Musical Works

Music and Image

The Begbroke studio of abstract artist Mark Rowan-Hull has a lived-in feel. There are shelves of CDs (mostly jazz), a bed doubling as a sofa, a table covered in eight-inch square vivid paintings on card and an array of larger works that I thought might still be in progress but are in fact completed (that’s the way he paints!) “I did that at the Clothmakers’ Hall in Leeds,”; he says, pointing at a daubed five-foot-high rectangle of perspex, “while pianist Peter Hill played next to me.”;

That’s what this artist mostly does now: not much in this studio but creating original works of art to live music in front of an audience. The basic theme is see the music, hear the colour and he brings this to the North Wall Arts Centre in Summertown tomorrow evening, together with the Amit Chaudhuri Band — of which more later.

“From an early age,”; Rowan-Hull told me, “I was thinking in those terms, playing the piano and thinking of shapes and colours. I then became fascinated with the composer Messiaen, who always notated his music in terms of colour quite directly: he’d write a chord and describe it as ’lilac with yellow flashes’, a concept that really blew music apart. There’s also Charles Ives: there you have collages of sounds. I’m thinking particularly of his Central Park in the Dark, where you have an underlying wash of colour created by the sound of jazz bands.”;

The North Wall experience is likely to be rather small-scale: he’s painted in the pulpit of Westminster Cathedral to a 120-strong orchestra, in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral to organ music performed by Gillian Weir and at Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre with the Allegri String Quartet. But the method is always the same: “When the music begins, I start painting straightaway: gesture is important, following the music. It’s very intense, almost like creating the music itself. With certain pieces by Messaien that I know well, I usually respond in the same way, with the same colours. But recently, I’ve been coming back more to improvisation, so that often the musicians are bouncing off me, using my imagery as graphic scores. But the colour experience is vital: I’ll hear a sort of yellow chord and I’ll put on yellow…”;

Too good an opportunity to miss: which is the main note of a yellow chord?

“I suppose I should be able to tell you. Perhaps an F!”;

So how will this North Wall performance actually work?

“I’m a bit of a showman. I have to connect with the audience but it’s most important to be totally engaged with the music. Amit Chaudhuri is head of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, but also has a band playing modern Indian music. Even though I know the music, I’ve no idea which colour paint pot I’m going to stick the brush into first!”;

Rowan-Hull started off doing shows on canvases, “but a friend said to me that he didn’t want to come to a performance and watch my arse all evening!”; So now it’s perspex and he faces the audience.”;

Mark Rowan-Hull is creative arts fellow at Wolfson College and sits on the college’s arts committee, deciding whether struggling artists as he once was should be given exhibition space.

But he is essentially a creative person, not an organisational one. And, despite the thrashing, thoughtful colours that music provides for him, the basics are still there.

We walked in a bluebell wood near where he lives. Could he, I asked, still just sit down at an easel and paint a representational landscape? He paused only briefly, then, “Yes, of course.”;

About the Performance Painting