The internal rhythms of the body and their effect on how we behave were we believed of vital importance to self-awareness. (Foundation staff circa approx. 1978) The way each person was constructed affected the way they walked as well as the way they drew and of course thought.
A day might start like this:
Students sitting cross-legged are gathered around the edge of the studio, the staff walk in, one by one. (Good brogue shoes, shod in solid leather were essential for this) The students are told to listen; the staff walk back out and then back in, one by one. Patrick (as the consistent wearer of brogues and with the longest legs) would march off on his own again, this time counting off the beats of his footsteps. I might do this next, then we would walk together, the two walking rhythms synchronised but of course slightly different. This everyday event, hearing people walking, was the starting point for a full day’s work. It was very important that this was something everyone experienced and that it was ‘normal’ because what we were looking for was a ‘moment of epiphany’ a moment whereby students might grasp that deep and wonderful revelations sat within every experience, no matter how ordinary. The artist’s job was to discover these.
We pointed out how you can recognise people from the sound of their footsteps and how therefore we used an awareness of these things to help us navigate the world. Once ears were attuned and students started to get what we were turning their attention to, we asked them to become aware of their own individual heartbeats. They had to then start beating out this rhythm in their head as a silent tune. Then one individual was asked to start tapping out their heartbeat rhythm on the floor with something from their tool kit. Then someone from the other side of the room would be asked to do the same; then another would be asked to tap the rhythm out on the edge of their lunchbox with a pencil, and another to beat out their rhythm with two bits of wood. This would go on until the sound grew into a loud cacophony. We then reversed the process asking people to stop and gradually reducing the numbers until we only had one person left beating out their internal beat. We might do this several times, each time trying out different responses, such as slowing a rhythm or halving the beat. We would find out who the musicians were and get them to suggest alternative rhythms, or in the case of any good drummers to lead the group in complex rhythm changes.
We would stop and engage the students in a dialogue as to how the experience felt to them. Most of them had been very nervous about doing this initially, but as the whole group joined in they felt the experience uplifting and energising. Rhythm and collective responses to it we pointed out were old things that all humans had in common and that cave paintings would have been done to the sound of collective drumming rhythms, every human being having a heart that beats out an inner tune, an inner tune that everyone else also has beating within themselves and so can tune themselves to you and you can tune yourself to them. Music as an abstraction was therefore clearly also a mode of communication.
Students would then go for a break and we would set up the record player. Once they returned we would ask them to listen to Steve Reich’s 'Come Out' from 1966.
The voice of 19 year old Harlem Riot participant Daniel Hamm, opens Reich’s sound piece; "I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them" (Hamm had punctured a bruise on his own body to convince police that he had been beaten). Reich re-recorded the fragment "come out to show them" on two channels, which initially play in unison. They quickly slip out of sync to produce a phase shifting effect. Gradually, the discrepancy widens and becomes a reverberation. The two voices then split into four, loped continuously, then eight, until the actual words are unintelligible. The listener is left with only the rhythmic and tonal patterns of the original spoken words.
Steve Reich had said that by using recorded speech as source material that "by not altering its pitch or timbre, one keeps the original emotional power that speech has while intensifying its melody and meaning through repetition and rhythm."
The piece lasts for thirteen minutes and we ask for total silence while it plays.
Once finished we sit in silence for a couple of minutes and then everyone returns to where they are based so that they can begin a drawing.
We brief the students to develop a drawing that will structure itself by repetition and rhythm. They can also use colour, and the structure and colour will carry the content.
Reich's iconic piece of music was used as a way to help students become aware that they could develop structures that on the one hand could be deeply meaningful in terms of the underlying content and on the other layered and complex in relation to formal qualities of repetition and visual rhythm. It also allowed students to begin thinking about the possible interrelationships between vision and sound. The concept of synesthesia, the simultaneous perception of multiple stimuli in one combined experience, was something often referred to at the time when trying to articulate how abstract forms and shapes might affect us. At that time formalism and abstraction were still very important and there was a strong belief in the idea of a universal language. Reich's use of an actual event and transformation of the reality of that into an abstraction was a way to understand how formalism could carry content.
I have often found myself making rather odd noises to communicate what a shape sounds like, and hadn’t really cottoned on that other people didn’t see/hear like that. I now realise that I am to some extent naturally attuned to this way of perceiving. I hadnt thought about this at the time, but looking back on the situation it must have been pretty odd to find your tutor trying to make sounds based on what you had drawn and mouthing the sounds back to you as a check as to whether the rhythm was correct or that tonal quality was controlled or colour pitch right.
Drawings would gradually evolve through the day and the best of them pulsated with energy and colour vibration and developed structural methods to ensure patterns of colour subtly shifted and made new associations. As always many students were however just lost and this was mainly because they had to invent their own structures to work within as well as build complicated rhythmic colour mixes, (too many compications to solve in one day, and therefore a sence of failure could be set up within those who didn’t manage it), so a few years later with new staff we returned to Reich but provided a much tighter set of structures to work within. I’ll no doubt get to that at sometime (circa 1993ish) . However the experience was vital and it used to stay with students as an important moment on that path towards realising how art could transform reality and make it mythic. With some it reaffirmed that music was what they really wanted to do and if so in those days we were fine with that. Diagnostic meant diagnostic.
One problem with this blog is of course that at the moment there are no illustrations. I have no slides from the time and we didn't take any, or vary rarely. There was a worry that if we had examples to show students they would just think that these were how to do it and would therefore not invent anew. In those days of course there were no digital cameras, now everything is recorded. At some point it would be good if someone could contribute images though. Perhaps students have kept their work, or someone did take images that I don't know about and could send me some.
A morning drawing that also relied on the concept of synesthesia, was drawing the face by touch. A session I will return to in more detail at some other time.