Ahead of the Aldeburgh Festival, we explore the work of acclaimed British artist, Rachel Jones, and her collaboration with Gweneth Ann Rand for a specially curated series of performances of Messiaen Song Cycles.

For the 75th Aldeburgh Festival, renowned artist, Rachel Jones collaborated with acclaimed Messiaen interpreter, Gweneth Ann Rand who performed all three of the composer’s great song-cycles beginning with Harawi: Chant d’amour et de mort complemented by Rachel’s animated painting projections which formed a dazzling backdrop to the performances.

This extract from the 75th Aldeburgh Festival book explores her work and the intertwined relationship that exists between music and her art.

Rachel Jones creates vibrant works in oil stick whose broad expanses of colour sometimes shimmer like shot-silk, or appear sticky in sour greens and yellows, or rich in reds and browns. Mouths, teeth and strange interior landscapes come together in abstract works that are a personal exploration of the evolving poetic and political languages of Black identity and experience. Committed to connecting with diverse audiences, she has worked not just in painting but also in educational contexts and performances, including at the Royal Academy (where she studied) a pro-Black Karaoke at Harlesden High Street (an arts organisation in London) and most recently, in the opera-based work Hey, Maudie, that was commissioned by the Roberts Institute of Art last year.

On a visual level, her works are full of texture and colours that seem to vibrate as if they had the capacity to make sound and, in their shifting, intricate fields of colour, they share with much music-making a mysterious quality that resists being ‘summed up’, reduced to isolated parts or singular meaning. What’s more, the foundational interdependence of music-making, where players, space, instruments and listeners must come together for sound to be made and received resonates with Rachel’s approach to her practice; one rooted in bringing people and perspectives together, making room for contemplation and shared understanding and also insisting on the irreducibility of each of our life experiences.

Like music, her work is capacious, holding together extraordinary variety of chromatic tonalities and textures, while bringing them all together as one. Stand back and we see a field of colours and shapes like a complex, unresolved chord in a harmonic progression. Draw closer and spend time with her works, and we see infinite variety, minute tonal shifts and qualities like the faint glistening of harmonics. Hers is a practice of intimacy and connection built from the awareness that the closer we get to one another the more mysterious and richer we may appear, just as the closer we listen to music, the more we can hear – and the more enigmatic the work may become. In this sense, much music like Rachel’s work is inexhaustible. Generative and generous it compels us to return to it again and again, not to consume and dispose of it in a single go.

Woman standing with hands in pockets with abstract artwork behind her

Rachel Jones

Credit: Eva Herzog

It is this spirit of generous openness that lies at the heart of Rachel’s collaborative performances and projects. She first worked with soprano Gweneth Ann Rand (truly a ‘grande soprano dramatique’ as Messiaen demanded for Harawi) on the short opera Hey, Maudie (2023) that encompassed the breadth of all that might be thought, felt and observed in the life of Maud Martha, the young African American woman at the heart of Gwendolyn Brooks’ eponymous 1953 novel. This project was conceived by Rachel, and her commitment to forging connections through her practice found its natural complement in creating a work that brought together music, poetry and performance. With a libretto co-written by poet Victoria Adukwei Bulley, a score by Joseph Howard, costumes by Roksanda and Rachel herself performing sections of spoken word, the very process of creating Hey, Maudie was grounded in building relationships across disciplines and experiences.

A similar breadth of feeling, a deeply collaborative process and a sensibility of shared learning is at the root of the Aldeburgh Festival's special performance of animated projections for Messiaen’s song cycles. Gweneth Ann had initially invited Rachel, who in turn invited curator and artist Cynthia Igbokwe to collaborate with her, both then bringing in the animator Ben Smalley to work with them: a testament to how generative performance can be in drawing practices together. In shifting visual fields that move rhythmically from intense chromatic clashes to moments of harmony and calm, the animations integrate digital and physical animation (particularly inspired by artist Len Lye’s pioneering techniques of directly painting and scratching onto film strips) to animate Rachel’s existing paintings into a dynamic visual response to Messiaen’s music. They reflect the composer’s emotionally rich and tonally diverse compositions and are also structured by his concept of ‘modes of limited transposition’ – a restricted set of scales or modes that enable a distinct harmonic and melodic exploration within a defined framework. Within this structure, an expansive synaesthetic experience evolves. In Harawi, for example, as the music moves from reverentially sustained notes to the percussive onomatopoeia of the words ‘Doundou tchil’, imitating the sound of Peruvian ankle-bells, the animations encompass close-ups of frayed edges, congealed surfaces and luminous fields of colour and light. It is an experience that reaches for Messiaen’s desire to create ‘dazzlement’ in music, just as ‘the stained-glass windows and rose windows of the middle ages’ illuminate spaces with colour. Such music touches ‘at once our noblest senses: hearing and vision, it shakes our sensibilities into motion, pushes us to go beyond concepts […].’

For the synaesthetic Messiaen, music either had colour or did not. And even if the listener is not themself synaesthetic, the very words we may use to describe his works (shimmering, expansive etc.) are visual in quality, just as we may look to sonic metaphors for Rachel’s works. Indeed, some of Messiaen’s notes accompanying his music could be descriptions of Rachel’s paintings: ‘blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white. Blue-violet is dominant.’ But perhaps more profoundly, what drove Messiaen’s music is shared with Rachel and indeed all the collaborators of this performance at Aldeburgh. This is a deep sense of faith and love for the world – where making art, in the broadest sense of that term, can be a gathering and flourishing, not a limitation and exclusion, where senses and artworks blur rather than compete.

Yates Norton © 2024

Rachel Jones' work was displayed during three special performances of Messiaen Song Cycles during the 75th Aldeburgh Festival.