If Music be the Food of Art, Play ON
Apologies for nicking and butchering this Shakespeare quote for my title, but I wanted to talk about the connection music gives me to my work when I paint. In ‘Twelfth Night’, Orsino may have been trying to ease his obsession and frustration with Olivia by a surfeit of tunes, the way you could possibly cure a chocolate addiction by running rampant in a sweet shop [“If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.” Shakespeare, ‘Twelfth Night’], but for me music sets the mood and energy for, and feeds my obsession with painting.
When I am working there is almost always music playing. Even when I am out drawing and painting from life I will often have my headphones on. So another quote: “Turn on, tune in, drop out” [Timothy Leary, 1966] might be more appropriate. Not in the intended sense of the use of psychedelic drugs but in turning on the music, tuning in to my creative world and dropping out of my day to day real life pressures and worldly concerns to put me in my own little bubble with the rest of the world blocked out. Music helps in ‘dislocating’ my brain, which tends to interfere and make me overwork when I am painting. Music points me towards getting ‘in the zone‘ where the line draws itself, the paint flows, I see the colours to mix without consciously thinking and the painting paints itself. When I am out sketching I sometimes use music through my headphones to create a ‘bubble’ for myself. I become less self-consciousness and just get on with it. I may appear a bit eccentric, but it works for me.
In my studio I also use different songs to get into the atmosphere of the painting. My choice of listening can help me connect to my muse, my subject, the emotions I want to portray and the marks I want to make. I can use it to level or focus myself, change my mood, intensify my mood or just to get my energy and motivation going – often by singing and dancing along, in my own little bubble of course. In ‘I Beg Your Pardon’ from the Soundtrack of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1981 musical, ‘One From The Heart’ Tom Waits wrote the line “you are the landscape of my dreams” and in many ways music is the landscape of my painting.
So what do I listen to? I have quite eclectic tastes! The Punk and post punk of my youth, Motown, Funk, Soul, Torch Songs, Classical, Opera, I even have some 1920s vaudeville on my ipod. I am a big fan of Muse and find their tracks really motivate me. I have played ‘City of Delusion’, ‘Hysteria’, ‘Thoughts of A Dying Atheist, ‘Explorers’ and more recently ‘The Handler’ so many times now that just hearing them gives me the Pavlovian response of grabbing a charcoal stick or paintbrush. When I am feeling a bit blocked or self-critical, listening to their music: the layers, complexity and work that has gone into the production inspire me to reject the notion of giving up. In 2001 I spent a little time in Portugal riding at a classical dressage training centre. They played music in the manege all the time (often ‘Gregorian’ a German outfit who perform classic pop songs in gregorian chant – not as bad as it sounds!) and one of the instructors used to shout at me ‘dance with your horse!’. I would like to think the same applies in art – dance with your painting!
So here are my top ten studio playlists
1. Anything by Muse. Seriously, absolutely anything by Muse with the possible exception of 'Survivor’. You already know my favourites
2. Nick Cave's 'Nocturama' album
3. Quite a bit of Opera, especially ‘The Duet’ from ‘The Pearl Fishers' and Wilhemenia Fernandez singing 'Ebben? Ne Andro Lontata' from the Opera 'La Wally'
4. Some Funkadelic, Stevie, or other dance stuff to get me moving
5. Johnny Cash's 'American' Albums
6. Ladies seem under represented in this list so far so I will add my 'Lady Sings' playlist featuring, among others: Adele, Dusty Springfield, Dinah Washington, Edith Piaf and PP Arnold.
7. 'One From the Heart' soundtrack album by Tom Waits featuring Crystal Gayle
8. Lots of Jeff Buckley, especially his version of 'Lilac Wine'
9. Butter Beans and Susie's 'I Wanna Hot Dog For My Roll' – recorded in 1929 and has to be heard to be believed!
10. Pretty much anything sung, written or produced by David Bowie. My favourites are ‘Lady Grinning Soul’, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’ ‘Sound and Vision’, ‘All The Young Dudes’ and ‘Starman’.
On a totally personal note: the death of one of my music muses on 10th January helped prompt the topic for this post’s thoughts. I was a young child when David Bowie had his breakthrough hit and only really became aware of him in the mid to late 70s but from then his music formed part of the soundtrack and landscape to my life and career. When I was working at a fast food shop until the early hours three night per week and three weekend shifts to pay my way through my ‘A’ level and foundation course studies I used to listen to ‘Hunky Dory’ to help me get some sleep before getting up and doing it all again the next day. Nights out were going to a gig and afterwards Monroe’s Nightclub where DJ Tilly played the best music to dance to. Bowie featured there alongside early U2, Simple Minds, Gang of Four, Bauhaus, Punk, Post Punk and classic Motown. I sang in a band and alongside our own songs we performed covers including Velvet Underground and Bowie produced Lou Reed tracks. I even managed to see Bowie live, albeit about half a mile back from the stage, on the Serious Moonlight Tour at Milton Keynes Bowl. Listening again (plus singing along and dancing) to my Bowie playlist in studio the past couple of weeks I am struck by the timeless quality of his music. I have only a couple of paintings from 20 years that still stand up with my current work, but he has whole bodies of work from 20, 30, even 40 years ago that sound contemporary in their writing, performance and production and that continue to influence music and musicians today. While the man will be missed, his music, art and films live on for which I am grateful, but my landscape has been subjected to irrevocable changes.