String and Tins Recordings continues its Stills series with a second volume of compositions that ask the question, “How would you score a work of art?” A quartet of composers were invited to adopt a work from London’s Tate Britain Gallery and to compose a corresponding score. Combined with Stills 01, the project is now nearing album length, suggesting that a hybrid art book/record or CD might be forthcoming.
“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” has now come full circle, its title inspired by a popular song of the 1880s. The impressionist painting nudged its way to completion a few minutes each dusk, John Singer Sargent seeking to communicate the awe of paper lanterns hung at night. Enter Mike Bamford, who recreates the time of day with nighttime insects and tender piano. The simple melody honors sisters Dolly and Polly, happily lost in the act of decoration. As the strings take over, they convey a sense of childhood innocence, with only a smidgen of melancholy; these days may not last, but a painting can preserve them forever.
George Stubbs’ “Horse Frightened by a Lion (1763)” is a dramatic image already in full motion. This is one of eighteen painting in Stubbs’ series, dramatically topped with “Horse Devoured by a Lion.” Knowing the fate of the noble animal changes one’s appreciation of the painting: here is the noble animal, intact for the final time. Adam Smyth contributes filmic foreboding from the very first moment, drums sounding a death march while strings encapsulate the drama. The lighter middle melodies recall the horse’s happier times, as if in a flashback montage. One is already thinking of the conflict and the climax. A hero’s motif emerges in the closing minute; this horse may be unnamed, but will not be forgotten.
Henry Wallis’ “Chatterton (1856)” depicts the 17-year-old romantic poet lying dead after taking arsenic. The painting splits allegiances. On the one hand is the futility of young, promising life taken too soon and unnecessarily, the open window a sign of the soul escaping, or a promise that things might have gotten better. On the other hand, what a pretty corpse, perfectly positioned in a pretty room: a romanticizing of suicide that excises the ugliness and recrimination. The composer Kasper Broyd attempts to capture all this in under three minutes, a trumpet fanfare joined, then supplanted by strings: a funeral procession or a celebration of the thin slice of life enjoyed by the poet. As Broyd writes, different listeners may pick up on different facets of the theme, an elegant sadness, a noble tragedy.
The blood red color of Magda Cordell’s “No. 12 (1960)” suggests blood, the internal shape a body, a womb, a birth canal. There’s little escape from the confrontational nature of the art, which seems to demand comment. Is blood a tribute to ancestors and the earth, or a fluid that prompts aversion? Across history and culture, how much have women been forced to endure? Are they now reclaiming their power? Lawrence Kendrick begins with lonely piano, intimating the soul alone, then adds gentle, comforting accompaniment. The piece builds, then recedes, the cycle of life, quiet at the edges and furious in the middle.
When you look at art, what do you hear? These composers appreciate the twist in the question. If a picture is worth a thousand words, it may well be worth a symphony as well. As film stills, these small scenes lend themselves well to aural interpretations, prompting observers to participate in a voluntary form of synaesthesia. (Richard Allen)