On Catalysts for Cross-Disciplinary Translation

On Catalysts for Cross-Disciplinary Translation

George Martin was in my mind today.

For a long time, at the Royal College of Art, I ran a multi-disciplinary project called MAP/Making (Music, Art, Performance). It linked my visual arts students with musicians from Guildhall School of Music and Drama, involving around thirty students, roughly half from each institution. It began following an experience in my own work, when I was commissioned by the Goethe Institut, London, to make a piece of work for a big festival on German Romantic art. As part of that they also commissioned a young German composer, Detlev Glanert, to write a new symphonic piece. They asked me to create a number of images to be projected over the orchestra, while they played Glanert’s piece in a live performance on the Southbank (1994). I decided to make the images using video, which was the first time I’d worked with moving image, and I created the piece using one of the then new hand-held cameras (Sony Handycam Hi8), so it was a big learning curve.

After several months of long-distant collaboration (by mail, not email! Glanert was working in Norway), the two elements, the music and video, came together for the first time in rehearsal on the afternoon before the performance. A real nail-biting experience, but we were both genuinely happy with how it worked out. That was a real seminal experience for me. I have always loved music, but I had never been invited to work with a musician in that way. For me as an artist, it really opened up a whole new area of interest.

I had just been appointed the head of the RCA School of Communications, and it seemed to me that linking these two cultures, and working collaboratively for live performance, was potentially a fantastic process that could become a really interesting part of the department. I became fascinated that at the RCA was one great group of students making visual art, while across the city at the Guildhall there was another great group of students of the same age, and they had no idea what each other were doing. That realisation led to the MAP-Making project, which we launched in 1999/2000. The project consisted of an annual series of workshops, dividing musicians and artists into groups of around half a dozen, and then exploring themes that were usually given to us in the form of a commission, for Bath Music Festival, or Aldeburgh Music Festival, or City of London Festival, before then showing our work in public performances.

We learned a lot over the ten years of the project—about trying to find a balance between images and music, so that the two became fused into a single work. There is something about visual material which, when put against music, can easily relegate the music to being a soundtrack. If you get it wrong in the other direction, with powerful music, the images can look like moving wallpaper. To find the point at which the two things came together symbiotically into a third piece of work, which had integrity in its own right, was something we were constantly trying to find.

We discovered an enormous amount about the technical challenges of mounting large-scale performances in a time of crossover between analogue and digital: how to be able to adapt to all kinds of venues, concert halls, churches, clubs, and site-specific locations. My students were confronted for the first time with what was, for many of them, extremely demanding contemporary classical music; something they might not have otherwise come across. Equally, the musicians were exposed to radical image making. It was a very educational experience, and in the decade we ran that project, there were just a few occasions when we hit that perfect balance between image and music, and everybody knew that that was the piece of work we had been working towards.

One of the things that became important in the workshops was being able to spot catalysts: key people who just needed to be present in a group, and somehow things happened around them. I had been reading in a scientific journal about scientists in the Midwest who were experimenting with a process called ‘seeding’, in which, during a drought, they would fly a plane over rain clouds, drop dry ice into the cloud, which caused a chain reaction, and made it rain. As a metaphor, this worked perfectly for the process by which in each group there was a catalyst.

It occurred to me that this is what George Martin was so good at. He was one of those vital people in a culture, who had not merely the technical and professional skills, but the social skills—understanding, empathy, judgment, good humour—gentle qualities, that are such an important element in the collaborative process. So maybe what George did for The Beatles and others, is what seeding did for rain clouds in the Midwest.

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