I grew up in Namakwaland in the north western Cape of South Africa and later lived in Cape Town. I am a musician, playing traditional African music, a maker of instruments, an artist, a sculptor and a writer.
As a multi-instrumental musician and percussionist, I’ve always been interested in creating new forms of notation for African music. This led to an unforeseen breakthrough in my artwork in 2012 that began a new series of expressive paintings relating music to abstract gestural art. Since then, I have been refining this still evolving set of paintings entitled the Music Notation Series.
Southern African traditional music is composed of short repetitive cyclical patterns containing many inherent melodic-rhythmic patterns born out of polyrhythm which is symmetrical over time. The Music Notation paintings are based on the formal structures found within this dynamic web of music. Living in South Africa, I was exposed to traditional African patterns of printing, weaving and wood-carving, while in my musical studies I came across the assorted musical notation forms of the African kora, djembe, valiha and mbira instruments, not to mention the traditional notation for the shakuhachi or Japanese flute and Laban dance notation. As both musician and artist, I was inspired to try to bring these separate but related art forms into meaningful dialogue with each other.
The resulting paintings are based on real time performances on prepared canvases. With a paintbrush in each hand, like a drummer with two drumsticks, I can ‘play music’ directly onto the canvas. The improvised, free hand, rhythmic strokes represent the music leaving behind analogue traces of the rhythmic-melodic patterns performed. While western musical notation is read from left to right across the page, and down the manuscript, contemporary African music often uses a vertical staff notation that reads up the page. The ‘notation’ paintings begin as a series of coloured vertical lines on the canvas, providing the ground or ‘staves.’ Next the music is performed quasi-percussively, from bottom to top, usually with a slightly larger brush in the left hand as with my mallets for marimba. The music depicted unfolds as a vertical sequence reading up and down the canvas as well as horizontally. I then add further levels of detail through colour, highlight and shadow to the aleatory traces that remain. Phillip Nangle.
The Music Notation Series of paintings depicts traditional pieces of poly-rhythmic African music, but they are also abstract gestural improvisations in their own right. All kinds of elements play into the genesis of each canvas besides the music; time, the season, the musician’s mood, activities, and thoughts are also encoded in the paintings. Narrative elements, faces and figures from within and themes projected from the music or half-conscious memories, can all surface. By gazing into the centre of some of the paintings and shifting one’s focus, it becomes possible to glimpse the hidden and unsuspected structures of the piece – and of the music also – in a more profound way. Each canvas is unique, and records the mysterious conditions that conspire, as the music is laid down, to free the fingers up to dance extemporaneously in the music of that moment. GA Houghton.