Sunday, 4 October 2015

Creative freedom in 2015!

Creative freedom in 2015!

If you can't read this, turn it anti-clockwise. 
It says, of course, 
Creative freedom in 1990

On my New Year's card of 1989/90, my long splayed brush was not just painting graffiti on a wall - it was my own simple way to slash through the Wall of political and cultural prejudice, to freely calligraph a message of optimism, a call for creativity in whatever language you speak, write, paint or play or sing. 

In November 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and we were all carried away with excitement about the consequences. That first celebration of German unity in Berlin saw Rostropovich playing the Bach Cello Suites and Bernstein conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, changing the words from Freude! (Joy) to Freiheit! (Freedom):

But twenty-five years later the message must still be writ large on walls everywhere.
Think creatively! 
Out of the box? Through the wall!

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Birds free to migrate!

Birds free to migrate!

Thursday night I was one of thousands who watched, mesmerized, as Yo-Yo Ma playing the six Bach Suites for solo cello in the Royal Albert Hall. After this two and a half hour marathon, he took the microphone to say that in the light of the terrible things happening in the world right now, he wanted to play one more little song, a Catalan song arranged for solo cello by the legendary Catalan cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973). Not only did Casals revive public appreciation of the Bach Suites - he spent a significant part of his life in exile, in protest against the Franco regime in Spain, playing in protest at the plight of refugees around the world. This Song of the Birds has become a plea for freedom, said Yo-Yo, the freedom to live where you would like to live. What a beautiful and simple message in the language of music from one man on an otherwise empty stage.

Birds are free to migrate, singing to each other as they do. Are they trying to tell us something?
Yo-Yo Ma, watercolour 84 x 56cm, 1992. Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection

It's twenty-three years since I made this watercolour of Yo-Yo. Using the diagonal of the cello, this composition is based on triangles. Your gaze follows the dark tones down from the top right-hand corner to his face, listening. Then turns down the fingerboard where his fingers are delicately gamboling down towards his bowing action. It's all about balance.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Visual mindfulness

A film role brings me back to Mindfulness

Gijs Scholten van Aschat, an old friend of mine and one of Holland's most famous actors, needed an English native-speaker to play the role of a Mindfulness counselor in the 29 minute tragicomic Dutch film Jack (a Journey to Fulfillment). I was offered the part and thought "why not?" 

Gijs stars as Jack, who is desperately trying to combat his fear of failure, his frustration and pain as he tries to renovate his house (and actually himself). Instead of more pills, his doctor recommends the CDs of the popular Mindfulness guru Jon Sabat (no, not that other guy with a similar name).
     photos and cinematographer Marjoke Haagsma

So I become the voice of Jon that Jack, during his emotional predicaments, can hear in his headphones speaking the wise advice that many of us have heard before and then forgotten: "Focus on the wonder of this present moment and on your own potential right now, accept yourself as you are..." and so on. Although Jack doesn't really have time for this stuff, the voice continues to haunt him. Jon even becomes his mainstay, support and inspiration.
But wait, people ask me - are you an actor? Well no, I just pretend. Ah yes, that's what actors do all the time, right? Ha, ha, it's amazing what you can achieve with such a gifted young Director as Jim Süter and with this fascinating script by screen-writer Jeroen Scholten van Aschat. Jim is amazing - he could gently talk me through the psychology of any situation and for him I would do whatever it takes. Not to mention the support of an experienced actor like Gijs. Playing opposite this guy in full emotional swing - and trying to stay calm, is unforgettable. 

It was fun to be involved and fascinating to observe the making of this film, but more than that, getting inside this role made me reflect a lot on real life. We might laugh at Jack's pathetic figure as he gets ever deeper into the troubles he brings upon himself, yet his problems are uncomfortably familiar and he invokes our sympathy. Jon Sabat's message starts to make sense. I had to believe it to play the role. In fact, I needed it myself. I also realized that it reinforced something I've possessed for years - my own form of visual mindfulness, developed through kinetic painting to music - which can only be done (and viewed) by focussing on the now. This real-time art form carries so many risks, but if you dare take them - to quote the musician Nikolaus Harnoncourt - even on the edge of disaster you discover great beauty. 
Film is related to my own kinetic painting in that it's a time-based art form. Film (or in German Kino, for the movies) and my continuous painting only exist in the present moment. Hence my affiliation to Mindfulness. The spectator focusses so intensely on the moving images because she/he knows that they are ephemeral. This exercise in heightened awareness takes you out of this world, my spectators tell me. Quite therapeutic. So am I a therapist? Nah....I just paint with the conviction that the synthesis of kinetic painting and music is good for my well-being - and for yours. It may well lower your blood-pressure or, in the case of the Poem of Ecstasy in the trailer below, get you really turned on!

This year is the centenary of the death of the composer Alexander Scriabin, who fervently believed that music and colour together have a special synergy. In his honour, here's a 9 min. montage from my performance with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy. Go to full screen, turn the sound up, focus and enjoy each moment!


June 30th sees the première of Jack (a Journey to Fulfillment) in the 
EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam. The first night is sold out, but for my Dutch-speaking friends, here's the link to the Keep an Eye Filmacademie Festival with other dates and screening times, to book online. If you can't get in, Jack will also be televised on Dutch KRO-NCRV in mid-September.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The art of letting go

The art of letting go

A particular sadness hits me when I look again at my paintings of those who have passed away. Below is a watercolour study for a painting of Elaine Shaffer, in her day the veritable queen of the flute. I met her at the Menuhin Festival in Gstaad. She often performed with Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin and was very kind to me as I made sketches in 1972 for a large painting - that was not to be. I didn't know that in less than a year later this striking woman with the wonderful sound would die of cancer at 47. 

A brilliant creative life cut short and a creative process (my painting) interrupted. Perhaps the minimal form of this study is therefore appropriate, incomplete as it is. I must be thankful that I was privileged to share just one brief session with this great musician and had to let go of what might have been.

As a dear friend reminded me yesterday - letting go is an art in itself, whether it be a failed relationship, the loss of a loved one, or even an experience that you know is designed to finish. Any performance falls into this category, as does my kinetic painting to music, that finishes when the music stops. Spectators used to holding on to a "finished" and framed painting, will tell me after performance: "but we wanted it to go on.... and there's nothing left!" Their comment reminds me that one of my aims in these performances is to practise and to share the "art of letting go". It really does take a lot of practice.

Here's a link to one of the Bach performances that I especially remember, with Elaine, Yehudi, George Malcolm (harpsichord) and Robert Masters, Concertmaster of the Bath Festival Chamber Orchestra. The video is dated 1959, but I heard this work with same ensemble at Gstaad in the sixties. She was wearing the same skirt and blouse!