04 Apr Facing the Music : Art meets Jazz
I’ll start by admitting that there’s a certain amount of ritual involved in my process, as I suspect there is for most of my artist colleagues. Coffee is almost always involved, plus various procrastinations which for me begin with a gradual easing into the day at my local caff (my version of mindfulness – ie being mindful of how I prefer to start the day) with last Sunday’s Culture section, which I never get down to reading till Tuesday at the earliest. There might also be a spot or two of minimalist shopping involving broccoli for tonight, a packet of porridge, even dropping some shirts off at the launderette……. but for all that, never too much activity in case the gloss is rubbed off the new day in a morass of infuriation with the parking app and other fatally spark-extinguishing practical concerns.
I usually prepare supper before I eventually go up the wooden hill to the studio, hopefully by 2.30pm but often as late as 4pm, which gives me a good three or four hours of uninterrupted work. A teacher once said to me that four good hours a day was as long as most artists can manage before they lose their ‘eye’, and in my case this is generally true. (My golden rule by the way is never to look in on the studio late at night; this is when my most rash and disastrous tweakings will occur, and is to be avoided).
Once in the studio, getting straight down to work isn’t plain sailing. There’s always a handy brush that needs a wash, or a tape measure and a calculator to be hunted down to check the dimensions of whatever canvas I have to hand for a new piece….. incense to light if my asthma is ok…..a tidy up and a sweep……nip downstairs to make another cuppa and find some glass jars. And all the while – and this is what I’m getting to – the music is playing.
Collage with notes monoprint/collage 2017
Music is a topical subject for me because Julian Joseph’s new book on Jazz, Music of Initiative features lots of the work produced by me in said studio.
‘Music of Initiative: Julian Joseph on Jazz’ available at all good bookstores.
For foolproof entry into my personal art zone on a tricky day I rely on Miles Davis, playing all afternoon on repeat. In fact this loop thing seems to be very common amongst my colleagues because you never have to risk losing the particular energy and vibe with which you started the session. The music is never turned off once I’m up in my domain, even if I leave for an hour or two; the moment I re-enter, I will be surrounded again by the vibe of the day and I’m straight back in the zone.
As soon as I hear the first notes I go into a different mode, it’s like I’ve crossed a divide. Since I gave up renting studios I haven’t had the luxury of physical distance between my home and work lives to transport me into the necessary mindset. By the time I would unlock the door to one of those freezing cold, silent spaces in some bleak and unlovely corner of our city, I was a different person from the one who’d got into the car at home. Crossing the Seven Sisters Road put paid to my domestic self until I crossed back northwards at the end of the day. Working at home though, I now rely on Miles, Donald Fagen, and my other carefully selected giants of music to calm the waters and get the creative process going.
This brings me to some music-related thoughts I’ve had ever since I read Julian’s book. I very much picked up on this sentence: If you can’t sing it right, how can you play it right? and this set me thinking about rules, expectations and freedom, in art and music alike.
During the coffee element of my process this morning, talking to my artist friend and colleague Marilyn Simler we mulled over how far it’s possible to maintain an intention, a purpose, when we make abstract paintings. I almost always do start out with an intention, which I guess approximates to the ‘inner song’ I’m hoping to sing on to canvas. I work in series about subjects which interest me, often drawn from family history, from archetypal symbols and motifs or from nature, and broadly speaking I hope that my original purpose for a painting – inspiration might be an equally apt word – will be discernable by me, and possibly others, by the time I feel it’s complete. But there are no guarantees!
We agreed that even when we start out with a vision, even a fairly clear intention, it’s impossible to know where the paint is going to take us – maybe in the same way that novelists often say their characters surprise them. Somehow we are carried along with the demands of the piece as it evolves. Asked in an interview whether he worked on impulse, the artist Patrick Heron – a master of abstraction and colour – replied
“Entirely. Just feeling. Just pleasure, nothing was ‘thought out’
On another occasion he wrote:
“The quality of vitality in art is something very closely associated with risk, with pure daring. The artist who never feels, as he starts a new picture, that this time he is tempting madness to envelop him – such an artist is no artist at all”. No rules for him, then, no preconceived plan. Here are some of my favourites from his works:
Brown ground with soft red and brown – Patrick Heron, 1958
Yellow Painting – Patrick Heron, October 1958
Red Garden painting – Patrick Heron, 1985
Green and purple painting with blue disc – Patrick Heron, 1960
The extreme joy of having my abstract work used in a book about jazz set me to thinking about the connections between making abstract art and jazz improvisation. Abstraction and improvisation both range very widely; abstracting from a still life, or improvising around a well known song raise very different issues from work which springs from an inner vision, like Jackson Pollock’s or John Coltrane’s, leaving behind the recognisable forms or norms of the material or musical worlds.
One thing both disciplines have in common is that when nothing is predetermined and the artist or jazz musician/improviser truly feels him/herself teetering on Patrick Heron’s risky precipice of madness, one is flying by the seat of one’s pants and ending a work must be a matter of choice for the artist or performer alike. How does a musician resist continuing to improvise onward and onward, entering uncharted territory, and actually finishing a gig? And at what point does an artist put down the palette knife and resist making another departure from the idea s/he had two hours earlier? In theory one could continue to develop or refine one piece of work for the rest of one’s working life! It’s certainly a thorny problem for a visual artist – we leave the canvas up against the wall for days, we stare at it upside down or in a mirror, and we ask ourselves the same question…..is it finished? What does ‘finished’ even mean? Is an abstract painting like Asghar Farhadi’s movie Separation, the final version an edit between two points in a long series of improvisations?
One huge difference I can see, though, between the journey through a painting and the musician’s journey through a performance, is that a visual artist is the only one who is privy to his original intention – or inspiration, if you prefer. If I’m making something abstract about a particular landscape or a still life, I’m the only one who can evaluate it as it develops. I can choose to kiss goodbye to my original source of inspiration, and I often do, as I reconsider the piece from moment to moment; noone else will be any the wiser and eventually when it meets the public gaze, less adventurous viewers’ response isn’t tainted by some preconceptions of what the painting was originally ‘supposed’ to be.
Image Number One – Jackson Pollock drip painting, 1950
Fav River – Jackson Pollock, 1943
When a musician improvises around a standard everyone knows, though, there’s a response all around him even as he works. The audience may be thrilled by a complete departure from the familiar, by unexpected dissonance, innovative key changes, using the song as a jumping-off point but with no safety net, no return ‘home’ in the final bars back to more familiar territory. On the other hand they may equally be uneasy and uncomfortable, seeking glimpses of a melody they might have hoped to hear through the notes. I imagine that it might be very dispiriting for a musician to feel lonely in his performance, as he tries with heart and soul to bring something new to a well-known theme, if the audience don’t ‘get’ it.
We all have those days which don’t go as well as others, but visual artists can at least keep private their less successful diversions into the byways of abstraction. One can make a beautiful passage of paint on a particular area of the canvas, only to stand back after an hour and decide it has to go – it’s in the wrong place, it’s too dominant, or by contrast not strong enough….what a heart-rending business painting can be! But if that happens during freely improvised music there’s no going back – it’s an altogether more public event and there’s also the weight of responsibility to the other band members. I’m grateful that I can make my mistakes in the privacy of the studio and not in the spotlight.
Ghost of a chance – Alan Davie, 1965
Layer upon layer of paint was applied here until the artist reached ‘rare magical moments when I was completely surprised and enraptured beyond all knowing’. How wonderful.
Music for an autumn landscape (Opus 360 – Alan Davie 1948)
Pagan Dance, Alan Davie 1948
Whatever the differences of experience and medium, artists and musicians all share the same lifelong struggle: to express what matters to them, in the way they choose, and to create something which feels authentic to them; and both must absolutely rely on the same things even if their art takes flight from everything that’s come before – their craft, the techniques and strategies they’ve learned over years of hard work, and have personalised, with much repetition, and a great deal of perseverance. There’s another related post asking to be written about how artists have conveyed the music that moved them through the visual. For now, I’ve included just a few of my faves whose art was bound up with their musical inspirations – Schoenberg for Kandinsky, the new and exciting jazz improvisation pervading creative life around him and his fellow artists in New York for Jackson Pollock, and Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins for Alan Davie, himself a jazz musician. Thanks for visiting!
Cover for Ornette Colman’s 1961 album Free Jazz, featuring Jackson Pollock’s The White Light, 1954
Improvisation 30 Canons – Wassily Kandinsky, 1913
Impression 3 (Concert) – Wassily Kandinsky, 1911
To the Unknown Voice – Wassily Kandinsky 1916
Time for a visit to my colleague Marilyn Simler at http://marilynsimler.net/
I enjoyed and recommend the very interesting article ‘Jazz in American Culture’ by Peter Townsend.