Though inspired by Barnett Newman’s work, I tried not to intellectualize the music in its relationship to the paintings. Rather, I allowed the paintings to initially envelope me and then created based on the overall feelings that remained after the experience. Admittedly, contradictions to this approach run amok in the descriptions below- though, it was the feeling I got from each of Newman’s work that inspired the music as a complete whole.
– In 1997, a mentally ill man vandalized Cathedra (the same person had previously damaged, in 1986, another Newman painting). Approaching this piece proved easy: everything surrounding this painting evoked a sense of profound sadness. In lieu of the painting’s actual colors (dominated by blue), however, I drew upon the “blues” created by the act of vandalism as well as the painting’s overall aesthetic: “Poor Cathedra.”
– For this painting, I concentrated on the “gash” or “wound” that Newman’s “zip” had created within the white field. To represent this whiteness, I created a stark platform, then pierced it (perhaps even splitting it in half) with a sonic “zip” in the form of a guitar sear which penetrates the field similar to the “gash” in the original painting. In addition, vocals are used to parallel the non-uniformity of the gash: turning the painting sideways, I matched the “up and downs” of the brush strokes and super-imposed them onto the sheet music from a number of operas until I found one wherein the musical notes themselves matched up visually with the brush strokes. Musically, the matching piece also fit the haunting tone of my existing platform, this was obviously a key element in the decision. Mozart worked out nicely.
– This piece came about using the horizontal aspect of the painting as the platform. I played a single note for each layer until it created a chord, then created a second chord as a change, for a total of 12 layers, representing the painting’s scope. Though color did not factor in to the process, texture certainly did. Wonderful harmonic bursts project out of the chords, which formed a texture not too different from those within Newman’s main color field. I have always been struck by a “break-in-the-action” in the painting: the bluish “zip” shade changes approximately half-way through. To emulate this, I wrote a “second-half” for the track consisting of a guitar-delay burst opposing a two-note melody (my favorite kind), which also suggested the more playful and fun mood of this part of the painting. To achieve the additional tone and texture that I felt the track lacked, I began working improvisationally with a cellist (the cello being, for me, the most sonically rich and organic instrument). This strategy worked out well: we found our way through without technical rigidity and, in fact, ended up using more cello on the album.
– Blackness drove the music with this piece. This painting’s dark field seems to push down heavily onto the white light at the bottom but is not able to extinguish it. After laying down a foreboding platform that conveyed the mood of the painting’s color field, I immediately could hear an ethereal voice—the white strip along the bottom of the painting. This led me to research the exact voice I was “hearing.” I decided on Hildegard of Bingen. I then wrote a poem/song called “Black Fire” inspired by the Greek mythological tale of Prometheus. The English didn’t seem to feel right, so I translated the lyrics into Latin and off we went, shaping and chipping away at the platform until the piece found its way within the vocals and vice-versa. The painting is dark and foreboding but also hauntingly beautiful and angelic as are the piece’s vocals.
– Adam can mean either “creation of man” or “red earth.” My approach this time was strictly visual. With a book on Newman open to the painting, I found my way through the music; it came very naturally because I have been attached to this painting since the very first time I saw it; in fact, Adam originally got me started on Newman. Years ago, I wrote a short poem about it. I altered the poem and worked it into the piece of music with some very unsure, emotional vocals that parallel the poem’s obvious “clumsiness”—an attempt at portraying a hint of the possible faltering bodies of a human at the point of the first creation. I placed these vocals at the end of the track as it winds down. I just felt it was appropriate and didn’t intellectualize the decision.
– Barnett Newman once said that “The surrealists got their ‘language’ and their techniques from the great writer [James] Joyce.” I believe the blues in this painting were partially inspired by the blue wraps (cover) of Joyce’s novel Ulysses (first edition). It is also epic (11 ft x 4 ft) in the way that Joyce’s book is most often perceived. The blue on the book’s cover represents, on one hand, the Greek flag but also, I feel, the waters that surround the country. Newman’s painting strikes me as a powerful wave of sorts, so I used this metaphor to create a “guitar wave” that would sometimes roll and occasionally shimmer; layered through this are vocal “sweeps” to achieve the necessary amount of complexity. I turned the painting sideways and noticed that its length and shape, together with the borders of its converging shades, reminded me of a ruler; therefore, I needed numbers. Eventually, I found some old recordings of multi-band radio codes and immediately felt them to be right. This is the longest of the tracks—not quite eleven feet of music but . . .
Day Before One
– All I see when looking at this painting is a doorway. Within that doorway? A blue mystery, a place to dream or make your own world come alive. Thus, the music had to allow for dreaming. I decided on a two-note breathing layer into which was worked a juxtaposition of that layer. The heavy texturing of the paint strokes suggested additional musical textures—so, again, the cello satisfied that craving. Though cliché, the blue again conveys sadness; these notes, along with the layered string instrument, succeed in fulfilling my creative intentions.