professionally curated public retrospective of the original paintings of the Symphony Hall Collection (preferably somewhere in Birmingham), expanded by a selection from the enormous number of my other paintings that bring art and music together - Yehudi Menuhin with Ravi Shankar, Georg Solti, Bernard Haitink conducting Stravinsky's Firebird, paintings of the Netherlands Dance Theater and so on. And hey - what about a painting of the wonderful new Music Director of the CBSO, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla?

Meanwhile, bravo to Classic FM for providing this Link to their online Gallery of a major selection of my work, so that it can be viewed by a global public. Thank you!
The Mahler Experience - Symphony Hall, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 160 cm., 1993

I've written blogs on the making of this Collection and on specific paintings. Just scroll down or go to the search bar (right). More general information and images can be found on my website at

Wednesday 21 February 2018

My Amsterdam studio

A visit to my Amsterdam studio
About forty years ago I walked into my Amsterdam studio and noticed a bullet hole in the window. I found the bullet and kept it - it had hit the opposite wall and fallen to the floor, totally squashed. I figured out the trajectory. Had I been standing at my work-table, it would have gone right through my head. The police merely shrugged when I told them. Ach, it's only a small bullet.

Things have quietened down a bit since then. Around 1979 the city had given ten artists the opportunity to rent a classroom in this recently closed lower school, still littered with abandoned tiny tables and chairs. There was one problem - the local "Hells Angels" motorcycle club had squatted the ground floor and were most aggrieved that we had "invaded" their space. Their threats to set the building alight, attempts to demolish our staircase to create more space for their motorbikes and their habit of playing deafening music didn't exactly encourage creativity. 

But the Burgemeester eventually closed down the Hells Angels club; it became a crèche, fronted by a lovely playground where little kids can scream their lungs out under my window - just what I need when studying a pianissimo passage in a new performance score. Across the street is a thriving "koffie-shop" (read softdrugs-café), where noisy motorbikes come and go continually, presumably as drugs couriers. 
Those early days when my studio was still fairly uncluttered, with some of my early sketches of the Netherlands Dance Theater on the wall.

An artist's creative space should be an inspirational and private place where miracles can happen, despite frustrating intrusions from without and within. It takes great determination to protect your spiritual space. My studio has many colourful memories, creative, romantic, disappointing and exciting. What a joy it is then to occasionally receive such support as this unforgettable loving message from Yehudi Menuhin that I received on arrival at the studio in 1991. How happy he would have been to see me recently, making plans in the studio with violinist Daniel Hope for performances together.

My studio is seven metres long, so that determined the length of my biggest painting ever, a mural in acrylic for the Netherlands Dance Theater, eight panels painted flat on the floor in 1987, stepping stones to leap across like a dancer, later to be cut and to hang free from the wall. 
I've welcomed many visitors, to choose a painting, for a workshop, or even to turn the place upside down, like the BBC film crew directed by the wonderful Jonathan Fulford, to make a documentary around my Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra, a 1993 performance with the CBSO and Sir Simon Rattle in Symphony Hall Birmingham. Oh man, we were all twenty-five years younger then! The renowned film-maker Dick Kuijs (second from right) has been in and out of the studio many times, making a new documentary of my life painting music, hopefully to be finished in 2018.   
An unexpected surprise was a recent visit by the pianists Rokas Zubovas and his wife Sonata Zubovienė. Rokas is the great-grandson of musician/painter M.K. Čiurlionis, so I just had to give them a few glimpses of my first experiments with live kinetic painting with The Sea by Čiurlionis, for performance with the CBSO in Birmingham in the 2018/19 season. He loved it.
With windows high up on the second floor, the studio has a good natural lightfall, ideal for studies of the nude model or for a portrait.
But I can also create absolute blackout for projections of live kinetic painting in rehearsal.
Tamara Hoekwater improvising in my flowing colours with "Bésame Mucho"

I'm grateful for my special space. It holds the vibes of wonderful memories, the throes of creativity and the joys of sharing some of the results, now spread worldwide in good homes or on internet at