James Hugonin and music

Published as "A Musical Affinity" in Modern Painters Spring 1996

James Hugonin and music

My first encounter with the work of James Hugonin was when I was asked by Paul Hillier, founder of The Hilliard Ensemble, to write a piece related to an exhibition of James' work which was to be shown in Edinburgh, Newcastle and Sheffield in 1993-4. The whole project had been conceived by James with the help of Mike Collier from the Laing Gallery. I was immediately curious that James and Paul had already devised a clear structure for a series of concerts to be held in each of the venues, concerts which would include a commissioned work by me. In the event I wrote two pieces, one for the Edinburgh concert for viola player Bill Hawkes and pianist Nic Hodges, and the other, added for the Newcastle performance, for viola plus baritone voice (Gordon Jones, who replaced Paul Hillier in the Hilliard Ensemble). The concerts contained an intriguing mixture of medieval and contemporary music and the contemporary works had a quite specific flavour. As I had collaborated with visual artists before whether on installations, on performance pieces, in the context of theatre works and as I had taught for a time in art colleges the idea of writing music in response to painting was not alien. What made the project so attractive, however, was the sense that James' work can often be best understood, or at least approached, through a musical sensibility.

Of course many artists have close links with music. There are artists from quite traditional backgrounds who work in opera or ballet, such as David Hockney or Howard Hodgkin. There are artists who have a close affinity with musicians through a shared aesthetic, like Sol LeWitt with Steve Reich and other American minimalist composers. There are artists, such as 'pop' artists, about whose musical tastes one makes assumptions. Indeed in the late 1960's Bruce MacLean and I had an idea for a concept rock album called "Boy's Gym" with titles such as "Sick Note", "Bean Bag Flap", "Fat Boy" and so on. Quite often the taste of an artist can be a fascinating and even important subject (given Marcel Duchamp's strictures against judgements based on taste the fact that, according to Man Ray, he was wearing his "favourite" tie when he died opens a legitimate line of enquiry). However, in the case of James Hugonin, it seems to me that the question of his musical taste has important links with the nature of his decision-making and offers an approach to appreciating the achievement of his art. Indeed a key aspect of the concerts linked with James' exhibitions is that they are integral to the show, that the performances take place in the exhibition space alongside the paintings themselves and that the concerts are quite independent of the private view.

When we first met and he showed me his work I noticed immediately that the paintings were broadly all in the same format: on white board, about 5' 6" by 5' (I think the catalogue listed them in centimetres), with a faint, though visible, silverpoint rectilinear grid, overlaid with very subtle pale colours. Although the colours have the fragility of watercolour they are, in fact, wax and oil pigment. I asked the direct and perhaps obvious questions as to whether the paintings were the result of any systematic scheme even though I could not discern a pattern to the structures, and given his interest in musical minimalism the question seemed a reasonable one. James explained the painstaking and agonisingly slow way in which each painting is made - sometimes over a period of several months - and the nature of his intuitive response to the visual sense data. A good deal of what he seemed to be striving for had, to me, a musical sense. His frequent references to a 'rhythm of colour' which emerges from his intuitive processes, his desire to achieve a sense of equilibrium in order to arrive at a 'point of stillness', all point to an awareness of equivalent concepts in music where the cumulative experience of, say, an improvising musician working intuitively with subtly shifting patterns, as we find in the work of Evan Parker or Terry Riley, can result in a similar form of stasis. This is not a negative thing, of course, but rather the product of decision-making of the most refined kind.

The nature of the music which was chosen for these concerts gave further clues to his sensibility and pointed to other aspects of his painting. The concert in Newcastle, for example, was a particularly clear programme. It comprised two works by Arvo Pärt (Für Aline for piano solo and Spiegel im Spiegel for viola and piano) two pieces by me (The North Shore for viola and piano, written for the Edinburgh performance, and From Mina Harker's Journal, for baritone and viola setting a text from Bram Stoker's Dracula an account of the arrival of the mysterious ship in a violent storm, described from the vantage point of St, Hilda's Abbey on the Whitby cliffs) and Morton Feldman's The Viola in my Life interspersed with St. Godric's Sancta Maria Virgine, an anonymous Laude in Novella and part of Bach's Cello Suite no. 3, played in an arrangement for viola. These are all works which James had chosen and reflect his musical preferences. He has frequently expressed his enthusiasm for the music of Bach, for his pleasure in the repetitiveness of his music and this passion is quite revealing. While many people think of Bach as an 'intellectual' composer working in a formulaic way, albeit with consummate skill, they underplay the extent to which he was not in any way bound by rules. In fact almost all Bach's fugues, for example, break the 'rules' of the genre and it is the sense of freedom within a structure that makes them so emotionally satisfying. An equivalent sense of freedom within apparent restraint is present throughout the paintings. For his 1996 Cambridge exhibition James, with Nic Hodges, has devised another series of concerts with an equally intriguing set of composers - more Feldman and Bach, with the addition of Cage, Debussy, Webern, Howard Skempton and a new commission from Alwynne Pritchard.

Photographs of James at work are quite revealing. He is always shown with his eyes about a brushes length from the surface of his painting. That is to say, he is preoccupied with extreme detail and, over a period of time, by standing back little by little becomes able to make decisions about a painting's overall shape. At some point, as for a composer, it becomes clear that the piece is finished and in this he is close to many of the contemporary composers he admires. In 1968 I spent some time in New York with Morton Feldman, a composer who features in several of these concert programmes and indeed the third of the concerts arranged in conjunction with the exhibition in Cambridge contains only one work, Feldman's hour and a quarter piece for violin and piano For John Cage. Feldman was a close friend of many New York artists and there are many connections with visual artists in his work. His apartment contained several paintings by Philip Guston; he wrote an early ensemble work called De Kooning as well as a substantial chamber piece called Rothko Chapel, first performed in that location. Morton Feldman's compositional method involved him in sitting at the piano, his head very close to the keyboard, playing a mildly dissonant chord very quietly, and then holding down the notes with one hand while he wrote them directly into the final score, often in ink, with the other. After a pause he would do the same thing again, making a new decision about a new combination of notes, with the result that the whole composition had come about from many discrete decisions, each one dealing with an isolated musical moment. In due course he had to make the judgement that the piece was at last complete and this painstaking musical method has a clear parallel with James' procedure as a painter. It would seem that both composer and painter rely on a form of intuitive logic derived from an accumulation of experience. Feldman's music, through the repetition of tiny fragments of dissonance at a barely audible dynamic, produces a similar "shimmer on the surface" (a term used by James of his own paintings in the 1991 Serpentine catalogue) to that achieved in these paintings by the understatement of their colour harmonics and by the unassertiveness of their structure.

But at the same time there is something more, for want of a better term, spiritual in a Hugonin painting than can be found in the cool dissonant abstraction of Feldman's music. To locate the musical equivalent of this sensation we must turn to another composer and to the austere but highly consonant sound world of Arvo Pärt. One of the many techniques which he uses has been termed "tintinnabuli", a word which evokes the pealing of bells, the complex but rich sonorous mass of overtones, the gradual unfolding of patterns and the idea of something that is simultaneously static and in flux. That is to say, taking a sonic device and turning it into an image which is loaded with spiritual meaning. It is no coincidence surely, for example, that James has a profound attachment to Northumbria. He was born there and has chosen to live and work there too. He often refers to the nature and quality of the light in that region and the way that the "light shifts across a surface, the way it picks out and suddenly accentuates certain aspects of the landscape" and points to "this quality of modulation in the real world" which has been a significant factor in shaping his visual sensibility.

But at the same time, like Pärt with his bells, he has certainly been affected by other less definable aspects of his region. Thomas Clark, in a review of the 1993-4 exhibition, mentions a comparison with the anonymous artists of the Lindisfarne Gospels in terms of the almost devotional approach that James has to making paintings. Equally when I was drafting one of my pieces we spoke of the possibility of particular local references (I had already set texts by the 7th century Northumbrian poet Caedmon) by incorporating Northumbrian pipes into the accompaniment for one piece. This bringing together of the richness of earlier forms into new work is present in the construction of the musical programmes he has helped to devise; it is there in the thinking of many of the composers he admires (Steve Reich relishes the music of the 12th century Perotin). And it is also powerfully present in the paintings themselves, a factor which can enable the viewer to look past the admittedly attractive and refined surface of the work to ways in which it can resonate beyond.

Gavin Bryars