Helen Grime: Picture to Music

For the composer there is nothing quite like the hush of an art gallery. To walk, or should we say promenade,  from one painting to another, letting the curiosity and imagination wander at will.  The art of music has long appropriated visual art as a source, a starting point, a rationale for musical creation. Before the age of mechanical reproduction, and galleries had passed from private ownership to public accessibility, the composer witnessed painting and sculpture as a part of a building, as a worthy decoration possibly to enhance prestige, personal reflection or as a record of an historical event. In the 19C, as the painter and the composer gradually became divorced from exclusive patronage and became their own masters, there began a crossover of subjects that often stemmed from poetic or pictorial origins. Painters sought to reference human emotions through a kind of dissolution of their subject matter, and that led to early forms of abstraction. In the late piano works of Liszt for example, the pictorial image as reference began to appear, and music started to blur at the edges in rhythm and tonality. And by the time of Debussy’s experiments in the Trois Nocturnes we can hear how Whistler’s paintings, his Nocturnes of scenes of River Thames, provided the composer with that blurring, that dissolution of strict form and perspective, where colour became imprecise and unstable as part of a field of subtlety mixed and overlapping tones.

Nocturne in Blue & Silver

Nocturne in Blue & Silver by Whistler

For the composer Helen Grime the artistic image and the poetic utterance keep close company both as titles, foregrounds and backgrounds within an impressive portfolio of music for someone who in her late thirties  has already received commissions from most UK orchestras.

Whilst orchestral music is often associated directly with painting, think of Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead, the Frescos of Piero della Francesca by Martinu and Mark Anthony Turnage’s Three Screaming Popes, associations with chamber music are less common, but for this writer more intriguing. There is possibly less to get in the way of the message, whatever that happens to be.

The Isle of the Dead - Arnold Böcklin (the Black & White image Rachmaninoff worked from)

The Isle of the Dead – Arnold Böcklin (the Black & White image Rachmaninoff worked from)

There are three chamber works by Helen Grime that offer a good basis from which to discuss how visual art and poetry can form valuable associations for the performer and listener, and for the composer bring an opportunity to respond from a very particular stimulus, which may result in fresh musical expression.

Courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Graham Museum

Courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Graham Museum

As a student in the USA I remember visiting the extraordinary Venetian palazzo in Boston that is now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I’m imagining Helen Grime has made a visit too, and found in the Veronese Room the three pastel and chalk miniatures (within the dimensions of an A3 sheet) by James McNeill Whistler. These became the subject of her Three Whistler Miniatures for piano trio, a trio actually premiered at the museum. For me, having seen these paintings in their sumptuous and mock-Venetian splendour, I can only surmise that the composer has richly benefitted from encountering the very aura of the original. These figurative works, full-length portraits of three women, have begotten three richly detailed and evocative movements.

Whistler's Little Note in Yellow and Gold

Whistler’s Little Note in Yellow and Gold

They each carry with them common identifiers of Helen Grime’s richly poetic musical imagination: decorative and ornamental lines, resonance born out of dispersed registers on the piano (and lots of Pedal) and understanding of how strings can go beyond the voice into, dare I say it, quite ‘suggestive’ territory, as these paintings do each contain a frisson of eroticism in the very stance (and in one instance the reclining langour) of Whistler’s subjects.

Whistler's Lapis Lazuli

Whistler’s Lapis Lazuli

Portamento is a beguiling feature of the opening movement, a technique now rarely scored by today’s composer, and not always properly understood by today’s performer. It’s interesting to consider the second movement of Debussy’s early piano trio (1880), with its antiphonal figurations of violin and cello, against that of Grime’s 2nd Movement in its closing section.

Whistler's The Violet Note

Whistler’s The Violet Note

Whilst the piano is doing something quite different in the Debussy, the technique Grime uses to displace pitches widely across octaves is vividly pianistic and has a Ravelian transparency about it.

from 2nd Movement Lapis Lazuli

from 2nd Movement Lapis Lazuli

In the 3rd Movement there’s a very contemporary configuration of instrumental writing, icy tremolando sul ponticello, artificial harmonics, an arresting agitato section with masterly cello pizzicato chords, harp-like figurations, and what the composer describes as ‘filigree passagework’. In fact Helen Grime’s written descriptions of her work in general are always detailed and often evocative; it’s all about what happens in the music and not the kind of extra-musical this-is-the-context stuff.

Whistler #3

What  may well be another first-hand American experience is the subject of a more recent chamber work, a string trio titled Aviary Sketches (after Joseph Cornell). Cornell was a reclusive artist who created assemblages. His avarian pieces, about 18 in all, often feature parrots. Grime writes in her programme note: What interests me about his assemblage boxes is his ability to create miniature worlds. They are immediate and alluring but also rich in associations. 

Joseph Cornell's Parrott music box

Joseph Cornell’s Parrott music box

The string trio is altogether a different animal from the piano trio. Its repertoire is not so extensive, and ensembles are fairly rare. It is also a testing medium for the composer in this format: a collection of musical miniatures. Just as Cornell’s assemblages are different miniature worlds (but with a common avarian content), so the composition provides an opportunity to explore the different ways a string trio might generate musical and sonic ends. Although as I have already suggested Grime is very conversant, indeed appropriates the common (overplayed?) contemporary techniques in string writing, the musical substance stands out, and up to, the play of novel timbre. In these Sketches the musical ‘image’, what one takes in at a first reading, is very clear, and these five pieces have very distinct characters. The upward ejaculatory phrase – a very common feature of Helen Grime’s scores (of which more later) – does get the upper hand in three out of the five movements. But there is something occasionally that moves into Ligeti territory, those wonderful just-what-is-going-on here moments of surprise and the unexpected. For me the final movement TOWARD THE BLUE PENINSULA is the most substantial and interesting – a kind of chorale ‘interspersed with fleeting, intertwining passages’. There’s a powerful melodic aspect that is present in all instrumental parts and does sustain, as so many of Grime’s melodic phrases tend towards the very fleeting. Here, we get dug into the musical matter, which develops in a beautiful and very satisfying way. I actually enjoyed playing this slowly at the piano and listening / imagining the continuous crossing of instrumental voices . . .

The chorale-like opening of the 5th of the Aviary Sketches by Helen Grime

The chorale-like opening of the 5th of the Aviary Sketches by Helen Grime

So in the final chamber piece, and one that shares a reference to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, another American reclusive, here’s the poem that inspired Cornell,

I am not used to Hope – / It might intrude upon –  / It’s sweet parade – blaspheme the place – / Ordained to suffering – / It might be easier / To fail – with Land in Sight – /Than gain – my Blue Peninsula – / To perish – of Delight –

But the inspiration for To See the Summer Sky is also Emily Dickinson, and barely even a poem, more an exclamation:

To see the Summer Sky / is  Poetry, though never in a Book it lie — / True Poems flee —

And here perhaps it is the title that is the trigger to this three-movement work for violin and viola. In writing recently about Edmund Finnis I included a look at his work for this combination. I know Mozart and Martinu both wrote duos for this partnership, but it’s not common. Whereas Finnis treats his duo with almost excessive simplicity, Grime’s duo lies more in Elliott Carter territory (his glorious Enchanted Preludes for flute and cello  – developed from an exercise set by Nadia Boulanger). It is full of notes, rhythms and textural changes, and rich in dynamic expression. Its poetic reference may be an expression of ephemeral ecstasy so often a part of Emily Dickinson’s oblique statements. I imagine this music is a challenge to perform in a manner that can project the poet’s message. But herein lies the challenge I think Helen Grime regularly pursues: to create music that can go beyond the description of poetry or paint, which is really the potential music owns and keeps composers trying to write it.

Grime - To See the Summer Sky (extract from 1st Movement)

Grime – To See the Summer Sky (extract from 1st Movement)

While discussing chamber works for strings it seems unfair not to mention an orchestral work. The Violin Concerto of 2016 has some of hallmarks found in the chamber pieces, but also some powerful and original ways of making expression with the orchestra. The opening movement of the Concerto has a very insistent and possibly restricted approach to the violin writing, which only tempers slightly at the concluding cadenza. But the use of tuba with contra-bassoon, and the interruptions and figurations of the (amplified?) celeste are unforgettable. Again, the short upward phrases (mainly in the wind) make insistent appearances and (for me) rather outstay their welcome, but the music has a kind of rawness and directness that seems to belong to some women composers– I’m thinking particularly of scores of Tansy Davies and Elisabeth Lutyens.

On last Saturday’s (18 March)  Here and Now on BBC Radio 3 the BBCSSO provided an opportunity to hear one of a pair of short works for orchestra by Helen Grime based on the large oil canvases of Joan Eardley. In Kate Molleson’s interview with the composer it was evident that these powerful images of coastal lands of North East Scotland held multiple resonances for Helen Grime full of memories, allusions, and associations from childhood. The final paintings of and around the village of Catterline in Aberdeenshire have an urgency brought on by a life tragically cut short by cancer. “I do feel the more you know something, themore you get out of it, ‘ said Joan Eardley shortly before she died at 42. Snow, the work performed by BBCSSO, was certainly rich in a myriad of expressive moments, the musical equivalent perhaps of marks made by the artist’s brush, that on their own appear to have little content, but as part of the whole bring powerful meaning.

Snow by Joan Eardley

Snow by Joan Eardley

Writing about Helen Grime has certainly made me reflect on my own relationship with visual art, and for me, particularly, the artists themselves.  My artist list includes Josef Albers, Bridget Riley, Will Alsop, Barbara Hepwoth, Winifred Nicholson (my forthcoming opera) and tapestry artists Jilly Edwards and Alice Fox. In this collection I’ve also included settings of words by artists themselves, notably Josef Albers, Bridget Riley and  Ray Howard-Jones.

Evensong by Ray Howard-Jones

Evensong by Ray Howard-Jones

And just now I’m daring to add to this list David Hockney in following the Woldgate Lane in East Yorkshire and his iPad paintings titled The Arrival of Spring. My large-scale work for the wind ensemble turns on his controversial renderings of 52 digital images made between January and early June. It continues to be an adventure, and will be available in two-monthly installments from my web archive at the beginning of April.

Morton Feldman was reported as saying: ‘if you don’t have a friend who is an artist, you’re in trouble.’  But that’s another story . . .










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