A painter of figures in rooms

A painter of figures in rooms (2011-12) for eight voices

For EXAUDI. Commissioned by PRS for Music New Music 20×12 as part of the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad.

New Music 20×12 was initiated by Jillian Barker and David Cohen and was delivered by the PRS for Music Foundation in partnership with the BBC, LOCOG (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) and Sound and Music. New Music 20×12 is generously supported by Arts Council England, John S. Cohen Foundation, Creative Scotland, PRS for Music Foundation, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Arts Council of Wales, Incorporated Society of Musicians, Musicians Benevolent Fund, Jerwood Charitable Foundation, RVW Trust, Charlotte and Dennis Stevenson, Tolkien Trust, The Bliss Trust, Finzi Trust, John and Ann Tusa, Lilian Slowe, John Wates Charitable Trust and Richard Walduck.

The work has been recorded by the NMC (live) and HCR (studio) record labels, and articles about the work have been published in The Atlantic and Search Journal.


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Program Note

I have a longstanding interest in the paintings of Francis Bacon. An earlier collection of works was based on Bacon’s 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, alongside Gilles Deleuze’s fantastic text on Bacon, The Logic of Sensation. In that case, I was most interested in the twisted musculature, the wiping, the smearing, the distortion and dislocation of bodies and limbs and faces. I’m fascinated by the fact that the images in the triptych are otherworldly, anthropomorphic, yet are still somehow immediately, identifiably, fundamentally human. Indeed, the separation and dislocation, in a sense, reveal that humanity.

In the case of A painter of figures in rooms (a quotation from John Russell I found on an exhibit label next to Bacon’s Painting 1950 in the Leeds Art Gallery), I was focused on Bacon’s many portraits and in particular their treatment of mouths and faces. It’s difficult for me to describe my emotional reaction to these faces, but that is, I suppose, exactly what attracts me to them. There is a raw expressivity to these distorted, smeared images, somehow a direct connection between these horrifyingly mangled faces and a kind of unfiltered, unnameable human emotion. It’s almost always the mouth that is the most twisted and distended – it’s always clearly a mouth, and it’s often a mouth that is identifiably snarled or screaming or shrieking, but it’s in the wrong place, its proportions are wrong, it’s deformed and frightening.

There is another important aspect to the paintings: there is a sense of bounding, of containing, of constricting. Bacon’s ‘rooms’ play a crucial role, their simple geometric forms enclosing the figures in an unreal space whose geometries seem to maintain multiple perspectival layers that push against the figure in different directions. It’s a fascinating phenomenon – the background in these paintings is often exceedingly simple, but it isn’t flat or static. Its circles and lines, corners, and improbable mirrored reflections of the figure all push back against the space, not so much defining the space as scrambling it. Similarly, in A painter of figures in rooms, the various physiological states of vocal production – independent movements of the mouth, tongue, larynx, lungs, and glottis – each push and pull against imaginary restrictions on the space in which those movements can take place. Thus, the unusual recombinations of mouth shapes and tongue position, larynx tension, and breath flow are a result of an underlying friction, a layering of streams of resistance that wipe, smear, twist, and fold.

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