Theatre of the Ordinary

Performance of "Passing Leaves" 8-4-1990
Performance of “Passing Leaves” 8-4-1990

During the course of my parent’s marriage, my mother Cynthia seldom intruded on the private nature of my father’s art practice; at the very beginning, it was some time before she even knew he was an artist. The early years of their marriage had been almost entirely devoted to establishing a livelihood, a family and a nurturing environment. He had warned my mother that he could never earn his living as an artist – he had to divide his time between work and painting to maintain his sense of well-being. This was something he had conditioned himself to do at an early age. It was his great reverence for the artistic process, for the great works of art of the past and for a never-ending search for his own artistic expression in the future that became a way of life around which he derived his raison d’être and eventually around which our family ethos evolved. It was never an obtrusive aspect of family life, no ego trips or wild posturing; just a quiet pursuit often integrated into general family activities with doors wide open.

Cynthia Graham participating 11/7/1990
Cynthia Graham participating 11/7/1990

Despite having painstakingly interpreted my father’s rather enigmatic hand writing in typing out his manuscripts, it was only after he had died that the full meaning of the New Epoch ideas became clear to my mother. It was when the Tri-Easel was set up in the lounge room that she became involved in a more direct manner. Her initial diffidence soon blossomed into a great enthusiasm and pride in being able to create something beautiful on canvas. She said that the language provided the scaffolding for her not to be intimidated, despite a complete ignorance of an artist’s practice. She developed an appreciation of a skilfully drawn line and the juxtaposition of colour, and when the easels were turned, the marks others had made then added to the confidence of knowing that the paintings are continually growing, enriched by each person’s contribution. In this way, the work of a novice can be successfully integrated in the final result.

Ros Bandt, an internationally acclaimed sound artist and pioneer of interactive sound installations, came out to Canterbury for one of these lounge room performances. Ros appeared to me as an expansive character with flowing hair and eyes belonging somewhere between a teacher and a spiritual leader. Accompanied by a small band of enthusiastic colleagues, they attempted to create a sound sculpture directly interpreting the paintings we worked on. Ros had been developing a method of improvisation drawn from an intuitive response to a pictographic score. She was intrigued by our language for painting and found symmetry of purpose in its concept. After an hour or so of Zither improvisation, the music subsided in place of quiet observation as the paintings moved from raw thematic structure to contrapuntal development. I remember thinking that the music had started out too complicated and so had nowhere to go once the paintings evolved. But the seeds of the idea of creating a musical accompaniment to the score were sown.

Ros Bandt with her music group interpreting the paintings evolution. 10/6/1990
Ros Bandt with her music group interpreting the paintings evolution. 10/6/1990
10-6-1990 (2)
Charles Nodrum watches on as Philip performs “Passing Leaves” in our lounge room.

Set Day 91

Hartwell House, Public Performance (10 June 1990)

“Passing Leaves” (Performance No. 5) composed by Philip Graham.

Duration: 4.5 hours

Performed by: Euan Graham and Philip Graham

Acrylic on Canvas (99 x 129 cm).

Comment: My Mother Cynthia and I had returned from an impromptu visit to Phillip Island for a brief holiday just two hours before commencing this performance. This time the easel was set up in our living room where it was to stay for a good part of the year. At this time the separation between domestic space and studio space was completely blurred, our lives revolving around the act of creation.

Philip was extremely nervous before this performance, and last minute technical difficulties added further to the tension. Ros Bandt and a small group of musicians arrived at 2 pm to conduct an interpretive improvised musical performance responding to the procession of shapes and lines accumulating on the paintings surface.

Two friends of Andrew Angus’ then arrived for the purpose of writing an instructional essay on us. They spent several hours participating in the performance along with other visitors including Linton McFadzean and the Gallery director Charles Nodrum.

Jazz Day 040

Hartwell House, Public Performance (24 June 1990)

“VARIATIONS ON THE THEME OF THREE PRIMARY SQUARES”

Performed by: Euan Graham Juan Sanz and Philip Graham

Duration: 4 hours

Acrylic on Canvas

Comment: These works began as a performance of the score three primary squares. There were a number of participants, including Juan Sanz. And by the end of the scored turns, it was agreed that more work was needed. We continued working the paintings, effectively making this more akin to a visual jazz performance. It was Juan’s first time painting with us, and seemed to evoke a sparkle in his eyes which contributed to this being a memorable and exciting occasion. Juan would officially join “Extended Vision” later in the year.

 

 

Music had always been central to my education. I had begun with piano lessons with Harold Badger, a man reminiscent of his name sprouting crinkly sausages from generous and skilled hands that assumed a new life analogous with the keys. There were three of us in the lessons, and Mr. Badger would always allot time at the end for improvisation. One time I tried to evoke hot and cold, starting with icy tinkling at the high end then indulging in a cacophonous sprawl down the ebony to the point where notes were barely distinguishable, just the metallic pluck of thick strings. The abrupt contrast sent a burst of giggles around the room, my cousin Jane, and a Chinese girl whose name I have forgotten, though I noticed Mr. Badger appeared less enthusiastic. I then progressed to violin, and for ten years worked my way through an orthodox classical curriculum under the tutorage of Jean Lehmann. Jean would despair at my laziness when it came to practice, made all the more painful to her by her acknowledgement of my innate musicality. The rigidity of this program failed to engage my real passion for composition, which was to emerge later, after formal lessons had ceased. It took time to pick up the fiddle again, divorced from an exam agenda and embrace the freedom of making my own sounds. I guess the rigid nature of the curriculum geared toward preset stages of advancement provided something for me to react against at a later date. The real challenge for me was my reluctance to perform, and my disinterest in collaborative music making. The scope of my expression rarely ventured outside my bedroom after giving my final performance to fulfil year 12 assessment requirements.

These formative experiences coupled with my own exposure to experimental music via radio programs ‘Dream Time’, ‘The Listening Room’ and various encounters with ‘Music Concrete’ “the Kronos Quartet’ and John Cage helped to form my interest in alternative forms of musical expression. I began with simple tape loops played at different speeds to emulate windscreen wipers and indicators coming in and out of sync. My equipment was rudimentary, bouncing tracks from deck to deck, and then expanding marginally with two tracks of a reel to reel purchased from a junk store. I wanted to create an audio accompaniment to track the progression of a New Epoch score. I was seduced at times by the romantic expanses offered by multi track recording, though the deterioration in sound resembled more blitzkrieg above a murky avalanche than a distinct harmonic rhythmic evolving pattern. My ‘Sound Extensions’ were primitive excursions into sound, no way emulating the delicacy of Ros Bandt’s ethereal webs of Zither picking that probably reflected more accurately an impression of an extended theme. My best efforts came in later using the same double tape deck with worn heads, bouncing down to a third device, equally devoid of sound quality. ‘The Butterfly Effect’ and ‘Moments in Time” suites of 1994 come closest to realising thematic music, with a series of short pieces spliced together in emulation of the layers of a painting. With some of these pieces I went as far as drawing a theme across the musical staff, and in reverse connect the dots placed notes to track the shape of the theme.

Association with Ros Bandt introduced us to Al Wunder and his ‘theatre of the ordinary’. He was organising a bringing together of three decades of improvisational theatre in a large venue in Richmond for the Melbourne fringe festival in 1990. Although our performances were distinct from improvisation by means of a visual language, our act was embraced and promoted under this umbrella. Al Wunder’s belief that everyone should have the opportunity to perform and his interest in combining a professionals talents with the ‘unencumbered creative explorations of the raw beginner’, was a perfect fit with our own workshop style collaborations. His discrete stature was more than made up for by his theatrical demeanour, his enormous humanity and his ability to inspire. In his own contribution to the Fringe event ‘MIDI Wind Controller and Tapes’, he collaborated with Warren Burt, a composer of ‘new musical styles’ who lent us some tapes from his back catalogue. I remember listening to these sombre heavy dramatic chords, ten to fifteen seconds in duration, before ending abruptly, pausing in an uneasy silence, expectation increasing the jolt of their recommencement. After about 10 minutes of this pattern, it felt like my nerves had tangled themselves around live wires, and the room had shrunk to resemble a little Ease of anxiety in a Victorian Gaol House. But it was another influence thrown into my burgeoning appreciation of experimental music.

Al Wonder and performing at The People's Improvisational Theatre  in Richmond Melbourne 25/8/1990
Al Wonder and Warren Burt performing at The People’s Improvisational Theatre in Richmond Melbourne 25/8/1990

On route to our first meeting to discuss the Fringe festival event, Philip and I became hopelessly lost, deep in the inner Melbourne suburbs around Richmond. This was not a new phenomenon in our family. Our father was legendary for his poor sense of direction, a trait beyond doubt passed down, and Philip not being knowledgeable of cars and navigation very much, preferred a back seat role even when sitting beside the driver. This was a significant disadvantage as there was much too-ing and fro-ing and upside down map reading to be done. After an exhaustive search through back streets which probably had names like Burke and Leichhardt we finally arrived, not at our intended destination, but an eerie cull de sac on the boarder of which lay what could only be described as a billabong – a tiny patch of wilderness that had miraculously escaped development, with majestic red gums and the sound of nature in its million warbling voices. For a moment it felt like I was gazing at a Hans Heyson in a gallery, after lock up and the lights had been turned off.

9/9/1990
9/9/1990
Performance at the "P.I.T" in conjunction with the Melbourne fringe festival 9/9/1990
Performance at the “P.I.T” in conjunction with the Melbourne fringe festival 9/9/1990
Our Spontaneuos Generation banner in the Melbourne fringe festival parade 8/9/1990
Our Spontaneuos Generation banner in the Melbourne fringe festival parade 8/9/1990

Our contribution to ‘The Spontaneous Generation’ was a set of three weekend performances coupled with a significant showing of our own paintings and drawings. For the event we decided to show case a major visual jazz performance ‘The Two Towers’ in keeping with the prevailing spirit of improvisation. It was also Philip’s first opportunity to hang a number of his yellow canvases, the largest of which had to be brought in through the fire escape, the narrow stairwell hardly leaving room for two bodies in passing. At the end of each day we took all the pictures down, including a vast display at the foot of the walls, and took it all home, only to be returned and set up again the next day, a process that took around 2 hours. At the end of one long session, when the shadows encroached on the painting surface, and the lights took effect, a lady approached me and handed me a poem she had written, having gazed intently for half an hour at my large pastel drawing ‘The Total Perspective Vortex’. On the paper was written:

 

A blaze of colour blends into the empty space

Consuming, searching, reaching for the joy in our souls.

Bouncing around, teasing the yolk of its crevices

Trying to find its centre.

Will it? The never ending maze of confusion

With the essence of delight being its master.

Robust but deceitful like any fun fare.

Or the hedonistic nightclub lights

Rolling one into oblivion.

Psychedelic tones from yesteryear

And out emerges a market full of paraphernalia

One would clutch and feel.

Uncompromisingly it sits hypnotising

Hovering and waiting for a victim.

Desiree Milaonas September 1990

"The Total Perspective Vortex" 1989 Pastel on paper 90 x 90 cm
“The Total Perspective Vortex” 1989 Pastel on paper 90 x 90 cm

The next spring was particularly wet, and with year 12 exams menacingly close, performance activity became for the first time an unwelcome distraction. Being disposed to an opaque introversion, I often wanted to simply merge with the canvas, be indistinguishable from the texture of its busy surface and out of reach of the disruption of conversation. I would prefer to maintain a quizzical silence when such feelings emerged, faced with a difference that was less hostility, more the boundless limitations of the natural world against a pre-fabricated white laminate vanity. All the real inhibitions surfaced in this way, as difference, as a perceived need for separateness in order to maintain a dignity of identity. Just running after a client and making these small connections caused wild rapids of torment that hit at the heart of my desire to remain anonymous. Letting in imagination like a sunray shot from a burning heart, I could grow immune to the awkwardness of the situation, even with the exposing of art – a soft pink bit usually covered up by the polish of completion. Being able to enter a mode immune to the distractions was like wearing a studio mask as if a ham in a space suit.

An aborted performance 26/10/1990
An aborted performance 26/10/1990

These things are made easier with camaraderie and it was its increasing absence that contributed to an inner smile when rain stopped play. However for one performance, employed by the Malvern city council, such a smile was conspicuous in its absence. We didn’t even begin to set up when a deluge sent us scampering back to the car and we watched in amazement as a torrent of water engulfed us. With the easel on the roof the water pooled, then resembling the heart of a waterfall cascaded down the sides leaving the world a distant smudge from behind the foggy glass. Later that day we set up the bi-easel under the covered walkway of the town hall. It was a busy thoroughfare, providing a pause for pedestrians as the rain continued to tumble. Our clothes were damp, and an icy breeze channelled through the Palladian corridor with vengeance. We were kept company for some time by a local Hare Krishna enthusiast who looked better dressed for a concept album shoot or Mardi-Gras. He kept up his hard sell despite our overt absorption in the paintings, and eventually just blended into the traffic noise and incessant pitter patter. Then a large pale-faced young man with the stature of a mediaeval warrior gone soft approached us from across the street. His eyes were fixed on our paintings and he was conspicuous due to his apparent disregard for cars, and roads alike. He sauntered up to the face of the canvas Philip was working on, and with a long slow deliberate motion, dragged his hand across the surface leaving a myriad of small lines where the paint was yet to dry. I could see Philip’s eyes widen in the expectation of violence, as he remarked in a somewhat fragile manner ‘do you like painting?” The young man just smouldered silently, and our Hare Krishna friend spontaneously broke into dance and chant, his tambourine punctuating the sombre intrusion. He was as much a part of the environmental conditions that day as a gust of wind off to blow an umbrella back to front or baby bird out of its nest.

Author: crowcries

Euan Benjamin Graham I decided to become an artist when I was 14 years old in 1987. I have pursued my vocation with dedication and a complete single mindedness. Pictures are like people, they have their own life. I have embraced the streets recently as a venue because pictures need a lover, and artists become intolerably frustrated without an audience.

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