INTERVIEW WITH JUDITH WHITE AND RACHEL SCOTT

"The Painted Bach" was a collaborative project in which Judith improvised painting to the live performance of a Bach cello suite played by Rachel Scott. The work was presented to an audience at a venue in Leichhardt NSW. Shortly after the performance Judith and Rachel got together with Susan Butler to discuss various aspects of their collaboration. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

SB: The idea of combining the performance of music and painting – whose idea was that and when you had this brilliant idea how did you put it to the other person?

RS: Well it was actually my idea but this is not a new idea – music and art, or somebody playing while the other person is painting - but I've never seen it done to Bach. I very much wanted to do it with a Bach suite and I didn't think to discuss it with somebody else before I discussed it with Judith because I respected Judith so much as an artist and I was thinking that if she said "no" I'd be devastated. So I had to have a couple of glasses of wine for Dutch courage. Then I went and pitched the idea to her and much to my delight when I approached her she didn't even think about it – she just said "Yes! Yes!" And it was a great relief that she jumped and held on to it so quickly. I don’t know what was going through her mind when I said it to her …

SB: That was what I was going to ask - does this quick response mean that you'd already thought along these lines?

JW: Yes that's probably why I was so quick. I'd been thinking about this idea for a couple of years, for ages really. I've used music quite a lot in teaching as a tool to help people visualize forms using something other than their eyes, so that you use your ears to interpret some sort of creative activity. I thought that doing that live with a live musician would be just fantastic. So my gut reaction was to do it when Rachel suggested this – my gut reaction was "yes" but then the head said – "What have you done?"

[laughter]

I had to go away and think about how it would work from an audience point of view. Painting is not really a spectator sport for me, it is a really private activity, so to do that in a concert situation was quite a challenge. Which I enjoy.

RS: I think for me the moment I realized it was going to work was when we had a meeting about a year before the performance. Judith described her idea of using three screens and how she was going to move forward between them during the different movements of the piece. So it wasn't going to be just one canvas but this three-dimensional thing. At this point I thought "This is going to be really fantastic," and I understood I'd asked exactly the right person. Then I realized she'd given it a lot of thought and this amazing performance art piece was being born. I felt we were going down the right road and doing it very much hand in hand.

SB: It sounds to me as if in the preparation you were trying to make this balance between planning and improvisation.

JW: Yes, that was the dilemma. I couldn't really rehearse on the screens I was planning to use because they were specially made and quite expensive so it was a one-off thing. It was absolutely organic and intuitive but I really needed to know the music and be able to respond at the right time. So I had it planned that I would have cues, visual cues, that went with the music. I spent a lot of time rehearsing on my own, throwing water and pigment all over huge pieces of paper and coming up with surfaces that were going to give me the right response. And then thinking about the dynamics of being in a room watching somebody painting – how that might be a bit boring, so it had to be a little theatrical. I didn't like the way this is usually addressed where you have artist and canvas and musician and that's it – just someone playing and someone painting. I fancied the idea of the music being very ethereal – floating in space and light. And once I started thinking about lighting I started to get a feeling for the theatrical element of it. So we chose to have the room very dark, and then the idea of the multiple transparent screens and all the lights creating a theatrical space.

RS: I think it also helped that you are also a very good amateur musician. You weren't just coming at it from an artist's point of view but also from a musician's point of view, a player's point of view. So I was the one just approaching it as a musician whereas Judith had managed to straddle both camps.

SB: Yes, and not just a classical musician but someone who understands musical improvisation. So that sense of you both coming together at certain points and then being free to take off …

JW: Yes, very much an improvisatory situation – you've got to have the cue of the main motif to use and move off from. And Bach is pretty amazing music to work with as well in terms of the imagery that I can associate with it. I wouldn't like to do something like this with music that was too programmatic – where there is too much theatricality, too much texture, too much colour, too many built-in visual ideas. Bach is so minimal and pure it could be attached to the visual process more easily than anything else. If you'd come and said "Let's do Stravinsky's Rite of Spring" or something I would have freaked!

RS: So would I! Rite of Spring on solo cello!

[laughter]

SB: At what point did you and Judith actually get together to try out some of these ideas?

RS: Only about a week before the performance. I had listened to some different performances of the Bach suite. When I prepare to play Bach I often listen to recordings up to a month before the performance and then I stop that because I think it's very important that it becomes my interpretation so I'm not just copying somebody else. I suspect that Judith did far more listening to the Bach suite than I did. I just kept practising, but also kept wondering what Judith was actually going to do. But I deliberately didn't ask her anything. For me it was about trying to make this process as creative as possible. I was very aware that I wanted to play the piece in as colorful a way as possible, giving Judith the opportunity to respond to as many different sounds as I could give her and deliberately choosing to make every movement quite different. That was really the preparation that I had done. There was a lot of wandering around the house singing various bits to find the right sort of tempo. But it was only the week before that we got together and Judith actually recorded me playing so that she could have my version of it. So really for me it had to be all decided the week beforehand. And then we played it together and I remember the look of relief on Judith's face as she realized I was giving her spaces to breathe and that we actually had walked down the same road and we hadn't diverged at some point. And then we both became quite confident that as long as the screens didn't fall down and the lights didn't blow up we were ok and it was going to work.

JW: Yes I think that was a really important get-together. I was in the situation where I had been listening to so many other people's versions of it. I don't know where it was the "liveness" of it but it was very different. The big thrill was having the music live while you worked. Rachel came to my studio and just sat opposite – we were about as close as we are now probably – and played directly to me. And I'm listening and knowing exactly where she's at, with somebody else's version in my head, and thinking – "Oh that's different! Oh I like that! That's better! Oh what a relief!"

[laughter]

Because when I was listening to other people's versions, just thinking about the practicality of things – how to get the brush loaded with paint, how to get the brush in your hand and ready to make some sort of creative statement about what you were listening to – the logistics of that is quite difficult as well. Because you can't say "Just a minute! Just a minute, I just have to load the brush up here" in the middle of a performance and get them to start again. But those gaps, I was thinking I would have really liked them while I was listening to the recordings, and they seemed to be there already in the way Rachel was playing. I'm not sure how or why that happened, but it was a big relief for me.

RS: I think also, preparing a Bach suite to be painted to, you do have to approach it slightly differently as a performer. You have to understand that it is not the only thing going on at the time. You have to understand that you need to give slightly bigger gestures here and there. I approached it very much that I wasn't just sitting and playing as if was performing at a concert with nothing else going on. I had an associate artist who was as important as me giving the audience this Bach suite. I'm not sure I would play that piece exactly the same way were it not being painted to.

 

 

SB: Right, so colour and theatre were important for both of you.

JW, RS: Mmm.

SB: So now we get to the performance. How much were you aware of what the other person was doing?

JW: I was more aware than I realized. I was a bit anxious about it, only because of the technical things that I knew could go wrong, thinking about how I was going to get around them if they did. But I think because Rachel is more experienced at performing – as I said, painting is not really a spectator sport so you are not used to people watching you – so I had to sort of disconnect myself from the actual act of painting and make myself feel that I was just the channeller. The whole process was coming through me but the main person in the room was Bach. That feeling really helped me. Plus Rachel being extraordinarily calm before we started, that was really helpful – her being an experienced musician and used to that, while I was internally haemorrhaging. She was in this sort of Zen state and I was trying to get into that Zen state as well … A bit of a scramble! Before we started that was how I was feeling. But once we were up and away I found I had a really powerful sense of Rachel playing, and almost felt like I could hear her breathing. Which was quite spooky because we were a reasonable distance from one another. Rachel was in front of the three layers of screens. I couldn't really see her unless I turned full on and faced the audience. And again for me I wanted to be just this conduit, I wanted not to be immediately obvious, just this shadowy figure painting. I really connected with the sound, and sense of where Rachel was in the music.

SB: And you Rachel?

RS: I became very involved in thinking about the phrases in the music and where I wanted them to go, and just really doing justice to the music. And I trusted Judith enough to know that she was probably in that same state as well. That she also has the same respect for Bach as I do, and that somehow it would all just come together in the moment. I realized it was working when I was playing the Sarabande. We had discussed what Judith was going to do in this very very slow, beautiful slow movement – I'm certain that the meaning of life is in there – and while I was playing I knew that there were seventy people in the room, and I knew there were two people behind me, and a couple of people manning lights, and somebody taking photographs, and yet I was aware that I was playing this music and everybody was completely in the moment and there wasn't a sound …

SB: Judith, you were probably not as close to the audience as Rachel was.

JW: No. And that was probably why I did forget them for a long period of time. I was just wondering, too, from your point of view Rachel, whether you felt the audience differently. Normally in a concert the audience is watching and listening intently just to you. But I wondered whether you sometimes felt this time that the audience's intense attention was going past you sometimes, onto what was going on behind. Whether that was a different type of experience? Because some people in the audience told me afterwards that it was mesmerizing and that the whole audience was perfectly still. And one friend even said to me that when I moved across to another panel the whole room sort of shifted with me. And I thought "wow, that's fantastic." But I just wondered if that meant that that focus people normally give to a classical music performer, whether that …

RS: I guess for me though that when I'm performing I am not aware of people watching. I'm only aware of people listening. And there comes this point where you can feel it, even in everyday life, where you're with a group of people and everything merges and you're all in the moment at the same time. So I'm always a bit shocked when somebody comes up to me after a concert and says "Oh, you smiled in such and such a place." And I'm thinking "What are you doing looking at me?"

[laughter]

SB: Do you think that, from the audience's point of view, watching Bach as well as listening to Bach, all at the same time, heightened their experience then?

JW: From a bit of feedback, just from people whose opinion you respect, the general reaction was "That's like nothing else I've ever experienced." And that made me feel really good.

RS: I think that the paint dripping in the Sarabande really made people appreciate the slowness of it. As musicians we often talk about music that makes your heart slow down. If you think of music like Arvo Pärt, or Górecki, you really do have to be in the moment. Often, especially in today's society, people can't do that, or they're not very practised at that. And I think that, literally, watching paint dry, made people slow down. Because they had something that, aurally, was slowing their heart rate down, and visually. And I think it was sort of two spokes of the same wheel. So they got to the middle far quicker than if they had just been listening, or in fact just watching.

JW: Yes, and that panel, with the Sarabande, was the scariest technically, because I knew how the paint worked, in terms of its capacity to drip, but not on these particular mesh screens. So, how quickly was it going to slide? It was co-ordinated pretty well exactly down to the level of the bars in the piece. And I thought, if I get to the end too soon because the paint is running a little bit faster than I anticipated – that was probably the scariest moment. I had to have a fallback plan in case I wasn't finished. I was more nervous about not being finished because I had made those panels so that they looked pretty well invisible until the paint went on them so that it was like these figures coming out of the paint, which the audience couldn't really see until the colour went down. So I really didn't want to have one of them not come out because I'd run out of time! So for all these reasons that was the most spellbinding moment, and I must admit I deliberately tried to put that there, at that point in the music, in terms of the ordering of the screens. Knowing that that would be the most visually interesting thing to watch.

SB: At the end of it all, do you think that the art exists away from the music? Were you satisfied with the result on the night, and is it something that has a permanent separate existence or is it just something for that moment.

JW: That's a good question because it gets back to why and how you paint, and the dynamics of the way your work is received. If I make a painting in my studio, it then goes in to a gallery, and then somebody looks at it in that space, and then they might move it somewhere else. And then I'm completely out of the dynamic in terms of making it. Probably with musicians people listen to you, then they might buy a CD, so they can take a bit of you playing, and whack it into their player at home and have you in their space. The same thing applies with a painting. But for this project I thought that the individual parts of it were interesting but they weren't really something that would go into a gallery space as a painting. . And I found that quite empowering. I was pleased about that because then I was meeting my political aim of doing something like painting when Bach's playing – I mean, you know, he's a bit of a hard act to follow. You want to have something that is totally connected with the sound, not really separable from it …

RS: One of the panels, now, is in my house. It's propped up against a wall, and in front of the panel is my cello. And for me, every time I get the cello out now I'm reminded of this performance. It's something that I'm very proud of. So I get the cello out and I look at this amazing art, these painted gestures, and – I smile. Every time. And also, for me, there's this thing that the suite is in C minor, which I feel is a very dark key, and I noticed while I was practising this (because I was only practising this two weeks beforehand) that I actually became quite gloomy – a bit like Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh. And I was very interested in seeing how Judith reacted to C minor. Was she affected by this key, because often non-musicians aren't. But the painting I have is full of blacks and greys and a bit of blue. And that for me is the most perfect representation of C minor. And the painting also reminds me that there are artists where it's really easy to cross-pollinate with. I sort of feel now that when I get my cello out I'm part of a far bigger artistic community, and that there is this thing that I have created with a very dear friend and it is there every single time I get Harold out of his case. So I think it stands by itself.

JW: OK, that's very interesting …

SB: Would you do it again?

JW: Most certainly – we're hoping to do it again and again and again!

RS: If we did it a second time, what would be created? Would it be any different to the first one? Would I play differently? Would Judith paint differently? Would the audience respond differently? I think it's very much a thing where for forty minutes painter, cellist, cello and audience are all in the moment.