Earlier this year in mid-May, I received an invitation from Evan Mitchell, the Musical Director of the Kingston Symphony Orchestra, to create a small suite of works inspired by a special performance of classical music compositions, all of which incorporate birdsong. The three pieces to be performed are: Jennifer Butler’s “And Birds do Sing”, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’.
The concert hall is the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston, and the lobby is large, beautiful, open, and enclosed by floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking Lake Ontario. The performance is scheduled for March 5, 2017.
I know NOTHING about classical music (picture inner struggle here), but YES struck me as the more interesting option in this case… a new experience! So much to gain, so little to lose! I love birds! So I said YES.
And the invitation gave me plenty of time – an eternity, it seemed! The director provided links to the music, and programme notes to explain the composers’ creative inspiration for each piece. I listened to them while working on other projects, read the back stories, and then hoped something magical would happen.
Time passed…… and passed…
When all else fails, I think the greatest motivation possible is a deadline. Having lots of time to do something doesn’t necessarily make the result any better – in fact, it can have quite the opposite effect. So, eager to quit procrastinating, I gave myself a two week time window in November 2016 and trusted I would get there somehow.
How to begin? Obviously, listening (with intent) felt like the best first step. I recorded my main impressions as they progressed: which colours came to mind? how did the music fit the background story? How did I feel along the way? what might all those instrument sounds LOOK like?
I started thinking about the physical form of the pieces. How on earth to capture the various movements and the passage of time? After all, music moves through time but visual imagery needs to encompass everything in one shot. What about this: because a musical piece builds on itself while it plays, and previous sounds lodge in our memory even as we hear the new ones, perhaps the pieces should be tall and vertical, and read from the bottom up!
It didn’t feel right to use representational imagery alone – I wanted to show the feeling and colour of the sounds and didn’t want to limit my visualization. Abstracts they must be! As I began the drawings, I also realized they must be quilted wall panels, as the designs resisted being hemmed in by frames. And technique? It felt most logical to plan for a loose (might we say, imperfect?) form of fabric collage that would allow plenty of freedom of shape and background changes.
It takes hundreds of small decisions like this just to get to first base with any new project. Sometimes I think this is why we tend to procrastinate – it’s hard work and it’s scary! At times, the answers are easy and obvious, but other times we must make a leap of faith, hoping experience and wisdom will serve well.
Mozart Piano Concerto No. 17
I decided to begin with the Mozart which was the most accessible to me: a rich melodic piano piece. It had a charming story to match: Mozart tried to teach the theme to his starling, but the bird couldn’t get it quite right. Mozart was so tickled he wrote the bird’s mistake into his journal.
In the design of this wall panel, the starling became the central motif, with the three movements of the concerto settling around him in swirls and swoops of colour.
Jennifer Butler “And Birds do Sing”
The second, by Canadian composer Jennifer Butler, is a modern piece written in 2010, and is the most abstract of the three compositions. The sounds begin with drums in cool waves, dark and tumbling and pierced with high flutes, eventually resolving into a lullaby composed for the composer’s daughter. What does a drum sound look like? Maybe circles… oblong circles? And flutes…. might rise up in long strands? The overall feel of the piece was cool and spring-like, hence I stayed with blues and cooler tones. The panel begins at the base with the rhythm of the drums, then another layer, upon layer until the clear notes of birdsong and lullaby surface.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’
The Beethoven piece was the most complex. Although I incorporated elements of the movements, like a walk by a stream, a storm, birds, and a reference to folk art to represent a peasant dance, I was more interested in the smoother cadence and feeling of the performance, the melodic swings and eddies. The sounds were less emotional than the previous two pieces, so I used a more sophisticated colour palette.
Each of these pieces grew and evolved completely differently. In focusing on and working with them, I learned something intriguing about classical music: that, just like visual art, it begins with a personal story – now I will listen for it. And perhaps when the music lovers at the concert see my interpretations, they might learn something about abstract visual art. My fondest hope is that the music provides an entry point for understanding the abstract imagery, and in return the visual art enriches the appreciation of the music. As with many other occasions when I took the leap, I enjoyed every single minute, and the effects will last a life time!