The first time I visited the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Landscape in Corsica was placed next to a series of Post-impressionist landscapes. I must confess that in the beginning I did not pay much attention to it: this painting seemed to be unfinished, and therefore, it was completely eclipsed by its neighbours. My perception changed drastically once I learned that Henri Matisse was the author of this artwork: until that moment, I have always associated him with Fauvism, and this painting could not be classified as part of this movement.
As the title states, it was in Corsica where Matisse painted around 60 landscapes of the Mediterranean Island, just like Russell and van Gogh before him. In words of Matisse himself, it was during his stay in Corsica that “(…) he felt the first shock of what would become Fauvism”. Is in this context that he created Landscape in Corsica (1898), one of his early oil paintings. Even if this post-impressionist approach is not the most known facet of Matisse, in this piece it can be appreciated his strong fascination with the power of colour.
Post-impressionist artworks are characterized by a mixture of different developments derived from Impressionism: an almost scientific analysis of colour, a structured way to inspect the landscape, the use of expressive brushes and flat colours. All of these features are present in Landscape in Corsica. These qualities are the sustain of my personal approach to my composition.
Until now, I am trying to establish some analogies between the perception of colour (and more importantly, their combinations) with certain harmonies, based in the researches involving synesthetic experiences of colour and colour emotion published in the Handbook of Color Psychology (Cambridge University Press). The position, distribution and proportion of the different elements present in this painting is also fundamental: on one hand, I am making correlations between the visual stimuli and the perception of aural space; on the other hand, I created a timeline within the painting to help me to organise the different sections of my composition. I am also making associations between different types of brushes and specific kinds of timbre, working almost exclusively with the recordings of a guitar.
The Crucifixion by Odilon Redon is a diminutive yet extraordinarily striking painting. It is believed to have been painted in 1904, and is just one of a number of paintings that were produced by the artist during the early part of the twentieth century. The painting is based on a much earlier, and far more gruesome work by the German artist Matthias Grünewald.
The painting consists of just three images, the main central figure of Christ on the cross, then just visible on the left-hand side of the painting is the shadowy, grieving figure of Mary. Whilst on the right-hand side is the barely discernible, wraith-like figure of St John. No other figures or buildings were to be seen. The desolate and vividly coloured background is just an abstract layered patchwork of blurred red, orange, brown and yellow oil paint and pastel.
I was immediately struck when viewing the painting for the first time by the colours, and by the hugely strong emotional content that has been captured by the artist. A comment that I read whilst researching in the Barber Institute’s archives for the painting mentioned how ‘the Redon still glows in my mind’s eye’.
A piece of music that I have listened to a lot recently is Arvo Pärt’s minimalist composition ‘Passio’. This is a piece that was composed as a meditation on the text of St John that tells the story surrounding Christ’s trial and subsequent death. A piece very fitting for the painting that I have chosen to compose for.
My composition starts very quietly and sparsely, gradually building in layers of swirling vocalesque sounds. I love working with sound in a way that it imitates the human voice. My piece is very minimal, echoing the minimal character of the painting. I am also attempting to capture the emotion portrayed, though in a symbolic and meditative manner.
The Sounding Images 2017 exhibition is running at the Barber Institute from 27 April to 18 June. You can pick up an MP3 player and a map from the gallery, explore the artworks and listen to the compositions. Alternatively stream the audio here
If you would like to find out more about the works you can visit the composers’ pages here
A Pastoral Landscape, painted by Claude Lorrain, is a beautiful work depicting the artist’s vision of utopia: rolling hills, idyllic scenery, and man living in harmony with nature. After studying the painting however, I was instead transfixed by the large, imposing castle featured on the right-hand side of the image, an aspect which is surprisingly rarely mentioned in many writings and interpretations of the work – including the artist’s. I was interested in this conflict of interpretations, and wanted to explore this idea in my composition. I thought the best way to do this would be by creating two diverse soundworlds to represent each interpretation of the work, then gradually intersperse and blend them to portray how they both coexist with each other in the painting. The castle, which I find imposing and authoritative to look at, is signified by dark, drone sounds produced from processed recordings of a gamelan gong and low vocal notes, an example of which can be heard here:
In contrast, the artist’s vision of the painting, an idyllic and tranquil scene, is depicted in a more literal sense, with field recordings being layered to create a soundscape of what the viewer might hear if they were stood inside the painting. An example of this soundscape can be listened to here, and to learn more about the recording process for obtaining these sounds, feel free to watch my vlogfrom last week!
My aim for the piece is to gradually combine these two soundworlds, not only creating tension in regards to the conflict of interpretations, but also to portray how I envision the castle slowly spreading its authority over the landscape. Here’s an example of how I’ve been exploring this:
I haven’t yet decided on an ending for my piece, but in the meantime, I intend to carry on merging these soundworlds in a similar manner and seeing where this takes me.
Vesuvius in Eruption – Joseph Wright of Derby
One of the most wonderful sights in nature…
Wright describes the volcanic eruption as ‘one of the most wonderful sights in nature’ and I am inclined to agree with him. I was instantly drawn into this painting by the grandeur of the volcano and the chaos surrounding it. However, as I spent more time with the painting, the contrast and serenity of the moon became more of a focus.
My composition is based upon memories of the eruption as Wright returned to England to produce the painting. As listeners we are taken on a journey through the serene landscape before witnessing (or hearing) the overwhelming chaos and beauty of the volcanic eruption and are finally left with a sonic representation the aftermath; a warped, distorted depiction of what was pure beauty at the beginning of the journey.
This week I have been focusing on this concept of distortion and warping the opening material to create my final section of music. As much of my first section is pitch-based, harmony has become an important device in my composition process and in my desire to create a more tense, dissonant soundworld. As inspiration for this I have looked towards one of my favourite composers: Alfred Schnittke. In particular, I have been listening to his Requiem as his setting of the “Recordare” text creates a harmonically dissonant yet hauntingly beautiful soundworld – not dissimilar to what I am trying to create in my own work. The final three statements of the word “Recordare” are particularly haunting. Schnittke uses an incredibly dissonant cluster of C#, D, D#, E but spreads the notes across the choir in a way which makes the harmony sound much less dissonant than expected just looking at the pitches. Here is a video where you can follow the score and explore the soundworld of Schnittke:
The Crucifixion – Odilon Redon
I have always harboured a deep interest in religious imagery and symbolism, specifically artistic depictions which illustrate the macabre and human elements of religious texts. In a mildly depressing vein I was not truly drawn into a painting in the Barber Gallery until I was presented with a symbolist interpretation of the torturous death known as crucifixion. Completed around 1904, Redon’s Crucifixion took inspiration from Grunewald’s depiction (1523) which was recognisable for its bloody realism (an overtly human vision of Christ) and bending crucifix. Redon retained the image of the cross bending from the metaphorical weight of the world’s sins but substituted the inherently grim visual aspects in favour of powerful and evocative colours. A choice which I initially viewed as an ethereal departure from the human depiction of Christ before reading over the curatorial files and discovering that Redon was representing the visceral pain and anguish through colour. Retaining the human elements from Grunewald’s work.
I was delighted to discover this as I often feel that the image of Christ on the cross is seen by many as a mere symbol of the faith, a piece of religious iconography or jewellery that whilst containing significant meaning, refrains from discussing the fact that this was a common form of punishment. An amalgamation of a death sentence and torture which involved impalement, broken dislocated limbs and suffocation. In my opinion, to truly understand the religious and non-religious significance of these depictions, one must confront the horrific reality of crucifixion in all its bloody realism.
I am attempting to demonstrate this within my piece, using recordings of percussion which gradually warp and distort into a homogenous wall of noise, signifying Christ’s death. To create an aesthetically pleasing piece based on this painting would not effectively convey the emotional power found within this work in my mind.
I have created certain sounds to reflect visual elements within the painting, such as the use of edited ratchet noises to represent the wood in the cross breaking and using panning and pitch in an attempt to construct an aural crucifix out of bowed cymbals. I will hopefully be able to record two voices, humming the chant Crux Fidelis to represent the fading figures of Mary and St John.
I chose this romantic seascape for Dahl’s use of lighting. I like the way the moon is the only source of light, creating the reflections off the sea and the silhouettes of the figures and the fishing boat. It also highlights the layers found within the background of the painting, from the stormy clouds with moonlight piercing through, the calm sunset and water, to the craggy rocks. This has inspired my compositions background which will consist of four layers, each reflecting the elements and textures present within the painting.
Another aspect of the painting which drew me in was the way the figures present are silhouetted in shadows, cloaking them in mystery. The figure of the mother seems caring, holding the child, and standing stoically without showing much emotion through the position of her body. The child on the other hand shows excitement through the way they are reaching out towards the boat. I wish to portray their characters through my music, evoking their personalities through gestural material. The mother will have a gesture with a steadfast quality which influences the more erratic gestures which portray the child.
The boat is also shrouded in mystery. Dahl’s mentor and father figure died before he finished this work and I would therefore like to add a mournful tone to my composition, achieved through a melancholy setting and a reflective quality to the slow treatment of layers. I have been listening to Bernard Parmegiani’s Polyphonie which demonstrates the gradual interweaving of these layers which I would like to achieve within my composition. Inserted is his work:
For further reading here is an article from the telegraph about Mother and Child by the Sea and the Moonrise over Europe Exhibit at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in 2006.
A beach near Trouville – Eugene Boudin
We were encouraged this week to visit the Barber institute’s archives and explore the histories behind our chosen works. It was not only fascinating to learn the life of my painting beyond the gallery but also quite valuable in illuminating some of the mysteries of it, and gaining some alternative perspectives. Among the archives were correspondence between curators discussing the piece (many of whom shared the opinion that this was a particularly uninteresting product of Boudin’s output), details of restoration projects and even a photograph taken from approximately the same location Boudin painted from (see left). Interestingly I learnt that this piece was produced not long after a serious growth in tourism for the Trouville area, with many rich families utilising local investment in transport infrastructure to visit the scenic coasts for as short as a weekend.
From studying more of Boudin’s paintings I had noted a noticeable lack of human activity in my chosen work so spent some time speculating the relevance of this. The timeline of these events might suggest Boudin had been underwhelmed by the international provenance Trouville was gaining and so chose to paint a subject reflecting a less superficial or divisive relationship between people and the landscape. Whether true or not, the remote simplicity captured here really inspired me. With this in mind I took a trip last week to Crosby beach in Liverpool in the hope that I could capture a similarly fresh sense of environment through sound. Despite my explorations being cut short by the endeavours of storm Dorris I felt quite successful in what I had recorded and have attached a short collage of recordings below. I hope to use this material to help establish a sense of being on the Trouville coastline with the rich sensory experience this accommodates, before exploring individual sound objects and materials associated with such environments in more detail later on.
This week we settled on our final pieces of art and had a great time defacing them with adjectives! I am now well underway with the conception and implementation stage of my work having decided that the political aspect of this piece, especially that to do with the second world war, is to be my focus.
My work is going to focus on the polemic which characterised the death of peace in Europe during the war. Magritte captures this theme in this stark image of a totem bird of peace transformed into a leaf. This leaf is slowly decaying, being eaten away at the heart. Magritte draws the eye constantly to the face of the bird which bares a sad, resigned expression. The humanity which rests there is quite unsettling. Magritte’s use of light draws us to this expression again and again as the brightest point of the painting is at the top of the head of this poignant effigy. The red curtain signifies the encroaching of communism and secrecy, secrecy being the death of peace.
Below is an excerpt from my work using Neville Chamberlain’s famous speech declaring war with Germany in 1939. I have mixed this with other speeches from Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. This excerpt was created in SuperCollider (learn more about SuperCollider Here) and is a work in progress.
James Dickinson Primrose Hill – Winter Auerbach
Primrose Hill is widely known due to its clear view of the city beyond a more rural park area. This is primarily why I chose this piece; there are clear parallels with industry and nature, or synthetic and organic, in electroacoustic music. The fact that this is also a very textural piece, i.e. where brush strokes are unashamedly visible, shows that Auerbach’s apparent aggression when painting was somewhat intentional. I want to bring this out in my work, especially when you consider the irony that this is inevitably meant to be a picturesque scene:
Auerbach has actually created more than fifty versions of this work, which have been very useful in my research for the piece, especially with regard to Auerbach’s approach to glimmering light in the distance. I wanted to focus on these glimmers first, which are most likely representations of lamp posts – I wanted to use these as a primary motif as they seem to be the only instance of the modern world within the otherwise green park. I have replicated this by taking three sine waves, representing a pure but electronic-based medium, and slowly distorting them, primarily using a 50Hz buzz.