Ceramics and Music

The rare opportunity to create ceramics at a live music concert was a collaboration between the well established Deal Festival of Music and Arts, DFMA, and the SEAS (South East Artists) art group.

When Marilyn and myself moved to Deal in 2004, little did we realise that we were going to have a very busy creative time. After establishing our workshops, we joined with other artists to set up SEAS and began Open Studios events during the DFMA.

Earlier this year Marilyn asked Paul Edlin, the Music Director of the DFMA, how we could combine the music and the arts in the Festival as a specific event. The reply was that artists and dancers could participate together in a performance of piano music. The music chosen was Vingt Regards by Messiaen written in 1944 and Debussy’s Preludes Part 2 written in 1913; all solo piano works and outstanding pieces of 20 century repertoire.

In May 2015 a rehearsal was set to meet the pianist and the performing artists. Interestingly, Maria Immaculate Setiadi, the pianist from the Royal College of Music is researching a doctorate exploring piano performances with other arts. So myself, Penny Bearman, a painter, and Tony Thatcher, the choreographer, met at Paul Edlin’s stunning apartment in the old Deal Barracks/Hospital, a place of spacious magnificence fitting for a creative experience.

Before the rehearsal I needed to listen to the music and also plan on how a potter/sculptor, who usually creates alone, would work alongside a performing musician.

Listening to the music I realised how dynamic and vibrant yet also beautifully sublime and rhythmic it was. I began to use a notepad to pencil lines and shapes down the page to the fast flowing sounds. I felt I wanted to take these marks on a journey down or up a curving path. So I imagined a tall, rising, thrown shape as a surface that they could travel on. How sound, volume, tone, layers of rhythm could be seen, made me use texture and size rather than colour. I made two quite large multi thrown pots that began as slender columns ending in flared curved rims.

At the rehearsal we set up our kit, either side of a superb grand piano where Imma was warming up. Before starting there was a reporter from the local paper who wanted to collect our thoughts on the project. Penny Bearman and myself had said earlier how we felt nervous and were not sure what was going to happen. We were also concerned for the beautiful carpets even though they were covered by a canvas sheet. We discussed with the choreographer our ideas, and stressed that it was a first for us and a unique situation to collaborate. While we finished setting up Imma began to run through some of the music and I unwrapped the two large soft greenware pots.

Then Imma paused and asked how we were and how much time we could spare. I think she picked up on our reactions and had kept a quiet eye on me as she looked across from under the big piano lid. I think she sensed we were all feeling in a special space. So looking around the room which was now mostly clear of people she began the Debussy work with us virtually her sole audience.

The music lasted with one short break for nearly two hours. It was an extraordinary experience, the sound surrounded my space and the concentration on what I was doing with the surface of the clay became my sole reality. I had small trays of objects at hand, these I had earlier tested on flat sheets of clay. The tools were all sorts, small pieces of kiln shelves, silly parts of plastic, cubes, tubes, sprigs, stamps, all were a delight to press flat or angled into the soft clay.

How I felt I was responding to the character of the music varied. Descending loud rhythms were stamped down the long curving sides like tumbling bouncing boulders. Delicate flowing lines curved and swayed over the surfaces leaving pulsing waves across space. It was not just descriptive it was also very much reactive to the mood of the music when pressure of the hand became sudden and taut.

The later parts of the Messiaen, which particularly took me by surprise, had such an awesome feel, that I used a hard piece of heavy mahogany block to jab into the clay to the point I was worried I would puncture the clay walls. I was not the only one to have a near accident!! Imma played the last mammoth bars of this piece going repeatedly from the low keys right up to the furthest high keys that in the very last notes she disappeared from my view, only to reappear exhausted and smiling sliding off her stool at the far end of the piano.

The following silence was stunning after such music. Penny and I could only applaud wildly with admiration at her brilliance. The room then seemed to quietly fill with people and there was a lovely enthusiasm for what they saw which felt very satisfying.

Penny had covered three large canvases in amazing colours and shapes, a great achievement. My work surprised me, it had surfaces I would never had done without having this experience.

A few days later Paul Edlin rang and asked whether we would like to do this again at the live concert with a full audience. There was only one reply, in the positive. It was another opportunity to have a very special creative experience.

So on 28 June we performed again with a full audience except now we had the dancers from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire improvising in the second half. It was just as riveting as the rehearsal and once the music had begun we were totally unaware of the audience and the dancers. Interestingly the day before, I had read in the Guardian Review of a poet Michael Symmons Roberts, who had been commissioned to write poetry to the exact same pieces of Messiaen’s music. He was asked to respond to the music not to illustrate it. Likewise in this second

performance, struck by the emotional power of the music I was prepared to push the pot’s shape as far as I could, creating serrated and pierced shapes in the clay, not just working on the surface textures. I knew that Messiaen was expressing his Christian faith through his twenty contemplations of the infant Christ including the brutality of the crucifixion.

The audience’s response to the performance was electric and they were able to come up in the intervals to look closely at our work. Maybe a future event could have an non intrusive camera following the art action to watch the detail on the clay work. The art work from this collaboration is to be auctioned to help start a bursary for The Deal Festival of Music and Arts.

After the concert I was able to return to parts of the surfaces that were not complete as the speed of the changing music did not give time to finish it. These additions also consolidated the ceramic statement.

Reflecting on this experience it seems wide open to different ways of working. I look forward to doing more and seeing where it will lead me. It encouraged spontaneity, taking risks, and visualising 3D forms in my emotional response to music.

I hope next year to encourage more artists to step on to the stage and work directly in the atmosphere of live music. A very different experience to listening to a CD in your studio.

David C White