the shape distance [1]

MARCH 10, 2013
the shape distance

I haven’t painted for six years.

This week I completed four new paintings. They mark a radical departure from the work I finished in 2006. This radical departure is due in part to various developments in my music compositions but also due to much deliberation about the associations between music and painting in general and how, specifically, my work as a painter can be brought closer to that of my music. Writing in VISCER-ebr-AL combined with the many conversations I have had with my dear friend Ian Talbot have helped shape ideas, culminating in a burst of work that draws together many of the threads pondered and discussed.

‘the shape distance’ [map 1]

Before talking about my intention within the paintings, it will help to outline my most recent thoughts in composition as these directly impact upon this series of paintings; indeed, they reference each other through a shared title.

the shape distance are a series of seven pieces constructed somewhat akin to ‘Russian Dolls’ in that each contains the same or similar core material that is ‘enclosed’ by other layers of material.

The core music is represented by two solo pieces that although composed in isolation contain strongly related material. This music for flute and clarinet, either together or individually pervades all subsequent pieces in the series.

the shape distance [1] flute 1 / clarinet
the shape distance [2] flute 1 / clarinet / piano
the shape distance [3] flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola
the shape distance [4] flutes 1 + 2 / harp
the shape distance [5] flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola / percussion (1)
the shape distance [6] flute 1 / clarinet / harp / percussion (1)
the shape distance [7] flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola / harp / piano / percussion (1)

Percussion set (1 player):
5 differently pitched temple blocks ranging from high to low, 4 differently pitched suspended cymbals ranging from high to low, 1 timpani drum 29″-28″, 1 large, deep, resonant bass drum, 2 differnetly pitched suspended tam-tams

all works circa 12 minutes in duration.

The instrumentalists play independently of each other. Music is cued to begin only, with no ‘fixed’ synchronisation between the instrumentalists. Whilst the relationship of each instrument is flexibly placed against its neighbour, care has been taken to calculate potential outcomes of coincidence and variability. To this end it is vital that metronome markings are adhered to as accurately as possible although the composer appreciates that it is the various interpretations and practicalities inherent in the realisation of tempi that contribute to the richly unique nature and interplay of each performance.
There is only one instructions to the players; to begin together and play until their material is finished.

Compositional material is [largely] derived from a series of distant variations that unify all sections with thematic landmarks. Thematic material is audible throughout the piece, bringing cohesion and structure to the work. All the instrumental roles are written to a high degree of virtuosity and most contain extended techniques and quarter-tones. The music itself [through the simultaneous bringing together of these individual parts] forms dense, highly complex and constantly changing relationships that are frequently wild and sometimes beautiful.

The score and parts:
I have not produced a score for these pieces; difficulties and variables associated with displaying the musical material in vertical alignment as represented in real time are considerable. Each performance will yield different results, interplays, gestural and harmonic references and outcomes. As a result, the material contained within the pieces can only be read via the instrumental parts. Consequently here is no definitive performance of these pieces.
Music in the shape distance can only be realised through performance [as opposed to comprehended by reading through a score; this is the nature of the music – it has to be experienced to be ‘known’.

A note about the title:
‘The shape distance is part of ‘the shape context’ and is intended to be a way of describing shapes that allows for measuring shape similarity and the recovering of point correspondences. The basic idea is to pick n points on the contours of a shape. For each point pi on the shape, consider the n − 1 vectors obtained by connecting pi to all other points. The set of all these vectors is a rich description of the shape localized at that point but is far too detailed. The key idea is that the distribution over relative positions is a robust, compact, and highly discriminative descriptor.’


This process of describing shapes through their similarities resonated with my ambition in these pieces, especially regarding the recognition of shapes [this time shape and gestural recognition in sound rather than physical objects] within a complex, multifaceted fabric of un-synchronous sounds, believing that it is the recognition of these elements that brings both context, excitement and meaning to the music.

It is perhaps this last paragraph that can be used for the jumping-off point into my paintings.

‘the shape distance’ [map 2]

My intention in this work, as stated above, was broadly to bring connectivity from my music into my paintings in a way that at least, resonated with me.

I know it is impossible to ‘paint music’ in any real [truthful] sense and have observed that when most visual artists cite a connection between their visual work and music it is through affectation [a purely emotional, indulgent or even nostalgic response], illustration or pure fiction.

I felt it necessary, as far as I was able to avoid these pitfalls.

In starting the paintings I had a very rough idea of where I might be heading but the detail was unknown. I was very anxious about making marks on my virgin white boards. Initially I was scared to commit. A six year gap in painting leaves both a desire to paint again as well as a void that has been filled by uncertainties around ones abilities to actually paint anything of worth ever again.

My first attempt took me straight back to where I left off. I put that one aside. My second attempt [the first to be finished] immediately showed the way forward as I recognised within it many of the ideas I had previously thought about. It was this painting that became the measure for the others. I removed the surface from the first painting and started again. This process of assimilation between the works continued until I felt I had left the past behind sufficiently and had indicated the way forward. I wasn’t sure I ‘liked’ what I had produced, but on a sub conscious level the work resonated and I ‘knew’ this was the right direction. I took me a few days to acclimatise to this new work. Now I am enjoying it and my mind is stimulated with more to come.

‘the shape distance [map 3]‘the shape distance’ [map 3]

Yes, I needed to bring ‘music’ into the visual, but how had I intended to do this.

I took an approach based very much around mapping ‘gesture’ in music. In sound, a gesture can be a flourish of notes, a sudden loud to quiet, a phrase or technique, a crescendo, a musical shape – a moment. All these gestures have physical counterparts. Rather, they can all be represented through a physical movement [we may call this dance, but I have something less formalised in mind], single movements that capture the kinetic energy that the gestural sound produces. It is this movement that I wanted to capture through the gesture of mark-making, solidifying ‘a moment in sound’ through line, colour and texture.

These paintings, called ‘the shape distance’ are mapping exercises; they ‘petrify’ a moment in time, an event or gesture[s] from one of my scores. They are not illustrative or affective; they translate a gesture in sound through a related gesture in line, the impetus and guide being the kinetic energy needed to bridge this gap. Therefore, the mark making in these paintings is pre-conceived, experienced and spontaneously translated into the mark in one [or several] bold gestures.

As mapping these gestures is central to the work, my titles reflect the connection: ‘the shape distance’ [map 1], ‘the shape distance [map 2], and so on.

Other elements are at play, too.

These painting have taken their elements of form, texture and colour to the minimum necessary to effectively express my intent. This is where the radical departure from my previous work is centred. I had produced large works of an ‘epic’ intensity [by comparison], full of rich colour, deep texture, impasto and complex forms. Now, the paintings are set upon pale, delicately textured backdrops that have an almost [slightly grubby] clinical feel – a bit like setting the mark-making, the gestures against a background of white-noise, or indeed, silence. This juxtaposition only serves to heighten the mark-making and minimal colour present in the work. The focus has been sharpened towards what is vital for the form of the piece to work.
These pieces are not minimal in any sense like ‘minimalism in music’; on the surface and in comparison to my previous work there has been a significant paring down of content and spectrum of expression, but what I am left with is in no way minimal. If anything, the reduction has increased the intensity of the gesture and spontaneity of the work making it more potent. It may not have the initial visual ‘wow’ factor of my previous work, but upon deeper inspection reveals a passionate dynamic that reflects it origins in music.

Additionally, these ‘reduced’ backgrounds, these settings for the gestural mark-making provide a platform akin to derelict internal walls that exude the beauty of ‘domestic erosion and decay’, or external urban walls that call for graffiti. There is a sense in which I view this new work as a kind of graffiti with the board being the wall. Perhaps I could call the work I am producing gestural graffiti?

‘the shape distance’ [map 4]

Having said all of this I shall close by stating that I am fully aware my intentions in this work, all that I have written, thought and made, may not be apparent to the viewer who has no knowledge of my previous work, connection to music or given intent. Does that weaken the work? I think not. The intent of the artist is paramount; it gives the context and raison d’être for the work. These ideas resonate with me and will resonate with others but with those for whom such resonances are not apparent, my hope is that the dynamic of the work will ‘speak’ to them in other ways.

percussive coast

Percussive Coast
March 17 2011

I recently facilitated a two-day workshop named ‘Percussive Coast’ for PVA MediaLab as part of Big Picture’s [Ex-Lab] programme of events, Exploratory Laboratory.


The workshop took place across two days in November 2010 and was an examination of landscape, place and how features could be captured and used to develop a musical score for new compositions.

On our first day we worked on location at Charmouth beach where we used the mapping techniques of artists previously shown in the EX-LAB exhibition at Bridport Arts Centre as the starting point for our own investigations and research.


We began by mapping a small area of shoreline to examine its content and features – rocks, pebbles, sand and shingle, litter and all manner of objects, and where these were placed in relation to one-another. The mapped area of beach needed to correspond to the scaled down matrix we had drawn on paper. This matrix contained the same number of boxes as the large matrix demarked on the beach. The next step was to capture the relative positions of the objects on the beach and plot their position onto the matrix using pencil. As facilitator of the workshops I guided the participants through this process making it clear that the act of mapping, of capturing, was not a scientific method, nor would it hold the accuracy of measuring or recording using digital technologies. The mapping was observational and responsive and could be expressive too. Some participants choose to reflect what they saw as accurately as possible on their matrixes; others took a more flexible approach and drew very fluidly across their area. Some physically traced out the matrix area in the sand whilst others used a few strong visible markers as general guide to positioning. Either way, the group mapped what they saw in the most appropriate manner for them.

Mapping over, the second part of the experience was to find materials on the beach that could be used to produce sounds. Anything would do so long as it had an audible quality. The group found stones, paper, seaweed, dried plants, plastic bottles, shingle, wood and an assortment of flotsam and jetsam. This bizarre collection of found objects would become the instruments of our orchestra.

We returned to PVA MediaLab where I explained to the group how to turn their mapped out drawings into scores and how to ‘extract’ parts from these scores.


The group as a whole would perform each person’s composition. To do this, each member of the group had to be assigned an instrument or sound as well as a notated part, extracted from the score, that would give instructions for when and how to play their instruments in the same manner as a conventional musical score and parts functions.

As ‘homework’, the participants had to make their individual parts from the scores. This involved creating, as many parts as there were players and making sure that all the mapped events on the score were located into the parts in the correct place. For instance, all the small red pebbles that occurred on the mapped area of beach were extracted, located and mapped into the new, just red pebbles matrix (this would become the red pebbles part). Other objects would be singularly extracted into other parts.

Within the red pebbles only part, the pebbles would become the initiators for a musical event fixed in time – like notes on a stave that would initiate a sound response at a given point in time.


In its initial form, the score matrix was laid out in two dimensions, perhaps 6 boxes high by 18 boxes long into which drawn objects were mapped and positioned. To transform this matrix into a linear form so it could be read like a time-line, the participants had to decide how to navigate the matrix and lay it out in the musical part, presenting one row of the matrix, from left to right at a time. A matrix 6 boxes high (rows) and 18 columns in length would be laid out thus: row 1, columns 1-18; row 2, columns 1-18; row 3, columns 1-18; and so on until the matrix was transformed into a linear format one row deep. This became our time-line and custom stave.

And there’s more. Like a musical part, indications of volume, performance style and rhythm had to be clear and understandable. To gauge these properties the participants referred back to their original mapped scores to see how they had captured the objects. Their size, tonal quality (light and darkness on paper) and manner of mark-making all influenced the instructions and information these bespoke scores and parts were conveying for performance.


The second aspect of homework was for each participant to investigate the sound making objects they had found and explore how they could be played, what sounds they could make and what instructions and indications were necessary to realise these sounds when other people were playing them. They also needed to consider how the ‘instruments’ would be positioned for a group performance; if they could be hand-held, positioned on the floor for striking or hitting or suspended from a frame for best resonance qualities.


This concluded day one of the experience.



Day two was based at PVA MediaLab. The day was broken into two halves; shared learning, instruction and rehearsals and recording.

All of our previous work had involved analogue (as opposed to digital) techniques. Today was to be a combination of the two. We would perform the work (an analogue activity), but the sounds would be recorded through digital media, be edited and then distributed through on-line digital hosting.

3 ivon by PVA MediaLab

The participants shared their learning, instructing each other in the use of their instruments, performance and interpretive techniques and how all of these related to the score and parts.

1 carol by PVA MediaLab

Each score and part had a notated time-line. The grid demarcations of the time-line were given a time value, rather like SMPTE time code values operating in a sequencer. So, for instance, each matrix square (box) may take 1 second of time to traverse. Where objects are placed within this box, top, middle, edge, will determine when the instrument is struck in the same way as the position of a note in a bar tells the musician when to play it and any additional markings (in this case large or small markings, long or short markings going across several boxes) how long to make the sound for and whether it should be loud or soft. Reading the part involved moving from box to box, left to right, the lines dividing each box acting as a bar lines in conventional notation, moving second by second and responding as accurately as possible to the content within the boxes.

4 francesca by PVA MediaLab

2 eva by PVA MediaLab

As with all ensembles, it is useful to have a conductor to measure the time and ascribe the time-line a common value everyone can adhere to (the beat). I took the role of conductor and each piece was initially rehearsed and then captured through digital recording.

Percussive Coast – The Real Time Laboratory from PVA MediaLab on Vimeo.
‘symphony’ by PVA MediaLab

The levels of interpretive control and expectation were very sophisticated with each person representing personal interpretations of the original mapped experience. The work produced was abstract percussive music. These were genuine compositions. The participants had become composers and transformed visual information from the beach, through mapping exercises into notation and then performance.