music, landscape and me
trouble in paradise
May 7 2012
Everything was perfect. I could produce paintings that people admired and understood. People thought I was very clever indeed, very talented or gifted or even more enthusiastically, they used the ‘G’ word (in hushed tones) ‘genius’ to describe me and my paintings . . .
This was all well and good.
I was aware that by the end of the 1980s I had developed a formidable technique for capturing the illusion of reality onto a two dimensional surface. My realistic painting had reached a level of soft photorealism that inclined many onlookers to be a little confused, for a time at least, as to the nature of the work they saw before them – fact or fiction – photo or painting.
But I was unsettled. I felt I had come to the end of a road.
Yes, I could paint and sell for really good prices and I was still a young man; surly this is a measure of success? I had already realised most artist’s ambition – to sell. But I was bored. I’d done it; I’d tamed reality sufficiently to paint illusions of such quality people would see me (or my talent, at least) as something special.
There were two problems.
I needed to express feelings that went beyond the bounds of realistic painting and knew that to portray these feelings and subjects I would have to break the rules. The illusion of reality is a fragile thing – in painting as in life. Change the rules; the technique, colours, forms, expression, you change the reality. The painting becomes something else.
And secondly, once I’ve achieved something, like mastering a technique, the rest becomes repetition. Yes, the subject changes but the technique doesn’t, it becomes an exercise in repeating the same challenge, except it no longer remains a challenge. I don’t like to repeat myself.
It was time to change. It was time to break what I had built and replace it with something else.
‘Trouble’, was not just restricted to painting. At this time I had the most powerful stirrings to release my compositional ambitions on the world – but how?
As already described, I loved classical music ever since I was a teenage boy. I knew I had to write music – I believed that I could write music but was frustrated by my total lack of knowledge about how music worked, what instruments could do and how one wrote music down. Yet, I would hear this strange stuff – my own music – bubbling away in my head whilst feeling utterly frustrated about not being able to capture it or do anything with it in any way. For several years I despaired, not knowing what to do to bring this torment to an end (and I use the word ‘torment’ in all seriousness – it drove me to distraction and made me feel a total failure. The fact I could paint and received so much positive attention around that was no compensation for not being able to write music).
When I was 16 I began the long journey of teaching myself how to read and write music. It took many years. As soon as I understood something, my imagination quickly moved on, demanding new techniques to be mastered. My musical imagination was constantly running ahead of my ability to keep up with it. Again, this was totally frustrating. Eventually, when I was 34, I had a number of breakthroughs in writing my music down that resulted in my sending some of my rather illiterate scores off to various people. One of these was Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and the Hoy Summer School that he ran on Orkney back then. Max saw my potential, took me under his wing and created some wonderful opportunities for me. I learnt much. I also realised that coming from a background where I had no musical or instrumental training, whilst not the best career start, turned out in many ways to inform a large part of the process that developed my musical voice and imagination into what it is today. As Max always used to tell me, “you are your own man”.
But that’s jumping ahead somewhat.
At the end of this period I was unsatisfied with my painting and needed to find a new way of expressing my inspiration and relationship to the land. I needed to do this through music too but had no idea where to start and felt thoroughly miserable.
By this time (1987) I had moved to the Isle off Skye off the West Coast of Scotland. I remained on Skye with my then wife, Jane and my two sons for 23 years. The island, its climate, landscape and way of life was to have a profound effect on my work and life.
An explosion was brewing!
To close this chapter I have selected a number of pieces – the darker side of English music, that were my light and guide through this transition. I would soon be discovering other music and would leave my pastoral days behind – not unloved or forgotten, but taking their rightful place as an essential part of my development as an artist.
Gustav Holst, Hammersmith
William Walton, first movement of Symphony No. 1
Lento (extract unfortunately) from the amazing Symphony in G minor by Moeran
Arnold Bax Symphony no.1