Musical pictures: A guest post by James Mayhew

winninglogoOn Saturday 9 November, the Federation of Children’s Book Groups is hosting a Festival of Children’s Literature at the Birmingham Conservatoire, to celebrate 45 years of the Federation, and receipt of the Eleanor Farjeon Award. It’s going to be a tremendously exciting day, and to whet your appetites I’ll be sharing a post a week this coming month with the different authors and illustrators who are taking part.

swordinthestone200px.We’re thrilled that James Mayhew will be celebrating with us on September 9. In the morning he’ll be running a workshop for children, all about illustrating to live music, and in the early afternoon he’ll be illustrating live to a concert performance of Benjamin Britten’s chamber suite, The Sword in the Stone, which was inspired by T. H. White’s eponymous novel.

In recent years live illustration to classical music has become something of a specialism for James. Having seen him in action myself (illustrating to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade) I can assure you it’s mesmerising. The experience of being bathed in amazing live music whilst watching stories come to life before your eyes, accompanied by James’ thoughtful storytelling is very special indeed.

But how did James start illustrating live to music? Here is James’ story:

It was a Federation of Children’s Book Groups event in St. Albans that opened the door to painting to music. An illustrated retelling of the Firebird story prompted the comment – “wouldn’t it be great to add the music?”

“But how?” I answered.

As it happened, the St Alban’s Children’s Book Group knew an orchestra keen to present a family concert and so, in 2007, I found myself on stage with around 100 musicians, painting at an easel as Stravinsky’s glorious score surrounded me; the pictures projected onto a vast screen for all to see. I’ve never been so nervous. But I was heartened by the fact that everyone – the book group, the orchestra and conductor – was prepared to take a risk.

For none of us really knew if such an approach could or would work. But somehow, it did, and Peter and the Wolf joined the Firebird, and since then Scheherazade, Baba Yaga, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Sorcerer’s Apprentice and many others have followed.

James Mayhew retelling The Firebird.

James Mayhew retelling The Firebird.

The concerts require an enormous amount of work, and perhaps that’s why very few people attempt such a high-wire act. I suppose I have a kind of a head start insofar as I have been fascinated in the storytelling and legends and myths and imagined pictures hidden within music since I was a child, and have researched, doodled and drawn for decades. In a way, the outcome was almost inevitable for me, although I never anticipated these wonderful opportunities and relish each one.

First there are the words. These need to be as authentic and close to the inspiration of the composer as possible, and fit around the music, never over it, unless the score demands so (as with Peter and the Wolf). But the stories also need to be accessible for children today. Preparing these scripts is as much work as a book.

My mission is to present concerts of classical music, usually complete works, with the correct story restored to it. Everyone hears famous music in adverts, at the movies, on TV. But very few people (not even orchestra musicians) know the stories that inspired it. And these are fantastic stories! Mostly myths and folk tales, they are stories that deserve to be heard. I rarely work from scripts, which I tend to find a stumbling block in a live performance. Instead I prefer, where possible, to learn all the stories by heart and narrate from memory.

Simultaneously I start to consider what I would like to draw or paint during the playing of the music. This is usually the hardest part to resolve. I need to use quiet, swift materials that will show up boldly on a big screen. Fine details executed on a small scale will not register. This is an entirely different method to my book illustration. I need to create something that fits the story and flows with the music; the brushstrokes are almost choreographically timed. And all this to music that sometimes only lasts 60 seconds! I have to leave my artistic ego at the theatre door and remember the purpose – which is to animate the music. It’s a huge challenge, but I believe in it, and find ever more ensembles and orchestras approaching me for potential collaborations.

James Mayhew illustrating live to Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

James Mayhew illustrating live to Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

This year I was greatly honoured to be the Guest Director of the Cheltenham Music Festival. As a non-musician, I was a little intimidated by the title, but the festival team wanted to highlight their refreshingly large programme of family events, and so I was, in a way, an ambassador for them.

Amongst my tasks were two big projects celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten. Coincidently, I grew up near Britten’s birthplace, Lowestoft, and my grandparents both knew him as children. My Grandmother even starred in a Sunday school play for which the young Britten wrote music. It’s a curious fact, but I heard very little of his music when I was young – but I’m making up for it this year.

A new, illustrated-live version of his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, was premiered in July. For this I was appropriately joined by an orchestra of young persons, the justly celebrated Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra. Alongside this I was also asked to design a production of Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde, his community work set to the Chester Mystery Play about Noah’s Ark. This was a vast undertaking, involving 200 local children in the magnificent surroundings of Tewkesbury Abbey. I am certain it would have been easier to design Wagner’s Ring! But it was a momentous event, and a deeply emotional one too, for the journey was long and hard and only by collaborating with so many wonderful people could it have worked.

Noye's Fludde, Cheltenham Festival 2013

Noye’s Fludde, Cheltenham Festival 2013

It is collaboration that I enjoy most about these events. A quarter century working in isolation on books is all very well, but these musical excursions have proved some of the most satisfying moments of my working life. And so I am delighted to be collaborating again, this time in Birmingham with students at the Conservatoire, again with music by Britten, in the very month of his anniversary.

This time it will be a workshop, involving children, so they too can discover the challenges and excitements of turning music into pictures. A public performance will follow, and we are using a wonderful but little known suite by Britten for chamber ensemble. It is music he wrote for a radio broadcast of T.H. Whites’s The Sword in the Stone. I have always loved Arthurian legends, and The Once and Future King quartet of books are amongst my favourites. This is an instance where I WILL need to refer to the text for any narration, for White’s witty, convoluted, delicious prose is harder to learn verbatim. The music is short, but very accessible, tuneful, full of colour and charm.

As the world of publishing changes and become more challenging, I find fewer and fewer opportunities to publish the sort of material that I believe in and am inspired by. At the same time, as arts funding is squeezed and creative activities worryingly sidelined in schools, I find I become more determined than ever to find new ways of sharing these things – art, music and literature – with the next generation. And so the transitory adrenaline rush of art created in a moment to music is something I hope to take a little further yet. How far? Who knows, but as with all my work I can promise it will be achieved with passion and integrity!


I’m sure you now understand why we are so excited that James is joining us at the Festival. The workshop is a unique experience – we don’t think anything like this has ever been offered before, where children will get to illustrate live to live music – and the concert is bound to be magical.

You can buy tickets for both the workshop (£11, children only) and the concert (£5, free to workshop participants) here, or in person in Birmingham at The Box (in the brand new Library of Birmingham).

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