The brainchild of Jonny Davis le Brun of Rongorongo, the In Response To series encourages musicians to cultivate works inspired by artists, exploring the parallels between the creation of visual arts and audio culture. In association with Bido Lito! and Tate Liverpool, Merseyside musicians were invited to view Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms and compose responses to the hugely evocative and, often, claustrophobic paintings by the figurative master.
Invisible Rooms hones in on Bacon’s painting of structures around his subjects that draw the viewers eye even further towards a central figure, amplifying the emotional intensity of his paintings, and raising ideas about the self, space and how we position ourselves. The phrase itself, ‘invisible rooms’, is borrowed from French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, whose chief concernment with Bacon was the painter’s strange manipulation of space: the sketch lines or architectural bones that forever hint that the subject is caged or imprisoned.
Following suit from 2015’s In Response To… Jackson Pollock EP, a range of artists were invited to view the exhibition and then go their separate ways to interpret their selected work into a musical composition. With no limitations imposed on them artistically, the musicians were free to decide upon track length and style and the result is an album that reflects the innovative and sometimes schizophrenic styling of Bacon’s work. The compositions were then played or performed live at the exhibition at Tate Liverpool, giving the public a chance to listen to each of the musical responses amidst the paintings that inspired them.
Available to listen to below and free to download in its entirety, we spoke to each of the artists who contributed to the EP about their reasons for selecting a particular artwork, as well as their writing and recording process, and whether having a fixed point of inspiration, in this case, one of Bacon’s works, altered the way they approached their music-making.
MITTERNACHT – Put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter
Jonny Davis le Brun of Mitternacht was inspired by the exhibition as a whole and by reading the book ‘The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon’ by Daniel Farson, feeling that the “cohesive nature of his [Bacon’s] body of work made it quite easy to latch onto an aesthetic.” The result is a deeply atmospheric track that marries the “combination of the rich luxuries in which Bacon indulged (fine dining, expensive drinking and gambling) and his nihilistic vision of the cumbersome and fleshy human form.” To achieve a sound that echoed this mood, Jonny used synth plugins in “ethereal minor key sounds to hopefully evoke an opulent environment (perhaps a members-only bar he frequented) at the point in the evening when all attendees are ravaged with drink and creeping 4am regret.”
THE GENTLE SEX – Mirror/Image
Opening with the interloping vocal sample on Mirror/Image, Alex Walker of The Gentle Sex explains that he drew inspiration from ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ (1944). Relating his work to the piece, Alex elaborates: “I decided to start with the three figures in the picture and used three pieces of dialogue, a couple recorded backwards and at different speeds to mimic the distorted figures in the picture. I wanted to take the framing/crucifix element of Bacon’s work and use a similar idea by putting my voices into its own kind of frame.”
MOVE SLOW – Sand Dune (A meditation for Francis Bacon)
Greg Baugh of Move Slow was instantly drawn to Bacon’s 1983 work ‘Sand dune’: “I really like the individual elements of the piece, for example, the frame, the light and the arrow. Straight away it gave me the idea to create a different sonic element to represent each section of the piece – I can then piece it together to create a cohesive whole.” Splitting his composition Sand Dune (A meditation for Francis Bacon) into different layers to reflect the different elements of Bacon’s painting, the result is a wall of sound of discordant, brain-pounding electronic beats.
WINDOM EARLE – Man In Blue V
The composition begins with the echoing, blunt, repeated refrain of “There is no such thing as art, there are only artists” which then warps and fades and gives way to a more melody-led electronica. Paul Sumpter of Windom Earle elaborates: “The process of composing the song was informed by a lingering emotional response as opposed to any direct reasoning. We didn’t sit with a copy of the work in front of us. When we came to work on the response both myself and Sean [Sinnott] had started working on separate pieces and I think the dividing line between them is pretty clear. Even within this response, there is no absolute truth.”
EVIL PINK MACHINE – Study for a Portrait (1949)
Igor Delgado Martin of Evil Pink Machine explains the process of writing and recording his crunching and jarring track, inspired by Bacon’s 1949 painting: “Using a picture of the artwork as reference, I started jamming on my synth, trying to find sounds and melodies that resonated with the painting. Then I repeated the same process with guitars and drums and everything started coming together. I chose a 7/4 time signature to emphasize the feeling of awkwardness and incompleteness. I wanted the listener to experience a similar feeling to what I felt when looking at the artwork.” A sax solo, which Igor refers to as a “failed attempt at a conventional sax solo” and that was almost deleted adds to “the sonic mess that can be heard on the track”.
LO FIVE – Cadaver Trap
Struggling to decide on a painting the first time he visited the exhibition, on returning to the Tate, Neil Grant of Lo Five realised that ‘Study for a portrait 1949’ encapsulated the “sense of dread and claustrophobia” that the exhibition as a whole exuded for him. Neil explains that the foundation for Cadaver Trap came from hearing a sound that reminded him of those feelings: “One morning I was just coming around when I heard this deep, dull thudding sound in the distance, which gave that same sense of fear and dread I had from the exhibition. In my half-asleep state it felt a bit like the fear you’d have if you’d heard the distant drone of the tripods from War of the Worlds. It was actually marine piledrivers planting wind turbines in the sea. Anyway, I shot up, got my little portable recorder and captured as much of it as possible, and that became the pulse of the track. Everything just came together after I had that sound.”
LUNA – Pressing In
The soaring, commanding vocal and propelling bassline on LUNA’s Pressing In came as a response to Bacon’s oppressive 1952 work ‘Study For a Portrait’, with LUNA explaining “I found it to be the most powerful image. It is so demonic that it almost scared me, bringing up charged emotions that I knew would fuel lots of ideas.” The emotions conjured up by Bacon’s work were then used as the point of inspiration for writing the track: “I tried to focus on the emotions that the piece made me feel – fear, loneliness, isolation – and relate back to times in my life that had made me feel the same way. This made it easier to become emotionally invested in the track and create something authentic.”
GERMANAGER – Items in haste
Also selecting to compose a response to ‘Study For a Portrait’, because it left the biggest impression on him after his first visit to the exhibition, Alex Germains of Germanager divulged “perhaps the chap in the painting suggests something of myself, the troubles and anguish one faces in life, and the impressions those troubles leave on our psyche. Mr Bacon’s work is replete with that tearing apart of things; the stretching and warping of the paint represents, to me, a physical and emotional contortion of time, space, and being.” Using an iPad to improvise the piece in Garageband (“using their super cool and very playable touchpad instruments”) and then refining it on Logic, Alex notes how the musical track is granted a narrative through marrying it with Bacon’s image.
DEAD HEDGE TRIO – “Merz Triptych” Seated Figure, 1961
Dead Hedge Trio’s piece came from a collective response to ‘Seated Figure’: “The red backdrop and the contorted posture of the man gives the image tension and energy. With the larger paintings especially, he created vast abstract yet emotive scenes with busy and claustrophobic images/subjects within them giving them a feeling of loneliness and fettered freedom.” These contrasts found within Bacon’s painting inspired how the piece was conceived, with the trio travelling to the Lake District and capturing “recordings of us performing in vast outdoor spaces in the wilderness and make a sparse and lonely sound surrounded by natural ambience.” They then contrasted their use of outdoor space by “recording in a small barn [art installation, the Merz Barn] and came up with something more intense as a result”.
MERSEYSIDE IMPROVISERS ORCHESTRA – Crouching Nude
Feeling that elements of the painting could be applied to a musical composition, Ged Barry of Merseyside Improvisers Orchestra was drawn to ‘Crouching Nude’, elaborating that: “The cage that surrounds the figure suggested loops, ostinato patterns or a cyclic movement of sound. The figure in the painting was also important, it seems so serene, but powerful, and one of the ideas was for a couple of instruments to take the role of figure with the other instruments of the orchestra being the cage, surrounding it, fencing it in.” Ged also explains how using artwork as a point of reference suited their improvisational approach: “Choosing a piece of art as a point of inspiration gives you a starting point, a framework, or I this case a cage! The restraints it imposes can free up your creativity and lead you to unknown places and, as improvisors that’s what we’re always looking for.”