Tuesday, 26 August 2014


Rope-walking on the diagonal line

As a twenty-year-old art student, I would experiment with walking on a slack rope, spanned between the iron girders that strengthened the walls of our Birmingham Art College studio. Balancing in my own space became an obsession that extended into many of my paintings. For example, I loved stretching a "dancing line" of people, houses or a landscape horizon across empty space, trying to focus on this line, to create space around it and ignore a mass of seemingly irrelevant information. But placed diagonally, such a line seems to gain energy. Here's a very early example:
Bernard Haitink rehearsing the Concertgebouw Orchestra, oil on canvas, 
110 x 70cm,1966.

In 1966 I sat in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, trembling with excitement as I sketched a young Bernard Haitink rehearsing the orchestra. I had sneaked around the hall to find a good vantage point and discovered that from the balcony, the silhouette of the cello and bass group provided me with a dancing, rising diagonal line for my composition. The energy of the orchestra was palpable. I was just thirty-three, still learning how to paint, you might say. My works were dominated by the visual impressionist oil painting I had learned at college and I was struggling to convert that into more abstract terms. You can see the struggle in the paint. Below is another, quieter example of my work from the same period.
Lakeside road through Weggis, Switzerland, oil on canvas, 80 x 60cm. 1965.

I had yet to discover a medium with which to express the energy of this dancing line more freely. That medium was watercolour, and it had a revolutionary effect on my work. See what happened (below) in the twenty years that followed. I no longer needed to paint the space. Influenced by a visit to Japan and by Asian calligraphy, my brush-strokes have acquired a freer dynamic that carries you across the paper. The conductor, cellos and basses are still just perceptible, but they have now become mere dynamic elements in a celebration of the music.

 Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi conducting Beethoven, watercolour, 70 x 50cm, 1985.

Twenty years or so later another compositional device - the zigzag - was frequently appearing in my paintings - a diagonal interrupted twice or more. In the recent watercolour below the zigzag starts bottom right, then finally arrives in the top lefthand corner, after first delineating the bowing of the strings, then the score, the baton, and Andris Nelson's left hand, flinging the music into the air as it were, as he urges the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to even greater heights during Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

Andris Nelsons conducting Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, 
watercolour, 84 x 56cm, 2013.
How did I think of this? I didn't. It's part of my DNA. As you listen to the music, you just follow what comes naturally.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Stage fright

Stage fright: your instrument is a paintbrush!

The violinist Tom Eisner recently wrote an excellent piece for The Guardian on the problems of stage fright before and during a concert. A traumatic business for performing artists of all sorts. But there are not many, I guess, who have to face the challenge of nerves with a paintbrush as their instrument. I hear you asking "are you nuts?"

After designing, choreographing and memorizing my kinetic visual equivalents to the music, I paint these live in concert. As I paint, you can see enormous enlargements of my brushes on a screen of say 9 x 6m. that hangs behind the orchestra. Rather exposed, you might say.

My largest brush, performing with the Circle Percussion ensemble.

My brush may sometimes be trembling. Everything can go wrong! There are times when you have to be absolutely in synch with the music, so obviously the right brush in the right pot of colour is ready, placed one second away from the glass plate I paint on. But you must have just the right amount of paint on the brush, then stroke it with the right gesture, gently or with gusto on the slippery plate - and oh, I'm painting everything upside down (standing behind the overhead projector, so I can see the screen). Piece of cake. Using an instrument made of wood and hair, it's just like playing the violin. Yeah, it helps if you practise for forty years.

Rehearsing in the studio, using two brushes on one of five projectors.

The still shot below is a moment towards the end of Scriabin's sensual Poem of Ecstasy, when the orchestra has been pulling out all the stops fortissimo. I pick up the pulse of the trumpet solo with tiny drops of window cleaner on the glass plate, just enough to make it expand with the crescendo at the right tempo. In my rather ragged studio rehearsal video (see further below), I just miss the trumpet entrance (at No. 38 in the score) by one bar, but I practise to get it right on the night. Only two thousand people will be watching. No sweat.

Nerves? For me the nerves kick in before I go on stage. My personal solution is to tap on the acupressure points of the energy meridians that we all possess, using the EFT method (Emotional Freedom Techniques) founded by Gary Craig. The routine is simple - you sit quietly in a corner, tap on the karate-chop part of your hand, saying to yourself something like "Even though I'm as nervous as hell, I accept myself and my situation completely". Then tapping gently on the energy meridians, I quietly affirm my resolve to show to the audience something of extreme beauty that they have never seen before - and I'm going to enjoy doing it! Breathe out and repeat three times. 

Well that's the short version. It's easy to find more on internet, but it helps if you start with an EFT counsellor like the wonderful woman who helped and still helps me to deal with stress, stage fright and much more.  
My portrait of Gabrielle Rutten, my EFT therapist, tapping on the karate chop spot.

A 10 min. montage from my studio rehearsal of Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, performed 
                                     with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2010.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

A Day of Mourning

A Day of Mourning

Today is a national day of mourning in the Netherlands. An opportunity to mourn not only the 193 Dutch citizens on Flight MH17, but the tragic deaths of all on board. And an opportunity to mourn the senseless massacre of hundreds of other children and civilians, in Gaza, Syria and elsewhere, to mourn the un-prohibited manufacture of murderous weapons in so-called civilized countries (for sale to thugs world-wide), to express our sorrow at hatred, racism and unimaginable cruelty, to weep for mankind. 

Music helps, they say. Well, it helps to access the feeling, to give form to grief, instead of pushing it away. It quietens the anger. It helps to believe in humanity, despite everything. Colour affects our emotions too. Today the only appropriate fragment I have to offer of music combined with kinetic colour is my Meditation on the first few minutes of G√≥recki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Take your time. Turn the sound up (the first few minutes are inaudible) and click on the full screen option. You may see strange apparitions as you stare at the colours. Let it flow.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Stravinsky in a Rococo Theatre

Stravinsky in a Rococo theatre

The indefatigable violinist Hugo Ticciati and his team of volunteers, musicians and artists dedicated to superlative performances, have done it again. The 2014 O/Modernt Festival, in the Confidencen (Ulriksdal Palace Theatre) outside Stockholm, came to a close on Tuesday night, June 17th. Everyone was totally exhausted, yet still smiling with the joy of producing art and music together.
                 Built in 1671, this amazing Rococo theatre is the oldest in Sweden.

Stravinsky's Soldier tramped his dusty road, the Devil won (again), the adrenaline and kinetic colours flowed on my glass plates and yes (thanks for all your good wishes), it went very well indeed. The somewhat senior audience came out grinning with astonishment. "We have never seen anything like this!"

Inevitably, a mobile phone went off, interrupting Alexander Oliver's narration. Not quite on cue though - later Sandy's narrative does include (twice) "the telephone rings". I half expected him to say to the offender "Oh, I had better take that - it might be the Devil".

Now back home, I'm reflecting (as usual) on why we are crazy enough to do this. Setting up the gear, solving multiple staging problems, rehearsing and finally performing non-stop for over an hour, was an exhausting dawn to midnight marathon! And I would love to do it again. What's my problem?

Looking out of my hotel window the next morning, the dusty road by the lake saw only a few joggers. The incredibly intense blue of Scandinavian skies and the peace of nature brought some relaxation. But Stravinsky's rhythms are still jogging through my system. I could almost be back on the shores of Lake Geneva, where he wrote l'Histoire du Soldat ninety-six years ago.