Norman Perryman paints The Sea

by Christopher Morley

Visitors to Birmingham's Symphony Hall cannot have missed the swirling kinetic paintings in the foyers inspired by Elgar's Dream of Gerontius and Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, carried out by the Birmingham-born artist Norman Perryman.
Those fortunate enough to gain invitations to the Director's Lounge on the dressing-room corridor on Level 4 of the ICC will have admired the many Perryman portraits of musicians -- soloists and conductors -- who have performed at Symphony Hall over the years, and veterans of the Rattle era will remember a magical evening when Perryman painted a live response to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition while Sir Simon conducted the CBSO, in front of a huge screen reflecting the involvement of the artist's brushwork.
Later this month Perryman returns to Symphony Hall and the CBSO, painting his reactions as the orchestra gives the UK premiere of The Sea by the Lithuanian composer Mikaloyus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (1875 - 1911), conducted by this fin-de-siecle Renaissance man's compatriot, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla.
Ciurlionis was an estimable painter himself, and less than a year ago, at the official gala opening of the comfortable Bradshaw Hall at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Mirga conducted the RBC Symphony Orchestra in the composer's In the Forest, with back-projections of his own atmospheric paintings. The impression made both by the music and the artwork was stunning.
Norman Perryman has devoted several months to preparing himself for The Sea, in a presentation which can to all intents and purposes be described as a concerto for painter and orchestra.
"I have an instrument made with wood and hairs", he told me on a visit to Birmingham from his Amsterdam home just before Christmas. We were talking in a bar in Colmore Row, just round the corner from Margaret Street where he had been a student at the Birmingham School of Art and Design over half-a-century ago.
"I have a song without words for my colours, and I want my paintings to sing," he declares. "This is my ultimate dream of playing together with the orchestra. I want all my drops of paint to be notes, and I'll be looking for cues all the way through."
Norman shows me his marked-up score, annotated with reminders to himself and instructions to his assistant, who will be changing the plates upon which he will be painting during the course of the 35-minute performance.
His planning is already sounding physically exhilarating. "I'll be breathing together with the phrasing as I make my brush-strokes, I'll be pouring liquid of out bottles like the pipe of a wind-instrument, I'll be blowing and spreading the paints, I'll be mixing colours over rising glissandi, and at the climax I'll be mixing with my hands -- and I'll be dabbing with tissues to make little flowers!"
As Norman's position onstage will be in front of the woodwind, the screen on which his ongoing work will be projected is going to be erected in front of the organ, whose player will need a CCTV monitor to keep him in touch with Mirga's baton.
Norman obviously identifies with Ciurlionis and his Gesamtkunstwerk ("complete art work") as a painter and composer. "He was a mystic, looking for God in nature, and conscious of memories from a dark past. He might have been a film-composer, there is so much underlying imagery in his music. It comes across with an emotional double-whammy, and expresses a longing for unity with nature.
"It's a kind of lyrical expressionism," and we find ourselves talking about the psychedelic, life-transforming (possibly life-ending) light-projections which the disturbed Russian composer Skryabin envisaged for performances of his music, and the paintings of Kandinsky.
Fittingly, The Sea makes use of Lithuanian folksong, and this UK premiere will be given on what is in fact Lithuania's National Day.
The importance and fascination of this event cannot be over-emphasised. The presentation forms part of the CBSO's Baltic season, and this particular concert is completed with an extended sequence of the incidental music Grieg composed for Ibsen's picaresque play Peer Gynt.
But Norman Perryman and I return to the sheer excitement of the idea of accompanying Ciurlionis' The Sea with live painting, and we ponder the responsibility of his assistant in shuffling the plates upon which Perryman will be working.
"It's a chess-game," Norman smiles.

*Ciurlionis' The Sea receives its UK premiere from the CBSO conducted by Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, Norman Perryman the painter soloist, at Symphony Hall on February 16, 7pm. Details on 0121 780-3333.

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