“I paint music” – In Conversation with Kirsty Matheson

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This year at Spitalfields Music Festival, we’ve commissioned double bassist and artist Kirsty Matheson to create a set of paintings based on Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’. We asked Kirsty to talk to us about her process, and tell us how Schoenberg’s music came to life in her work.

Can you tell us about the artwork you produce, and how your experience as a musician influences it?

I paint music – my art is a representation of how I hear music. I have synesthesia and see colours and shapes when I hear music. Over my career as a professional musician I have been immersed in the sound of orchestras and operas. When 2020 lockdown silenced live music I turned to painting to capture that feeling of playing and hearing music, this resonated with so many people that I have continued to paint music ever since.

What was your first response to Pierrot Lunaire, and how did you find the process of working with Schoenberg’s music?

My experience of Pierrot Lunaire began as a teenager when ‘Der kranke mond’ was part of the A level syllabus. The strange sound world Schoenberg creates for Pierrot intrigued me from the start. There is a space created in the music which is so different from other work, I always feel like I am stepping into a different world with this piece.

Painting Pierrot I thought would go quickly as they are short segments. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There is so much to unpack in each movement of Pierrot with so much symbolism in the text evoking the zeitgeist of the time, the way the sprechstimme pulls and pushes each syllable and how carefully Schoenberg crafts his choice of instrumentation.

How does Schoenberg’s composition style and the features of Pierrot Lunaire come out in the work?

One fascinating aspect I found in listening intently to Pierrot was how clearly some movements are white and some black. When I then set these out I discovered what I was hearing then tallied with Schoenberg’s structure of three acts of seven pieces.

Another feature of Schoenberg’s compositional structure that clearly came out in my work is the beginning and ending moonbeams. In ‘Mondestrunken’ where Pierrot is drunk on moonlight, Schoenberg has a falling seven note motif that represents the falling moonlight. This structure is like Pierrot drunkenly falling down stairs. This motif is shown in my painting as the block moonbeam which falls vertically. I remember when painting it, thinking of how it would be to try to walk down it and how important it was to feel awkward lurching from step to step where each step was a different size.

In the final ‘O Alter Duft’ there is a similar chromatic piano line but this time it is not as lurching. It is more sober. I again used a vertical moonbeam in this painting but this time it is calmer and without the awkward lurching. So gone are the dark lines and the subtle colours and instead white captures the calm after the storm of Pierrot’s journey.

How do you think visual art can provide us with a new experience or perspective on music that has been studied for centuries?

I have found it fascinating how my art has resonated with other people. When shown music in the form of a painting it triggers people’s imaginations and prompts audiences to listen to what their subconscious is showing them while listening to music. This is not a new perspective but rather a deepening of the listening experience. It prompts us to think less, dream more and feel where the music can take us.

Kirsty Matheson’s Pierrot Lunaire paintings will be displayed this year at Spitalfields Music Festival on Tuesday 9th July at St Mary-at-Hill, where The Hebrides Ensemble and Stephanie Lamprea will perform the work. Click here to book your ticket today.