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Composer Peter Dayton and painter John Hitchens

Peter Dayton and John Hitchens (2018), photo by Douglas Johnson

"A Sort of Painting of Reality"
The Dayton-Hitchens Story (2013-2020)

Visual art has always fascinated me, moved me. Like music and poetry, the best works of visual art have stirred in me the urge to make art myself. Unlike music (and maybe poetry), I have little ability in visual art, but remain simply an avid observer. This engagement with visual art has led me to incorporate it into my composition on multiple occasions, including my solo and chamber instrumental pieces inspired by Charley Harper, Fernando de Szyszlo, and Graham Sutherland. This engagement has been more than an academic or artistic interest alone, and in almost every instance, the eventual contact with the artist or their estate that this creative process initiates has led to friendship and artistic camaraderie.

As part of an exchange program with London's Royal Academy of Music (fall 2011-spring 2012) during my Bachelor's Degree, the supervising professor, Dr. Michael Alec Rose gave my fellow exchange students and me a crash course in modern British painting. I was assigned to explore the art of Ivon Hitchens, the celebrated English painter known especially for his expressive, gestural, almost-abstract landscape paintings. I was immediately drawn to Ivon's work, so much so that I composed a 'four seasons' piece based on four Ivon Hitchens paintings, using the instrumentation of two of my fellow exchange students: Oboe (doubling English Horn) and Violin.

Poppies in June, by Ivon Hitchens

Poppies in June (1967), by Ivon Hitchens, image used by permission of the Estate of Ivon Hitchens

In first few months of 2013 I composed a solo piece, stimulated by reflections on John's massive three-panel piece "From Sombre Lands," with one of the dedicatees being the fourth and final London exchange student, a pianist. Since this music involved John's work directly, he engaged with this piece on a more personal level:


"This piano piece I REALLY liked – played it several times already and the video link performance.  The extra sonority of the piano carries the depth and width of emotion for me than the violin and oboe suite.  With hints of Scriabin and the leaping swell and flow of the Liszt piano pieces which are so wonderful.  Sorry about the name references but it perhaps explains why I feel so in tune with this piece, and I would be very happy to have my painting associated with this piece of your music" (April 8, 2013).

In the fall of 2013 I orchestrated From Sombre Lands, and subsequently the orchestrated version was selected to be recorded for the "Orchestral Masters, Vol. 2" compilation CD by Ablaze Records.

In the search for permission to publicly display images of Ivon's paintings alongside my music, I learned of Ivon's son John, also a painter. This request for permission began a correspondence that has lasted up through the present, though it might have ended with that brief exchange if I had not gone back for inspiration to John Hitchens's work in early 2013.

From Sombre Lands score excerpt by Peter Dayton

"From Sombre Lands," for Piano manuscript excerpt

From Sombre Lands, by John Hitchens

From Sombre Lands, by John Hitchens, image used by permission of John Hitchens

Letter from John Hitchens to composer Peter Dayton

Even as the orchestration was a chance for me to see my own piano piece in a new light, a chance to continue to hone my craft and discipline, so it revealed to John new aspects of the painting as well as a host of his own assessments of the composition and its potential for future inspiration:

"It seems to me to be very true to the original, whilst elevating it to a new wholeness of intent. From its original opening structure, it suits the title well. Deep extremities, broad sonorities, intent on its own Journey. Some delicious complex chords of poised grace and intent and floating cadences of suspended thought. Towering sound structures with shafts of light, releasing the mortality... I have 1 large canvas 2 x 3 1/2 meters, originally stretched in my home studio... I recently moved it to Greenleaves for New Years use-. It seems now just right to be called “From Sombre Lands, the Orchestral Version” incorporating elements of original painting, with interpretations of your orchestral structure and highlights. No doubt it will take on a life of its own, as your music did, whilst acknowledging its origins. An exciting idea to carry the journey onward…” (Jan 15, 2015)

First page of a letter from John Hitchens, January 15th, 2015

I combined the journey to Brno, Czech Republic for the recording session of "From Sombre Lands" with a trip to England to visit John beforehand in the summer of 2014. This would be my first firsthand exposure to the enchantment of the English countryside. Petworth, John's studio and the forested grounds of Greenleaves, the South Downs and the Roman ruins at Bignor Hill; it was more generosity on the part of John and his wife Rosy to show me such a place than my music-on-canvas palimpsest deserved. I carried the memory of those places - the undulating hills, jungles of rhododendron and bracken that surround Greenleaves, John's own world of carefully accumulated clutter of art, sculpted wood, painted stones, collaged nature, and room upon room of canvases - back with me to the United States as I moved to Baltimore to begin my Master's Degree in the fall.

Painter John Hitchens in Sussex
Visiting John Hitchens in Sussex

John Hitchens in the South Downs

Rhododendron forests on the grounds of Greenleaves

That fall, 2014, all of those memories were blowing around in my head as I began work on a piece for string orchestra, while at the same time I was contemplating the careful, elegant contrapuntal music of William Byrd, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Michael Tippett (his early, pastoral string music). Out of that marriage of image and style "Grounds" was born, which was included in Ablaze Record's "Orchestral Masters, Vol. 3" album. This recording opportunity gave me a pretext, yet again, to add England to my transatlantic itinerary in the upcoming summer of 2015.

Another trip filled with the wonders of West Sussex, as well as the chance to see John's progress on a new painting - this one inspired by my orchestration of "From Sombre Lands." While "Grounds" may not have been a direct response to this new painting of John's, it was clear that we were trading art pieces (as often has happened between painters) in addition to our exchange of written letters that had filled the gaps between visits. The main highlight of this second Hitchens visit, however, was the chance to see John's new large painting in person.

Grounds for String Orchesta Excerpt by Peter Dayton

Grounds, for String Orchestra manuscript excerpt

From Sombre Lands Orchestral Version Draft with painter John Hitchens

John Hitchens, standing with his painting From Sombre Lands, Orchestral Version

It took me until the summer of 2017 to begin a piece that I felt adequately responded to “From Sombre Lands, Orchestral Version” in appropriate scale and drama, after a number of abandoned attempts. An accident or less-than-careful reading on my part meant that I thought that this new painting was entitled “From Forgotten Lands,” which then became the title of my symphonic poem. Mistaken or not, the title felt entirely fitting.


“From Sombre Lands, Orchestral Version” was a stylistic departure from John’s art of recent years. Lately John’s work has tended towards configurations of shapes similar to aerial photographs of fields: repeated, close bands of colors, warm earth tones, fields of closely grouped dots, shapes delineated by dark, hard outlines like crop fields with mown borders. “From Sombre Lands, Orchestral Version,” however, recalled a number of aspects of John’s work from decades passed: painterly brushwork, light yellows, blues, and pinks, a sense of dimensionality and spatial depth. In that sense, “From Sombre Lands, Orchestral Version” gives new voice to colors and styles from forgotten lands of a stage of creative inquiry that is no longer the focus of John’s work.

From Sombre Lands and Orchestral Version by John Hitchens

Comparison of From Sombre Lands and From Sombre Lands Orchestral Version

While there are no plans yet to record my “Symphonic Poem: From Forgotten Lands,” [see update below] the occasion of my sister Holly undertaking an M. Phil (British equivalent of a Master’s Degree” at Cambridge University, precipitated my most recent trip to England in May 2018, during which, of course, I made time to visit John and Rosy again. In addition to the unexpected pleasure of meeting and being photographed by the artist Anne Purkiss (who has published several books of photographs of John and his artwork, as well as having photographed composers such as Michael Tippett, Leonard Bernstein, and Pierre Boulez), I was surprised, completely overwhelmed, to be shown a painting that John had created responding pictorially to my “Grounds, for String Orchestra.” While John had referenced a "Grounds" painting at several points throughout our correspondence, I had not seen any sketches (unlike "From Sombre Lands Orchestral Version"), and certainly did not know a painting had been completed! 

Composer Peter Dayton in front of From Sombre Lands Orchestral Version by John Hitchens

Standing in front of From Sombre Lands, Orchestral Version, photo by John Hitchens

Symphonic Poem: From Forgotten Lands score excerpt by Peter Dayton

Symphonic Poem: From Forgotten Lands manuscript excerpt

Grounds by John Hitchens

Grounds, by John Hitchens, above a study of the same work

As different in harmonic language and timbre as my “From Sombre Lands” is from “Grounds,” so John’s painting was as much a contrast from his other recent work, even his “From Sombre Lands, Orchestral Version.” Fully embracing lush greens and purples, painterly brush strokes, and linear, rather than repetitive gestures, John’s latest “trade” in our continued creative dialogue will be a challenge for me to answer with a work of comparable breadth, airiness, light, and color. Seeing this completed painting put me in mind of a description that John gave of "Grounds" upon listening to the CD recording:

"Glimpses of light between leaves, and dancing shadows enthreading the melody, the flow of time and season -, a reflective glimpse of ephemeral light-space, and the markers of the moment... I feel that 'grounds' is now a friend!" (May 10, 2016)

I have called this creative back-and-forth an exchange, but it is perhaps closer to a game of ‘telephone,’ each of us mishearing or mis-seeing in the other’s work what we were already predisposed to hear and see. “A sort of painting of reality,” as John said during this last visit, as much of a reality as each of us can perceive. However objectively valid or invalid the correspondences are, at this point they stand as much as a testament to the creative process as they do to the human process of growth from a mutual appreciation of art to a bond of friend. May that, the music, and the painting, continue as long as it can last.

John Hitchens letter to composer Peter Dayton

Second page of a letter from John Hitchens, May 10, 2016

Composer Peter Dayton and painter John Hitchens

Examining the score of Symphonic Poem: From Forgotten Lands with John Hitchens, the inspiring painting, From Sombre Lands Orchestral Version, behind us, that painting inspired by From Sombre Lands, the orchestral work inspired by a John Hitchens painting. Photograph Copyright 2018 by Anne Purkiss, all rights reserved.

"Aspects of Landscape"

The Dayton-Hitchens Story Continues (2018-2020)

Aspects Updates

Since my visit to John Hitchens in 2018, a host of projects, concerts, collaborations and compositions have come to pass, but throughout the fall of 2018, I was researching ways to execute an idea that John had dreamed up as part of an 80th birthday retrospective of his artwork that he was planning for the spring of 2020: an album of the music that I had composed that was inspired by  John's paintings to supplement the exhibition and John's forthcoming monograph.

Over the summer of 2019, I recorded "Symphonic Poem: From Forgotten Lands" and re-recorded "From Sombre Lands" with the Aireborn Studio Orchestra, conducted by composer, conductor, and Belmont University music teacher Keith Christopher. The experience of recording works of that magnitude is always so revealing and instructive. You have to come up with creative solutions to problems on the spot, errors in the score or parts reveal themselves (embarrassingly, in the moment, but with so many notes and details in the score and parts it is almost inevitable), interpretive questions come up and, with the ticking clock of studio time, you need to come up with a confident answer quickly.


In addition, long-time collaborator and composer/violist Christopher Lowry and I recorded an arrangement of "Letters for John." The album came together in the last weeks of February, with the longest delay being permission to use the live premiere recording of Grounds by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra. The album had been designed since the summer, so with the final permission in place, I was able to place the order from CDBaby! The copies of the album themselves  arrived just in time for me to ship off a bunch to John in England so they would be available at the exhibition opening.

Peter Dayton Aireborn Studios

Peter Dayton with the Aireborn Studio Orchestra,

recording From Sombre Lands in September 2019


They've arrived! 300 copies of Aspects of Landscape! The album is available through all online and streaming platforms


Illustration of the Aireborn recording sessions by Douglas Johnson

It would be inconceivable to tell any story that continues into and beyond March 2020 that did not mention or acknowledge the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without the knowledge of how to finally judge the UK's response to the global pandemic, the government's reaction allowed for us a generally normal tourist trip to London (with just more hand-washing and Purell), arriving on March 6, 2020. Doug was able to do some beautiful paintings on Hampstead Heath, we went to the Natural History Museum, and attending marvelous concerts that included works by 20th century female composers (Amy Beach, Dora Pejačević, Germaine Tailleferre, and others) and pieces like Beethoven's Archduke Trio and Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.


Paintings of Hampstead Heath by Douglas Johnson

We made it down to Southampton on March 12, 2020 for the "private view" opening of the Aspects of Landscape exhibition. The exhibition opening was a rousing success for John, whose over-five-decades of work were beautifully represented in the Southampton City Art Gallery as well as in the new monograph published by Sansom & Co.  After introductory words by gallery staff, a Southampton city councilmember, and former director of The Tate Gallery, Caroline Collier, I was invited to say a few words about John's work and our creative friendship, and performed From Sombre Lands on piano, which was recorded both by Doug and by John's daughter-in-law Sabreen.

There were originally plans for a performance of Grounds by members of the Són Project, as well as other additional programming. Obviously, COVID-19 has changed everything. I am so grateful that exhibition was able to open and be seen by so many members of John's family and admirers. It has prompted the creation of a truly beautiful monograph about John's work, with a marvelous essay by Caroline Collier, as well as my album that illustrates our creative correspondence to date. Everything came to fruition and that new fruit will lead to the seeds of further creation.

J.Hitchens; 2020-03-12, Soton DSC_4172 e
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Additional Links

John Hitches Aspects of Landscape Book Cover
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