Kubla Khan

Tamsin Rosewell, 2016

Commissioned by Ange Hardy for Esteeesee
Ink and gold leaf on canvas

I paint songs. I don’t mean that I illustrate them, as far as I’m concerned I am actually painting the music. When we are born the neural pathways that will later distinguish different senses are all connected; so new-born babies can’t tell taste from smell, or hearing or sight. They experience a sort of all-encompassing sensory emersion in the world. In the first weeks of life the pathways separate out in most humans and they will hear, see, taste and so on as different senses. The neural pathways that are related to perceiving music remain, I’m told, connected those that enable us to understand the nuances of language. However, a few people end up wired a little differently. About one in 2000 people are synaesthesic – that means that they perceive one sense alongside and as part of another. The most common form is called croma-graphemic synaesthesia, which means that numbers have associations with particular colours. Others associate colour with scent.  For me I don’t really hear music as such, at least not in the way most people do; I see it. I see colour and pattern and texture when music is playing. If I’m honest I am not really aware of and I don’t think about melody as such because, while I can ‘hear’ it perfectly well, I perceive it differently. To me a melody is a combination of colour and texture. ‘Hear’ and ‘see’ are not particularly helpful words at this point, perceive or identify are probably better. So, if someone isn’t actually listening to what you understand to be your music, then what are they experiencing when they listen to your track? Having explored this for some years, I think the best answer is probably ‘everything else that goes to make up a song’. Lyrics are extremely important to me, if someone sends me a mumbly song, then I really have no concept of what it is about. Higher pitched music that hits high into head-tone is something is struggle with massively. Harmonicas, some fiddle playing and some female voices all just hit me as searing scratches of very bright acid yellow/green and everything else dissolves. Yes, there is some music I really can’t make any sense of at all. Screechy female backing vocals are always ruining otherwise lovely songs for me! To see a song rather than hear it is not really so odd as it sounds at first, after all we already all use language to describe music that describes colour and texture. For example, if I told you that an artist’s singing voice was rich, or had a warmth, was full of colour, velvety, silky, glowing, sparkly or bright, you would know what I meant without me having to explain it. So perhaps we all still have connections between those neural pathways that we are not consciously aware of. I tested my perception a few years ago in a very public way and wrote a series of reviews of music albums; at no point in that time did any artist suggest that I hadn’t understood or heard properly their music, in fact I had the opposite, almost all said that they thought I had really listened and really understood it. However one might describe what I experience when I listen to music, it can’t be too far from what the rest of the world experiences. I just look in to the prism from a different plane.

So, I paint music. What I paint is a combination of what I see, in terms of colour and texture and sometimes pattern, and on top of that I place the lyrical content of the song, often in its entirety – so there are references to all parts of a story being told, and sometimes references to other songs by the same artist that are related to what I’m painting. I hide things in my paintings too, the same way that a musician will have obscure references to poems, people, places or moments in their lyrics. In my paitnings you will find little creatures that are important to the artist, flowers or figures sometimes words, letters or numbers. When I came to paint Ange’s setting of Kubla Khan it was clear to me that what was needed was a piece that placed the image of the damsel with the dulcimer right at the centre. Ange’s music revolves around her and her role in the landscape of the poem. The dome itself is a striking opening to the poem, but it is the damsel whose melody weaves throughout the piece from beginning to end.  Coleridge wrote the poem while he was living in the Highgate house owned by his friend Dr James Gillman. He hoped that Dr Gillman would cure him of his opium addiction, but he died there in 1834 ‘whispering strange things, uncertain whether oracles of jargon’. His room was on the second floor and commanded a view of the glorious woods of Hampstead Heath and of Kenwood House, with its vividly painted, domed library, arched windows and ornate columns.  He compared the view from this window to his own dreamed landscape of Xanadu. He brought the gardens inside his room and grew herbs on the window-sill: myrtle to symbolise lost love and rosemary for remembrance. Coleridge’s  Xanadu is astonishing; there are walls and towers girdling vividly coloured gardens. It is both ancient and richly built at the same time. There is lush fertile ground above icy caverns. There is a pleasure dome, built for beauty, joy and indulgence on the banks of a sacred river. The few characters who stalk this lurid and slightly troubling landscape are seen only in half-light, and we are not sure who they are and even if they exist at all.

Every school child is taught how this fragmentary poem was an opium-induced dream; how Coleridge woke to see the landscape and hear the words clearly, and how on writing them down in his half-woken state he was rudely interrupted by a ‘person from Porlock’, a messenger from nearby coastal village. Opium is a curious substance. It comes from a milky fluid that oozes from a cut made in the unripe seed pod of an opium poppy; the milk is dried and turns to a resin. The earliest reference we have to harvesting the opium poppy to extract the substance is in 3,400BC in lower Mesopotamia; the Sumerians referred to it as ‘the joy plant’. That milky substance contains two groups of alkaloids, including morphine and codeine; laudanum, on which Coleridge relied for most of his life, contains almost all the alkaloids together. It is tincture of alcohol and 10% powdered opium by weight. It has a high concentration of Morphine and is therefore a powerful narcotic. Those who have used Morphine regularly as a pain-killer, will know that it is a very false friend. It doesn’t exactly remove pain the way that paracetmol can completely remove a headache, it distances you from the pain, so the pain is still there, but it is hovering over there in the corner, only just in your sight and it doesn’t bother you anymore. The problem is that it distances you from everything and everyone else as well.  It is also erratic in its behaviour, when you first have it you might feel light and dreamy and lulled gently away from your pain, but after a while it seems to turn on you and you lurch from being restless and depressed, with shivering muscles and wavering vision, to being so distant that you start to wonder if you exist any longer at all. Sometimes you lie awake but unable to move, sweating and half-dreaming like someone in a high fever, and then you drop miles below the surface of the earth in to sleep so deep that you have no recollection of who or where you are when you awake again. At other times it causes you to think yourself to be in a different place with different people and to not see what or who is actually near you at all, or it will strip all the colour from your vision leaving you living in a black and white photograph. When I first met Ange she was very open about her past, and the role that drug abuse played in her life at one point, so I will be quite open about my experience with drugs; one of the reasons that she asked me to read Kubla Khan for this track was that she knew that I understood what an opium induced dream was like. By the time I came to paint Kubla Khan I had been through about six years of surgery, fifteen operations in all. That’s a lot of opium. I sat, shivered, paced and slept through many of its moods. We decided that I would start the painting in early January 2016 when I had spinal surgery - so I would paint Kubla Khan actually while on Morphine. The odd perspective in the landscape that both drops away and rises up too fast, the uncompromisingly bright colours all poured one on top of the other, the uncertainty of whether you are inside looking through a window or whether the image is simply stained glass, are all products of an opium-addled mind. The trouble was that, three months later (the painting still not finished) I was no longer on morphine and, looking at what I had put onto the canvas in a different state of mind I was suddenly unsure of what I had intended to paint in the first place. A bit like writing down a dream, or making a note of something while you are drunk; you look at it, cold and sober in the morning, and it makes little if any sense when it seemed brilliant and inspired a few hours before. But this is what Coleridge himself faced when he wrote that poem down  - once you are out of those dreams and interrupted from your visions it is very difficult indeed to capture them again. They flit away quickly and you can barely remember what they look like.

Having put the structure and the colour plan in place for the painting while in a fever of Morphine, I then worked to place the rest of the image into that landscape with a cool and calm intellect. It was like being required to finish someone else’s painting. And it was oddly disturbing too to have to force myself back to the memories and colours that I saw when my world was very distorted.

The image is structured round the damsel with her dulcimer. The dulcimer work on Ange’s track is devised and performed by the glorious dulcimer player, Kate Rouse. If you’ve seen Kate perform you’ll know that she has lovely tumbling auburn hair and beautiful refined, almost Renaissance features – so I popped her into the painting. She played the dulcimer on the track so she takes that role in the painting too.  I thought long and hard about what sort of dulcimer she should be playing in the image; the figure under the dome has held four different instruments in her past. I am an historian by background so even though I am painting a dream-landscape the details have to be historically accurate and properly researched! On the track Kate is playing a hammered dulcimer; however, no dulcimers of any sort exist in 13th Century Mongolia, at the time of Kublai Khan himself (at least there is no evidence for them, they seem to have come from the Middle East in about 900AD and spread from Spain to northern Europe in 12th century ) so I opted to paint the type of dulcimer that Coleridge would have known. The Mountain Dulcimer (or Appalachian Dulcimer) was a new design in Coleridge’s time, but had the status of an instrument that was a romantic ideal; it was connected to and played by the people who had explored the world, settled in new lands and forged their own culture based on a memory of ideal England. They had a romanticized notion of Appalachian residents as being ‘our Elizabethan ancestors’. The image I found of the earliest dulcimers from this pre-revival or traditional period (mid-1800s to 1940) had very long necks and rounder bodies. I painted one in the hands of our damsel. It didn’t look right at all; it looked like she was playing a banjo while trying to look ethereal. So that got scraped off with acetone, and I replaced it with a dulcimer from about 1840.

Our Dulcimer-playing damsel is only a vision, she is colourless but still sits firmly in the landscape with a bright dome for her cover. The dome is shaded by two cedars of Lebanon. Behind the dome and the trees can be seen a City of walls and towers, buildings, bridges and colonnades. Below the dome is a dark cavern, where an isolated figure is crouching, hunched over a book but gazing into a bowl of luminous liquid which lights his eyes. His hair floats out and fills the icy cave, turning into poppy leaves as it trails around him in a circle. Below him the mound drops away into a still but bright stained-glass sea. You can see through the mound as if it has been cut away; I have always had the idea that those last, very odd, lines of Kubla Khan refer to something like a Barrow-Wight of Anglo Saxon lore, the ancient Kings of the land not living and not quite dead, still defending their land from under the long-barrows and cairns that still protect England. The pale moon is waning from its full silver glory. Above it to either side are stained-glass roundels of a woman wailing and of her barely-human demon lover. Both are tangled in the shadows of poppies; indeed the poppies fill every spare corner of the painting and threaten to engulf it entirely if left to grow unchecked. The windows to the left and right might be in a church, or they might be clear and show a view into a different landscape. On the left there are woods and dales, water and a setting or rising sun. On the right there is a meandering river that runs from north to south and gathers in a pool at the base on the window. The colour drains from this last window, it looks faded or perhaps unfinished.  The poem is unfinished, so the painting fades out too, leaving us uncertain of exactly what we are looking at. Like a lot of my paintings it is not really intended to be pretty or beautiful. I’m not interested in painting pretty or pleasing pictures, I play with structure and perspective so it looks wrong. I play too with colour, setting complementary colour pairs alongside each other without relief so that everything sits on the surface and nothing is resting, but somehow it still looks balanced. This isn’t a gentle mystical landscape, it is a disturbing one induced by drugs and a damaged mind,  a jumble of beautiful and odd things forced up into the waking world.

There is a great deal hidden in this painting, little references to other songs on the album, and references to Ange herself, just in case someone misses the point of the painting! There are also references to what at the time were little private jokes in the studio while we were recording. Hidden in the painting are the following references to Ange and to the some of the other tracks on the album:

  1. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – whose song is the foundation of the title track ‘Esteesee’
  2. A ship and an albatross
  3. A drowned sailor
  4. A young Coleridge hiding with his book under a thorn
  5. A Swan
  6. The letters STC
  7. A child asleep under a tree in the woods
  8. Pants and Socks hanging on a washing line (guess the song!)
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