The Musical Paintings, 2001
in collaboration with Sean O'Hagan (The High Lamas)
The Musical Painting is a freestanding painting which houses a looped musical composition within. The painting surface comprises of multiple panels, some of which respond to touch. The responsive panels act as remix tools inviting the viewer to alter the music as they encounter the painting. The painted panels offer a storyboard, which may or may not relate to the composition. It is for the viewer to decide and invent. Though the Musical Painting employs advanced digital processing which enables the remix options the interaction, surface and content (musical and visual) are organic and tactile, hopefully making the live encounter unique. To date two Musical Paintings exist, Waterloo to Waterloo, square panelled and the Musical Wheel, a triptych of circles.
1. Waterloo to Waterloo
The first Musical Painting Waterloo to Waterloo is simply storyboarding a journey between two Waterloo’s. The painting is composed of 78 painted and silk-screen-printed wooden units, of various thicknesses, which fit closely into one another. Sixteen of them are interactive. It’s up to the spectator/viewer to find them.
Let’s see what we have. A storyboard, a vague idea of region or place, a period that one might evoke and a series of connections. These may be mental connections, but still real, perhaps geographical. It might be a mind map or a just a retelling of a series of conversations. There are however two vital missing elements at the beginning and they are images and music.
Let me tell you about the evolution of the music in this instance.
Like most pursuits there’s a lot of waiting involved. This stage of the procedure is lonely. Those connections, which are almost abstract on paper or in memory, offer the clues. So we could be a bit clever here and suggest that writing music for pictures might be like looking for the signpost.
It’s never a good idea to be too literal. If the ideas are strong a glance in the direction should be enough. And so it was that a few people had a conversation and went away with four images. The wheel the city of Detroit Tamla Motown and Kentucky.
From there on the sign-posts were up and the journey was underway. Many years earlier there were other conversations and two sign-posts, Waterloo and Waterloo.
I honestly believe that beyond this point the process is beyond words. Wrenching the ideas from the abstract and turning them into a new reality. That’s what’s happening. Writing music for pictures for sure but also creating mental pictures on the way. And you realise this whole pursuit is about stories and pictures.
I see perfect sense in all of this, maybe because I want to and maybe because at the end of the creative process everything belongs. Perhaps this is just a mental trick, in the same way that a person takes on the visual sense of their own name in so far as you cannot imagine being called or calling yourself by any other name. The name always fits. Whatever the conundrum everything belongs. So long after the mind maps and the days of nothing except instinct, long after the moments when you think it’s all daft, comes a calmness when it is clear that the music and the picture belong together.
2. The Musical Wheel
The Musical Wheel is a trio of freestanding circular paintings storyboarding the evolving wheel, eventually to Detroit, the spiritual home of the motor industry and the everlasting home of Motown. Eight of the many wooden circles within the triptych are actually interactive, corresponding to a track of the mix. Flashing lights on these eight circles guide the viewer when operational. At the centre of the central wheel is a spinning wheel which randomly functions as a special effects tool. A virtual version of the Musical Wheel is included on your CD so you can enjoy it as a fully functioning object remixing and enhancing the music at will.
THE MUSICAL WHEEL is unashamedly Modern. And Modernism always was, and still is, art characterised by montage, collage, and the assemblage of different sources. Modernism in art is an urban phenomenon, motorised by all the combinations of experience made possible by the industrial technologies through which people extend themselves, to travel, earn, yearn, labour, and suffer. And when they suffer, they escape from this suffering in music.
THE WHEELS OF THIS MUSICAL PAINTING invoke the power of Motor City as an imaginary place where music happens. This is an imagination that is as European as THE ATOMIUM, but is rooted in a fascination with the music of America, particularly the music of black America, as found in the original MOTOR CITY OF DETROIT, the home of TAMLA MOTOWN. From the green fields of Kentucky to the factories of Motor City the wheels are turning on dusty roads.
“FORDISM” is a name given to the process of dividing the production of things into multiple separate repeated tasks to be performed on an assembly line. The name derives from HENRY FORD, inventor of the first mass produced motor-car. Fordism was labour re-invented as rhythm: breaks, beats and repetitions. Detroit techno. Not many breaks. Pop is Fordism applied to music.
Meanwhile, in Europe, a painter from Brussels who loves pop meets a musician, an Anglo-Irish punk who fell in love with harmony. They enjoy a lot of the same music.
One day the painter gives the musician an album of harp music.
Strings. Southern soul. Northern soul. European soul. Machine music. Music lost and found, from another day…
SEAN O’HAGAN’s compositions for the Musical Painting are inspired by the neo-classical ambitions of great Motown artists like DONNY HATHAWAY, BERRY GORDY, NORMAN WHITFIELD, ISAAC HAYES, and CURTIS MAYFIELD, musicians wanting to build on the commercial success of Tamla Motown and expand what pop could do and mean as a musical form. This ambition was part of the conscious positioning that had been Motown ideology from the start – to assert black American music as serious music, without losing the lightness and immediacy of pop.
The breadth of this aspiration is relevant even now, when Motown’s musical forms have triumphed across the world. These names above are household names, and it’s often forgotten that Mo’ town once described a city filled with factories, wheels turning, making more wheels. But one name that didn’t reach every household is that of DOROTHY ASHBY, certainly the most neglected of these Detroit pop composers.
SEAN O’HAGAN and JEAN PIERRE MÜLLER are seduced by Dorothy Ashby’s harp genius, whose strings have run through the collaboration since the early versions of the musical painting. “Open up the door to Dorothy Ashby…” sings Sean on CAN CLADDERS, the recent HIGH LLAMAS album. The sounds that are produced by the musical wheels are inflected by Ashby’s “hammered harp” that plays so boldly on albums like HIP HARP and MUSIC FOR BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE.
And, with the music, the pictures… These visual components have been developed throughout the 8-year collaboration, from the street scenes of the first musical painting, with it’s WATERLOO TO WATERLOO theme, to abstractions of these mid-century reference points. The images that activated those earlier paintings were a mind-montage: fragments of a city street that is both literal, and imaginary; filmic echoes from the Nouvelle Vague to Wong Kar-Wai, with hands that reach out to touch and faces glimpsed in crowds. Like that English word: ’STYLISH’, which is really an oxymoron, but describes very well the self-consciousness act of imaginary living.
Let’s rebuild the past, ’cause the future won’t last… The Musical Wheel, and the earlier Musical Painting could be compared to a European tradition of ’visual music’ – like a literal realisation of the synaesthesic ambitions of the scroll paintings of LEOPOLD SURVAGE, or the proto-cinematic experiments of VIKING EGGELING & HANS RICHTER. And – perhaps it’s too neat to point this out – all those artists were fascinated by the music of Black America as it emerged in the first part of the 20th century.
The idea of a kind of visual jazz was often invoked to describe this fusion of auditory senses, from the flickering films of OSKAR FISCHINGER to the light shows of JORDAN BELSON on the West Coast.
But wait - there’s nothing psychedelic about this painting. This is pop. So, in the middle of all the wheels inside wheels, Jean Pierre Muller paints the objects he enjoys: confident objects from the past’s bright shiny future. This is the apparatus of Modern Life: Transistors, Sputniks and spokes, whitewall tyres, badges, and decals and brand names old enough to sound friendly, like Chrysler, and Revox, Pontiac, a motor oil called Motor Rhythm and a kind of petrol called Gulf...
Built Tough: These shiny things were enjoying their moment of modernity when, in 1958 – the year before BERRY GORDY bought the property that would become the Tamla ’Hitsville USA’ studios – André Waterkeyn designed the equally shiny chromium Atomium. This building is optimism re-imagined as an object. How appropriate that the Musical Wheel should spend some time in this monument to the most modern decade.
And how appropriate, too, that this fifties imagery should house some very contemporary media. Extending our attention to the painting, making it something to live around, rather than just to look at and move on, DOMINIC MURCOTT’s complex multi-media authoring allows the music to expand with its repetition, not just to rotate. There’s a firmly modern confidence in the use of static hand-painted images with software programming, and chip-memory with acoustic instrumentation. There’s a joyful paradox too, in something so technologically current having such a traditionally modern aesthetic. Some things are built to last – some things are designed for transience. If we’re going to be modern, we must also be discriminating.
HOW ELSE CAN A BETTER WORLD BE IMAGINED ?