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In Writing

Malcom Le Grice and Keith Rowe: After Leonardo

May 2017

Richard Thomas travels to the University of Plymouth for a rare audiovisual reunion of film maker Malcolm Le Grice and AMM stalwart Keith Rowe

Plymouth natives Malcolm Le Grice and Keith Rowe have worked together for over 50 years. They met as painters at Plymouth Art School and played in Mike Westbrook's Band alongside John Surman, Lou Gare and others before moving further away from jazz and their hometown.

Both relocated to London, Rowe exploring the deep space of post-Cagean instant composition with AMM while Le Grice plunged into celluloid, seeking to expand its parameters. Le Grice eventually returned to live and work in Plymouth and in January the city honoured him with a retrospective exhibition.

Curated by Ben Borthwick, Malcolm Le Grice: Present Moments And Passing Time occupied two sites, Plymouth Arts Centre and Peninsula Arts. Le Grice and Rowe's performance of After Leonardo took place at the latter and it couldn't have had a better cosmic backdrop; on the day of the performance, NASA had announced the existence of seven exoplanets orbiting the star Trappist-1, and Storm Doris was about to begin battering the UK.

Le Grice projected onto the gallery wall using multiple projectors and live video footage. Rowe projected sound into space with a tabletop guitar, a radio, miscellaneous objects and playback and processing devices. Between them they created an absorbing audiovisual palimpsest that was as febrile as the weather and as enigmatic as Trappist-1. It was a performance that explored the space between the audience and the projected image, the space between the years of a long creative relationship, the space between music and image, and the space between the artist and the art work.

First performed in 1971, on one level After Leonardo is a very personal work in that it is a form of autobiography. It’s also a work in a state of perpetual evolution documenting each phase of its evolutionary development. Yet at its base it is a rumination on aesthetic beauty, the Mona Lisa, and the psychoanalytic interpretation of beauty and sexuality, specifically Freud's Leonardo Da Vinci, A Memory Of His Childhood.

It opened with 14 small projections – nebulous images shot on negative film too quick to fix in one's mind, dust motes, video feedback. Rowe played a beautiful undulating drone and juxtaposed this with the clack of a 16 mm projector, resonant metallic scratches placed with great subtlety, and bursts of ionospheric radio interference.

The film, the performer and the audience merged as Le Grice filmed us viewing and re-projected it. Audience members also filmed with their phones and Le Grice filmed and projected that too. Add to that footage of past performances of After Leonardo, and the boundaries between the actual and the virtual, between passive and active spectatorship, were dissolved.

As the film developed, its conceptual core was revealed: images of the Mona Lisa; the text of Freud's monograph.

Rowe's radio picked up BBC Radio 4 and a distorted episode of The Archers shot reverberated electrostatic arrows in the flickering light filled air. The projected images expanded and warmer hues were introduced; indigo, Tuscan orange, rose-petal pink. Rowe's music similarly shifted into more clement territory. The needling projector racket faded and the beautiful schmaltz of Mahler's fifth symphony claimed the space. The images faded as did Mahler and all that was left was darkness, a low tone so quiet it was barely audible, and the communal sense that we, the audience, had witnessed something exceptional.

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