Study for Self-Portrait, 1964

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Description

instrumentation: fixed media; stereo electronics
date: 2020
duration: 10’30

Commissioned by Festival Mixtur, Barcelona, 2020

Programme Note

This started off as a very different piece. 

I’d been working on an eight-channel work with a significant improvisational live-electronics component, and then the pandemic hit. Suddenly I was stuck with my (stereo) home studio, and it wasn’t particularly clear at what point in the future—months, years, ever—that it would be possible to perform in live, in-person concerts again. So I put that piece on pause. 

And then the quiet, the sadness, the death of the pandemic became overwhelming. 

There was a new stillness, an isolation, but also an unbearable awareness that the very personal experience of death was being repeated at such a scale that people became numbers … and then numbers in the thousands, and then hundreds of thousands. The music I had been making suddenly felt not only inappropriate but also irrelevant, and thoroughly unwelcome amongst the severe separation of quarantine, the fear, the frozen uncertainty, and the unexpected re-naturing of our cities that emerged through those months. It was a time to be quiet, to be still, to listen, to think, to worry.

And then from there—or, really, in the middle of all of it—the protests in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and an impossibly long list of countless others, erupted in the USA, then spread worldwide. Thousands became tens of thousands became millions, and an anger, an unwillingness to accept anything other than change, an immediacy of an impassioned call for long overdue justice (the signs I’ll remember most said, simply, “ENOUGH!”) gripped us all. Or most of us. I also then watched the President—my president, I suppose—attempt to call for martial law on live international television, while we watched in baffled horror as otherwise peaceful protesters were attacked by the ostensibly protective police and military forces of their own state with tear gas, and disfigured by rubber bullets. We watched as journalists were—in scenes repeated with shocking consistency across my country—assaulted, injured, and arrested. I went from not wanting to make any sound at all to wanting to make the most ferocious sound I’ve ever made.

So, this is that piece. 

But what does that have to do with a Francis Bacon self portrait. 

I’ve been working through the idea of self portraits a lot over the last few years, particularly in the work of Gerhard Richter, as well as Bacon, and in both cases I’m particularly fascinated by the repetition of the self portrait, of the ‘making again’, of the constant replication of a statement that says, at least through its title, ‘here I am’.

I’m interested in the magnetic battle between honesty, vulnerability, and the personal on one hand, and the fabricated, the performed, the illusory on the other. All of my music for these last few years has revolved around an interrogation of those same issues: where am ‘I’ in my work, what are the elements of that work that are true, that are honest, what are the elements that are façades, what are the truths in those façades, what are the ways that musical, compositional materials reveal or hide those truths? (To wit, the body in Bacon’s ‘self-portrait’ isn’t even his—it’s copied from a photograph by John Deakin of the painter Lucian Freud, with Freud’s head and face swapped out for Bacon’s—but Bacon’s approach to those materials is unmistakably his. Where does that line between real self and projected self fall? Doesn’t that swapping tell us even more about Bacon than if it were his own body?)

Bacon’s repeated use of ‘Study for Self-Portrait’ as a title was, if not an inspiration, then at least a source of permission to reuse titles in my own work, notably in The wreck of former boundaries, a title I’ve assigned to seven different pieces. (Bacon’s Catalogue Raisonné lists 53 self-portraits, 12 of which carry the title Study for Self-Portrait, spanning nearly 20 years.) And I’m always struck by Bacon’s use of the word ‘Study’. This is not a study for another painting, for a self portrait; this is a study as a working through, a working again, a trying again, a re-engagement with the same ideas, the same materials, the same sets of problems (of representation, of self, of the performed distortions of psychologies and intentions and emotions, of materials, of forms). 

And, so, what does that have to do with this piece?

Here’s what I love about that painting, and why it so perfectly captures this moment we’ve all been in for these many months: We’ve all spent our time alone, isolated, separate, distant. There’s a loneliness, a sense of distorted temporality, of deep dislocation—to put it simply, our worlds have been reduced to our couch, our bed, our office chair, our kitchen table, our bodies twisted and contorted in our confined spaces, our little boxes, digital or otherwise. But then there’s our heads, our faces, our thoughts—those things somehow are linked, they join us together. They are expressive and emotional, they are angry and impatient and wailing, they rage, they explode, they cry. That juxtaposition of the quiet, separate stillness and the deep, emotive togetherness and person-ness is, for me, the perfect depiction of where we have been, or at least what this time has felt like to me, in the little world of my little English house in a little English village, so far away from the world but so much a part of it.

And then there’s that splatter-coated box behind Bacon’s head: its completely preposterous otherness, its irrelevant geometries and dimensions, its strangeness, its force and greediness, its utter pictorial and formal violence. I don’t know what to make of that, but I love it. And I suspect it’s the closest version of what this piece is. Violence, beats and twisted geometries, ciphers (interruptions, defects, codes, improvisational gatherings), brutally collapsed three-dimensionality, possibly a portal into a new way of being. 

— Aaron Cassidy, 6 July 2020

Francis Bacon, Study for Self-Portrait, 1964 [Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd 2012 (source)]

Discography

A way of making ghosts. Along with performances by ELISION, Ensemble Musikfabrik, and Line Upon Line. November 2020. [postponed to 2021 due to Covid-19]

Mixtur Festival, Barcelona, Spain. April 17, 2020. [postponed due to Covid-19] September 18, 2020.