Wednesday 21 October 2020

Painting With Music

As a composer, I've developed some (to me!) interesting abilities, ideas and techniques. I'm beginning to know what I'm comfortable with and what is out of my comfort zone. Sweeping musical statements I can do but they don't come naturally. Harmonic progression I can do, but takes work. And the need to 'change key' to maintain interest is an unwanted compositional distraction. I have absorbed a whole variety of compositional facets: counterpoint, fugue, serialism, minimalism, form, phrasing, harmony, discord, sequence, repetition...  In addition, in working with groups of musicians, chamber strings, woodwind, brass, full orchestra, I've absorbed some ability to orchestrate, to choose an effective combinations of instruments for a given circumstance.

 The result that emerged is a liking for 'painting with music', by which I mean making brush strokes of short musical statements and joining them up within a context that frames them to make a whole. A brush stroke can be anything from a single note or chord to a run of semitones, from a random sequence of notes to a carefully constructed phrase, a piece of counterpoint, a scale.

 The first project using this newly-found musical canvas is a series of four meditations on haikus by Japanese masters and I chose one for each season. Here is Winter:

 The process is, first, to choose a subject and then to use that subject to suggest the atmosphere, the instrumentation and also to make some imaginative connections, for example, dividing the composition into three parts, one for each line of the music, or choosing an instrument for specific facets, like the flute for frost. These imaginative connections are somewhat arbitrary but make the music express its subject matter. Thereafter, it's a case of making those brush strokes and seeing - or rather listening to - what happens.

I apply as much theory about what could work as I can, particularly where harmony is concerned, also rhythmic phrasing, but then come endless repetitions of listening hard and making vital adjustmens to what sounds right. Somehow, the brain, which after all is the music-maker, recognises the right note and the wrong one as much for the composer as for the listener. Listen to Snow's Falling! and judge for yourself.

At its extreme, this painting-with-music can become a Jackson Pollock-esque creation of happenstance musical patterns ('stochastic' is the term used for random events, loved by experimental composers of the 1960s and 70s, John Cage springing to mind). But my method uses chance and design on the palette, alongside all the other musical colours.

Falling into this use of visual language to describe music is fascinating for a multitude of reasons.

It is difficult for a listener to cotton on to a new piece of music at the first listening, especially if it contains any challenges, but by suggesting or accompanying it with an image or images is a sure way of leading the listener in. Again, Snow's Falling! is an example, the simple image holds attention while the music plays on, weaving its detail into a coherent whole. We are used to background sound tracks creating atmosphere. Here, the opposite occurs, an image re-enforces the music's atmosphere.

 Even without the video, the haiku is enough, conjuring a strong image. These haikus are ideal subject matter as their essence is to take a particular subject, one we can all recognise from personal experience, and incorporate into it an awareness of the universal. It is a small hook and bait to catch a much greater truth.

The history of the visual arts has an equivalent in music and there are some clear equivalences that can be made in describing the development of either genre, Impressionism (Renoir, Monet/Debussy, Ravel), for example, or, in the case of my four seasons meditations, abstract expressionism, although, of course, all music is abstract.

This reminds me of a short book, Fear of Music, by David Stubbs, subtitled, 'Why people get Rothko but don't get Stockhausen'. Its thesis is that art galleries have no problem attracting audiences for abstract art, while music struggles to find an audience for contemporary music. Using this thread, the book follows the phases of 20th-century art together with those of music happening at the same time. Recommended!

If you would like to hear the other three haiku meditations, go to