ARTISTS ARE always supposed to stretch themselves in some way, they say – well I managed to pull myself into some strange shapes this year, by composing and recording a soundscape for an art exhibition by Maurice Orr.
‘The Screaming Silence of the Wind’ is on show at the Braid Arts Centre in Ballymena until October 29th, and will be on tour to a series of venues after that, including a visit to Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart in 2012. Wherever it goes, the slightly strange 20-minute suite I put together will go with it.
I first met Maurice when he brought a series of Australian landscapes to Flowerfield Arts Centre a couple of years ago. He was very taken with the idea of having some appropriate sounds in the gallery to accompany the images. Maurice is a bundle of energy, a passionate and driven man who just twinkles non-stop. He’s an inspiration and a truly gifted artist – and I find it almost impossible to say no to people like that.
In a swift but probably illegal move, I downloaded a couple of MP3s – a sound effect of some cicadas and a didgeridoo track, mixed them together and created a 45 minute loop that repeated all day in the gallery. It was pretty effective. Looking at the blazing colours of the pictures with the noise in the background made you feel strangely sunstruck and thirsty.
Anyway, fast forward a couple of years and Maurice becomes the first artist in Northern Ireland to be commissioned by the Unlimited project for the Cultural Olympiad. Unlimited celebrates disability arts, culture and sport.
During a four week residency painting the extraordinary landscapes of Iceland, Maurice was struck by two things – firstly the similarity of the Icelandic coastline to that of his beloved Causeway Coast. The second realisation came after visiting a fish processing factory.
One of the by-products of the process are the fish leathers – the dried and cured skins of the fish, which feel soft and leathery and wonderful and can be died and used for clothing, shoes etc. Maurice began painting the skins and laying them on the canvases alongside his traditional brushwork.
The results are stunning – huge canvases that work as major works of art, but which are designed to be stroked and touched. At the opening night last Thursday, blind visitors ran their hands over the canvases and listened to the accompanying audio descriptions. In the background, the sounds I recorded to accompany the images played on a loop.
‘A blind lady once asked if she could touch my paintings,’ says Maurice in his introduction to the work. ‘Watching her explore my paintings with her fingers was a significant moment of realisation for me. Perhaps I should involve other senses, not just sight, to evoke atmosphere and convey ideas. I looked for ways to make my music more sensory, through the use of music and touch.’
Maurice and I met several times and he played me samples of music that he thought was appropriate. It was a huge challenge for me – the biggest hurdle I had to get over was that all the structures had to vanish. All of my songwriting rules had to go out the window. So I found myself listening to what sounded like droning, unpredictable atmospheres and thinking... It needs a melody. And some percussion... And a chorus...
But less is more. The results are very sparse – the sound of a howling wind with one lone piano playing some ascending repeated notes in search of a home chord. Some shimmering minor-key rumble with distant drums appearing at random. Maurice is thrilled with it, and so far everyone who has walked round the exhibition has been very complimentary.
It’s been a wonderful experience – I hope it won’t be my last. Many thanks to Maurice for asking me, and for the support of Ballymena Borough Council and the Mid Antrim Museum for making it happen. At the minute the only place you can hear the music is at the exhibition. If I decide to make it available or downloadable, I’ll let you know.
This exhibition is part of Ballymena Borough Council’s programme of events to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. Braille, large print, and audio MP3 players are available for this exhibition. Visit the Braid website for further details: http://www.thebraid.com/exhibitions.aspx