Several years ago I had taken an idea for a television series on contemporary British composers to a production company with a track record of commissions from Channel Four Television. The idea was to exploit the belief that audiences are regularly exposed to quite complex and progressive musical ideas through cinema and TV and use this to open a door on what was becoming seen as an area of British cultural strength. The idea received development money from Channel Four but got no further than that. However, the funding gave me the chance to research and meet a range of composers from across the musical spectrum. I was so excited by the subject that, even though a TV slot had melted away, I decided to shoot a documentary by myself and chose to make a short film about Gavin Bryars. That film then became a touchstone to reach out to like-minded people and it was after a tip-off from a mutual friend that I met David Hoskins – who had just set up his own audio media company. David and I shared a conviction that new media could be used to tap into a latent audience interest in classical and contemporary music. Shortly after we met, David made a connection with the BBTrust and found in them an organisation uniquely committed to using new media to communicate their message. Since then, David and I have made around thirty short films for the Trust focussing on it’s values through profiles of the artists it supports – it’s pretty close to the perfect job.
Film-making has always been an element of whatever I’ve done since art school. It’s interesting to look back over the last 30 years since graduating because that time-frame brings into focus through-lines which were, at the time, less visible. Although I’ve had access to or owned a movie camera since High School, it was an aesthetic form that I was initially interested in – the effects of framing, light, movement, camera speed. Applying that visual/aesthetic interest to something – like drama – was something I could never get going with. What moving pictures could express about a place or moment was always my priority. That kind of thinking shaped all the other forms I was involved with which for a long time was primarily theatre and TV set-design. Again, this was about expressing a point of view, but this time the subject was a written text. All this experimenting was a process of learning and honing skills that motivated me. And although at the time some of this felt a little directionless, there’s been a consistent development of ideas that, to some extent, has led me full circle back to drawing and painting.
Another important element, though, has been teaching and an involvement with education at University, Further and Secondary levels. The profoundest impact of teaching was a realisation that, after years of practical experience with media, I’ve actually learned quite a lot and teaching is an opportunity to pass this on; to put back some of the richness of experience that I’ve acquired from others. The other good thing about teaching is that, for me, it was about identifying ideas that have value, will make a difference to students, and then presenting them as clearly and vividly as possible. This process, I think, was the catalyst for the Channel Four project and really, it has been the thinking behind all of the BBTrust movies; certainly for me, but I think also my fellow collaborators.
Music has always been an important element for me personally. Although I played trumpet at High School until it was squeezed out by things at which I felt was more able, I don’t consider myself a musician. And in any case my musical curiosity predates learning to play an instrument. It’s still impossible for me to fully articulate how music affects people – no more than what ‘works’ in an oil painting or film sequence. But, beyond its emotive power, any successful cultural form seems to throw up so many new ideas that have human value. Which is what makes working for the Trust such a perfect job. Whether we are looking at the work of young musicians just starting to find their voice, or listening to the priorities of an experienced master, the number of perspectives, of new and valuable ways of looking at the world through music has been an experience in itself for me, much more than a task.
One of the most powerful elements in all this is the humility of all the artists we’ve encountered. Not one feels they have learned enough, tried enough, mastered enough. Their commitment is to excellence and an honest enquiry into what the composer was seeking to convey. And this for me, in an industry which perhaps could be said to hold on to it’s elitist tag a little too willingly, has been the most profound idea making these films has revealed – it has certainly shaped my own approach to art in my studio. And it seems to me to be at the heart of what makes the Trust’s work so valuable. Those values of humility and excellence are nowhere more evident than in chamber music – and it’s a fascinating sub-text across almost all the Trust’s films, that chamber music is at the core of music making.
Film-making for me is definitely a chamber endeavour and not the work of an auteur. Yes, I hold the camera. Yes, I make the cuts on the editing timeline. But, in truth it’s a subtle interplay between subject and collaborators and requires a continuous communication, reassessment and application of learned skills, experience and intuition. Like our musical subjects there’s the constant question – will this present what we’re looking at as truthfully and vividly as possible. And that process is a hunt – a search. Because making a documentary is not just about cutting out the bad bits or the uninteresting bits (it is also about that) as much as it is about interpreting a situation and then communicating that interpretation through moving pictures and sound. I’ve learned so much making these films – but there’s still so much more.
And if I wanted the best inspiration for that process I couldn’t do any better than look to the subjects of the Trust’s movies. The perfect job.
Watch Graham Johnston’s latest BBT video profile of Quatuor Ébène