Benjamin Britten and three lessons in creativity

childhood time in the countryside

Benjamin Britten’s music makes me think of countryside and childhood

A cold clear blue-sky day in Oxford, children from primary schools across the county singing, young and old in the audience, everybody drawn together by the music. I went to see my 10-year-old daughter and her school choir at the Sheldonian today, taking part in a ‘Friday Afternoons’ concert to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten – and it was fantastic!

It was also a chance to hear Professor Robert Saxton, who is professor of composition and tutorial fellow in music at Worcester College, answering questions from the schoolchildren about Benjamin Britten, who taught him. Was Benjamin Britten a grumpy teacher? Well – a bit sharp sometimes, if people weren’t up to scratch or weren’t being efficient; but he was also very generous and very kind.

Dr John Traill, the conductor, passed on the children’s questions during an interview with Professor Saxton before the choirs embarked on the Friday Afternoons songs. Professor Saxton was also asked for tips for composers, and described three important lessons he had learned from his own teachers – including Benjamin Britten. His advice struck me as being relevant to pretty much any creative work, including writing, so here it is, paraphrased:

  • Think of the whole when you are working on the part. If you’re composing a line of music, have the impact you want the whole of the composition to make in mind.
  • Make it real. Get other people involved. Being able to record something and play it back via computer isn’t the same as letting other people loose on it to see if it works. (I suppose this is like the scary but essential part when you give your writing to readers.)
  • Work very hard! However great your ambitions for what you hope to achieve, none of it will be possible without working away on your technical skills.

It was amazing to hear the children singing songs I remember from my time in the South Berkshire Music Centre junior choir thirty years ago. You can’t beat a truly thundering finish with Old Abram Brown.

Happy St Cecilia’s Day everyone!

Q and A with an artist: Greg Rook and his Survivors paintings

The Cornfield, by Greg Rook

The Cornfield, by Greg Rook

It’s a long time since I’ve been to a private view, but back in October I left the school run to my other half and got the train to the OMT Gallery in Deptford, where I saw these fantastic paintings.

I think they’re beautiful, but also a little sinister and unsettling – you can guess at the relationships between the people in them, but you can’t quite tell what’s going on. It’s like catching a glint of a story out of the corner of your eye.

Morning with plough, by Greg Rook

Morning with plough, by Greg Rook

‘Not so mock heroic paintings of our past potential futures’

I know Greg Rook, the artist – twenty years ago, we were students together – but I don’t know anything much about him as an artist. I’m always interested to know, with writing, how other writers set about their work – cork-lined study? Pyjamas? Kitchen table? Morning? Evening? – and I was curious to find out more about what went into this series of paintings, and how they developed. So I asked Greg if he’d do a guest Q & A post on my blog, and here it is.

What prompted you to make the Survivors series of paintings? (Did you see the recent remake?) Besides the TV series, was there anything else that provided inspiration?

Greg: The original and remake acted as an inspiration in that they seemed like a right wing, apocalyptic reaction to ‘The Good Life’. Both the original ‘Survivors’ and ‘The Good Life’ were first broadcast in 1975 and they function as opposed versions of potential futures imagined in the sixties and seventies.

I was brought up understanding ‘The Good Life’ to be some kind of ideal – affable, well-intentioned making-do and self-reliance were the cornerstone of my moral upbringing – and yet the more I romanticise an agrarian, self-sufficient lifestyle, the more I fear that it will only come about, not through enlightened, progressive thinking, but through disaster and collapse.

Harvest, by Greg Rook

Harvest, by Greg Rook

What was the process – how did you set about them?

Greg: As with my earlier cowboy paintings, it is important that there is some remove between me and the imagery, as there is between me and the lifestyle – there is a level of naivety in my romanticising.

I spend months searching on the internet, through films and in specialist  ‘backwoods’ and ‘survivalist’ books and magazines sourced online, looking for the right figures and landscapes, researching the commune and off–grid movements that have been proposed and that have existed. I hoard, sort and refine until I have a body of images to work with. For this series I found myself particularly drawn to English Georgic landscapes, seventies US communes and Soviet social realism.

With my source imagery I set about creating collages in Photoshop. For this series I would have produced over a hundred from which I eventually paint about a dozen. In painting the chosen few I try to harmonise the different sources and yet let it remain evident that these are collaged from paintings, black and white photographs, film stills and drawings.

Landscape with goat, by Greg Rook

Landscape with goat, by Greg Rook

Where did you work on them? (What’s your studio like?) What do you have around you when you’re working?

Greg: I have a beautiful studio overlooking the canal in Bethnal Green. I’m surrounded by all the paintings that I’m still working on, as I work on all the paintings in the series at the same time, and a wall of windows watching the boats and towpath pedestrians as they pass. I nearly always have podcasts playing in the background – arts, politics, comedy. I find music a bit overwhelming whilst I’m working, and silence even more so.

How long did they take to do? Was there a particular pattern or routine to the time you spent on them ?

Greg: I work on all the paintings, in stages, at the same time – they are all sketched out, then I work on each one for a day. Some are finished at this point. Some need another day. Some need rescuing and I have to come back to them again and again. As much as I enjoy the freshness of the paintings that work first time, I get great satisfaction from bringing a painting back from the brink of disaster.

Untitled (tents), by Greg Rook

Untitled (pigs), by Greg Rook

The people in the paintings are doing various tasks – some of them labouring away, others not so much. If you were a Survivor, what do you think you’d end up doing?

Greg: Part of the ambiguity in my take on commune living, agrarian life styles and self-sufficiency lies in the fact that, although I romanticise it, I suspect I would be a terrible survivor. Although I might have some of the skills or knowledge, I lack the inclination.

Are the women working harder than the men?

Greg: A previous series of paintings saw men indulging in foot washing, laying on of hands and snake handling. I worry about men’s tendency to get lost in beliefs and self-importance and I predict that women would carry the burden of providing following a collapse. I imagine factions, sects, conspiracies and theories occupying the men’s time.

Untitled (tents) by Greg Rook

Untitled (tents), by Greg Rook

Do you think these Survivors are going to survive?

Greg: Ultimately we are adaptable and our happiness is relative to our circumstances. If our expectations become limited then our aspirations shrink to fit, and what we require to survive adapts accordingly.

Which artists do you think have most influenced you (and these paintings)?

Greg: There are always paintings that inspire you to paint, and often very different works that are referenced or inspire you to make a particular painting. I love Michael Borremans’ ‘Red hand, Green hand’, George Braque’s studio paintings, Phillip Guston’s ‘Ravine’, ‘Pit’ or ‘Ancient Wall’, to pick a few. But in this series I’ve used Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, whilst perhaps being most directly influenced in the way I approach the paintings by the work of Neil Tate, Varda Caivano, Edouard Vuillard and the drawings of Van Gogh. Then again the colours owe a debt to early Technicolor and the hand tinted photographs of the early 1900s.

If you had to describe your work in 140 characters, what would you say? (I know, I know – I got asked this one about my writing. Mine was, “you may laugh now, but wait for the dying fall”).

Greg: Not so mock heroic paintings of our past potential futures.

Is there a famous painting , or other work of art, you’d particularly like to be able to borrow for a bit and have around the house? (Choose more than one if you like…)

Greg: At the moment it would be ‘Red hand, Green hand’ by Michael Borremans. It makes my hands itch with wanting to paint.

What’s your next project?

Greg: I’m not yet done with this series of work. There will be another show documenting this ‘group’ as they continue to construct their lives.

Corn Dolly, by Greg Rook

Corn Dolly, by Greg Rook

You can see more of the Survivors paintings and other work on Greg’s website.