Friday, 13 August 2010

Interview: Interesting People. Keith Bennett

OK. Here is my first interview! At the end of these we will know the answer to life, the universe and everything and at the end of this one we know why Simon Cowell is essentially the same as Charles Saatchi. Don’t ever say you don’t learn anything reading this blog, sometimes I tell you about mayonnaise, sometimes I tell you about washing powder, sometimes we learn about the finer points of what Andy Warhol said about mass production.

This is Keith Bennett. Keith and I have known each other for a number of years; we used to work together and the success of our then and subsequent relationship stems from the fact that I never tried to talk to him before 10am or without putting a cup of coffee in his hand first (they don’t tell you that in 7 habits of highly effective people, do they? They should). Keith composes fascinating, complex electronic music; at the conclusion of our working together he suddenly revealed this astonishing talent, produced an extensive back catalogue, and buggered off to Spain to devote himself to his art, just when I had got used to visiting him and stroking his cat. Anyway, here we go (my annotations in square brackets.)

1/ Tell us a bit about yourself and what you make.
I'm a composer, I write using computers* and have been doing this with a number of different systems for more than 30 years. I've done this alongside a long working life as a voluntary sector manager. Since retiring, I am now able to concentrate on writing full-time.
[*including, for the information of sad people like me, the Spectrum! I always think this is an achievement in itself as all mine ever did was beep. Indeed that was the sound command in Basic. BEEP 5:2.]

2/ Do you have a dedicated space for creating? Can you show us?
Yes. I'm very lucky to have been able to set up my studio in a Spanish caseta which I have had for many years. It's a very inspirational place in the mountains of Andalucia.
[Isn’t that tidy? It must have been agonising sharing an office with me. You see how much easier it is to keep tidy when you do something that doesn’t involve fabric!]

3/ Which of your creative achievements are you most proud of?
It's really for other people to put value on my work. I write for my satisfaction. The current piece is what absorbs me most.

4/ What’s the worst failure you’ve had, and what did you learn from it?
Regrets, I've had a few ............

5/ Has creating things yourself made you look differently at mass production? (i.e. Keith in your case this could be Britain’s Got Talent etc as well as the obvious.) Do you think creating things is a political act?
The second part of this question seems to need to be answered first. The debate in aesthetics concerning "pure" art has raged for millennia. It seems to me that all art has to eventually be a part of communication. We do what we do for our own satisfaction, but, we are all looking for some sort of recognition. "The respect of my peers" is what it seems to me to be about. Therefore, my view is, art must engage with "the polis"

I think Andy Warhol settled the "art v mass production" debate. [I felt I had been fobbed off with this so I came at it from another angle:]

a/ In the first part of your answer to question 5 (which is not quite what I meant by political but I'm going to let you off), you say (I think) that a function of good art is to be accepted & appreciated by the wider public. I absolutely agree. However, you're writing complex tonal electronic music & opera. In the age of the Domination of Simon Cowell (TM), do you think there's a contradiction there?
I think you may have misunderstood what I meant here. [Readers! I did not. ;-)] All artists work for their own satisfaction - pursuing as far as possible where it goes. Insofar as I raise my sight to outside myself, my first consideration is "the respect of my peers". The appreciation of "the polis" is really just a bonus and, to me, a matter of luck. We have no control over what will become "popular". The response to your next question deals with this further.   

b/ Having googled what Andy Warhol said about mass production (yes I am uncultured), he saw it as a democratising force. Do you think the democratising effect of something like, for example, McDonalds, still outweighs its problems?
This is the subject for an essay - possibly a book!

Using the example of Andy Warhol, I was thinking more about his use of mass production methods in his art. The point, for me, is that they are not incompatible. He (and many more artists at the time) re-discovered the essential communal nature of art. Think about the artist studios of the Renaissance. In establishing The Factory, involving himself in those types of art that use mass production methods such as lithograph, album covers, film, pop music etc, he (and again, many others), as well as re-establishing the purpose of the artist in the community, was going back to the concept of the artist as journeyman that prevailed before the Romantic period. This inevitably interrogates the nineteenth century concept of the artist as "solitary genius". A complex cocktail, difficult to unpack in a few sentences!

My take on the " democratising force" is that it's really about the zeitgeist of the 60's. Art confronting and then assimilating mass production and all its implications. The outcome of these many, often conflicting, forces in the art of the time was the development of Community Art (notice the singular), Community Theatre, the community arts centre movement (starting with the Arts Labs). These opened up the possibility of everybody participating in the production of art, not just its consumption: "famous for 15 minutes". I was active in this movement in the 70s and 80s. Our aim was to open up the possibility of the creation of art in all its forms by everybody.

You seem to be very keen I discuss Simon Cowell! [eek!] In a mass production society, figures such as Mr Cowell will always appear and always have done. I can remember many of them. Realistically they have no affect on the primary production of art as they are the financiers. They occupy a crucial role in the dissemination of art to a wide audience (consider Saatchi and "Britart") and there are many artists who (understandably) are seduced by this. However, the financiers never understand what will become popular. The few, like Mr Cowell and Mr Saatchi, are the recipients of extraordinary luck. Time and again history shows that the financiers are always taken by surprise by the next "popular" form of art. All the artist can, and must do, is plough the furrow. If it's popular, so be it. If not, no matter. But the more who do it, the better it is for all of us.

Trying very hard not to caption this 'between a rock and a hard place.'
6/ Do you find yourself procrastinating, or are you very focused? What do you do to procrastinate?
I always use the term "displacement activity": there's always something important that has to be done before I am free to start work. This evening, while gearing up to answer this questionnaire, I set myself the deadline of starting it after "The Archers". It was well into "Front Row" before I began! I think it's important to find your own way of working. Personally, I set a start and end time for the day and try to keep to it (with variable success).

7/ Who do you admire who’s doing a similar kind of thing (alive or dead) who we should know about?
The person I admire most in my field of work is my former composition tutor at Nottingham University, James Fulkerson. He gave a whole generation of composers, who did not fit the narrow bounds of academic music at the time, confidence in their own work. The wonderful diversity of creative music in our universities today fully vindicates his vision.

Philip Glass, for giving us all the confidence to work tonally again.

The style of music I write in is sometimes called "eclectic". I wouldn't disagree with that title - I am influenced by all music.

8/ What’s the most useful thing anyone’s ever said to you, either about the creative process or about Life?
Alan Bennett: "The rule is; there are no rules."

9/ Where do you want to go from here in terms of your craft?
Get better at it and write the second opera!

10/ Anything else you want to add?
Thank you for asking me to participate. [No problem duck ;-)]

You can see more of Keith on his website or on his Facebook page, where he needs constant monitoring in case he starts playing Farmville.


Anonymous said...

That was really interesting :) I don't really go into this much online but I'm a composition student and the last composition module I took before I got ill and had to leave uni for a while was on composing a piece of spectral music. Very interesting :) came on here expecting knitting and got my other passion instead :D

Susie said...

Thank you Steph! Fancy you being a composition student. I'm glad you enjoyed it x