5-5-3-3-1 (also toy instruments in 'Utopia Parkway')
First performance of Rothko I & II by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Roger Smalley, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 25 September 1994;
First performance of Utopia Parkway by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, conducted by the composer, Huntington Festival, Huntington Estate Winery, Mudgee, NSW, 1 December 1994;
First performance of Blue Poles by Canberra School of Music Chamber Orchestra conducted by Tor Fromyhr, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, October 2002;
First performance of Motherwell at the Guggenheim by Len Amadio Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Harding, Llewellyn Hall, Australian National University, Canberra, 17 January 2004
Andrew Ford: Manhattan Epiphanies (1994 – 1999)
i. Motherwell at the Guggenheim
ii. Rothko I
iii. Utopia Parkway: 13 Cornell boxes
iv. Rothko II
v. Blue Poles
All five movements of Manhattan Epiphanies respond to the work of New York artists working in the middle of the 20th century. With the exception of Joseph Cornell, who was not a painter at all, the others were all what art critics labelled ‘abstract expressionists’, and their art has always appealed to me. I can no longer remember why I wanted to attempt the impossible—translating visual images into music—but it dates back much further than this piece. In my Chamber Concerto No. 2, composed in 1982 and given a subtitle (Cries in summer) from a poem by another American, Wallace Stevens, I had already found myself paying musical homage to Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock by attempting to find musical equivalents for their art.
Manhattan Epiphanies was commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and I began work on it during the second of the two years during which I was the orchestra’s composer in residence. The movements are quite short, ranging from five to eight minutes, and by the end of 1994, I had completed three of them—the two ‘Rothko’ pieces and ‘Utopia Parkway’. What these three have in common is the intention of creating musical works using the same principles as the artists themselves. In the ‘Rothko’ pieces, for example, rather monolithic slabs of sound drift downwards and upwards (respectively), as though the listener were reading one of the artist’s imposing canvases. If you have ever stood next to a Rothko, you will know that what seems, from a distance, to be all of a piece—a slab of sepia, say, on a larger slab of maroon—is actually full of textural detail. So the slabs of sound in my ‘Rothko’ pieces are made up of rather intricate figurations that, from a musical distance (that is, if you’re not really paying attention) can tend to cancel each other out. Listen hard and you hear them.
In the central movement devoted to the work of Joseph Cornell, I took a very different approach, though it also tried to emulate the artist’s aesthetic and his working methods. In some ways, Cornell was an outsider. In contrast to the cosmopolitan Russian immigrant, Rothko, Cornell lived most of his life on Utopia Parkway in the New York borough of Queens, seldom venturing on to the island of Manhattan and never leaving his the United States. His art consists of boxes of found objects, like miniature installations. One peers into these boxes and discovers, for instance, a glass eye, some coins and a small stuffed bird in front of an old, torn theatre poster. I decided that my central movement should consist of 13 tiny pieces, each lasting less than a minute and consisting of found musical objects–phrases, chords and rhythms torn, as it were, from other people’s music. In the spirit of Cornell I invited members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra to contribute some fragments of favourite pieces, rendering the musical objects more ‘found’ than if I had simply chosen them myself. So phrases from the slow movement of Brahms’s F major string quintet alternate with phrases from Webern’s Bagatelles for string quartet; fragments of Brandenburg concertos are placed alongside bars from the scherzo of Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet, op 26. Later in the piece, some of the players take up toy instruments, also in the spirit of Cornell. Tin-drumrolls introduce the first chord of Rossini’s overture to The Thieving Magpie, which leads to a fragment of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux on a toy piano while other members of the orchestra play assorted bird calls.
‘Motherwell at the Guggenheim’ is the most ambitious of the five pieces in that it attempts to capture in its six-minute span not only an entire retrospective of the painter Robert Motherwell, but also the museum in New York in which it hung. When I attended the Motherwell show in 1984 it was the first time I had been in the Guggenheim Museum, and the building impressed me as much as the art. Because Motherwell’s art tends to consist of bold abstract shapes, often in bright primary colours, sometimes in blacks and browns, they formed a contrast with the continuous white spiral of Frank Lloyd Wright’s building. In my piece then, I imagined the solo violin as the spectator, viewing the Motherwell show. In the Guggenheim, one generally takes the elevator to the top of the building and winds one’s way down the spiral ramp. Light pours in at the top of the building and my first aim in ‘Motherwell at the Guggenheim’ was to find an equivalent for this, a sequence of high-pitched chords that seem to glow with an intense white. The solo violin immediately picks up a note from one of these chords and extends it, affected, as it were, by the mood of the building. But as it begins its slow descent, the mood changes. The rest of the string orchestra now presents sudden bursts of sometimes quite violent sound that also affect the mood of the soloist, as anyone might be affected by viewing a sequence of images. By the end of the piece the pitch has sunk as low as it can, the initial feeling of floating radiance having given way to dark driving rhythms.
It took me nearly three months to compose this movement and when I was done I quickly realised it was no good. After three days spent tinkering with it, trying to fix the problems, I tore the manuscript up and decided to rewrite the piece from memory. This time I had the whole thing finished in 24 hours and was happy with the result. I was reminded of working on paintings as a child. Sometimes you can overwork an image until it becomes lost. That, I think, is what happened to the first version of ‘Motherwell at the Guggenheim’. The second version, though broadly the same piece, had much more flair and also, now that I think of it, the apparent spontaneity of many of Motherwell’s own images.
The final movement of Manhattan Epiphanies is the only one to take an actual painting and try to represent it in sound. There is something innately musical about Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952). Paintings often suggest music. For example, it is hard to look at one of Canaletto’s views of Venice (is there another sort of Canaletto?) and not imagine the music of Vivaldi: that’s a straightforward association. Similarly, Picasso’s Guernica always makes me hear Schoenberg, a response that probably dates back to some old BBC arts documentary. El Greco evokes Monteverdi; Géricault conjures up Berlioz; Roy Lichtenstein suggests early rock and roll. This is all historical and fairly obvious. But Blue Poles is different. Pollock’s canvas always makes me want to play it; or to be precise it makes me want to play from it, because in many ways it resembles a musical score.
What is remarkable about Blue Poles is the amount of movement within the painting. There are several factors contributing to this and all of them relate to the music I composed. First, there is the shape of the canvas itself. Because it is wide, like ‘cinemascope’, it invites you to read it from left to right. Most paintings do not. And because it is a large canvas, it also invites you to take it in by walking past it from left to right. In this, Pollock’s painting approaches the condition of music, revealing itself in stages. The famous poles themselves help this approach. On the most obvious level they divide the painting into sections so that the eye passes from one to the next, adding to that sense of movement. And because the poles are neither straight nor vertical, but jagged and evidently about to topple forwards, they contribute to the painting’s internal momentum. For me, they have a further function. Those blue poles remind me of crooked bar lines, with complex and brightly coloured melodic strands cavorting across them.
There’s a sense in which this painting seems to dance. It is a characteristic that Blue Poles shares with plenty of Pollock’s other work. The artist moved quickly across the canvas as he dripped his paint. The paint moved more quickly still, Pollock controlling it with the dexterity of a puppeteer manipulating his puppets. All paintings are the result of movement, but Pollock’s art continually makes us aware of his movements, of the the act of creation—the action of creation. But there is another important and paradoxical aspect to Blue Poles. For all the movement, for all the cavorting and dancing, this painting can seem suddenly monolithic like a Rothko. If you stand at a certain distance from the painting—not so close that you can follow the individual lines, not so far away that you can feel the rhythm of the poles—the surface of the canvas turns into a frozen blur. The movement stops; it is a compact disc on pause, and we can start it up again simply by refocusing on the poles or the arabesques of dripped paint. That is the paradox I tried to explore in my musical translation of Blue Poles.
The above note is an abbreviated version of the chapter about Manhattan Epiphanies in In Defence of Classical Music (ABC Books, 2005)