Ray Stephanson, "The Painter as Musician: Graham Fowler's Water Music", Han Gallery 2018

“The Painter as Musician: Graham Fowler’s Water Music”

Ask any musician. They’ll tell you there’s rhythm, movement, and harmonies to be found in most painting. As a jazz and classical musician-composer, what draws me to Graham Fowler’s paintings is the extraordinary musicality of his work. By “musicality” I mean the ways in which small thematic elements of rhythm and sound are repeated in sequences to create a striking development, tension, and release in real time. But how to do this in a static two-dimensional painting without sound requires some real magic from the artist (aka technical skill and vision) and a certain kind of synesthetic imagination from the viewer. Walter Pater’s famous (and pretentious) claim in 1873 that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music” might contain some truth, but I am not sure what it is. Does he mean that non-choral music captures something that no other art really does? Is it that the evocative melodies and pulses of music capture the non-verbal experiences of pleasure or pain, joy or anguish, amazement or puzzlement without a specific content? Or is it that music gives life to the ineffable, the intensity of raw human responsiveness that vanishes once the music stops? Or does music simply transport us out of ourselves into a different world in time, foreign but still somehow intimate? One can certainly philosophize further, as Arthur Schopenhauer does—“The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.…Music expresses only the quintessence of life and its events, never these themselves.” But we need common sense to step in here: we don’t listen to music to become philosophers. We are there to enter into the experience, to cross thresholds.

And so it is with Fowler’s exhibition here, twelve works whose extraordinary representations of water encourage us to enter the musicality of painting. How does he do it? Part of the answer lies within the viewer, each of whom will be expert in the sounds of water. Of course we all know only too well the mundane sounds of washing dishes, taking a shower, the flow out of taps, drinking water from a cup, the drip-drip of a leak, and so on. Yes, but expert also in other more exotic and emotionally-charged sounds, like the trickles of spring melt, the summer rainfall, lake waves lapping at shorelines, limpid stream-water moving over pebbles or rocks, the rushing hiss or roar of engorged river torrents. Some of these auditory memories will be powerfully stirred when the eyes encounter something like “Quick Water in Gold, Emerald and Blue” (2015), a painting so richly endued with water movements—note the multi-directionality of flow, fast versus slow water, the points of turbulence—that it is very easy for the eager mind of a viewer to conjure the musicality of the subject. A simple eye-tracking of the sonic movement of Fowler’s water flow from top left down through to bottom center, and then left and right, will prod the auditory accompaniments. Ask any musician, and they’ll tell you that the audience brings at least half of the performance with them in their willingness to listen. Or in this case, to hear from seeing. But this is only part of it.

One of the challenges for the artist is how to create different qualities of motion from the smallest dabs of paint, allowing the eye to move outward from the subtle color shifts of tiny rectangles and miniscule ovoid forms to a sense of water movement that can evoke sound through the viewer’s seeing. Fowler’s repertoire of approaches to these challenges is unique and stunning. Look at splashing water, which he has managed so brilliantly in the resplendent and lush “Sweep.” [IMAGE HERE] There is a storyline here: the dynamic fall of water catching golden sunlight in its arc is the centerpiece, drawing the eye down to impact point and then kinetically outward with the exploding motion; but the eye is then drawn upward to a murky origin and then laterally to a mysteriously crowded ground surface seething with organic vibrations. It is hard not to have a synesthetic experience here, a kind of aural hallucination prompted by visual features. Or look at his superbly executed river movement in “High Land Water in a Crescent Arc,” where the contrast between vertical and horizontal elements generates the serpentine motion of curved downward flow, and the turbulent whites deftly add to the sense of depth and distance. Look at his water channels existing on multiple levels, as in “Stages on a Descending Stream.” The amazing number of tiny forms and color shifts together create the illusion of an almost microscopic water motion, but also—as these tiny elements are made to work together in larger patterns—they guide the slower rhythm of the overall directional flow in this peaceful blue-green world. In this case we might well conjure musical water sounds, but there is also a deeper rhythmical movement in the shifting from stage to stage, from top to bottom.

Equally challenging is creating senses of depth, showing the surface of water but also what lies beneath and what is reflected by it. As Fowler puts it, “A lot of my paintings are about the surface of the water as there is a complexity of feeling derived from it; it’s a flat surface that reveals that which is above it and that which is below it, while defining its own surface. The complexity of that kind of articulated space fascinated me for formal reasons, on a personal metaphysical level, and as a mantra or a repetitive note in music in which you could lose yourself.” One of the most striking instances of this is rendered in the sophisticated beauty of “Still Water Reflected Colour,” which dramatically reveals these multi-dimensions. The viewer’s gaze connects with the water’s surface but simultaneously sees the under-water dimension and the sumptuous reflection of foliage and tree-trunks from above, offering the eye both density of texture and shimmering colors to shift our focus from one plane to another.

For me, this exhibition is a joyful expression of “water music.” (If he were alive, George Frideric Handel would likely approve.) With unerring artistic judgment and the sure hand of experience, Fowler uses his remarkably varied water movements to establish the underlying pulse of the paintings. This brings us back to painting as music, and to the inspirational space that blossoms when the painter engages with the musician. In a moment of reflection, Fowler remarks that “Another big influence on my work, when I was young and painting abstractly, but also later when I moved into representational work, was the minimalist music of composers like Terry Riley and early Philip Glass. They would take one chord and repeat it over and over again creating a transcendent meditative quality. I've always associated my painting with music that doesn't have to refer to things outside itself so much as its own repetitive patterns and rhythms, and that can lead you into a meditative state.” My own experience as a musician is to interpret the visual elements in a painting as structures and sequences of sound and rhythm. I have been fortunate to collaborate with Graham Fowler in this way, using his art as the basis of musical composition. I first identify those elements that my musical imagination responds to most energetically, and then devise several audio tracks that somehow represent the sounds and rhythms I am seeing. Fowler then narrows it down by choosing those tracks that best suit the element he has painted, and by suggesting other musical possibilities. Using this slow process for all the elements I have foregrounded, we then put selected tracks into a sequence, we layer tracks for density and dramatic power, we create loop effects from tiny audio bits, we use repeated musical phrases to call attention to thematic features, and we try to capture in sound and rhythm the underlying sonic movements and tensions in the painting. It has been richly rewarding.

I conclude with two brief examples, the first being the extraordinary movements and colors of “Cascade in Blue and Gold.” Musically the most dominant features here are the vertical drop or the cascade itself, the horizontal frenzy of light and, nearing the bottom, the larger and more stable undulations. The cascade: these many tiny elements together create a tumbling motion of luminosity, something that could be captured by the repetition of vibrating notes from higher frequency instruments like violins, woodwinds, and flutes. The horizontal waves of light frenzy: what my eyes hear are rolling arpeggios starting in lower registers and ending in the higher end of the instrument’s frequency reach (a piano could accomplish this, but so could a combination of organ, trombone, and trumpet). Larger undulations: this requires a more stable sound such as multi-instrument block chords that move through a three-step sequence and then repeat. The two dominant colors also imply something about choices of tone, which in this case might well need both a major and minor key such as B major and F minor for dramatic tension. Underneath it all is a percussive phrase that is repeated but also altered as it progresses. A solo instrument over top of these pulses is optional, but an airy synthesizer sound would be perfect.

In “Rock Pool” the dark water of imminent turbulence is set against the immovable rock face and surrounding plant life. Musically the painting is about potential motion versus stasis, brooding pulses of darkness framed by solidity. One way to present this tension is to sonify the dark pool with slow drum patterns and deep bass sounds from several instruments (acoustic bass, bassoon, lower end of piano), using a repeated minor key riff to create a drama of “something about to happen.” The immovables can be rendered by several different sequences of sharp, loud, jagged chords altered to catch a dissonance. The painting cries out for a higher-pitched solo instrument that interacts with the intricacies of the top right portion.

Of course it goes without saying that Fowler’s impressive work doesn’t need the addition of musical accompaniment. It already has its own profound musicality, stimulating the eye and the ear in its playful, brooding, and moving treatments of water. But there is something to be said, too, for collaborative and creative engagement with this fine collection, where the painting becomes the quintessence of the musical score, and the music pays aural homage to the pictorial elements.

Ray Stephanson
Musician and composer