Twelve Of The Best: Songs Inspired by Visual Arts

It has been my delight and privilege to frequently work with visual arts as a composer, most notably in recent years, at the Hepworth Wakefield in “Musical Sculptures” workshops. Art works have inspired composing both by myself and by those attending the workshops. Lots of the clips on this video are from those workshops which last a maximum of an hour, during which the participants (who can be any number between 2 and 34 and any age from 2 upwards, plus their grown-ups – you never know until they turn up!) learn the song, compose accompaniment patterns and incidental music using the instruments and sound producers available, go to the art work itself for a closer look and then perform to the art work and any passing art lovers. This is why the finished recordings are not always of the highest quality – it’s the process that matters more in these instances.

Here are twelve of the best – most performed, most popular, my favourites! Below the video catalogue is more information about each song and links to further listening or scores.

Arty inspirations have resulted in at least twelve characterful songs!

Big White Room – A song to be adapted depending upon what’s on display at any particular time. The verses have a lyric pattern with adjectives that can be substituted for more appropriate ones by those learning the song. I’ve also used this song as a quiz – I create a few different verses, and the participants have to look closely and decide which one I’m singing about. Either version can lead onto further composing activities.

Pigeon Hands – This one started out in family workshops, and was inspired by William Roberts’ painting, The Pigeon Carriers, in which people with prominent and large hands clamour together, while gently holding their pigeons. I have imagined the tough working lives of some of these people in the lyrics to the song, and the chorus is a gentle lullaby that they might sing to the pigeons. The lullaby has subsequently been adapted for use in a drama about Yorkshire and now for choir including harmonies and a round in the chorus. In fact, the first ever performance for a drop-in workshop included the round in three parts, as we had a very musical Dad and a teenager studying GCSE music in the group and they were each able to lead a singing part.

Gertrude And I – A song inspired by some illustrations by Gertrude Hermes of starlings in a murmuration, a waterfall and a spider in a web, and also a door knocker in the shape of a frog. The song considers the subjects of the art works as they inspired Gertrude to make her art works and me to compose the song. The groups them composed incidental music inspired by the art works to complete our performances.

Precarious Cat – A bluesy song inspired by the works of Helen Marten in her prize-winning exhibition. Each of the cats in the pictures is walking on its own tail back towards a cliff edge. This is why it’s precarious! The lyrics of each verse tell of the differences between the four cat pictures.

Anthony On The Edge – Anthony Caro’s Table Pieces are sculptures which not only sit on top of a surface but also hang down to one side of the surface. They could therefore considered to be “on the edge”. I have played with this precarious idea and imagined what would happen if they reached out too far, and we made up suitable music and sound effects to go in between the lines of the song!

Push The Boats Out – A shanty inspired by Christopher Woods’ “The Fisherman’s Farewell”. Each verse is taken from the point of view of one of the three characters in the picture: the fisherman; his wife; his son. The chorus can be sung as a rollicking round. Originally, as with all of these songs it was a single line song with opportunities to compose some accompaniment, but I have since arranged it into a 3-part choral piece for high or low voices.

Five Ships – another shanty, this time inspired by the five miniature carrack wrecks that appeared as part of Folkert de Jong’s Exhibition The Holy Land at the Hepworth Wakefield. The lyrics of the verses use lots of navy and seafaring vocabulary from Tudor times.

Pierced Hemisphere – a song inspired by Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture of the same name. This was a commission from The Hepworth Wakefield for their Handling Collection. I provided a recording and lots of notes about the composing decisions I made. If you click the link above you will find all of that information. The song is scored for SSAA choir with percussion and flugel horn. (In this recording it was a cornet, and could easily be any melody instrument.)

Stanley Dreaming – A lullaby composed for a group of guides, brownies and rainbows who had a sleepover in the gallery. They composed background music and sang the song in a workshop in the gallery before settling down for the night. The gallery for the workshop was full of Stanley Spencer’s Glasgow shipyard paintings, and the next door gallery they were sleeping in was showing works by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and David Hockney, so they all get a mention in the chorus!

Keeping His Newspapers Dry – A bluesy song about a businessman in one of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s who is walking along a rainy pavement in his suit, with his umbrella up and a newspaper tucked underneath his arm.

Hepworth Wakefield: She’s Collected Circles – A song about collecting which can be adapted to any collection, really. It was first composed to be sung during a collecting day in the gallery when members of the public brought along their collections to display around the gallery. This event coincided with an exhibition of busts from the David Roberts Collection, so the original title of the song was David Roberts: He’s Collected Heads, and that was how it remained and was used for a while! I later changed it to fit a different exhibition, and it’s been adapted several times since!

I say Twelve of the Best, and have stuck to that but I do have a thirteenth in this instance. There’s no recording of it as yet. It’s called The Boy On The Beach and was inspired by an illustration of a sulky boy by Castleford artist Albert Wainwright. I do have this photo of me with the picture, to prove that we did sing it! If you’d like to record it for me with your class or choir, do send word!

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