A Painting by Magritte

Harp solo (duration c. 10′).
First performed by Alice Giles AM, 31 August 2017 at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra as part of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s Australian Series.

Premiere recording, 31 August 2017, performed by Alice Giles.

Program Note
I have long been a fan of the Belgian surrealist René Magritte, and the way his paintings can take common objects (a pipe, an apple) and turn them into an image of quirky unease. There is something that is often both comical and unsettling in his work.

This piece is a response to one painting in particular, Golconda, currently in Houston’s Menil Collection. This well known landscape presents a sky filled with mathematically spaced men in black overcoats and bowler hats against a bland urban backdrop. It’s not clear whether the men are falling from the sky, rising from the earth or are suspended in space. This confusion of motion seemed, to me, to be particularly sympathetic to the harp. Apart from perhaps piano, and some percussion, I can think of few instruments where physical motion is so visually connected to the sound as the harp- the sheer expanse of the instrument necessitates it. Throughout the piece, I have considered the direction of travel much like the men in the painting- up, down, paused. I’ve also sought to capture some of the unease and liminality of Magritte- at times oppressively so.

The title of this piece was a challenge. To merely title my piece the same as the painting which sparked it felt like a bit of a betrayal to what Magritte intended in his paintings. After a long period of thinking- much longer than it usually takes me to title a piece- I found the solution in a different painting. Magritte was fascinated by false representation, most famously in his Treachery of Images. This painting, another of his best known, has a realistic picture of a pipe with the words Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“this is not a pipe”) written in cursive underneath it. It is not a pipe- it is a painting of a pipe. Similarly, despite what my title suggests, this is not a painting by Magritte but a piece for solo harp.

I am particularly grateful to Alice Giles for her stewardship and guidance on this piece. The harp is an infamously idiosyncratic instrument that has tripped up many composers, but her generosity of knowledge and openness to experimentation has been wonderful.

Reviews
Clinton White, City News