Kenneth Noland (1924-2010)

Sometime in the early eighties in Paris on my way home I stopped in at Steve Lacy’s loft just two blocks south of my place on rue du Temple. I did this often because it was a great pleasure to come upon Steve rehearsing with quartet or sextet or composing at the piano — this was the moment he was writing the 20 songs based on Robert Creeley poems that would become Futurities. There was always something exciting happening there. This time Steve was alone with his sax, moving around the loft. The space was set up with half a dozen or more music stands, no doubt readied for the next rehearsal. Steve asked me to check out the music stands & when I looked at the first one I saw that there was something on it, but it was not a musical score. It was the reproduction of a painting.  I walked around and all the music stands had similar reproductions on them, all of them by the same painter, Kenneth Noland. I had seen Noland’s work here and there, knew of his affiliation with Black Mountain College in the fifties, but had never paid too much attention to what I took to be very well-done, pretty, but superficial work.

Lacy was moving from one music stand to the other, meditating on the paintings, then raising his soprano & improvising with eyes firmly focused on the paintings, reading the Nolands as if they were indeed musical scores. The cool, crisp & complex sequence of notes did indeed seem to be a perfect response to the geometrical lines and the clear, multi-faceted surfaces of the Noland paintings. A tremendous homage by a great musician to a great painter. I realized then that I had not paid enough or not the right kind of attention to Noland’s work, and that there was way more there than my glib glance had given me to see. My mistake. That afternoon, Steve taught me how to “read” (“play?”) a Noland painting, and I can never see one now without hearing clear musical notes coming off those canvas — a synaesthesia that helps me realize the amazing richness of texture & depth of the painter’s work.

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