Friday, 18 April 2014

Bach's Passion

Bach's Passion

Year after year, all over the Netherlands, thousands flock to hear innumerable performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. This year 141 were programmed in concert halls and churches nation-wide. Unlikely mixed "congregations" of devout believers side by side with staunch atheists and all sorts of people come together to share a spiritual experience in words and music. The other night my wife sang in the Matthew Passion to a packed-out Concertgebouw, one of ten performances of Passions in that hall alone. The intensity of the shared atmosphere was palpable, apparently fulfilling a common need, regardless of convictions.

Recently, this phenomenon even made it onto a popular Dutch TV channel that nightly attracts 1.8 million viewers, with a talk-show host who is more accustomed to discussing trendy news items with cool guests with the tempo of a machine-gun.  Now he was excitedly discussing Bach's highlights (as the only hour-long "news" item) with conductor Philippe Herreweghe, as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra played extracts. On a pop talk-show? The Passions are trending!

Opinions differ about the nature of what happens in the sharing of such music. Some sense a "divine presence", others see it as a pseudo-religious ritual or an alternative church service and yet more discover a rather different "high", swearing that their religion is simply Bach's irresistible music.

In his recent blog On an Overgrown Path, Bob Shingleton writes of the "experience of collective spirituality"... that is experienced in a Sufi ritual, the hadra and that may become an open creative event where a whole range of emotional behaviour is expressed. "A very good definition of Passion, as in Bach", Bob writes.

English-language cultures tend to prefer Handel's Messiah. What wrong with a booklet with a German-English translation of Bach' works? For me, the masterly way Bach combines text and music in this dramatic and moving fashion make the Matthew and John Passion supreme. Whether you believe or not, these are powerful accounts of human nature wrestling with life and death, weakness, hypocrisy, betrayal, guilt, mass hysteria, loss, supreme nobility in the face of torture and crucifixion. The way in which Bach gives us too a form to share all this personally in his Chorales, is brilliant.

(Above) Three kinetic images from Psalm 22 (Luc van Hove), painted live to the voices of the Flemish Radio Choir in 2005. "Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?" ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") was the very human cry of 
one who, in his dying moments, felt that his line to his Father 
was severed. Perhaps instinctively, he was quoting the words of his ancestor David, the author of the Psalms. But they could be the words of any of us. 

So what is it with Bach's Passion? Jessica Duchen expresses it perfectly in her blog JDCMB: "It offers music that cleanses the soul; even if you approach it as a drama rather than religion, it doesn't seem to mind, and will still work its wonders. It offers too, an oasis of calm, reflection and redemption, along with a massive dramatic catharsis that might be felt especially keenly by anyone who has lived through the loss of a loved one." 

One of my dreams is to create a performance of one of the Passions complemented by my flowing kinetic colours, painted live and projected all over the performers to intensify the emotional impact. Just as colours from stained glass windows spread over Cathedral performances long ago. I confess that part of my creative motivation is to "make my peace" (before I die) with my neglected Christian heritage. With Bach's help, I could finally discover a deeply felt harmony with my own unique creative performance art. I'm sure it can be done! I'm working on the idea.


Coming soon!
I'm currently working hard on another very human story - a struggle between a soldier and "the devil":  a reprise of my/Stravinsky's l'Histoire du Soldat on June 17th. for the O/Modernt Festival in Stockholm. Watch this space.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Joy of being Yourself

The Joy of being Yourself

Some years ago, I made this painting as a present to my great little sister Joy. A nudge towards self-affirmation, I thought. And yes, she loved it - they're especially her colours. But as I painted/wrote it, I realised that I was also painting it for myself. And just recently, she reminded me to look at what it says - again. As an artist, I needed to.

Making a brush-stroke on paper is deeply satisfying to a painter - and if you can infuse every gesture with energy, freely making the open space your own, well - that's for our own well-being and that of the spectator. "The way of the brush" is my way. I'm not a shodo calligrapher, but with a brush I have discovered the best way to be myself. 

The juiciness of the wet colour is luscious, like a rich patisserie. Amazing how organic watercolour can give you the feeling: "This is who I am!". If you get really close, it feels even better. Here we go!!


Monday, 10 March 2014

The Christmas Twins

The dancing crocheted garments of the Christmas twins.

The twin brothers Greg and Gary Christmas were born in Boston in 1931, a striking mixture of Afro and Native American origins. They toured the world in show business, then finally settled in Amsterdam, where they served coffee and snacks in their highly colourful Backstage Boutique, dishing out bawdy humor, gems of personal wisdom, uncanny spiritual insights or surprising kindness to all comers. "Yeah, yeah, our mother's name was Mary". "You want my coffee or my body?"  For a while, my studio was situated near their café, so we became good friends. Inevitably, I dashed off a watercolour, as they gazed out of the window, commenting on the passers-by. "Oh, not her again! Hey, he's hot!" They liked my painting. "Not bad for a white man!"
Gary (left) only had three and a half fingers on the hand that crocheted the most snazzy dresses, skirts, tops, hats, even flowers. "It's show-time, honey - what's your sign?  Okay try this one on!" Greg (photo below) would supervise critically.
Their garments looked great on skins of all colour and one of their black friends modelled these fanciful creations as she danced for me at the studio. I used watercolour and oil crayons to make the garments unravel, jive or move across the page to various jazz classics, taking lots of liberties with the lyrics as they became more or less integrated into the picture.
Sophisticated Lady. And "You can have what you want if you handle what you got". 
"Ain't got no rest in ma slumbers, ain't got no feelings to bruise; ain't got no telephone numbers, ain't got nothing but the blues. Ain't got no coffee that's perkin', ain't got no winnings to lose, ain't got a dream that is workin', ain't got nothin' but the blues". As she stares hopelessly out of the window, I've turned her "dress" into a veil of sorrows. A real blues painting.
"Gimme a rhythm, gimme a beat, Gimme a rhythm, turn on the heat. I wanna be hot, I wanna be bad, I wanna be someone you wish you had". She's "wearing" a crocheted skirt that has got carried away with the jumping, barely legible lyrics. My oil crayons were really hoppin' with that rhythm.

I thoroughly enjoyed pushing my limits with this series - very saucy indeed for a shy English country boy whose headiest youthful experience was Worcestershire Sauce. Here's the link to those early days. This work might seem a far cry from the ethereal emotions of Kylián's modern dance with classical and contemporary music. But I'm having fun with lines and marks, tapping a different gut-level rhythmic energy, possibly long-hidden, laced with humorous mischief.

There were more paintings in this 1989 series, but in those days I was also hopping between Amsterdam and The Hague for other creative work with the Netherlands Dance Theater, to Birmingham for the first discussions with Simon Rattle for a performance and with the BBC for the television documentary about my life with music: Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra (1993). 

Gary and Greg are now undoubtedly in major show business on other planets, but they became a legend for tourists looking for quirky entertainment or spirituality in Amsterdam between the seventies and 2009. They left an indelible impression on this artist too. I miss them.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Five paintings of Kylian's Kaguyahime

My five paintings of Kylián's Kaguya-hime

The ancient Japanese legend of the ravishingly beautiful Moon Princess - Kaguya-hime (also known as the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), set to music by Maki Ishii, was made into a modern ballet in 1988 by choreographer Jirí Kylián. Here's a link to the story (too long to be told here) and the link to the complete eighty-minute ballet (a must-watch).

Kodo drummers and Circle Percussion combined forces with Gagaku wind players and dancers of the Netherlands Dance Theater in a rhythmic and mysterious performance of dance and light. This was perhaps Jirí's ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk, later performed in Montreal and (twice) in Paris, conducted by Michael de Roo, the percussionist who played a leading role in the original production. 

Completely entranced, I sat in at rehearsals and performances (at times even standing in the pit surrounded by the drummers!) to create five paintings from this theatrical modern ballet. I used watercolour and oil pastels, and sometimes a spoon to scrape out lines in the wet paint. As you watch the ballet, you will recognize each of my paintings. Yet they are not mere snap-shots - I have transformed Michael Simon's stage and lighting design and Jirí's choreography into my own.
Like Jiri, for many years I have been attracted to and influenced by Asian aesthetics and philosophy. It has affected my choice of brushes, brush technique and pictorial design (Here's a link to my blog The Asian Connection). The origins, the music, choreography and design of this piece made it quite natural for me to use my brushes in a way that you might call calligraphic, where the gestures and marks of the brush follow a spontaneous inner choreography, an urge to arrange marks on the space of the white paper in a way that reflects the characteristics of the subject, yet becomes a design in itself.  
At the bottom of the paintings, you might notice some of the rhythms my brushes have followed, especially the village dances or percussive battle sounds coming from the pit, where you see the conductor at work, or ethereal fragmented scratchings. Also identifiable are the dancers and the drummers, the massive draped and knotted black cloth, the arrangements of the little black make-up boxes, the giant Odaiko drum that doubles as the moon.
Above, white-clad villagers fight with the emperor's soldiers in black to "possess" Kaguyahime, accompanied by macho percussionists who leap up onto the stage to compete with crescendi against each other.
The Emperor arrives,  enshrouded in a mass of shimmering golden parachute-silk, into which the Princess becomes temporarily entwined. But inevitably and sadly, she must return to her natural habitat, the moon, as we are dazzled by a wall of mirrored (moon) light. What an overwhelming experience!