for mixed ensemble, string quartet, solo piano (2003-4)
2 alto flutes, 2 clarinets, oboe d’amore, guitar, vibraphone, chamber organ
f.p. Kürbis, Church of St Anne and St Agnes, London, February 2007
Listen to Schilderkonst
‘De Schilderkonst’ is the title of perhaps Vermeer’s most important painting, in which he depicts a painter (himself?) seen from behind painting a girl posing as Clio, the Muse of History. The reflexive nature of the work is doubled by Vermeer’s use of a typical trompe-l’oeil effect, a curtain painted as if it were to be pulled across the whole picture. The meaning of the picture (whose title appears to be original) is debated: a plausible view is that in painting a real-life scene of a girl dressed up as Clio being painted, Vermeer is subverting the view of History as the highest of all subjects of art, deliberately showing the real world around the artificial one depicted by the painter.
Thus the subject of Vermeer’s painting becomes the relationship of art to the real, a painting about the aesthetics of painting in which he both depicts (in the painted painter) and implies (in the trompe-l’oeil curtain) the painting hand. In the same way Schilderkonst is an investigation into the aesthetics of music in which technique has become the explicit subject of the work: what I depict and how (and thus, why). The music of Schilderkonst adopts an attitude of speculation (in the form of three linked ‘experiments’) as to its relationship with ‘reality’.
Reality in Schilderkonst is investigated through the Dutch Realist art of the 17th-century, which entailed above all the visual exploration of the actual world around, as opposed to an idealised, embellished, imagined, caricatured or otherwise distorted vision of it through religious, historical or allegorical imagery. It posits both a morality of living and a view of the role of art in articulating, affirming and critiquing that way of life that is deeply bound up with the philosophical attitudes of the liberal bourgeois society in which it flourished. The Dutch realists – such as van Goyen, de Hooch, Saenredam, van de Velde, Steen, Fabritius and Vermeer – share with the earlier Flemish Primitives a concern for the materiality of things and attention to visual and textural detail, but develop much further a discourse of seeing that is against bombast, artifice, mannerism, over-elaboration, grand gesture and rhetorical flourish. Truth, in this art, is to be found in scrutinising what is close-to, everyday, visibly and experientially present; here, the texture of life as it is (or should be) is essentially calm, contemplative, undemonstrative, optimistic and serene, a slight but constant idealisation of mood that may be seen as reflecting the confidence and optimism of Dutch society of the time.
Schilderkonst sets out to reconfigure this ‘art of everyday living’ as the basis of a musical realism for the present day – an aesthetics that necessarily involves moral and political dimensions as well as artistic and spiritual ones. The focus in each of the works in the trilogy is on one painter or genre of Dutch 17th-century art in turn, through which a specific scenario is hypothesised and examined. The first piece is named after Saenredam, the painter of lucid, boldly formalised church interiors; the second, Low Country, takes off from the idea of ‘genre’ painting, such as the courtyard exteriors or street scenes of de Hooch and others; the third, Duinland (Dune land), evokes the empty ‘tonal’ landscapes of van Goyen. From each source certain features are extracted as a conceptual influence on an explicitly musical discourse.
Each of the pieces in Schilderkonst is based on the same initial material – the ‘In nomine Domini’ section from the Benedictus of the Missa Prolationum of the great Flemish contrapuntalist Johannes Ockeghem – which they treat in similar but distinct ways, all involving canon.
‘James Weeks is a composer with a gift for holding an audience charmed, even enraptured, for an evening… One can understand Weeks’ interest in the Dutch Realists of the Seventeenth Century, given his description of them: “calm, contemplative, undemonstrative, optimistic and serene”. Weeks’ music fitted these characteristics perfectly.’ New Notes
Interview with Jack Sheen on Saenredam, 2017