What does Music look like?


Article by Vivion O’Kelly & Adam Sargent
Images courtesy of Dragon Art and the Kempinkski Hotel Bahía

Loud and colourful? Sinuous and subtle? Melodic and flowing? We have often wondered what the sound of music looks like, what an accomplished musician would do without the tools of his own trade, but with those of somebody else, such as a painter or sculptor.

Dive, by Brian Travers
Dive, by Brian Travers

All of us have often listened to a piece of good music and seen the musical phrases and melodies with our eyes closed. Is it possible to transfer the skills acquired by one creator to those of another? Would a great writer possess the same sense of rhythm and sound as even an average musician? We like to think so, and the answer is probably yes. There are numerous examples throughout history of such creative duality, and many of our greatest popular musicians began as art students.

Brian Travers
Brian Travers, saxophonist and founder member of reggae supergroup UB40

Such was the case of Brian Travers and John Illsley. Brian, saxophone player and founder member of the reggae supergroup UB40, originally got together with other members of the band from various schools across Birmingham in 1978, all influenced by the street music of the time, which included reggae. Within two years they were topping the charts with their Platinum album “Signing Off”, and they soon became one of the best-known bands in the world.

John Illsley
John Illsley, bass player and founder member of Dire Straits

John Illsley, who has received many BRIT and Grammy Awards, along with a Heritage Award, was the bass player of Dire Straits, which has sold more than 120 million records worldwide, including, of course, the hugely successful “Brothers in Arms” album. He too was one of the founder members, and played a large part in the development of the Dire Straits sound. When the group disbanded in 1995, John and singer Mark Knopfler were the only two original band members remaining, and John was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, as a member of the famous band.

Fishing Off St Mawes, by John Illsley
Fishing Off St Mawes, by John Illsley

Both had attended art college before moving over to music, and being former members of groups that had their own distinctive and creative sound, immediately recognizable to anybody anywhere in the world who has actually listened to the music of modern times, they would be expected to have continued working in the creative field. And as it happened, they did just that, deciding to move back to painting, the first love of their lives.

The first question asked of the painter by art collectors is invariably: “What gave you the inspiration to paint this particular painting?” So we can imagine how often the same question is asked of a successful musician who can also paints colourful and exciting images.

Brian in front of a section of “Ladies Day” on the opening night at the Kempinski Hotel Bahía
Brian in front of a section of “Ladies Day” on the opening night at the Kempinski Hotel Bahía
The full painting of “Ladies Day” has 19 sections and is fully installed at the hotel
The full painting of “Ladies Day” has 19 sections and is fully installed at the hotel

The Kempinski Art Programme 2020 offers a partial answer to the question above with a selection of paintings and personal prints from the collections of Brian Travers and John Illsley showing at the Kempinski Hotel Bahía. Brian paints in a variety of styles, but his main field of expression is abstract, which allows him the opportunity to express the thoughts and visions that can be found in the brass section of some of his group’s greatest hits.

10000 Hours, by Brian Travers
10000 Hours, by Brian Travers

To support their 40-year anniversary, UB40 have released their first studio album in five years titled “For the Many“, and for the first time, Brian has painted the album cover for the album, now on view at the
Kempinski Hotel. He has also painted figures that have inspired him over the years, including Muhammad Ali and David Bowie. He always paints with music in mind, especially that of jazz legend Miles Davis, as well as some classical works.

In the short video below Brian talks about the new, powerful album cover “For the Many”, currently on display at the Kempinski Hotel Bahía:

His “Sketches of Spain” is a tribute to Davis’ 1960 studio album of the same name, which includes an extended version of Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranquez”, as well as a piece from Manuel de Falla’s “El Amor Brujo”. If ever there was music to stir the soul of a painter, these two pieces would surely qualify.

“I tried to depict the movement, the atmosphere, the inspired rhythm that’s created by flamenco dancers as they break the still around us”, says Brian. “I keep innovating and changing. Repeating oneself can trap your art in a cul de sac of no return. Music never hurts anyone, even when it makes us cry.”

John Illsley at work in his New Forest Studio
John at work in his New Forest Studio

John has a different style, and was asked recently how he would convert the great sounds of “Sultans of Swing” to canvas. “Maybe black and white, in a smoky atmosphere,” he replied after a moment’s thought.

When Dire Straits stopped touring, John went on to make a number of successful solo albums.
One of these, titled “Beautiful You”, has one of John’s abstract guitar paintings as the front cover. His favourite medium is oil, which has the elasticity to create unpredictable and exciting images on canvas. Asked what first inspired him to paint and compose, his reply was a work of admirable brevity that says it all: Pierre Bonnard and Chuck Berry.

“Beautiful You” album cover by John Illsley
“Beautiful You” album cover by John Illsley

If you’re lucky enough to be in Marbella, head down to the Kempinski Hotel Bahía where John and Brian’s artwork is in residence until the end of 2020.

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