The art of keeping a sketchbook
An insight into a student-led collaboration between Music and Fine Art
Over the last half year I’ve had the pleasure of visiting exhibitions of two artists local to the North East of Scotland. I was taken by surprise to find – among the seascapes of Frances Walker and Kate Downie – a similar little gem, namely the painters’ sketchbooks.
I became completely absorbed by random pages of sketches and reflections. What interested me was the process behind the paintings: the reflections and decisions the painters had made.
Last spring I started a collaboration with two OCA students, Gesa Helms (Fine Art) and Gary Malkin (Composing Music). What struck me most in our conversations was the expectation by Gesa that I, as a composition student, would keep a sketchbook.
So why did I actually not keep a sketchbook and why did I restrict myself to a learning log? A sketchbook and learning log are different things. I use my learning log for notes of concerts, books and reflections on my learning process. I never sit down and just compose a few bars or experiment with the expressive qualities of different curves or chord progressions just for the sake of doing so.
Being invited by Gesa to react to her sketchbook in a composition has given me the opportunity to study a Fine Art student’s sketchbook. Inspired by the sketches and reflections I decided upon an experiment. With an A5-sized, spiral-bound blank sketchbook in hand I went for walks and visited a range of local exhibitions to record my experiences in drawings, haikus and other reflections – alongside ideas for melodies, curves, chord progressions and structures for larger works.
Two weeks on I have made two observations.
First, the sketchbook has become a learning book, a place where I can freely experiment for ten or fifteen minutes with finding an appropriate melody for a mood I would like to express. With no pressure to design a plan first or to actually finish a composition, it invites me to compose more frequently.
Second, my sketchbook has become an inspiration book, a book full of drawings, haikus and reflections that I have already come back to when I felt like composing one or more snippets in a quiet moment.
The focus of composers tends to be on the end-product, the score and the performance of that score. Is the time ripe to slightly alter the focus of our work and put our sketchbooks on display to provide the listener insight in the creative processes behind our compositions? Sometimes it is good to look beyond the boundaries of our own means of expression and question our own practices. From painters we can learn the art of keeping a sketchbook.