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Proms 2014: Commemorating the outbreak of WWI with John Tavener and the Tallis Scholars

100 years after British foreign secretary Edward Grey said that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”, a programme of John Tavener’s music provided the perfect soundtrack for quiet remembrance.

Peter Phillips, the Tallis Scholars and members of the Heath Quartet at the Proms. Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Peter Phillips, the Tallis Scholars and members of the Heath
Quartet at the Proms. Photo: Chris Christodoulou

“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” The words of foreign secretary Edward Grey, spoken as Britain’s ultimatum to Germany expired at midnight Berlin time on 4 August 1914, have echoed down the decades. Amid all the wreath-laying and speech-making we’ve had to mark the centenary of the war’s outbreak, just hearing this phrase and seeing a candle blown out can have great power to evoke the events we are commemorating.  

As I’ve written already, the Proms has made some very interesting and unusual choices when it comes to remembering the First World War in musical terms. Chief among these was the programming of last night’s Late Night Prom, intended to span the moment a hundred years ago when Grey’s words were first spoken. Rather than early twentieth century pomp, we got John Tavener at his most soulful and pensive. Arguably, no composer ever wrote better music for solemn reflection – the kind of silence that his work is capable of producing is like no other. He told Bloomberg in 2007 that:

The most important thing about music is not what one writes down... It is what is left out. One should move towards silence.”  

This trajectory is easy to sense in Ikon of Light, the work that kicked off the programme last night. It was composed in 1984 for the Tallis Scholars, and 30 years later, Peter Phillips’ choir is still bringing a beautiful sort of lustre to the piece. The string trio enters each time with a single note that builds up to a sustained chord, but always returns to unison, focusing your mind on that one point, the place where music ends and silence begins. The calm, restrained majesty of it does funny things to your sense of time – the piece takes about 40 minutes, but when you surface from it, you feel as though hours has passed and yet you have barely shifted in your seat.

Prommers light candles to commemorate the start of WWI. Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Prommers light candles to commemorate the start of WWI.
Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Shortly before he died, Tavener wrote a new piece for the Tallis Scholars, Requiem Fragments, which received its world premiere last night. Hearing it alongside Ikon of Light, the two separated by 30 years, it was easy to hear how he developed as a composer over the course of his life. The first half of the piece has some stunning harmonies, and pulls the traditional western requiem structure around (Tavener leaves parts out, and adds Hindu acclamations instead). The addition of trombones to the strings provided by the Heath Quartet was slightly surprising, although their marked, detached chords beneath the vocal lines provided an interesting tonal contrast.

Peter Phillips explained to the audience that he first met the composer 35 years ago when Tavener contacted him wanting to find out more about the work of his namesake, the Tudor composer John Taverner. The latter’s influence lingers in the second half of Requiem Fragments, a 17-part polyphonic triumph with a soprano solo soaring over the top. Carolyn Sampson provided the latter last night, perched up by the Royal Albert Hall organ, an ethereal presence in the dark.

Afterwards, the lights went out, and prommers standing in the central arena of the hall lit their candles. The actor Samuel West read “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen, and the Tallis Scholars sang one of Tavener’s most famous short pieces, his setting of William Blake’s “The Lamb”. Then the candles were blown out, and we sat in the dark to think ourselves back in time.

Now read: John Tavener and the search for the music of God

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.