In Issue 82 of Bido Lito! Jonny Davis Le Brun, founder of the in response to series, provided a call out for musicians wanting to try something a little different. Coinciding with the vast retrospective of Alphonse Mucha‘s work on display at the Walker Art Gallery, he invited musicians to view the exhibition and craft musical responses to work of the Art Nouveau master. In the past, the in response to series has cultivated works around mid-twentieth century artists such as Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper and Jackson Pollock but for this iteration, it considers at the work of the late nineteenth century artist Alphonse Mucha. The Czech artist’s distinctive and detailed imagery has become a motif of the Belle Epoque, though its influence stretches further, informing the psychedelic art movement the of the late 1960s.

The compositions that spawned from the visit to the Walker’s Mucha retrospective have been compiled on an album, In Response To… Alphonse Mucha, which is as vast and intricate as the exhibition itself. Available to listen to below, as well as here, we spoke to each of the artists who contributed to the album about their reasons for selecting a particular artwork, as well as their writing and recording process, and whether having a fixed point of inspiration, in this case, one of Mucha’s works, altered the way they approached their music-making.

Foxen Cyn – Song of Bohemia

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What was your overall impression of Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty – were there any themes that stood out to you? 

I was very taken with the work Mucha produced in response to the independence of the Czech Republic. After being somewhat familiar with his Art Nouveau and advertising works that, although beautiful, don’t really carry any weighty message, I was pleasantly surprised to find the final word of the exhibit was given to an emotion so fierce and passionate. I enjoyed the whole experience a lot.

Was there a particular artwork by Mucha that you wanted to compose a response to? If so, what drew you to that piece?

Song of Bohemia was the last piece displayed in the gallery, directly facing the gift shop. Despite its grand scale and framing compared to some of the other works, it’s quite unassuming in itself, and not indicative of Mucha’s other work. It depicts Czech girls sitting in an open field, listening to some far off sound, dressed very purely and innocently. I’ve always been drawn to pastoral imagery like this, and I suppose the current political climate drew me into the freedom and independence depicted therein, and what those ideas mean to different people.

"I wanted an unsureness present, as I feel emancipation or liberation anyways has a sense of uncertainness" Foxen Cyn

What was the process of writing and recording the song?

I wanted the music I wrote to be the music the girls in the painting were hearing; bombastic military drums, traditional sounding folk melodies, boozy jazz spilling out of crowded bars. I’m an electronic artist, primarily, but I mainly listen to folk music. As such, it was pretty easy to get the overall feel for the track and create the sound palette. I wanted an unsureness present, as I feel emancipation or liberation anyways has a sense of uncertainness, so I added this strange withering vocal of the melody that devolves into this breathless, gasping blubber, of sorts.

How does having a particular prompt or point of inspiration, in this case, a work of art, alter your writing process? Does it make it more difficult or easy to conceive a song?

In my previous project everything was based around a prompt to some degree. It’s only since I began doing Foxen Cyn that I started to try and return to a more relaxed approach to tracks, letting the music inform the experience rather than the experience informing the music, so working on this track was a bit like trying on an old jacket and finding you still like how it fits.

 

Afternaut – Topaz

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What was your overall impression of Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty – were there any themes that stood out to you? 

I was familiar with Mucha’s typical Art Nouveau prints with decorative flowers and patterns, but had never seen any of his Slav Epics that he painted later on in his life celebrating Slavic history. It was jaw dropping to see some of these huge, powerful and emotional works, it really caught me off guard and was a great contrast to the pretty adverts he was most famous for.

Was there a particular artwork by Mucha that you wanted to compose a response to? If so, what drew you to that piece?

I wanted to focus on a piece that summarised his style that I was most familiar with. So I chose Topaz which is from The Precious Stone series which featured four women personifying precious stones. They all share elements that sum up his beautiful Art Nouveau works: young women in flowing robes, nature, flat colours and swirling patterns and geometry.

"I wanted to create a sound that represented purity as the main focus" Afternaut

What was the process of writing and recording the song?

My initial experimentation was focused more on organic sound sources, I was playing around with Harmonium sounds, which is an instrument that was very popular at the time. But I decided the tone didn’t actually fit the feeling that I had from his work. I wanted to create a sound that represented purity as the main focus, so I ended up generating something with a synth that had stronger harmonics. I used these tones to make cyclical, chiming patterns in the melodies referring to the patterns and repetition he used. I then added harmonies using strings to try and reintroduce an organic layer to add more traditional beauty into the background

How does having a particular prompt or point of inspiration, in this case, a work of art, alter your writing process? Does it make it more difficult or easy to conceive a song?

It’s always good to set some kind of limitations during the writing process, it makes it easier rather than aimless experimentation. From this image I felt a warm, shimmering sunset glow and purity. That helped limit the pallet of sounds I wanted to work from to find the harmony and work outwards from there. It’s not too different to how I would normally work when making music that’s melodically driven.

 

Lynny – Monaco Monte Carlo

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What was your overall impression of Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty – were there any themes that stood out to you?

On the surface, lots of circles, detail, natural and feminine imagery which looks very pleasing. I think you do get a sense of the glorification of beauty. Something decorative but also deep, almost revered in there too.

Was there a particular artwork by Mucha that you wanted to compose a response to? If so, what drew you to that piece?

I eventually chose Monaco-Monte-Carlo 1897 simply on the basis that I like the way it looked the most! I’m not that clued up about art so wanted to to trust my gut. The detail is incredible and suppose I was drawn to the yearning female character at the centre, eager to explore the world on this train journey. I later found out,it was originally an advert for a groundbreaking new train journey which gave an interesting dimension to it as I don’t always associate the art world with the commercial world. That made me think of getting a simple message across, like a pop song. I started to think about how to represent the image sonically and started thinking about momentum, train tracks, something fluid and circular and ultimately beautiful and pretty.

What was the process of writing and recording the song?

I knew I wanted to write on my homeswinger and wanted to build layers loops, and I used two loop pedals in the end. It’s a very luscious sounding instrument which lends itself to Mucha’s art straight away. A homeswinger is a homemade 12 string guitar I was lucky enough to buy off my friend Jon Davies by experimentalist luthier Yuri Landman.

I bought a postcard of the piece I chose and improvised loops and established the different parts over about an hour or so. The performance you heard was recorded live in one take – you can hear the clicking of loop pedals even. The first harmonic riff came from wanting to get momentum across so there’s that circular feeling where it doesn’t really resolve. The painting gave me that as a starting point and I went from there.

"It's feels bigger too. Going to the gallery, seeing these paintings, meeting other musicians doing the same..." Lynny

 

How does having a particular prompt or point of inspiration, in this case, a work of art, alter your writing process? 

I find I can become indecisive when writing alone so it’s helpful to have that prompt to root your playing if you get stuck. I was aware of the connections between the painting and my playing as I was writing, so it’s a bit like having your hand held along the way. You might notice something new which sparks off a new idea or approach to a riff. It’s feels bigger too. Going to the gallery, seeing these paintings, meeting other musicians doing the same. Whilst representing an artist is a responsibility, in some ways it takes the pressure off because the focus is not completely on your music, so it felt like a personal but also a shared experiment which was freeing.

Does it make it more difficult or easy to conceive a song?

The idea of musical painting or representing an image in sound is itself quite an experimental idea so I think it encouraged me to be free and open-minded about what the finished piece could be. It’s a clear objective but also has endless possibilities really, it all depends on what you see and want to draw out of the piece.

 

Lo Five – Glorified Beauty

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What was your overall impression of Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty – were there any themes that stood out to you?

The first thing that struck me was how psychedelic it was. There’s a lot of perfectly repeating natural forms that look like fractals, I’d be interested to know if it Mucha’s work was informed by hallucinogens. The other obvious thing was a simple appreciation and celebration of natural beauty. Mucha said “The aim of art is to glorify beauty” – that was very evident in his work and I’d go along with that as a musician.

Was there a particular artwork by Mucha that you wanted to compose a response to? If so, what drew you to that piece?

I wasn’t especially a single piece, I find that way of doing things a bit restrictive. For this project I just wanted to absorb an overall feel and then see where that led me.

"I'd be interested to know if it Mucha's work was informed by hallucinogens" Lo Five

What was the process of writing and recording the song?

I wanted to do something really simple, so spent a while tinkering around with piano sounds until I had this really simple melody that stuck with me and it just sort of evolved from that. I recorded loads of percussive in this mad tiled bathroom when I was in Greece, as the room had this weird reverb I wanted to capture. I got this second hand tape recorder off eBay and recorded loads of sounds onto a wonky old tape: recorder, triangle and other bits – they ended up as samples used on the track too.

How does having a particular prompt or point of inspiration, in this case, a work of art, alter your writing process? Does it make it more difficult or easy to conceive a song?

Definitely easier. The thought of a blank canvas can be utterly daunting sometimes, it’s like staring into an abyss. If I didn’t have these projects to focus on I wouldn’t get anything done.

 

Bisamratta – Night’s Rest

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What was your overall impression of Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty – were there any themes that stood out to you?

I’ve been in love with Mucha’s works for a long time. I find the whole concept of Art Nouveau very aesthetically pleasing, and love the architecture and music of that period. So it was quite important for me to capture the essence of my personal representation of Mucha’s art along with impressions of modern style together – I don’t think that Mucha can be perceived properly without referring to the history and culture of that particular period – and then render it in a music form.

Was there a particular artwork by Mucha that you wanted to compose a response to? If so, what drew you to that piece?

Once I felt that I could finally create something in response to Alphonse Mucha (and that was very close to the deadline, of course!), I went wandering through an online gallery of his pictures, picking the works that I liked. Then I filtered these selected artworks according to the mood that I had in mind and finally I picked Night’s Rest from The Times of the Day series – it had the expression that I wanted to work with.

"I don't think that Mucha can be perceived properly without referring to the history and culture of that particular period" Bisamratta

What was the process of writing and recording the song?

I wanted to do something different from my usual guitar works so I borrowed a Novation Mininova synthesiser from my neighbour and started to play with it. A couple of hours later I was aware of timbres and possibilities and started to work with them, recording various melodies, arpeggios and drones, capturing a single tracks of ideas that came across my mind. The whole thing went through my laptop with some plugins that I also was fiddling in real time. It has been a full night session until 6 AM or so because when you write a song about Night, you need to do it in a proper time frame. A couple of days later, I listened through the recorded material and immediately found that one piece was a match to the Mucha’s picture. I sampled a Lucienne Boyer song, Le Plus Joli Rêve, to make a reference to an epoch and composed a final track.

How does having a particular prompt or point of inspiration, in this case, a work of art, alter your writing process? Does it make it more difficult or easy to conceive a song?

I was definitely under the influence of an image that the chosen artwork projected. I thought about the time it has been created in, imagined the people there, and how the city fades off in the night. That whole thing affected the style I was playing and the timbres I used, the overall sound and other details like equalisation and saturation I applied later. I wouldn’t say it made something easier or more difficult – it’s just another path to take – but I really like the result I got and the experience was absolutely great.

 

Mitternacht – Moet And Chandon White Star

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What was your overall impression of Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty – were there any themes that stood out to you?

I knew barely anything about Mucha but the Walker staff were welcoming and really knowledgeable. The exhibition itself really highlighted the contrast between Mucha’s day job (advertisements, decorative work) and his fine art celebrations of Slavic traditions. Call me a philistine but I’m a sucker for the opulence of his decorative posters.

Was there a particular artwork by Mucha that you wanted to compose a response to? If so, what drew you to that piece?

I didn’t work to a particular piece in the end as there is such a strong visual running through his posters – I just wanted to capture that essence of luxury conjured by Art Nouveau.

 

"I just wanted to capture that essence of luxury conjured by Art Nouveau" Mitternacht

What was the process of writing and recording the song?

I daydreamed the central motif whilst absorbing some Mucha at home and then transposed it into Fruity Loops. From there I wanted to finish it in one sitting as my version of the software doesn’t save things properly anymore. I tried to keep it fairly light with subtle ornamentation and I also tried to move away from the rigidity of beats and bars and fixed tempi – surprisingly difficult using grid-based software!

How does having a particular prompt or point of inspiration, in this case, a work of art, alter your writing process? Does it make it more difficult or easy to conceive a song?

It’s very much about aesthetics for me. Soaking in the feel of the artwork and letting a mood arrive before even picking up an instrument. That’s the fundamental difference. In Rongorongo for example our starting point is getting everyone in a room with instruments – a much more hands on approach. I think both methods have value that informs the other – it’s like developing a compositional toolkit.

 

In Response To… Alphonse Mucha is out now.

inresponseto.bandcamp.com

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