30 March 2024

Painters and Pianists

This morning I spent over an hour playing just two measures of a difficult piece by Erik Satie. It took me a short while to get into it but then after I did, time melted away.

It was difficult tempo that had to be burned into my head and fingers through concentrated repetition. By the end I got up and made more coffee and then I suddenly marvelled at how I was able to do this at all because for most of my life I had been so ill-constructed for any kind of concentration. And as a child I could never pay attention for longer than the time it took to scratch my own nose. Unlike today, they didn’t have fancy names for this sort of demeanour back in the 1950's, nor was their any medication for it. But I would have been a fine candidate for it all. The best explanation they had for me was that I was a redhead.(!) 

This kind of concentration on a piece of music even on just a few measures feels so vastly different from how I operate out in a painting session today. 

But why would I want to invest four months of piano practice just to learn a new piece by Erik Satie? Like so many amateur musicians (and mountaineers worldwide) I proclaim, mostly to myself, "because it’s there!!”

Recently, I watched a great interview on YouTube hosted by the musician and journalist, Rick Beato in Atlanta. He talked with Brad Mehldau a pianist who I didn't know, and it was absolutely wonderful. See him (above) playing Blackbird, at the Steinway factory in Hamburg from two years ago. 

Like a great painter Brad Mehldau expands lots of rich relationships in this lovely song by Paul McCartney, the lyrics of which were inspired by the racial tensions in the American South. 

Mehldau plays it with luscious harmonies that he gently weaves out of it like he was making taffy at a country fair. This rendition reminds me of the way Pierre Bonnard painted his pictures; patiently, richly, and ever expanding a whole image as if one were watching fireworks in slow motion. 

My Painting teacher Léo Marchutz, once said that the greater the number of relationships in a work of art, the greater the work of art.

But I bring all this up because at a certain moment in the interview he spoke about the 'flow', and how essential it is when improvising music. He said, "Thought was the enemy of the 'flow'". A cliché for sure, but it's a truth that any creator, athlete, barrister in a court room will attest to, no matter the art form. The flow is how the world of creativity functions.

And it's something I'm always conscious of in both Painting and in the study of music, but also just  playing tennis or even reading a book.
But I must confess that this idea of the 'flow' came quite late in my creative life. I recently only began to learn about it specifically through the piano but also in my sessions at the beach over the past six years. With the exception of LSD, this 'flow' had mostly eluded me for most of my life.

Au Chateaunoir, early 1990's, oil on canvas board, 30 X 22 cm

But this older painting (above) is a rare early example of the 'flow' that I've somehow managed to connect with in my painting process. I include it here because it was such a rarity and because for me it has a certain feeling in it, one of a constant musical movement that I recognise. 

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 3 February 2021, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

This painting (above) on the other hand, was randomly selected to reveal the flow in my working process today. But I could have picked any number of these oil studies
(out of hundreds) to reveal the presence of the how the 'flow' was cemented into my way of working on a picture. It's a shame that it came to me so late in life but my mind wasn't able to access it earlier on a steady basis. Alas. 

These paintings always come quickly with little hesitation or thought. I generally set up to work before Dusk when I am assured of the greatest number of colourful changes to come. This rapid procedure insures that I will be pushed out of the thought process as if I were improvising on the piano.

But the painting motif is simple just like the melody for the pianist. This allows the focus to be oriented around the harmonic key changes. And this is how the flow normally begins for both painters and pianists.   

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