Friday, 21 October 2016

The Kanneh-Mason Family - Videos

This is Sheku, he is the third of seven Kanneh-Mason children.  This year Sheku was crowned BBC Young Musician and the Year (2016).
Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing the Cello
Following his success Sheku was invited to perform at two BBC Prom concerts and has signed a contract to make CDs with Decca.  Sheku has a distinctive mop of hair and is cool.

Sheku Rees Kanneh-Mason

Sheku has a beautiful elder sister who has a huge smile and wears her plaited hair as a mantle threaded with gold.  Isata (pronounced Ice-i-ta), reached the piano finals in BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014 and was awarded The Walter Todds Bursary for the most promising musician not to reach the Grand Final (she was unlucky to come up against the overall winner in the finals of the piano section).  Isata studies at the Royal Academy of Music and is well on the way to becoming a concert pianist. I always think she plays from the heart and looks like an Egyptian queen.

Isata Megan Kanneh-Mason
This is a picture of the the seven children:

The Kanneh-Mason children have exotic Sierra Leonian names; Sheku (cello, 17), Isata (pianist, 20), Braimah (violinist, 18), Mariatu (cello and piano 7), Konya (piano and violin 15), Jeneba (piano and cello 13), and Aminata (Violin and Piano 11).

Kadiatu (Kadie) and Stuart Kanneh Mason with Sheku and Braimah (2015 Nottingham Post)

The Nottingham family are a rich cultural mix; Kadiatu's mother is Welsh and married to a man from Sierra Leone, their English father Stuart has parents who immigrated from Antigua.  The family rejoice in their cultural diversity, they all have Welsh names and continue their close ties with Wales, the Caribbean and Sierra Leone.  Both of their parents have always loved classical music and learnt to play the piano as children, so it was a natural decision for them to buy a piano after their first child was born; Kadiatu also played the clarinet as a child and is an academic whilst Stuart has a physics degree and masters degree in maths.  Stuart commutes to work in London from Nottingham, instead of buying smart cars and other luxuries every penny the family earns has been channelled into giving their children the best opportunities in life.  Isata chose the piano which seems to have influenced the other children to follow her into musical careers.

When we met the Kanneh-Masons at the Tenby Arts Festival in 2015 we were blown away and became instant fans.  We have got to know this lovely family better after they gave a concert at Lampeter House in the Spring 2016.  A few weeks ago they came and recorded You Tube videos in our home, these are the results (it is essential to listen through good speakers):

Personally I find it most moving to see the whole family playing together

The Kanneh-Masons Six - Medley

but they are all virtuosic and play solos or together in smaller groups.  In these two videos Sheku plays duets with his elder brother Braimah who is studying the violin at Royal Academy of Music.  

Braimah and Sheku - Bloch Prayer from Jewish life

Braimah and Sheku - Ajde Jano

When the three eldest perform together they call themselves "The Kanneh-Mason Trio".  It is worth looking up you tube videos of their performances of Shostakovitch.  For us they played Rachmaninov Trio élégiaque No.1

 The Kanneh-Mason Trio
Rachmaninov Trio élégiaque No.1

Shekus' younger sisters, Konya and Jeneba, are both accomplished pianists.  Konya was not satisfied with her recording of Debussy, it sounded ravishing but she insists it was flawed.  This is Jeneba (13) playing a Chopin's Etude Op.10, No.4

Jeneba Kannah Mason - Chopin Etude Op.10, No.4

We also made videos of  Isata and Sheku playing a duet

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Masons - Gaspo Cassadó - Requiebros

 and two pieces of Isata playing solo

Isata Kanneh-Masons - Rossini/Ginzburg Cavatina of Figaro 

Isata Kanneh-Mason - Liszt Les jeux d'eau à la villa d'este

The Kanneh-Masons have an official website: BBC have made a documentary about the Kanneh-Masons that is called Young, Gifted and Classical to be screened on November 20 on BBC4

We could not have made these videos without the help of Alberto Bona of Arepo Productions and Nick Swannell (sound engineer)


I am not particularly knowledgeable about music, often I have to work harder than others to track the melodies, rhythms and musical structures in complex classical pieces, but the emotional rewards are always worth it. From the moment I first saw this family I was a fan, this is why:

Music is found in all cultures however primitive or isolated.  It is as if nature has encoded Music into our DNA and it is as essential to humanity as language and speech.     Some years ago I read a book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body" by Prof Steven Mithen, in which he posited that music and singing were precursors to language.  He painted an  image of groups of Neanderthals without language abilities dancing, grunting and warbling around their hearths for tens of thousands of years until the language speaking Homo sapiens arrived to Southern Europe with cave painting and sculpture.   He suggested that musical activity in our hominid ancestors generated empathy and set off a chain of brain development that in Homo sapiens mutated into our abilities for "theory of mind", intensely complex self knowledge, social and cultural cohesion, and that from these musical beginnings language was born.  Music led to the development of language followed by the big bang of creativity that led to agriculture and civilisation.

Mithen was speculating and maybe he is wrong, but his point is a good one; music  harmonises emotions across audiences in extremely powerful ways.  This trait was well known to ancient generals who marched their armies to music in the safe knowledge that this will make their soldiers more comradely and willing to sacrifice their lives for each other and their tribes, in our present day society music still has a strong place in rituals that bring marriages, families, tribes and nations together; what would the Olympics be like without the collective playing of each other's national anthems from around the world?
In my quest to improve my drawing I had an idealistic view that art has a good purpose, as I have grown older I have come to see that  purpose to be about reaching inside each other's minds and sharing qualia in a mingling of spirits, but I have never been so naive as to believe that producing or loving good art automatically equates with having a well developed sense of humanity.  Tyrants like Stalin loved the ballet and Hitler loved watercolours and architectures, but the humanising effects of art were not enough to stop them being responsible for the deaths of millions of there fellow citizens.  This is a sad fact;  Art's power to bring us together in a mingling of our spirits can be embraced, ignored, subverted and misused.  My conclusion has been that art, like speech, comes with responsibility. I have always questioned goodness and badness in art and often asked myself if there is such a thing as purity in art?

The Kanneh Masons are fascinating to know.  The family seem to be bonded in a warm glow of empathy and cooperation.  The eldest sister started the process, but now they are all in it together, sharing tunes, unifying melodies and harmonies within their family.  In the little time I have been with them I have witnessed this depth of communication and extreme closeness.  They are not unique, they are ordinary people, but it has been wonderful to watch what has happened inside their family which seems to me to be one of the purest expressions of "good art" I have ever experienced.  In this troubled world we need more families like the Kanneh-Masons and more "good art".


Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The Best of this Summers Drawings.

I have not been abroad this summer, but at weekends and on sunny evenings I have been out drawing  at Wiseman's Bridge where the beach was often crowded with families and holiday makers.

Many say hello because they already know me from previous years.  This sketch brings back vivid memories of little Ava and Lola walking on the beach with their father and dog
Ava, Lola and her father 7 June  2015
but I cannot remember which was Ava and which was Lola.

These children are Emelia and Harrison Frost

Emelia and Harrison
I think their father is an engineer and their mother Nicki is a primary school teacher in Sheffield

Nicki Frost with her Children

Drawing in public spaces is social, very often when I arrive children will greet me and sit in a crowd around me, others times I am left alone. When I am being watched it is a bit like reading out loud in a classroom, they expect me to put on a show, work fast, pay attention and not make mistakes, but  I do not meet all the people I draw.   Such was the case with this drawing, one of the best of the season, it evokes memories of a moment alone after the crowds had dispersed for supper.  In the crisp twilight air excited chattering and laughter travelled towards me, down the way a little girl in a blue polka dot dress was patting her grandfather's head and giggling, they were looking across the sea towards a distance horizon that was the lit with the dying embers of reflected sunlight in clouds. 

My other favourite haunt is Manor House Wildlife Park where the children interact with the animals 

This year I have been studying how the form of the body changes as we grow.  I have made images of babies with their mothers

and toddlers

making their first wobbly steps

A toddler called Mali

and I have been trying to capture how very small children walk and run,

which is different from the older children like this boy

and  these two sisters from Pakistan with flowers in their hair.   Sanzay (7) and Lalina's family have come to Pembrokeshire because their father is a doctor in Haverfordwest.   Sanzay's dress was embroidered with flowers too and they had one more even younger sibling who I did not manage to draw.

Most of all I have been working on my portraiture.  For many years, almost every evening between 9.30pm to 2.00am, I have been making scribbled drawings of moving faces from television. The scribblings are a technical learning excises to help my subconscious brain build a detailed and structured virtual model of the head and face.   Making the mental construction feels like putting together a three dimensional virtual jigsaw puzzle with movement, the learning involves developing the shape of the pieces as well as fitting them together.  After these sessions I sometimes have very vivid hallucinatory dreams of the shapes and relationships of the pieces I am trying to grasp and assemble, as these elements have coalesced my drawings of faces have become easier to make and more of a likeness.

This is an image drawn whilst watching a television costume drama (I think Wolf House).  A drawing like this represents the present state of my virtual model with some added embellishments. 

The long summer's evenings have been an opportunity to make drawings from real people and to check how well my portraiture has developed since last summer.  This image of  a teenage girl at Wiseman's Bridge demonstrates how my models are transposed into idealised portraits of  real people:

A Teenage girl with flowers in her hair June 2016

But the teenage girl is a drawing about classic idealised beauty, it is not about personality. It represents the first stage in learning to draw and make art.  Only recently did I understand how closely my drawing technique mirrors the way the subconscious mind creates that glorious technicolour cinema experience we call sight.  In the centre of the brain, sitting above the tip of the Brain Stem, is an organ called the Thalamus. It is comparable in size to the two halves of an unshelled walnut, with the nut-shell joining in the horizontal plane.

The  Thalamus (Wikipedia)
Brain scientists sometimes call the thalamus the brain's relay station, this is because all the raw sensory data (except smell) from the eyes, ears, tongue and skin is transmitted through the thalamus to specialised areas for further analysis and processing.  For instance visual data is collected at the retina and sent along the optic nerves to the thalamus before being relayed on to Visual Cortex in the Occipital Lobe at the back of the skull.

Eye : Thalamus : Visual cortex

But the thalamus is much more than just a relay and distribution station, it also recognises patterns,  analyses and processes the data. It was recently discovered that when we are looking at an object six times more visual information is travelling from the cortex to the thalamus than from the thalamus to the visual cortex. This is counter intuitive, how is it that sight is using more information coming from inside the brain than from the eyes that are looking at the outside world? 

Eye : Thalamus : Visual Cortex : Internal model

There is a theory that the thalamus is supplementing incoming sensory data with virtual images generated by the cortex: Suppose you are looking at a set of traffic lights, analysing all the raw visual data sent from the eyes will tell your brain that the lights are in a black box on top of  pole.  The brain has seen the black box and pole many times before and expects it to be there, what it really wants to know is when will the lights change from red to green?  The brain already has a virtual model for the traffic lights in its mental vocabulary, so instead of wasting energy analysing the raw visual data to produce a new virtual pole, it reuses the one it has pre-made in it library of experiences. The mind confines its collection of the raw visual data from the outside world to the one piece of information it wants to know about above all others; when will the lights change from red to green?  As a system this method makes perfect evolutionary sense because it is so energy efficient, it also has the benefit of being a top down system that provides the rational sentient brain, through its control of the eyes, free will to spotlight which news is being brought into the visual arena.  In contrast when we are dreaming and consciousness is absent, the technicolour screen is lit up with hallucinations that have been entirely created from our mind's visual libraries.

The other thing to note is that this energy efficient system does not waste time analysing the raw data for information that is unimportant to the job at hand.  Less analysis makes sight faster, faster sight gives faster decision making, faster decisions make us more adept at taking advantage of situations and faster to escape from danger.  When the lights change from red to green we have an opportunity to move forward at once, when they turn back to red we stop at once. If we dithered we would get killed.

One of the commonest remarks from onlookers watching me draw is "you draw so fast, how do you do that?".   If I observe myself whilst I am drawing I can see how I am generating pictures on paper. It appears that I am using the same method as sight, my hands make marks within the context of ghostlike virtual images held in my mind's eye. These ghosts are gently modified by my sentient mind as the drawing  develops on the paper.  Whilst I am drawing my eyes spotlight the area where new marks are to be made.  For instance when drawing a cheek bone the sentient mind directs the eyes to look at the cheekbones and my mind becomes interested in just two things

1.  Placing the marks in the right position relative the ghost and/or modified image of the virtual model on the paper.
2.  The shape of  the cheek bone I am drawing is made by comparing virtual cheekbones generated in my mind against the unique shape of the cheek bone of the subject.

Similarly when I am drawing someone catching a ball I do not waste time and energy wondering which side of the hand the thumb goes, without thinking I can see where the thumb belongs on my virtual model, but when I come to draw the hands my sentient mind does look at my subject's thumb to find out if I should modify the virtual thumb to be a fat or thin thumb, with or without nail varnish?.

The answer to the onlookers is that if I were to slow down and start measuring the size and positions of objects I would lose sight of the virtual model, my system would fall apart. The speed that my drawings take place is a function of the efficiency of the system (an extension of sight).  A few years ago I went to drawing classes where the models sat in static positions for hours, my drawings that took hours were often structurally weaker and less of a likeness than the drawings that were made in seconds from fleeting memories.

Having learnt how to create an image of an idealised face with unique features I want to take my drawing processes one stage further.  I now want to breath life into the drawing and add personality, perhaps by choosing heads with a lot of structural individuality

Man at Wiseman's Bridge, Aug 2016
  or opening the jaw as if the subject has just moved and taken an inward breath.

or using gesture and body language

Little Boy on a Bench
or by adding interesting hairstyles, possessions and gait

Lady at Heathrow airport 2016

But the most important way to add personality is through facial expressions.  Adding facial expression is the hardest thing to do well because they are movements of the eyes and soft tissue that float over the immoveable bone structure. For these images the artist has to use complex multidimensional virtual models which combine knowledge of static bone under-structures with knowledge of how the soft parts move over the bones.  I have not done nearly enough studying in this area, it is the work for the remainder of my life, at present my mental representation is not up to making convincing drawings of symmetrical smiles.

Ironically strong structural individuality together with slight lob-sided facial expressions are quite easy to do.

A policeman at the Millennium Centre April 2016
Another big subject I am always attempting to draw are relationships, such as images of parents holding children.  In Western art we have many images of mothers with children, Madonnas.  There are less images of fathers with their children.  At Wiseman's Bridge it is very often the fathers that are playing most intimately with their children, perhaps the summer holidays are the only opportunity that they get to spend whole days with their families.  I find the father-child relationships very appealing to draw

This image is statuesque

and this one has warmth

and of course  there are the young mothers too

and finally there are the pets they bring to the beach, dogs with tongues that hang out and run over the sand and play in the surf and are constant companions to their owners

I have also been working on plants, but those can wait for further posts.

Friday, 26 August 2016

The Race at The Vermin Games

I created this 90 second video during the 2016 Olympics in Rio.  It took a lot longer than 90 seconds to make, I hope you will all enjoy it

The idea for The Race was developed from an earlier story I wrote for the 2012 London Olympics

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Three Films about Erik Satie's Life


Part 1 : An Introduction to Erik Satie


Part 2 : Satie's Four Jokes that Changed the History of Art


Part 3 : Erik Satie and the Performing Arts


Links to the Text for these films

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Erik Satie - Four Jokes that Changed the History of Art

Part 3 Erik Saties - Four Jokes that Changed the History of Art
Many of us are aware of Satie's sense of humour, few realise how well he used his wit to change the World around him

Satie gave his autobiography a contradictory title: Memoirs of An Amnesiac. 
Memoirs of an Amnesiac

In it he tells us about his eating habits

 "My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin). I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with the juice of the Fuchsia. I have a good appetite, but never talk when eating for fear of strangling myself."

Drawing by Satie

and he tells what was going on in his mind when he wrote music:  "Everyone will tell you I am not a musician.

That is correct. From the very beginning of my career I class myself a phonometrographer. My work is completely phonometrical.

Take my Fils des Étoiles, or my Morceaux en forme de Poire, my En habit de Cheval or my Sarabandes - it is evident that musical ideas played no part whatsoever in their composition. Science is the dominating factor. Besides, I enjoy measuring a sound much more than hearing it. With my phonometer in my hand, I work happily and with confidence. What haven´t I weighed or measured? I´ve done all Beethoven, all Verdi, etc. It´s fascinating. The first time I used a phonoscope, I examined a B flat of medium size. I can assure you that I have never seen anything so revolting. I called in my man to show it to him.  

On my phono-scales a common or garden F sharp registered 93 kilos. It came out of a fat tenor whom I also weighed"

Satie's Letters were beautiful to look at

and are sometimes ornamented with drawings 

Satie's Letter to Eva

which like his music never waste a line

The notes for his sheets of music were fantastical,

His strange sparse scores, often written without bar lines

are peppered with whimsical instructions : " Like a Nightingale with Toothache" "Light as an egg", "Open your head" and "Work it out yourself"

 Satie took a delight in giving his compositions  bizarre and nonsensical names to

1912 "Véritables préludes flasques pour un chien" Flabby Preludes for a Dog 

1913  "Embryons desséchés" Desiccated embryos
1917  "Sonatine bureaucratique" Bureaucratic Sonatine 

Satie's wit beguiles us into believing he was always looking for ways to make a joke.  It is almost as if Satie was running an amusing sideshow on top of his more serious work as a composer.  There are many theories about why he did it; was it that he wanted to detract attention away from himself or was it a way to keep himself pure? 

Sometimes his wit changed history, here are four examples.

Joke Number 1: The Birth of Surrealism and the Language of Advertising

We already know that the word "surrealism" was invented by Guillaume Apollinaire to describe "The Alliance" between Satie, Picasso, Masssin and Cocteau.

Years earlier, in 1903, Satie had written one of his most popular pieces of music: Trois morceaux en forme de poire, (Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear for piano four-hands from 1903). 

In fact the music is an arrangement cabaret melodies in seven parts, not three, .

Conductor Vladimir Golsch Mann, recalled this conversation with Satie: "Once, after we had played Morceaux en forme de poire , I asked our hero....why he gave such a title Pieces in the Shape of a Pear to this ravishing music. He answered with a twinkle in his eyes:You do know that I visited Debussy quite often; I admire him immensely and he seems to think much of whatever talent I may have. Nevertheless, one day when I showed him a piece I had just composed he remarked, ‘Satie, you never had two greater admirers than Ravel and myself; many of your early works had an influence on our writing....You have some kind of genius, or you have genius. From time to time there is in your art a certain lack of form...’

All I did,added Satie,was to write Morceaux en forme de poire. I brought them to Debussy who asked, ‘Why such a title?’ Why? Simply, mon cher ami, because you cannot criticize my Pieces in the shape of a pear. If they are in the form of a pear they cannot be shapeless."

Saties' friends picked up on this title as a sort of emblem for Satie's wit.  In 1913 Man Ray, when he wanted to pay homage to Satie, made this image of a Pear against the background.

Homage to Satie by Man Ray 1913
In 1946, the surrealist painter René Magritte, who was a fan of Satie's work, used the image of fruit against clouds in one his most famous surrealist paintings  Le fils de l'homme.

Le fils de l'homme 1946 Magritte

The language of Surrealism was adopted into modern advertising techniques, giving us brands like this.


and this

Joke Number 2: The Birth of French Impressionist Music

Satie openly stole tunes and parodied other composers music, he also liked to putting ideas from American music, Ragtime,into his compositions, but he was also very interested in purity, especially the purity of French music.  Satie became very well known for railing against the influence Wagnerian romanticism which he thought was polluting French music. He would say We need our own music, if possible without sauerkraut

Claude Debussy

He confronted Debussy with is opinions: "I explained to Debussy .......I was in no way anti-Wagnerian, but we need our own music, if possible without sauerkraut."

Satie suggested Debussy should draw inspiration for a new kind of French opera from Impressionist painters such as Monet and Cezanne.

He told Debussy "There is no need for the orchestra to grimace when a character comes on the stage......Do the trees in the scenery grimace? What we have to do is create a musical scenery, a musical atmosphere in which the characters move and talk". Debussy later admitted that he used Satie's advice and this  led him to write   "Pelleas et Melisande" (1902),

Mary Garden: The first Mélisande

the first opera of the French Impressionist school of music.

Pelléas et Mélisande” at the Opéra Bastille

  Joke Number 3 - The Birth of Minimilism
About this time he Satie wrote an interesting was piece of music called “Vexations”,  it consisted of  half a sheet of music that was never published in Satie's lifetime. 
Vexations original Score

The music is a parody of what in Wagnerian music is known as the "unendliche Melodie" (unending melody).

Written above the music Satie directs the reader that: "In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence and serious immobility". Even before repetition, the piano line is unnerving: mild but menacing, exquisite but skewed, modest but exacting.

In 1963 John Cage arranged the first performance which took 18 hours and forty minutes, many times longer than Die Meistersinger, Wagnerian longest opera.   John Cage said that Satie was responsible for the “one new idea since Beethoven” the use of controlled duration as a structural element. 

The principles of John Cage in the 1960s and the Minimalistic music of Philip Glass of the 1990s had their origins in Satie's Humour.

Joke Number 4 The Birth of Background Music

In 1920 Satie introduced a concert featuring the works of Les Six (as the six young musicians that he worked with came to be called).

Groupe des Six Jacques-Émile Blanche

(Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Louis Durey; at right: Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc and Jean Cocteau.)

It was played during the first intermission and the audience was told, “We urgently beg you not to attach any importance to it and to act during intermission as if the music did not hopes to contribute to life the way a casual conversation does, or a picture in a gallery, or a chair in which one is or is not seated.” Despite this announcement, when the music started people returned to their seats.

Satie told everyone to keep talking “Whatever you do, don’t listen!”  Satie called this music " musique d’ameublement" "furniture music".  Satie and his Dadaist friends had invented the concept of  "background music"

His Legacy

Satie was very influential during his lifetime, but whenever success came his way he would shed another skin and reinvented himself.   After Satie died in 1925 he left a legacy of over 150 solo piano pieces, 14 songs, 6 stage works, Mass for voices and organ, a cantata and a new musical traditions that were followed by Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Poulenc.

At the end of his life a fellow composer, Darius Milhaud wrote, "Satie was our mascot. The purity of his art, his horror of all concessions, his contempt for money, and his ruthless attitude toward the critics were a marvellous example for us all."

This is the legacy we have come here to celebrate tonight.

Reference Library