Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Joy of Analogue

Analogue is alive and well!

That means you and me too. We are analogue beings, not digital. The fluid organic energy that courses through our bodies and brains is analogue (definition: "a continuous spectrum of values"). By contrast, the products of digital tools: images and sound-systems etc. are synthesized from separate bits of information. An image becomes a conglomeration of pixels, dots of coloured light. Gone is the sensual, personal touch, the breathing, the subtle fluctuation, the emotional involvement. It's not the real thing. Yet we're all now stuck with digital technology, even addicted to it. 

I was delighted to receive a recommendation of David Sax's delightful book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.  I can't resist quoting from the blurb:
"A funny thing happened..... we've begun to fall back in love with the very analog goods and ideas the tech gurus insisted we no longer needed....Moleskine notebooks, vinyl records, photography with film and real tangible shopping have become cool again."  Remember when "browsing" wasn't an activity on internet, but a physical tactile experience of space and time in a venerable book or clothing store? Well, it seems that such experiences are still a real need. Bookshops are on their way back. Kodak and Ferrania are starting to make celluloid film again. Unbelievably, Vinyl records sales are outstripping all other forms of listening to music - except of course sitting in a real concert venue. 

Of course digital is here to stay and sure, it's very useful, clever, informative and so on. Sax is not pleading either/or, but signalling a refreshing development that has more respect for our individual emotional and physical needs and is even commercially successful. 
The luscious feel of a brush swimming in powerful colour with a percussion performance.

Why does Sax's book intrigue and excite me? Because I have been clobbered over the head for twenty years with the dogma that only digital technology can save the world. I have suffered from the prejudice against my soft-edge, slow-moving kinetic images, simply because they're not digital. And now, to my and everybody's surprise, small markets are redeveloping worldwide that cater to our need for things that we can touch and that feel good; things that are much more satisfying than digital imitations. I'm a sensual man. I like slow jazz, yoga and a good massage. I like the feel of the brush and pencil in my hand and on the paper. I love the hypnotic floating of my kinetic water colours, that seem to have a life of their own and evoke a certain nostalgia because the images are ephemeral. Could it be that these liquid colours revive pre-natal memories for my audiences? 
It seems that I am not alone. "Retro" is trending - the very personal discovery of stylish quality goods that remind us of the good old days, in contrast to a surfeit of mass produced stuff that has become boring. The fulfilment of selecting and holding something with special associations. The sensation of putting a needle on a record, of turning the pages of a book. Actually my kinetic painting is not strictly retro, because I've never stopped performing the art form that I invented in the seventies. 
Water slowly creeps over my brushstrokes, irresistibly eroding and consuming an ephemeral backdrop.  A kinetic painting performance, made on analoque overhead projectors for Huang Ruo's Written on the Wind with pipa and vocals. This was a huge projection for live viewing in a real concert hall, but admittedly this digital version on YouTube reaches a larger audience. Here's the link. Part 1 takes 7 mins, so you will need to take time. Don't worry - taking time is good for you!

In the very same year that the first experiments were being made with digital imaging (1973), I was experimenting with a perfectly good analogue apparatus (the overhead projector) in a school where I was teaching in Switzerland. Later I heard that Joshua White in New York (whose light shows are still going strong), was also fooling around with the psychedelic effects of colours that expanded with the heat of these projectors, as decors for the shows of Frank Zappa, Janis Joplin and others. This soon became the reference norm for anybody I told about my performance work, with the assumption that naturally, I too was more interested in psychedelic experiences at that time. In fact, totally sober, I was looking for specific visual equivalents to certain classical and contemporary music that would literally provide insight into the structures, moods and rhythms of the music and would draw a younger generation into a love of these art forms combined. Pop music was ahead of me here, but classical music was slow to get the message.
The Dutch Circle Percussion ensemble flooded with my colours as my brushes twist and leap in synch to their rhythms.
It was ironic (and distressing) that as the new digital rage developed, my analogue attempts were seen as old hat. Even though some visionaries like Yehudi Menuhin and Simon Rattle saw the light, there was no stopping the new mindset, cleverly offering the prospect for anybody to become a photographer or digital designer (glossing over the question of whether you had anything to say, with your new toys).  Sadly, today this means that tiny kids are often given a mini audio-visual tablet, before they have barely experienced the joy of holding a pencil to draw and write, the visceral sensation of making their own marks by hand and the excitement of sketching ideas, feeling them "coming out of their body". Some of the greatest ideas that were later put into a computer, were first sketched, scribbled and shared on a paper napkin. Now, get out your sketchbook, reach for a nice soft 2B pencil.... there you go.... ah, the joy of low-tech!
One of my very first little ideas for a kinetic painting, like automatic writing to music sketched on paper at the Gstaad Menuhin Festival in 1964.

My wonderfully analogue performance gear, being set up for a performance in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. The technical staff said: "You've got to be joking! Don't you have a computer?" But afterwards they told me that they were totally blown away by the kinetic images.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Multicoloured creativity with Daniel Hope

  Multicoloured creativity with Daniel Hope

In these dark days, it's so good to be collaborating again with the endlessly creative violinist Daniel Hope, who brings colour into our lives by combining art with music and in a thousand other ways.

Daniel's new album For Seasons is due to be released on March 3rd. and it was great to get an advance copy in the post yesterday. Daniel has chosen a watercolour of mine from 1989 to accompany the month of June with the Barcarolle from Tchaikovsky's Seasons. My painting was inspired by Nacho Duato's modern dance work Arenal, created for the Netherlands Dance Theater - the dancers' wide skirts flung into the summer heat.

1989 was an amazing year for me creatively. In addition to making many paintings of dance, I also co-created a ballet with kinetic painting for the Netherlands Dance Theater. When I sent the video to Simon Rattle he suggested we work together, culminating in a BBC televised performance with the CBSO in 1993. My years with dance are described in earlier blogs - Here's the link to one of them.
Daniel has long been interested in various Gesamtkunst forms - effectively combining various art disciplines to create music-theatre. I was thrilled to hear that I'm to be featured with kinetic painting to music in the 2017/18 Season of Daniel's Zurich Chamber Orchestra under the theme: Art is in Residence. Watch this space for details!

Already programmed is a performance of Stravinsky's l'Histoire du Soldat for June 23th 2018 in the Essen Philharmonie. The evening before my 85th birthday. What a great incentive to stay creatively active!

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Dancing rhythms

Dancing rhythms in landscape

In the early sixties I was always looking for lines or groups of people, trees, buildings, windmills that would form shapes to dance across my canvas. I kept the colours dark and the backgrounds pale, to emphasize these shapes, bundled up, twisting and turning in space, balancing strategically in the composition as it were on a rope stretched from side to side. Reminders of my hobby as a student of walking on a slack-rope. But undoubtedly also a reflection of who I was in those days: unhappily married, struggling to stay balanced, looking for the way out. (That would come later, with explosions of intense colour). All the oils below were painted on canvasses of of approximately 80 x 60 cm. 

The windmills of Zaandijk in the icy winter of 1962

Snow was useful to provide contrast, but I employed the same arrangements in summer landscapes. As I look back at these early works, I hear the musical rhythms and tempi of these organized seemingly kinetic forms, forceful sounds fading to a whisper on the horizon or escaping off the canvas. Those sharp irregular chopping and sawing sounds of woodcutters in the snow made modern music, with two very quiet final notes provided by a couple of tourists, standing still.
Woodcutters in the snow, Blatten, near Zermatt, Switzerland,1963.

The quiet adagio of a Jeu de Boules in Carpentras, Provence - only the rustle of plane trees, the crunch of gravel, murmured commentaries and occasionally a sudden clack! 

Jeu de  Boules in Provence, 1963.

The twisting lakeside road through Weggis (Switzerland) from which you have one vista after another across the lake (cue horns?) - a dancing line full of surprises.

Lakeside road through Weggis, Switzerland, 1965

The clatter of skis being put on, skiers climbing sideways with staccato edges in the snow, then rhythmic rasping sounds, fading away as they disappeared over the edge of the mountain. Every skier knows those sounds.
Skiers, 1966.
Maybe there's a framework here for a composition of five movements.  Who could put this to music?

Friday, 9 December 2016

My Mahler Experience

The making of 
The Mahler Experience 

A few weeks ago, with over two thousand others, I was shuffling towards the exit of Birmingham's Symphony Hall, slightly dazed, the sounds of Mahler 1 still going through my whole being. Mirga Gražinyté-Tyla had just conducted the CBSO in another fabulous concert. They brought the house down!
We pass by my painting The Mahler Experience - Symphony Hall. "Look", a woman in front of me says to her group, "I think that may be Mahler 2, with Simon Rattle". "That's right", I mutter. "Are you sure?" "Yeah, I painted it". The crowd comes to a standstill. "You painted it! Hey, he painted it!" Handshakes all round. I find this reaction rather amusing, but it happens every time I'm in Birmingham. A group of teenagers is hanging around. I try not to feel prejudiced about their demeanour. One of them eventually approaches me and says: "Sir, I just have to tell you: that painting changed my life. I now love classical music". A novelist wants to include the painting as the sublime emotional experience of her main character. Could we do a photo in front of the painting? And so on. I feel rather happy for all of them, but strangely, it's as though some else painted it, long ago in the history of art. Everybody wants to know more, but I want to say to them "ah, you should see the next one that I'm working on!" (Watch this space).
The 1993 commission came from Mike Dernie of Midlands Electricity, then one of the main sponsors of Symphony Hall. Mike was a member of the CBSO Chorus. (You can just make him out in the back row). He became a good friend and I'm writing this for him, in appreciation of what he did for me and many thousands of viewers in the last twenty-three years. He drove over to my Amsterdam studio to collect the finished work personally in his van. There was no suitable wall to hang it in the entrance mall, so they built a fake one. Now the painting gives you a glimpse of the Hall without going inside and a glimpse of the experience that might be yours if you a buy a concert ticket.
People often ask "how do you start?" The inspiration came from two experiences of hearing Mahler 2 (the so-called "Resurrection" symphony), first at the opening of Symphony Hall in 1991 with Simon Rattle conducting the CBSO, then later with Mariss Jansons. I made a number of preparatory studies of course, but then standing in front of this rather large white canvas (200 x 160cm.) I felt dwarfed, aware that I had to do justice to the musicians and the Hall that I was about to paint. The awful moment of truth. I needed to hear the music, so I pressed the button, Mahler 2 blasted out full volume and I was away, going with the flow of those first transparent washes of acrylic. This was to be an ode to the architecture and superb acoustics of one of the best halls in the world. The perspective of those irregular curving shapes was a challenge, but it was sheer joy to paint that cloud of floating sound, zigzagging upwards, spreading across the adjustable ceiling, every sound enhanced by the expertise of the legendary acoustician Russell Johnson (1923-2007). His acoustic design determined the architecture.
Here are a few more shots from my diary, showing some of the developments and changes :
 Cards and prints of this work are on sale at the Birmingham Symphony Hall Gift Shop.