Work in Progress: Where the Wyrm Dieth Not

I’ve begun work on a new commission for the Vancouver-based pianist Corey Hamm, who recently recorded The People United Will Never be Defeated! by the American composer Frederic Rzewski. Corey requested that I provide the cover art for the forthcoming CD. Comprised of 36 variations, Rzewski’s virtuosic warhorse was written in 1975 as a tribute to the struggle of the Chilean people against a newly imposed repressive regime. Many of the recordings of this work that I’ve come across feature cover art that emphasizes the political overtones of the piece — but while most of these make sense, I wouldn’t call any of them particularly attractive. After weeks of poring over images of crowds, political demonstrations, and reading up on Chilean folklore and mythology, I decided to go an entirely different route.

I wanted the “people united” to be musicians. These musicians you see in the foreground of this painting are, in fact, caricatures of the percussionists from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s opera Samstag aus Licht. They are all different, each comprised of various real and imaginary instruments (except for the cyclops, who merely wears his instrument as a hat). But what force could unite them? Obviously, the act of playing together would be the most appropriate metaphor for unity through diversity, but I wanted something a little more visually powerful, something that not only unified the musicians, but protected them as well. The initial sketches toyed with a two-headed dragon, a giant she-wolf shaped like a piano (which looked *terrible* — talk about sketches that will never see the light of day!)… but in preparing for this painting I came across a quote from the Bible (Mark 9:48): “Where the wyrm dieth not, and the fire is never quenched.” This seemed in keeping with the spirit of Rzweski’s piece (both the political message as well as the utter ferocity of the piano writing). So I began looking at “wyrms” (also known as salamanders): creatures that were, throughout history, associated with elemental fire… the fact that this “wyrm” shares a  resemblance to a childhood pet — specifically an eastern spotted newt named Sam — is, of course, entirely coincidental.

Anyhow, the painting is only about two-thirds complete (I’m presently having a conundrum with the piano keys). But overall I’m pleased with how it’s progressing, and expect to have it finished by the end of the week.


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