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WRITING

Interpretation: Music and Painting

I’d always believed that the act of painting was an act of creation as opposed to the re-creative act of the performing musician, who brings to life the work of a composer. But an artist colleague pointed out that, on the contrary, painting is an interpretative activity too: a painter ‘interprets’ a tree, a face, an interior in two dimensions.

As my years of painting have accumulated, I have become more and more fascinated by the many different images emerging in response to exactly the same object. Perhaps my interest in portraits comes from the innumerable expressions and appearances exhibited by a face, often within a few seconds. Even when I started to work from photographs, I was astonished, at first, by the huge resulting variety of work from the same photograph, as presumably I focussed on different aspects of what I was seeing. For example one photograph inspired a painting of a young woman, a middle-aged woman, and an older woman, the motionless face somehow containing the past and future as well as the present.

Of course faces are endlessly intriguing because of the richness of qualities and contradictions so often expressed there – though not always. I feel it a disadvantage to know the person I’m painting, as any knowledge predisposes the painter and can distract from honest observation. It’s all too easy to see kindness, authority, disturbance in a face once one assumes it is there; for me it’s much more interesting, and challenging, to search for the truth – the many truths – of what is actually observable, and what feelings arise from these observations.

This approach is very similar to how I go about interpreting music. I’d rather not know what Beethoven had for breakfast, or what he felt when he realised he was losing his hearing, because this can lead me astray and fatally poison my reactions to the score. I’m very aware of the unpredictability of human responses, even to the large, predictable life events. And the art that we produce during those times, whether in writing, music or painting, can either be a reflection of what we are feeling, or equally an escape, or a rogue emotion that bubbles up unbidden. A case in point is precisely when Beethoven wrote of his anguish at becoming deaf while composing his three violin sonatas opus 30: the first sublimely serene, the second wildly angry, and the third playfully witty.

Whether interpreting a Beethoven sonata or a 42-year-old face, my starting point is to look for what is there. Then having been captured and enraptured, the task is to develop ways to convey and express what my curiosity has uncovered.

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