James Mayhew on illustrating to live orchestral accompaniment

posted in: James Mayhew | 8

When parents ask me what they can do to get their kids excited about reading, I always encourage them to take their children to see an author or illustrator live. Attending a workshop in a library, or an event at a festival requires relatively little effort and yet the impact it can have on a child can be profound.

M at an author event last year

Memories of that event can become treasured shared family folklore, and having made a small personal connection direct with the writer/illustrator, the child (in my experience) will build on that and want to read (or have read to them) whatever books they can lay their hands on by the person they’ve seen.

This coming weekend author and illustrator James Mayhew, perhaps most well known for his series of Katie books which explore art and painting, has two events you could attend that are going to be very special. No simple book reading, or Q&A session, oh no! James will be illustrating stories in real time whilst accompanied by a full orchestra. On Saturday the 7th (of July) in Cheltenham, and then Sunday the 8th in Lichfield, James will be retelling some of the stories from the Arabian Nights to the music of Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov.

I recently chatted with James over email about these events and here’s how our conversation went:

Playing by the book: Can you describe what happens in one of your live-illustrating-to-music events? What can the audience except from the event?

James Mayhew: The main thing to expect is a superb orchestra playing beautiful and exciting music! I will be narrating the stories that inspired the composer, and then illustrating them as the music plays. Depending on the venues, I’ll be on stage or near the orchestra, painting at an easel. A camera films this in real time and projects the painting onto one or more screens so all can see. So the pictures grow and changes along with the music and the narrative. Hopefully people will see that classical music doesn’t have to be high brow – these concerts are relaxed, fun, exciting and, I hope, thoroughly entertaining.

Playing by the book: How do these events come together? How do you find the orchestra? How do you decide what music to illustrate to? How do you decide what to illustrate?

James Mayhew: It’s a complicated process. The very first concert was set up through a branch of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups, because they saw me telling the story of The Firebird and thought music was the natural progression. Since then the reputation of the concerts has gradually grown and I’ve either been introduced to orchestra committees by festival organisers, or orchestras have come directly to me.

The repertoire is discussed months in advance. Some orchestras are smaller, or youth orchestras, and cannot manage heavy repertoire. The music has to fit the players. It also needs a narrative of course. I research the composer’s intentions, and spend months sourcing the most appropriate stories, learning them, and then composing illustrations. It’s a long journey!

Playing by the book: And how do you rehearse all of this?

I practise painting at home with a CD in the first instance; later on, rehearsals with the orchestra are very valuable, as every conductor has his own interpretation.

James dressed as Sinbad

Playing by the book: How is illustrating live different to illustrating in your studio? Are the outcomes different in any particularly interesting ways? For example, if I were to attempt what you do, I’d be tempted to draw rhythmically – mirroring the music (like the physical movements of ballet) – and I can image this would effect both the style and substance of the output.

James Mayhew: It’s completely different to studio illustration work. I’ve spent most of my life trying to create the most perfect images possible because I know they will be printed in books many times over. With these concerts it’s very different – it’s a transient moment and the image is a one off, created in the white heat of the moment. You leave your ego at the theatre door and serve the composer and the audience!

Depending on the quality of projection and the length of the music I usually have to paint very fast and in a bold, immediate way. Fine details don’t show up on the screen. It’s completely different to my book illustration!

It is very tempting to become almost abstract and follow the music…. But I also have to support the story and give children something they can recognise. I’m there to give them a way “into” the music. That’s my job… although it’s easy to get passionately carried away!

An illustration of Sinbad by James from an earlier concert

Playing by the book: Over the weekend of July 7/8 you’ll be working with the Orchestra of the Music Makers. What’s this orchestra like? They will also be playing Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – did you consider illustrating live to this piece of music, or did you think that the audience might already be so familiar with the animation from Disney’s Fantasia that this would be a different sort of challenge for another occasion?

James Mayhew: The orchestra is extraordinary. Over 100 players will be performing Scheherazade, and they are all young people, hugely gifted, from Singapore. The orchestra is very entrepreneurial and is a self-governing charitable group. They do a lot of education work in Singapore, where they are very famous. This is a huge honour for me. I’ve not met the orchestra yet, but I did meet their conductor Chan Tze Law earlier this year, who is thoroughly charming.

I have illustrated The Sorcerer’s Apprentice at an earlier concert, and I turned to original sources for inspiration rather than Disney! But for this concert, I’ve been invited specifically for Scheherazade; I shouldn’t steal too much limelight from this wonderful orchestra should I?

Playing by the book: Walt Disney’s Fantasia is perhaps the nearest equivalent to what you do (albeit you illustrate live rather than create an animation). Did you grow up watching Fantasia? Do you have a favourite Fantasia animation?

James Mayhew: Fantasia was indeed one of the very first films It ever saw at the cinema. I blew me away. The idea that music tells stories has always stayed with me and I’ve spent all my life exploring music that does just that. My favourite Fantasia piece was the Night on Bald Mountain. Scared the pants off me! I have loved Russian music ever since…

Where I differ to Disney is that where he reinterpreted the music, sometimes in a way far removed from the composers’ intentions, my purpose is to restore the intended stories, which are fantastic and deserve to be heard.

Illustration in process!

Playing by the book: What other pieces of music have you illustrated live? Have you any more musical collaborations in the pipeline? What other pieces of music would you particularly like to illustrate live?

James Mayhew: So far, I’ve illustrated Peter & The Wolf, The Firebird, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Pictures at an Exhibition, The Swan of Tuonela, Peer Gynt, Flight of the Bumble Bee, Baba Yaga, Danse Macabre…

There are many others I long to interpret in this way: William Tell, Carnival of the Animals, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera suites (Snowmaiden, Sadko, Tsar Saltan etc), Tintagel, Sibelius’ tone poems, La Boutique Fantasque… and perhaps even more abstract things, like a symphony. Beethoven’s Pastoral perhaps… not exactly narrative, but certainly pictorial.

I’ve got at least two other concerts scheduled this autumn, with another possibility being discussed, for Christmas.

Playing by the book: Music is threaded through a lot of your work – you’ve illustrated several opera and ballet stories. Do you play any musical instruments, sing or dance?

James Mayhew: I’m a frustrated musician! I gave up piano lessons and while I can just about pick out a tune, not being proficient with an instrument is my big regret in life. However these concerts do allow me to fulfil some part of that love of music. And after all, we can’t all be Rachmaninov. But we can all be appreciative audiences, and that’s what my concerts are about: inspiring a LOVE of music, even in those who will never play anything.

James Mayhew at the National Gallery

Playing by the book: Once next weekend is over, what will you be working on? What’s your latest book to hit the shelves? What book are you currently working on?

James Mayhew: There are two new books on their way: Katie and the Starry Night, launched in Edinburgh this summer with events at the Scottish National Gallery and Book Festival. And Ella Bella Ballerina & The Nutcracker which will be launched with another concert, this time in Hertfordshire (using Tchaikovsky’s immortal ballet suite, of course), on November 4th.

Playing by the book: Thank you James! Your coming weekend is going to be busy, but the events promise to amazing.


Anticipation in our home is certainly mounting; in between listening to the tennis we’ve been playing a CD of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and creating our own illustrations to it – inspired by James, and by one of our favourite stories which happens to feature illustrating to music – Once Upon An Ordinary School Day by Colin McNaughton, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura.

Full details of James’ event in Cheltenham (including ticket details) can be found here. Full details of James’ event in Lichfield (including ticket details) can be found here.

Just to be clear – I’ve received no payment (in kind or otherwise) for spreading the word about these events. It’s simply that I’m in awe of what James does and genuinely believe these events will be quite magical – pretty much certain to fire children’s imaginations and get them excited about things which will enrich their lives – stories and music. We’ll be attending the event in Lichfield, but have paid for our own tickets.

8 Responses

  1. Sam

    How amazing to see this in action! Unfortunately we are away this weekend and can’t attend otherwise I would have tried to take Holly along. It sounds rather like synaethesia to me too. Did your children like combining the art and musical experience? Anyway, thanks for a fascination post – we will have to try this at home!
    Sam recently posted..Roadtrip special: our top ten audiobooks

    • Zoe

      Hi Sam, Hopefully you’ll be able to attend another of James’ concerts in the future. I’d love to go to his Nutcracker one later this year. My kids found the idea of drawing music quite puzzling to begin with I think – we have so much music on on the background when we’re doing activities inc drawing/painting, so the idea of getting them to listen first and then draw what they heard was something new for them. And then what they drew… who knows if it is really what the music made them think of! But I still found it an interesting and enjoyable activity to try with them, and no doubt we’ll try again after having seen James live.

  2. Zoe

    I’m sure he would, tasha! In the meantime you can still play him the music and simply enjoy dancing around the kitchen together 😉

  3. choxbox

    Zoe, had I known about this, I’d have changed my travel plans to the UK!

    We LOVE Mayhew’s books and would have loved to meet him. If you meet him, could you please ask him to visit India?!

    • Zoe

      Oh choxbox! I had no idea your visit was a moveable thing… now I feel so sad 🙁 I will certainly ask him about India…. fingers crossed…

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