Listening to Francis Bacon

Listening to Francis Bacon

In 2008 I attended an extensive exhibition of the paintings of Francis Bacon at the Tate Britain. In retrospect this seems to have been a “refocusing” event, giving me a new, or at least renewed, insight into what I’m doing and what it “means”. Creative musicians (and not only these of course) should always be open to such events. The resonance of this one is still much more complex than can be summed up in a few words, or perhaps in any words, my words anyway, but something my thoughts have kept returning to in the intervening few years is the way that exquisitely nuanced, sometimes even photorealistic areas on the one hand, and seemingly randomly-thrown splashes of paint on the other, not only coexist but are somehow perceptually interchangeable. The significance of this to me goes far beyond (while not leaving behind) questions of “technique”.  I realised that I’ve been looking for a very similar kind of perceptual interchangeability between pre-planned and spontaneous actions a music. It isn’t a question of making notated compositions which “sound improvised” and/or improvisations which “sound composed”. I don’t think methods of composition have, or need to have, such a simplistic relationship to what you hear

Perhaps analogously to Bacon’s paintings, I’ve been trying to use different compositional methods, from the intricately methodical to the freely improvisational, to produce a consistent (or meaningfully inconsistent) audible resultHalf a century ago, composers became for various reasons interested in “opening up” their notated scores to the possibility of improvisation. I had never thought of myself as doing this, more recently I’ve started to characterise my approach as being precisely the converse: not using as a paradigm not the notated score, within which spaces are left for improvisation, but free improvisation, within which points of focus, or centres of gravity, or particular kinds of forms, colours, perspectives and so on are provided by a notated component, which may be more or less extensive (up to and including what is generally called “fully-notated” music). My most systematic compositional methods then are and have always been conceived as constituting a kind of “instrument” on which I can improvise from one moment to the next – all the laborious setting-up of structural proportions, systems of negotiating instrumental techniques, harmonic textures and so on is carried out in order to create a situation where I can work rapidlyand spontaneously. 

Francis Bacon’s paintings don’t tell a story, or on the other hand avoid or ignore representation, but could be thought of as embodying isolated moments or snapshots which stand so to speak outside time. These moments smear out into the time dimension in the act of viewing, in a process by which the viewer refocuses and widens her/his perception to explore different emphases, interpretations (including none), implications and so on. This smearing process is somehow also related to what it is I’m trying to compose. What you hear is not for example an impression of a painting, but perhaps something more akin to the way a kind of “musical” time might be engendered by the process of assimilating a painting, or some other object (or idea)which one initially experiences all at once. Why? because I sense something in common between this process and the act of composition (including improvisation) which could provide some insight into my attempts to understand and express something about the nature and structure of the imagination.

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