Thursday 16 September 2021

Misa Criolla

             Misa Criolla by Ariel Ramírez

This year marks the centenary of the birth of the composer Ariel Ramírez (1921- 2010), the great exponent of Argentinian folk music. He is known primarily for his wonderful Misa Criolla (1964) that made him world-famous, with the sale of millions of records. This sixteen-minute "Creole Mass" was originally sung and performed by local choirs and musicians with an element of improvisation, a lamentation in Spanish over genocide and extreme poverty, a protest, with a deep longing for universal peace, alternating with a celebration of life and thanks to God. 

The initial Kyrie begins with deep slow drum-beats reflecting the vastness and solitude of the Andes mountains. The Gloria is a sort of carnival, juxtaposed with a  drum rhythm used by the Incas for funerals. The Mass concludes with a melancholic rhythm from the Argentinian pampas.

Misa Criolla, watercolour and inks, 1974, approx. 80 x 60 cm. 
Collection of Prof. Cees Hamelink 

I knew the original recording of this work, but then it began to be performed worldwide. When I was living in Geneva in the early seventies, I heard a performance in Victoria Hall by the Agrupación música Ariel Ramirez. The ensemble was all dressed in black capes, except the conductor, wearing a colour like old rose. Most of them played indigenous instruments as they sang, like the charango (small guitar), the quena (Indian flute) bombo (Argentinian drum), and siku (panpipes). I wanted to capture the variety of Latin American rhythms, the dynamics of the players in action and the vocal sounds that were to become the tiny textures, the angular or rounded shapes of the bass notes and floating echoes of the magnificent voices of this passionate ensemble in my painting. I had never heard such a resonant deep bass. I was totally captivated!  

Back in the studio, working on the largest sheet of paper I could find, I used a variety of brushes, bamboo pens, graphite, inks and watercolours, in my attempt to saturate myself in rhythm, to visualise my ecstatic experience. It was one of my early attempts (in 1974) to represent such graphic rhythms in my paintings, perhaps a key work in my development.

I was in Argentina, Chile and Brazil in the 1980's, leading workshops for teachers of the International Baccalaureate Visual Arts programme. I was enraptured by unforgettable vast expanses of nature, patterns, rhythms, rich earth colours and music, the like of which I had never experienced before - but I also became painfully aware of political and social injustice. The Misa Criolla is full of all this. I went to this multi-cultural continent to teach, but I learned so much.

Today, I would really love to create kinetic paintings in synch with this music and put it on video in my studio. Quite a challenge, but it's on my bucket list. Here's a Link to one of the many recordings on YouTube. Play this music as you watch the painting!

Thursday 12 August 2021

A cathedral for birdsong

                   A cathedral for birdsong

If you walk through my park (yes, the Rhapsody in the Park that inspired the previous watercolour), you may chance upon a quiet pathway leading into an enclave of very tall trees. As you stand in their dappled shadows, it feels cool and quiet like a sanctuary, a cathedral, but as you look up, suddenly a delightful cacophony of birdsong bursts out above you, an invisible animated discussion on this intruder into their dwelling. Their tweets, trills, cheeps and chirrups inspire flashes and jabs of sound-colour here and there in my treetops. This is undoubtedly a magical space.       

     A cathedral for birdsong, watercolour 67 x 48 cm. 2021

I'm reminded of the French composer and ornithologist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), who spent hours making tape-recordings of birdsong that might be incorporated into his music. He would be thrilled to stand here with his tape-recorder and no doubt argue with me about the colours we hear. How would he hear my carpet of blue/violet intermingled with dappled reds? His Catalogue d' Oiseaux for piano is, like bird song, full of abstract angular and unmelodic sounds. Messiaen had, like me and many others, synaesthesia - an intuitive reaction to music in terms of colour (or vice versa). Here's one shot from  my kinetic paintings performed in 2012 with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard to 
Cloches d’adieu – et un sourire. In memoriam Olivier Messiaen by composer Tristan Murail. Both musicians studied with Messiaen. My continuous images were painted live on projectors in response to the overlapping bell-like sounds from the piano.


Wednesday 16 June 2021

Rhapsody in the Park


Rhapsody in the Park

A strange thing happened to me the other day, walking through my local Amsterdam Flevo Park, where every blade of grass, leaf, blossom, flower was celebrating the fullness of summer in all its glory. I sat there sketching, drinking in the many greens and the variety of deep shadow colours, then started "seeing" flashes of many other colours. This was becoming a kaleidoscopic experience, an intense celebration of nature and of life itself. 

I wanted to sing, but I had no lyrics. A song without words then, a song of dancing colours. I really had to make a lyrical painting, throwing care aside and choosing intuitively from my palette, following my emotions. I found myself painting in a state of rhapsody. Like a musical rhapsody, a spontaneous free-flowing chromatic work. Yes, I went back to the studio and put on Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, to develop this rhapsody in many colours. 

Rhapsody in the Park, watercolour, 65 x 45 cm. June 2021

Of course I've revelled for years in the emotional power of vivid fluctuating translucent colours, painted on glass and shared with the public via my overhead-projectors. Here's the link to my blog of January 2019: The joy of lyrical painting, written before my final performance of lyrical-abstract paintings on stage with musicians. I can't paint those live any more, so I'm now looking for new ways to express the magic of colour on paper.  

Monday 31 May 2021

A young artist waiting for the music


A young artist
waiting for the music to start

I'm standing in line outside Door 11 of the Royal Albert Hall in London, hoping to get a cheap ticket for the BBC Proms Festival, standing room only. According to my sketch, it's September 9th.1953 at 6.15 in the evening. The programme is Mozart and Schubert, with soprano Elizabeth Schwartzkopf and Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic, no less. 
I was a mere twenty years old, celebrating my graduation with a First Class Honours in Painting from the Birmingham College of Arts and Crafts, as always with a sketchbook in hand and a fountain-pen for linear notes of composition, colours and tones, although in this case they never resulted in a painting. I'm surrounded by excited music-lovers with a glimpse of the structure of this grand temple of classical music with Hyde Park in the distance, I believe. What are my prospects? As a young artist in 1953 I had no idea how my life would unfold.
Even then, I was already searching for a way to combine my love of painting with music, to figure out some sort of Gesamtkunstwerk (audio-visual synthesis). But it was going to take me a decade or so to find a form, develop my preference for watercolour and to utilise the kinetic flow of watercolours and the freedom that my brushes could offer me. 
My move to The Netherlands in 1957 and the resulting exposure to European culture has had a lasting influence on my life. I began to zigzag across the world, organising around 40 exhibitions of my work, painting hundreds of portraits, including those of world renowned musicians, collaborating with some of them in audio-visual performances, appearing on television and in festivals in South Korea, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Holland, Lithuania, Dubai, the USA, the UK and in particular my birthplace Birmingham. Already, those extraordinary journeys seem a long time ago.

Sixty-seven years after the above photograph, I painted a self-portrait in Amsterdam during the 2020 lockdown, contemplating the years gone by. Did I really do all that? Here's the Link to my comments on that painting.

I can't help reminiscing on the extraordinary nature of my artistic life, a roller-coaster of excitement, hopes and also some disillusionments. Although rather proud of many projects, there is still a sadness about the creative ideas that failed to find form and production. Sometimes this was just bad luck, bad timing or my network of colleagues and agents moving on, factors that had nothing to do with the quality of the proposals. Then, in the mid-seventies, the world became flooded with an obsession for all things digital, so organically foreign to the joys and sensual beauty of my analogue brushstrokes. Here's the Link to a blog from 2017: Analogue is alive and well.

Now approaching eighty-eight, I'm missing the interaction and discussion with other creative minds and the challenge of a new production. I especially miss the adrenaline rush of painting live to the music on stage. Even though the inner need and ability to create is still there, the need to slow down has inevitably become a reality that I'm trying to accept. Today's watercolour is inspired by a view from the spot where Rembrandt made one of his many drawings along the riverside of the Amstel. Perhaps I too am searching for new perspectives, as I round each bend of this quiet flowing river through the bustling city of Amsterdam. 
Searching for water-music, watercolour 60 x 49 cm. 2021

The 165 blogs, A Life Painting Musichave become my memoir and are easy to access in the right hand column. Hopefully, there will be many more!

Sunday 17 January 2021

The Big Move

The Big Move

After thirty-five years living virtually in a treetop in Amsterdam South, I've now moved to an apartment that has a wonderful view from the ninth floor over the treetops of the East-side park. It's been a emotional experience, having to say goodbye to a gracious house, built in 1914 near the Concertgebouw, with so many happy and sad memories, where my children grew up and where their mother died. She played in the Concertgebouw, where I also painted live kinetic images to many concerts, so it became our second home.  


The move meant down-sizing, saying farewell to my favourite tree outside the window, to innumerable archives and documents, contracts and proposals for exhibitions and performances worldwide, all written or faxed on paper, many of which were successful and some that sadly never came to fruition. At eighty-seven, I look back nostalgically on a very long career, about which you can read in my blogs at

All went well! I'm now living in an Amsterdam apartment block for retired senior citizens, in a quarter where the streets are named after the colonial Dutch East Indies. My address is Kramatplantsoen, Kramat being a small town in Java with a chequered history, but also the term for the burial-ground of a highly-placed person. Duly noted. I've discovered that it only takes me three minutes to climb the nine flights of stairs. 

Artists don't know the meaning of retirement of course. We have an inner need to create, for as long as we can hold a paintbrush. My studio and commissions await, but after this exhausting process, I first need a little break. Here's the fanfare of colours to which I awoke on my first day. Yes, it was a good move.