A few of us stood, awkwardly at first, waiting for something to happen. The high ceilings and white, white walls added to a sense of silence and anticipation. Slowly the musicians spread around the room and began to play - electric harp, keyboard, violin, viola, cello, French horn and an array of flutes. Observers shuffled around the perimeter of the room, then sat down on the floor, and allowed ourselves to be immersed in waves of music. It didn’t take long for a sense of peace to descend on me – the first-world stresses of a day battling public transport and faulty wi-fi quickly faded.
I was watching Epiphany perform at Whitworth Art Gallery’s Thursday Late session. Epiphany is an eclectic group of professional musicians who specialise in creative musical events, emphasising innovation and improvisation. One of their flagship projects is creating ‘sound portraits’, in which they improvise musical impressions of people who choose to be ‘painted’, often revealing surprising insight or expression.
After their first piece of music, Epiphany’s leader, Richard Williamson invited people to come and sit in the middle of the room, on a chair, to experience these 'sound portraits'. A woman volunteered; her portrait was very pastoral and joyful. The next volunteer elicited a strong, but melancholy melody which evolved into more complex sounds. As the next person went forward, a man who had just entered the gallery, and was obviously very taken by what he was experiencing, asked how he could get on that chair. “Just come up, after this on,” was the answer – and almost as soon as the music had faded, he strode purposefully to the middle.
The harp immediately started plucking away, and the room filled with energetic sounds. After a time, a violinist started blowing into her violin, and the man stretched out his arms, rolling his neck as if to relieve tension. His movements matched the music beautifully, and, watching, it felt as if something intimate was happening. The range of emotion, timbre, melody and harmony in each sound portrait was astonishingly big – and yet the musicians had not prepared an iota of music. They were continuously taking risks – no playing it safe – and yet there was never a sense of jarring, only peace even in sometimes turbulent music. Now and then, a musical ‘joke’ popped up, too, for example, the French horn player making sure he got the last ‘word.’
Following a short break, artist Naomi Kendrick walked over to her enormous blank canvas. A solo violin began, as she gently - and beautifully - stretched over her white space, drawing a long, soft charcoal line. The line curved and deepened, and then became increasingly frenzied, spreading out into short, sharp lines. During the entire 45-minute piece, the musicians and the artist carried out a sort of symbiotic dance; the energy would change direction and intensity, but I could never tell whether it was Naomi or an instrumentalist leading this change.
By this time, the room was lined with visitors, some cross-legged on the floor, some standing, occasionally chatting but mostly looking at this unfolding artwork, transfixed. Instrumentalists moved in and out of the artist’s space, and the audience members wandered around too, enjoying the emerging picture from different vantage points. It was only at the end, of course, that we could see the ‘finished product’, but there was also a distinct sense that actually art was happening in real time all along.
It was the first time I’ve seen an entire art work created, from beginning to end, and I loved the way Naomi’s movements as she moved around the canvas, always keeping a low centre of gravity, reflected the push or pull of the music (or perhaps the music reflected her movement – I just don’t know!). I also couldn’t believe how quickly 45 minutes passed. Walking out of the Whitworth, and into Manchester twilight, I felt refreshed and even more convinced of the power of improvised music.