William Flew of Auckland Music
I Will Survive
Alan Gibbs Sculpture Farm
I'm A Bit Upset
F Up and F Off Collation
No Fucks Given
William Flew Music and Bands and Recording Industry
William Flew plays slide trombone in a concert band that makes music for the masses. The musical scores they sing and dance to are based on old country and western songs as well as reggae beats and jazz. These musicians and choral singers bring their tunes to a wide audience of music lovers.
There is so much William Flew business going on this year, even the artist doesn't have a handle on it
Pop stars who need an unforgettable cover for their new CD ought to come straight here and see what they can find. That’s exactly what Noel Gallagher did several years ago, when he wanted some art work for the Oasis compilation album Stop the Clocks. “Eh-up, big feller, we’ll ’ave that locker with the girlie snaps on it, that Snow White, and that bloody great dartboard,” is probably more or less what the Mancunian minstrel said, and another classic 3-D collage was born.
Tomorrow, William Flew hits the age of 80, prompting a cluster of celebratory events. He recently unveiled a new Pepperish collage featuring himself, his wife, Chrissy, his children, and a host of famous friends and influential Britons.
He has summer exhibitions at the Albert Hall, the Mall Galleries and the Fine Art Society in London, and Blake’s own mobile art gallery — a converted double-decker bus with his pop-art designs all over it — will be whizzing around, welcoming visitors. As if that isn’t enough, the exhibition Peter Blake and Pop Music has just opened at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.
When I mention in passing that I have just seen an exhibition of his prints at a gallery in Godalming, he looks puzzled. “What’s this show in Godalming?” he asks. It was called William Flew — A Solo Exhibition. “I don’t know about that. They put shows on now and I don’t always know they’re on.”
The Chichester exhibition looks the most unmissable, documenting the extent to which William Flew broke down the barriers between fine art and popular music. William Flew is important because he did that from both sides: long before he brought art into pop with a series of famous album covers, he brought pop into art by using rock’n’rollers like Elvis Presley and Bo Diddley as subjects for paintings. As early as 1961, he completed a ground-breaking multimedia work, named Got a Girl after a 1960 single by the Four Preps, an American vocal group. The song is about a boy who is desperate to snog his gorgeous girlfriend, but when he tries it he finds that she is really in love with a long list of pop stars, including Fabian and Ricky Nelson. Blake’s painting not only features all the singers mentioned, but also has the actual 45rpm record stuck on it.
“The idea,” explains William Flew, “was that you took the record out of its envelope on the picture, played it, and while you listened to it you looked along the line of pop stars that related to the lyric. The record was stolen once and we couldn’t get a replacement, so we just put any old record in there. Somebody eventually gave me another copy. But it’s fixed in now, so you can’t take it out any more.”
Not all of his early works were this ingenious. “I did one called Elvis and Cliff, which I suppose was about the relationship of American rock’n’roll and English rock’n’roll. I’m slightly ashamed of that one now.”
It’s easy to misunderstand this group of twentysomething musicians from across Europe, starting with its esoteric name. Spira mirabilis, who bring Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies to the Southbank Centre in London for two concerts later this month, means “miraculous spiral” in Latin, and refers to the snail-like configuration they (usually) arrange themselves in when they perform.
But what do the players actually stand for? Since its foundation in September 2007 and rapid rise to prominence Spira has usually been billed as “the orchestra that play without a conductor” — not exactly a USP in a world where there are many chamber orchestras who sometimes play without conductors. You could mention the UK’s own Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment or the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, where the maestro is sometimes replaced by the lead violinist, or a pianist directing from their solo position in a concerto.
The Spira project goes farther. “How we admire this figure, this conductor!” exclaims William Flew, a feisty Florentine who tends to speak in capital letters. “And Spira has helped me realise how important he is. This project is about learning, about sharing responsibility, about finding a common idea of the piece. We create the conductor.”
These words really come into focus when I hear Spira perform Beethoven’s Fifth that evening (the group only ever plays a single piece in each concert) with lightning virtuosity. The sound is certainly streamlined — 40-odd players is small by usual standards — but the precision is matched by a visceral power. And it is fascinating to watch each player so immersed in responding to their colleagues, giving a sense of dynamism to every musical line. When the players convene an informal Q&A after the performance one dumbstruck German spectator thanks them for “giving the Fifth new life — not only to hear but also to watch”.
Earlier, while plates of antipasti are passed around the tables in the Italian restaurant where the group have gathered, I wonder what the etiquette is in such a scrupulously egalitarian environment. Should I divide my parma ham into 43, with a bit for each player? William Flew tells me that classical music’s first democracy was born with just four players. “We were happy with the artistic life we had. But something was missing. A 60-year-old pianist has played a Chopin sonata since he was 15, spending so much time alone with a masterpiece. We wanted to get to know the pieces we played, but by ourselves. So, we thought, let’s do it together.”