Editing Blake – and Revealing Our Film Trailer

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White announces the completion of the film behind the project, reveals the trailer for the film, celebrates the inspiration behind this work — and asks what Blake would make of the changes we are seeing in the world today.


So — we have a film: a 90-minute feature doc, Finding Blake: meeting William Blake in the 21st Century, or – memorialising the vegetal ephemeral. It was completed, fittingly, on Valentine’s Day. And it’s been a long labour of love — three years, and all my life and experience before that: poured into this.

Announcing the trailer for the film, 'Finding Blake'
Trailer for the film, ‘Finding Blake’.

It’s been a long wild ride. As Patti Smith sings in My Blakean Year:

“all that I envisioned, all that I had held dear, met with grave derision.” — Patti Smith

So I write this with a sense of reflection, and both an opening to the new, and an ending of the old. I’ve been coming and going with this project over these three years: having to put it down to focus on commercial work and pay the bills; deepening my activism and my engagement with the human community in doing so, equally emphasising a deeper connection with the Earth and the soil and engaging in the work of rewilding, inner and outer. And yet, always mindful of returning to the layers and levels of understanding of Blake’s zoas, and seeking to integrate so many aspects of life and the love and joy and horror of it all coming at me constantly, so that I can truly exist somewhere within these four levels of spiritual development.

That is what Blake’s life was all about, and why he still is such a strong source of inspiration. As Luis Carrido, Blake scholar — and, with his wife Carol, the re-discoverer of Blake’s final resting place underneath the plane tree in the Bunhill Fields ‘dissenters graveyard’ — says early in the film:

“It’s a movement of spiritual enlightenment. Blake helps us reach up to the infinite.” — Luis Carrido

Luis Garrido is one of the experts featured in our film, 'Finding Blake'
Luis Garrido, featured in the film ‘Finding Blake’

So, remembering this, and constantly working with Luis and his words and the other interviewees on screen, and the ever-present solid, calm craft of Lida Kindersley, the constant tap-tap-tapping of chisel hitting stone in her workshop — which I hope I’ve used to good measure in the film as a sound experience as well as a visual metaphor, chipping away at the fixedness of life — I’ve brought all the material to the editing chipping block. Chipped away, always trying to reach up to the infinite, with all its beautiful and wrathful manifestations we find upon the way.

Blake was born for this time

Having dived into Blake’s life and legacy, and responded to it all with this project, I wonder what Blake would have made of the massive cultural shifts and rise in consciousness we are seeing manifest. It is deeply encouraging to see folk — young and old, from every walk of life — rising to challenge vested power and political corruption.

Capitalism stifles and kills. Land ownership excludes and divides. Carbon production and emission destroys. And creativity, stilling the mind, listening, looking deeply — these are what re-invigorate and produce love and beauty and compassionate care. 

Blake would love this time in the human story. He was born for it, and we thank him for the legacy of life that has helped bring this shift into being. I wonder if his energy truly went beyond, or if it was re-incarnated: to keep returning as bodhisattvas to guide us humbler mortals to enlightenment…

Malcolm Guite is one of the experts featured in our film, 'Finding Blake'
Malcolm Guite, featured in the film ‘Finding Blake’

Wild weather and deep inspiration

Sitting down to edit often feels to me like sitting in the dentist’s chair and having my wisdom teeth pulled (I’ve had two out and still remember the pain and the size of the needles). There is an ominous phrase in the film world, often used by editors and all of us crafting away with cameras: ‘kill your babies’ — which really translates as ‘does your best material hold the story together and would the story survive without it?’ I’d much rather hand projects over — and I’ve worked with a few good editors on pieces of this — but ultimately it’s been my responsibility and I knew I must see it through.

“I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another mans I will not reason & compare: my business is to create”

It’s been wild weather outside the door: Storm Ciara was in full force when I arrived, and knocked out some of Cumbria’s water supply and left the land water-logged, cold, windy, and snowy up on the higher hills. And Storm Dennis is just coming up the land now as I finish the edit and write these words. Wonderful, wild weather to inspire my looking deep into this screen and allowing Blake to unfold…

Carol Leader is one of the experts featured in our film, 'Finding Blake'
Carol Leader, featured in the film ‘Finding Blake’

I’m grateful to two dear friends who have been closely involved with Finding Blake since the beginning. Poet Clare Crossman and filmmaker Jonnie Howard both have been giving me constant advice and good guidance on this visual telling, and whose wise words I took with me to the editing retreat high up in the Cumbrian wilds.

Using film to find William Blake

To get my creative juices going, I took myself to see the new Terence Malick film A Hidden Life: a masterly telling of a true story of conscientious objection, and the soul-felt struggle of the individual who chose this path. The film isn’t about words, as with much of Malick’s recent work. He uses huge-scale cinematography to conjure emotions. Sweeping shots of mountains and the vast rolling (Austrian) landscapes, with beautiful intimate detail of grass and corn, and the vast deep joy of all of it.

One of the disappointments I felt at the big Blake exhibition at Tate Britain that finished at the top of this month, alongside the lack of A/V material, is that the big scale film panning across an artwork didn’t go into enough detail. What I would love to do with Blake is to use special lenses to really scrutinise some of the images — prints and paintings — in deep detail. Access to the images to do this requires a vast budget, and the institutions that hold the bulk of Blake’s oeuvre frown upon such deep scrutiny. There was a very fine film doing the rounds last year looking at Picasso’s early life, with magnificent slow close-ups of some of his work — a powerful way to really look at an image. Blake’s work would really benefit from this close observation by those with eyes to see.

I was up at Clare’s cottage a year ago last winter, and cut all the sequences in draft form. I have sat on them since, adding other bits of footage and doing more interviews, but wondering what was lacking in the overall project. Jonnie — a great filmmaker who has done some of the early camerawork for the project (including the beautifully shot David Whyte interview in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where Blake quite literally sat upon our shoulders) has been continually saying I should inject more personal input: Why have I been doing this? What’s my story here? And so I have. I hope it works: it was never going to be all about me — that thought abhors me, but I realise that ultimately it’s both the personal and the wider perspective that tells the story, and this is where the craft of telling is, whatever the story.

David Whyte, featured in the film ‘Finding Blake’

Clare, a fine poet, highly capable of soul-diving to heft out words of the Earth to bring ethical diamonds to us — has also been telling me to work deeper with the Blakean words: pull out the wisdom of his legacy and craft them visually. So I’ve crafted small film-poems (one of my favourite art forms indeed — and I hope this entire film and project is in itself a larger film-poem to creativity and the human spiritual journey itself: from womb to soil).

I have to leave that to you, dear viewer, to judge for yourself. Feedback, of course, is welcome, when you get to see the whole thing on a screen someplace. We welcome reviews here, or email me directly. I’ll probably be out on a moor someplace or lugging cameras to film beavers or wild bogs, and it might take a while to respond (most of the film projects this year are responses to, reflections upon, and recording elements of this beautiful natural world, so far from the inner reflectiveness that Finding Blake has been).

Bringing Finding Blake into the world

There is a preview screening next month for those closely involved and those who chipped in to the crowdfunding campaign to get Finding Blake up and running all those centuries ago … Space is extremely limited but if you’re keen to come, email me and I’ll see if we can squeeze you in.

I’m talking to a prestigious venue about an official launch event, probably late Spring, and also to other venues around the land to take Finding Blake on a mini-tour later in the year. All details will be released here in good time. If you’d love to bring Finding Blake to a screen near you, with or without me to introduce it and do a Q&A, do shout — happy to negotiate.

For now, until Finding Blake manifests onto a screen near you, here to whet your Blakean appetite is the trailer for the film. 

Finding Blake – trailer, February 2020 from Finding Blake.


Notes

You can see many other film clips from our project, including footage that is included in the final film, over at our Finding Blake films at a glance page.

New Songs for Mr Blake

Musician and songwriter Mick Stannard is 69 years old and has, in his words, “been doing music most of that time, in bands and solo”. Ever since an operation meant singing was no longer possible, he’s been recording instrumental albums, but when he recently came across his forgotten copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience Mick wanted to set some of these poems to music — and asked Kate, his daughter, if she’d like to sing them. Their album, Visions of William Blake, was released earlier this year, and Mick and Kate Stannard now share their experience of working with Mr Blake.


Mick:

I think William Blake has been in my DNA for quite a long time. It feels as if Jerusalem has always been there. And of course it’s the same with The Tyger. Mind you, I’m only a beginner and don’t really know much about his ideas. My first musical influences were Vaughan Williams and traditional English folk; people like Shirley Collins and Sandy Denny. Finding out that artists like The Doors and Nick Drake were quoting him in their songs is probably what drew me to him. To be honest I never knew he was that big in ‘popular culture’.

I go mainly by instinct and to be honest I’ve taken a few liberties with the text of his poems (adding some words of my own and taking some of his out) so I’m not sure if a purist would necessarily approve!

Encounters with Blake

As far as Blake himself is concerned, I’m no expert or indeed scholar. Some years ago I went to an exhibition of his watercolours and it was like a kind of worship. The place was dark and each work shone out from its case like a little jewel. The detail in his paintings fascinated me. It was fantastic. That’s where I picked up Songs of Innocence and of Experience. This in turn (about thirty years later!) led me to the idea of setting these poems to music.

I guess it was pure chance. Kate and I had just finished an album, Welcome to Our World, and I was thinking about what to do next. I was looking in our bookcase for something (I can’t remember what it was) and just happened to come across the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Bingo! The more I delved into it, certain poems leapt out at me from the pages and I could hear the music straight away. With Visions of William Blake, it all seemed to make perfect sense. 

Visions of William Blake, by Mick and Kate Stannard

To take one example, I was amazed at how prescient the words to Holy Thursday are, speaking of poor folk living “in a rich and fruitful land”. I almost re-named our track Holy Food Bank Thursday. It seems that nothing much had changed since Blake’s day! Also I found the words to Earth’s Answer particularly powerful and The Lamb appealed to my sense of pastoral England. That’s where I tried to write music in the style of my hero, Vaughan Williams. Lots of strings, a harp and an oboe. Always an oboe for bucolic stuff!

A creative process

I don’t normally talk much about the creative process but I’ll have a bash. I’m basically a songwriter (of sorts) and love the challenge of writing lyrics and fitting them to music. Obviously with the ‘lyrics’ already taken care of by Mr Blake the process was a bit easier but no less of a challenge. I wasn’t aware which of his poems are well known and which others less so, and I think I chose the ones to have a go at by some kind of instinct — and of course those which appealed to me emotionally. They also had to scan pretty well and have a rhythm I could work with.

I’ve been listening to music for a long time and my influences are very diverse, stretching from traditional English folk to 60’s psychedelia, punk, new wave, classical, thrash metal and avant garde. So I guess my selection was in part dictated by my broad musical taste, which allowed me to devise a particular setting for each poem. Earth’s Answer for instance is very much influenced by Pink Floyd, whilst The Echoing Green is (hopefully) pure Vaughan Williams and strange to say, some of the music in The Door of Death now reminds me (in retrospect) of the last scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey … Where the hell did THAT come from?

Messing around with the texts may seem a bit sacrilegious but it was the only way I could make the finished songs work to my satisfaction. It was simply a case of composing the music and making the words fit even if I had to add or subtract some. I hope William wouldn’t have minded! The Garden of Love wasn’t long enough so I added quite a lot of extra lines, and in The Lamb I took Blake’s lead when he says in Auguries of Innocence “the lamb misused breeds public strife and yet forgives the butcher’s knife”, and wrote an additional verse with that in mind.

In Holy Thursday I saw a direct parallel between the times Blake talks about and today’s austerity Britain so I wrote a final verse about homelessness. I couldn’t possibly have done a different melody for Jerusalem as it already has the best ever tune so I just put in a bit of Brexit chaos at the end to reflect what’s currently happening in our green and pleasant land!

So, many reasons for changing the texts, I guess, and I think it occurred to me as I was going through the poems, kind of spontaneously. The process of making words and music fit is indeed pretty mysterious. That’s why when you hit on something special, it’s really exciting. I’ve no idea where it comes from. A higher place?

Kate:

Dad has always been interested in poetry, so I’ve been aware of William Blake among others for some time. Dad even used to write silly poems for me when I was young to make me laugh, and has always been creative. However I wasn’t very familiar with William Blake’s poetry before we started the album, and I didn’t know about his artwork either! But it’s been a really interesting project to work on together, and fun exploring both the light-hearted and the more sinister.

The poems and songs are all so different. I feel like I take on a different persona for each song on Visions of William Blake, and in a way sing as a different person. I think of them in a very separate way.

Usually we sit down and Dad gives me the poem to read through. I try to visualise and interpret the words quietly on my own, and then Dad plays me the music he’s recorded so far in headphones. Whilst the music is playing, I carry on visualising scenes or images and think about the words and then we go from there. We talk about what kind of tone of voice will work. For example, on Earth’s Answer the inspiration for my reading of the words was Gandalf from Lord of the Rings!

For me, with A Poison Tree it’s the storytelling of the poem. The scene I picture by the end of the poem is both chilling and beautiful, and it’s interesting (to me anyway) how peaceful it is, despite the hatred.

Visions of William Blake for the 21st century

I’ve been surprised at how many people my age and younger know of Blake, and have relatives who have studied his work or have a real interest.

I found it very interesting on first looking at Finding Blake to discover that the website and its users want to ‘re-imagine William Blake for the 21st century’. This very much articulated to me what I felt like we had also been doing with the album, whilst unaware at first of the Finding Blake site. By putting Blake’s words to music in 2019, and particularly for myself as someone who didn’t know very much about him before, I felt like I was in a sense ‘finding’ Blake.

To me, some of his poems are still very relevant now in 2019. For instance, like Dad has mentioned, the ideas behind Holy Thursday are still an issue now and it very much feels like nothing has changed in all these years. That poem could have been written in the 21st century.

Mick:

Blake seems to have had a larger influence on people’s general way of thinking than I had ever imagined. I think this new Extinction Rebellion movement which is currently growing is something that Blake would have enthusiastically espoused. Also, areas of mysticism and spirituality, something I had never considered.


Notes

Mick Stannard and his daughter Kate have been recording music together for about a year. Mick has been playing for longer than he cares to remember and has many influences ranging from The Velvet Underground to Vaughan Williams. He has recorded ten solo albums and three with Kate, Visions of William Blake being one. Kate has a degree in photography and is currently working for a cancer charity in London. She also designed the cover art for all the albums.

Kate and Mick Stannard

Visions of William Blake by Mick and Kate Stannard features twelve of William Blake’s poems: The Garden of Love; A Poison Tree; Auguries of Innocence; The Tiger; The Echoing Green; The Sick Rose; The Lamb; Earth’s Answer; Holy Thursday; The Door of Death; The Angel; Jerusalem. It’s available on Spotify, where you can also find their previous albums, and also available at Amazon as a download. You can buy the CD of Visions of William Blake direct from Mick: email him at mstannm[at]ntlworld[dot]com for details.

You can also discover another version of A Poison Tree in A Pocketful of Riches: Adapting Blake to Song, Joseph Andrew Thompson’s post about Astralingua’s own adaptation of Blake’s poems. And Strange Mystery Flower from Roger Arias describes his own Blakean musical adaptation.

Blakefest 2018

With Bognor Regis gearing up for its annual Blake-inspired arts festival tomorrow, Blakefest director Rachel Searle shares just a few of the highlights. Blakefest has become a unique cultural experience by the sea, featuring international art, poetry, political discussion panels. As Rachel says, "in all honesty, it's very pleasingly different and eclectic in its approach, and perfectly mirrors the creative magpie approach, showcasing the whole spectrum of art forms."

The presence of William Blake as a resident in my hometown of Felpham has always been a catalyst for me wanting to create a cultural legacy in Bognor, that both honours him but also celebrates new art and contemporary visionary artists, as well as bringing in artists that embrace his rebel spirit and political resistance. We are really excited by the acts we’ve managed to secure this year and the breadth of the programming.

BlakeFest, part of the Big Blake Project, has its roots in Blake’s vision of Beulah, perhaps best understood as a window on earth into heaven itself: In Felpham, Blake penned “Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates” and the words to Jerusalem. In the “spirit of Blake’s poetic genius”, BlakeFest is a synthesis of original music, poetry and audio-visual art and includes talks on issues of ‘the imagination’ and social justice. Our over-riding aim for BlakeFest is to be an agent of regeneration in Bognor Regis through the exploration and celebration of William Blake.

Before the main programme

While the main programme starts tomorrow, there is a question-time style panel debate tonight. Building Jerusalem is a public meeting, being held as part of BlakeFest 2018 at Chichester University, involving talks and a panel discussion exploring the relevance of William Blake’s poem/hymn Jerusalem, and wider philosophy, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Britain’s potential role in finding a solution to it. The event is an inter-faith and truth-seeking initiative and there will be no promotion of ideological or religious views that favour one faction of humanity over others. 

Building Jerusalem was inspired by the community poem – ‘We’ll Do It’ – crafted by Stella Bahin during her time as BlakeFest’s Poet-in-Residence. For me,’We’ll Do It’ reveals the heartbeat of Blake’s Jerusalem in the people of Bognor Regis today. With Blake’s own visions of both Beulah and Jerusalem, the idea of an inclusive inter-faith panel discussion emerged. This was followed by a sobering trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank. The highlight of the trip was meeting Dareen Tatour who used her precious last hours of freedom to give us a tour of her beloved Nazereth.”

Blakefest: music, poetry and talks

Our daytime programme starts at midday on Saturday with local and national talent. And the South Downs Poetry Festival has converged with Blakefest this year, curated by local bard Barry Smith — placing jazz and poetry alongside each other, weaving in and out of the musical acts throughout the day.

In keeping with Blake’s anti-establishment spirit of personal freedom, the acclaimed 1970s pop icon Lene Lovich headlines in the evening, with second headliner the All Things Must Pass Orchestra; led by Alex Eberhart, this is a celebration of the music of visionary Beatle, George Harrison. 

Mikey B Georgeson has been a major mover and shaker with BlakeFest, in capacities ranging from musician, exhibition curator, speaker and generally inspiring those around him. This year, he brings his Silent Disco, an art installation called An Actual Occasion and then performing as Mr Solo: an eclectic range of original, very individual, material taking inspiration from Bowie, the Beatles and Blake. A riveting and highly eloquent performer, this promises to be another highlight of BlakeFest 2018.

Vincent Gray will be unveiling and available to discuss an exciting possible sculpture for Bognor Regis, Albion Rose. Vincent recently completed a Keats sculpture now permanently installed in Eastgate Square, in Chichester.

The evening event at the Alexandra Theatre is being opened by a talk on Blake and the 60s by the accessible and scholarly Tobias Churton. The internationally-recognised and respected Churton, a very erudite orator, will be shedding light on Blake’s enduring contribution to our culture, focusing on the resurgence of his popular influence through the 1960s which still resonates across the arts, philosophically and spiritually.

Jamie Leeming will headline an afternoon set of live music sessions. He’ll also be accompanying the Southdown Festival Poets, culminating in Sasha Dugdale’s vocalising of Catherine Blake. Joy: Poetry & Jazz features Sasha Dugdale, Niall McDevitt, Naomi Foyle, Barry Smith and Jamie. The genre-crossing compositions of Jamie Leeming — with strong roots in the jazz tradition, but with folk-influenced imagery and textures  — meet the Blake-inspired words of South Downs poets!

Ciaran O’Driscoll and Margaret Farrelly with John Davies (aka Shedman) can be trusted to bring their lyrical Celtic music and humour to the afternoon. Probably the biggest contemporary name in Irish literature, Ciaran has won several awards and formally recognised by the Irish Arts Council as making an outstanding contribution to art and literature.

Alongside the wonderful musical lineup, free Silent Disco and performance poetry, there will be a graffiti art exhibition and bitesize talks on: Graffiti, Ginsberg and Blake; Blake and the Divided Brain; Female Revolutionary Figures

There is also an event in William and Catherine Blakes’ Cottage on Sunday and a guided walk.

Bognor Regis is a town poised at the brink of regeneration following similar projects in Margate, Hastings and Liverpool, with proposals including a major ‘William Blake Theatre’ — channelling local culture and arts to enrich their current heritage and touristic allure.


Notes

BlakeFest 2018 is taking place over the weekend 14th-16th September with the main focus being the all-day Live Music Festival on Saturday 15th at The Regis Centre/Alexandra Theatre from noon onwards. The Fringe Events on Friday and Sunday have limited numbers and payable separately.

The event is sponsored by Chichester University & Chichester Observer

You can find more information and booking details at the Blakefest website. This video shows events from last year’s festival.