Don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision? Inseparably separate. Diametrically opposed, or perpendicular at the very least. An X and Y axis that somehow refuse to connect, however desperately our brain tries to feign cohesion. It’s a trick. And a glorious one at that. We cannot pick apart the crash from the breaking wave, the ring from the bell or the word from the mouth: but, yet, their sensuous independence remains.
For years, cunning directors and sound designers have been privy to this secret. From the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s incidental sonic colourings to David Lynch’s mastery of unease, the ability to alter environmental perceptions via audio is a source of endless intrigue, and something that keeps us coming back to TV and cinema.
What then, when we are presented with just one of these two vital elements? Such as in painting or sculpture. We are denied the spoon-fed accompaniment of sound. Do we accept the silence or does our brain fill in the blank with something we expect to hear? The answer to this is of course that we are all different, and bring with us a wealth of unique baggage that may dramatically impact our response to a visual. It is this diversity that IN RESPONSE TO seeks to explore.
in response to is a project that explores how composers respond to visual art. Manifested as a series of albums, each release responds to a different visual artist and features a variety of solo musicians/groups offering their sonic interpretation of a chosen piece. Since its conception in 2012 the project has released eight albums to date, featuring a revolving and growing cast of contributors from Merseyside and beyond.
The first edition took its cues from Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. Composed in 1972, this five-part, 25-minute piece was a dedication to the recently deceased Mark Rothko and responded directly to his large canvases hung in a non-denominational chapel in Houston, Texas. Depending on your interpretation, a deep sense of melancholia or serenity emanates from the 14 near-black paintings augmenting the octagonal space. Feldman’s response latches onto feelings of anxiety and tension, but also peace and tranquility, demonstrating not only the emotional power, but also the wide-ranging ambiguity of Rothko’s abstractions.
Snatching the idea from the high arts and offering it up to a group of musicians with no formal training demonstrated the primitive nature of the concept. Far from pretentious, and certainly not the reserve of conservatoire alumni, the act of composing music to a visual has been the basis of pop for decades; and, in a small, homegrown way, in response to felt like a ladder between high and low as well as a bridge between sound and vision.
Those initial submissions from a group of four friends showed a rich diversity in sound and, consequently, interpretation. From drone to krautrock the variety was kaleidoscopic and served as vindication for the continuation of a fledgling idea.
Over the following five years a range of skilled artists got involved, including Merseysiders Kepla, Lo Five, Afternaut, John McGrath, Windom Earle, AGP, LUNA, In Atoms, Germanager, The Merseyside Improvisers Orchestra, Dead Hedge Trio, Evil Pink Machine, Mitternacht and The Gentle Sex. From further afield artists such as Move Slow, Clutter, Bing Satellites, Ben Barrett, Sonja Berlin-Jones and more all chipped in with their unique interpretations. The visual artists featured were the aforementioned Mark Rothko followed by Anselm Kiefer, Wassily Kandinsky, Edward Hopper, Salvador Dali, Kyle Platts, Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon.
In 2016, in response to joined forces with Bido Lito! and Tate to turn the Francis Bacon edition into a live performance. Tying into the much-anticipated exhibition at Tate Liverpool, the concert served as one element of the closing party, allowing guests to frequent the gallery once more but this time with live audio accompaniment.
It’s from this platform that we arrive at the latest edition, in response to… Alphonse Mucha. A painter and decorative artist in the Art Nouveau style, Czech-born ALPHONSE MUCHA is currently subject to a retrospective exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery. Spanning not only painting, but advertisement, stage design and illustration, Mucha is known for his distinctively rich pieces recognisable across all of these mediums. As is tradition for artists, he sought to distance himself from the Art Nouveau movement but has since become renowned as a key figure in its history.
His Slav Epic is a 20-strong cycle of paintings depicting the mythology and history of Slavic peoples. Although Mucha considered this his masterpiece (and it no doubt is), it is his decorative work that has had by far the largest impact on the art world. His work in advertising was only meant to pay the bills, but his posters for the likes of Job Cigarettes and Biscuits LeFevre-Utile display an instantly recognisable aesthetic that has filtered into design the world over. The style had particular appeal for the psychedelic movement in the 1960s, so much so that a new term was coined in ‘nouveau Art Nouveau’. Avant-garde design collectives such as Hapshash And The Coloured Coat borrowed from a multitude of artistic movements to create posters for UFO Club and Oz Magazine as well as for Pink Floyd and Soft Machine, hipping a new generation to this most opulent of styles.
Alphonse Mucha’s work offers an intriguing muse for contributors to the latest in response to album. It could be argued that previous editions have played it safe by interacting with artists too often considered ‘cool’ or continually relevant. The perverted surrealism of Salvador Dali lives on in contemporary popular culture in the dream-like scenes of Twin Peaks. The ennui of Edward Hopper’s America is further explored in the songs of Tom Waits or the eerie dystopia of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
The last collision Mucha’s work had with popular artforms was in the aforementioned psychedelic movement 60 years ago. It would seem that the Walker are being not only brave but cannily timely in staging such an exhibition, with a psychedelic music revival in full swing. Will the musicians tackle the challenge head on, taking the work at face value, or perhaps incorporate nods to the swinging 60s and its subsequent renaissance? These are the thoughts that keep in response to in motion as it continues to throw up new questions and unexpected answers.
in response to is now taking submissions from musicians from Merseyside and beyond to take part in this latest edition. If you’re interested in pushing yourself or trying new things then please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org. All you’ll need is the ability to record something – even if it’s just on a phone.
Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty runs at the Walker Gallery until 29th October.