The Artist Goes Outdoors to Draw with a Sound Recorder for Company
“A sound piece, performance for voice” is what I wrote on the flyer when “Drawing on the Radio” was broadcast in June 2006. Jonny Brown, the singer with the Band of Holy Joy, has a regular spot he calls “Mining for Gold” on Resonance 104.4 FM. He invited me to do something for his show. “How about drawing on the radio? Would you do that, Aldous?”, he said one day in my studio. That was the only clue he gave me. Make of it what I will. I toyed with the idea for a while. I wondered whether to be didactic. But then in what way? A lecture? How-I-do-it instructions? Recipes for looking? It was talking with Gerry Smith one day that decided me, when his suggestion “Just record yourself drawing” made me realise that it was going to be art, not documentary, a work in its own right rather than some kind of explanation. After all, Resonance is art radio, a station like no other, where everything to do with listening can and does happen. Something here to live up to.
Not having a model to follow, the next step was to find a form for the broadcast. I was only going to discover that by trying, so I called on my friends Alfie Thomas and Chris Brierley at Glue Ear and they lent me a mini-disc sound recorder. The first time out Chris Brierley acted as sound recordist, but only the once. Chris being there had the good effect of hurrying me along and making me much more succinct, but I couldn’t expect him to be there all the time. So from then on I went out on my own with the recorder and a little microphone clipped to my collar. I might’ve preferred, for the sake of appearances, to have had someone with a boom holding one of those big furry microphones in front of me to make it all look super-professional with a sound crew standing by. But that’s another form of self-conscious aggrandisement. I’ve long got over most inhibitions I might’ve had about sketching out in the open but to stand there talking to myself …. I wasn’t used to it. It felt strange to me. Mainly because, apart from the occasional expletive, I tend to fall silent when I’m concentrating and drawing or painting (one reason I’d never make a society portrait painter). Another thing is my inept unfamiliarity with gadgetry – the number of times I forgot to press play when the machine was on the pause button! There were a good few recordings that got away which I was pleased with and thought I’d caught like a fish on a line until I looked down and saw that the counter was still on zero. It’s a theme that runs throughout; the forgetting to remember things I tell myself to remember to do. Trying to get anything to become a habit that then comes naturally needs a lot of practice. However, imagining what I’d missed at least helped me to realise what it was I wanted – to evoke a sense of place and eavesdrop on the artist.
To do this, the things I thought important that each episode should include were ambient sound; a sense of place; a word picture of my surroundings; a moment’s conversation with a passer-by; and, all the while, listening in on the artist’s thoughts. Although to call these colloquial offerings thoughts is a bit of a misnomer. The chatty nature of my commentary dipping in and out of different states of mind does nothing to elucidate the processes involved in drawing, but colours the emotional background to wherever I am sketching. Thinking aloud is not the same as thought. The gloss I would put on it is not what we hear in the broadcast. On the radio it makes more sense to treat drawing as a verb rather than a noun and then find a voice for the things that I am doing. In retrospect, I would have preferred to hear a clearer, more dramatically characterised representation of the various aspects and cognitive areas of objective drawing than I do. When I look at what goes into making a drawing – the thinking and action behind it – far from being a uniform activity, I see that drawing is made up out of a coordinated amalgamation of quite different patterns of behaviour and perception – energies and attention spans – that form a spectrum stretching between my hand and the drawing at one end to my gaze reaching out to touch the world at the other; and if I observe myself engaged in the different stages between setting out to sketch, being prepared and full of anticipation, selecting a motif, assessing its shape, form and structure, then beginning to map it out on the paper, picking out connections, seeing what to put in and what to leave out, looking for spaces and volumes and the outline in between them both I become conscious of how the coordinated concentration needed to make a drawing goes right through the body, intellectually and emotionally as well as physically, from the fingertip to the eye, touching everything ….. and if I pay attention to all these physical and conceptual unities, as and when they appear, in the stream leading up to each mark appearing on the paper, this conscious observation of myself observing the world allows the drawing to take care of itself and develop of its own accord while keeping my interference in its growth to a minimum. All of which goes faster than I can say, the articulation of my arm, thought and vision quicker than I am able to calculate.
The sequence of events recorded at each location goes from a general description of the whole scene in 360 degrees down to the detail of the particular motif that has caught my eye and that I have picked out to sketch, which I then translate into the language of drawing, turning the objects and the air around and between them into abstract shapes that I can easily imagine placing in position on the page before flipping into a too-fast-for-words, trance-like state as soon as I actually start to draw. Like concrete poetry, my voice here is supposed to indicate the desire for nothing but the call and response of optical sensation to come between the observer and the drawing – the noise of pure primal connectivity. Yes, you could say it also sounds like somebody having sex, but then the plan is to be able to differentiate between all the different parts inside the activity and snap out of one and into another sharpish. For example, the moment I ask myself if what I am doing is any good is a signal for me to stop and take a look at how the sketch is going and jump from my onomatopoetic articulation to a verbal analysis of what has appeared. Followed by a calculation of what to do next. And as soon as I have decided, plunge straight back into the drawing….. The idea here is to contrast obsessive involvement with analytical detachment; to amplify the states of mind and exaggerate the disjunctions between the changes of consciousness that artists go in and out of while drawing and painting.
What I especially like in these recordings, and it doesn’t usually happen when I’m out sketching, or perhaps it simply escapes me, is that strangers begin conversations as I’m drawing – I reasoned it was because I was already talking to myself, so it wasn’t as though they were interrupting my work but joining in with my monologue. Some of these were the “lost recordings” I was most sad about – the Indian man who started to ask me for advice on the interior design of the jewellery shop he was opening in Wandsworth; the Irish man who discussed the type of tattoo he was planning; the South Londoner who wanted to know what was the best paint to use for a mural in his kid’s bedroom, telling me confidently of the composition he had planned for the walls – voices that contrasted with mine but also serve as a metaphor for the way when we are concentrating on one thing odd memories, associations, unrelated thoughts surface without asking and a moment later vanish again. At least we caught the “seasonal iodine from the ocean” man in Ostend and the man from the American deep south, from Georgia, who spoke to me as he set up a tripod for a practice photograph where I was drawing on a traffic island in the middle of Piccadilly, wanting to know if the weather in London would be the same tomorrow night. Then finally, ideally (which I fail to do), there is the ego-less consideration of the qualities the drawing produces in the mind of the observer but at the end of each sketch, rather than follow my intention to describe the result clearly, coolly eliciting qualities from the drawing, what we hear instead (thinly disguised behind the mask of objectivity) is the pride of the artist ruffled, thwarted and dismayed, acknowledging his sense of failure, leaving us at the end of each episode with an acute sense of the gap between intention and execution.
Listening to the programme; it starts and soon we are laughing at the silliness of my attempt, but after a while those initial doubts and derision seem to settle and, if you are still listening, my attempt at lucid analysis and wordless trance turns into a strangely soothing, hypnotic rhythm of voice and sound, and there is something else – intriguingly interspersed little odd noises begin to colour the picture. They come from musicians in the studio playing live over my recordings. They begin discreetly at first, playing little echoes of the background noise. Interventions, so subtle that you wonder, at first, whether it is just a chance part of the ambient sound, or you are just imagining hearing it, barely discernable as music. As it goes on there’s no mistaking their playing as they begin to let rip, especially towards the end. For the last quarter of an hour, we are all in the studio together, me drawing, the band playing live on air, my voice on reverb. The sound they make takes over completely, drowning out my muffled voice (forgetting to talk into the microphone while I’m drawing) but the piece works I reckon the better for that. Radiophonic, I’d say.
The first three quarters of an hour of the programme was to be material I’d pre-recorded, the last piece would go out live. The three extracts we chose to broadcast, edited down to 15 minutes each, were in order; the sound of the seaside from Ostend in Belgium; and then two episodes from London – early evening in Piccadilly Circus and Waterloo Bridge in the rain.
To work out how to make this piece, I went to the countryside in Cornwall and Kent, the suburbs, parks, pubs and tourist sights of London. With sketchbook and sound recorder I caught the dawn chorus, Atlantic breakers, traffic in the city. I tried different kinds of commentary, from the anthropological approach to the sports commentator, to describe what I was doing while I was drawing, but it interfered too much. It wasn’t until I was looking at students’ work on a sketching field trip one evening that I thought, when one of them said, “You make all kinds of different sounds for the marks in the drawings you’re describing” , “Aha! That’s the way to do it!” But it is one thing to make the sound for the shape, speed and direction of brushmarks – a deep, bass woosh or ascending clickity clicks – when I am looking at someone’s already finished drawing and quite another to have that objectivity and step outside of the emotion while I am actually in the middle of making the mark myself. So it is that the sound of trance-like involvement lacks the particular descriptive expressiveness that comes when I break off into critical awareness that only distance can bring.
For where I want to take the listener – into the heart of drawing – there could be a clearer style of presentation with formal introductions to the psycho-physical conceptual areas the artist moves between, relating them more closely to categories of experience with which the person who does not draw from life can identify. Maybe. If I had practised a lot more and polished my technique, we could entertain these notions more seriously but actually, once I had found my format, I wasn’t going to work on whether the audience gets it or not. This is partly to dispel any idea that there might be a formula involved in making a drawing. After all, however much practice and experience I put into drawing, each time I start one, I have to begin again anew. I never know what will happen, whatever the plan it changes; together, all the separate instants of looking and gesture, thought and emotion, seeing and marking, searching and finding, take care of the drawing whether I like it or not.
To get the extemporised nature and energy and matter of the drawing across into the nervous system of the listener, the sound is unrehearsed, as fraught and taut, or as gentle and giving, as raw and refined as all the thought that goes into the drawing. It is a performance and a show. The bit I enjoyed most, easily the cheesiest part of the piece, was learning to say, whenever I came up for air, “This is Aldous [….pause….] Aldous Eveleigh…Drawing on the Radio [….pause….]…You’re listening to Jonny Brown’s ‘Mining for Gold’ on Resonance 104.4 FM”.