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Interview: David Clifton, musician, ceramicist

18 December 2020

‘We often put our unique creative activity at the bottom of every to-do list’

I started as artist in residence for three years at Wycliffe Hall at the beginning of Michaelmas term [News, 16 October]. I hope my experience of parish worship-music ministry and contemporary music and arts will inspire people preparing for placements in parishes, while I deepen my theology — and ensure no heresies are slipping in under the radar. I plan to set up a ceramics studio to share with artists and students.

I love the whole creative process. The whole adventure of life’s an absolute miracle. We can’t grasp all its aspects. I just love being about to give something back, if someone enjoys it, like my Fruit of the Spirit project: a piano and string quintet, without words. Or my sketches. How to capture the Trinity in clay?

I’m a jack of all trades, mucking around with mud and music till it looks or sounds nice; but I love drawing out the beauty of life through what everyone can do creatively.

I grieve for the beautiful sound of voices singing together in choirs, congregations, and clubs. I particularly miss concerts, the theatre, and gathered times of worship.

Yes, we’re all at Wycliffe, with socially distanced lectures and two sittings at meals. I’m forming a students’ group with filmmakers, scriptwriters, dancers, poets, painters, musicians, and songwriters. But I do feel sad for all students. They should be having the most wonderful, free, exploratory time of their lives.

We often put our unique creative activity at the bottom of every list. It’s what we hope to find time for one day when everything else is crossed off. I spent years doing this, and hope to encourage others not to.

I’m acutely conscious of the daily tragedies and difficulties besetting humanity across the world, and there are far more important matters than making art; but some of the greatest art is created in desperate circumstances. It informs, inspires, encourages, enlightens, moves, educates, and brings truth, hope, and light.

It’s important to undertake theological study concurrently. Degas said: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” John Tavener said: “Art is not limited if one allows the Holy Spirit to enter.”

I was director of music at St Paul’s, Onslow Square, then on the team at Holy Trinity, Brompton [HTB], before being invited to become director of music at St Mark’s, Tollington Park, where Sandy Millar was working.

When Sandy retired, I was invited to help develop contemporary Anglican worship music and train worship leaders in Knoxville. It was an amazing opportunity to help transform church life in a wonderful music city, and a great adventure. Knoxville, Tennessee, is where country music began, before moving to Nashville down the road. Elvis Presley was discovered by the RCA label on Market Square, the Everly Brothers went to school there, and Rachmaninov played his last concert there.

What amazed me, working with HTB and in their prison ministry, was seeing faith transforming people’s lives. Church in America is still a habit, but often with no real interest or effect. It’s not radical or contrary to society, like Jesus. The nature of the life in St Paul’s communities was so radical: people finding love, joy, and peace never encountered before. Why, when we have this incredible message of trust and love, is our influence ever more irrelevant? Christianity is sidelined out of health, education, industry. The hospitals in Knoxville were not even allowing last rites to patients in the pandemic.

Peterborough was a little village of wattle and daub, with the most beautiful building in Europe arising from it. Is what we’re doing as a spiritual community standing in such a radical manner? Love, hope — how can that be erased from our culture so quickly? My parents are just amazed at what’s happened in their lifetime.

Transformation doesn’t come without cost. It has to be fought for with great confidence and boldness. Hatching, matching, and dispatching won’t keep churches alive: it makes them a slightly uninteresting branch of the National Trust. We know how wonderful it is when people find faith and hope. We’re living in a battleground between right and wrong, death and disease. Jesus changed these, and stilled the storm, because our world isn’t supposed to be like that; and, one day, there will be a glorious restoration.

I sang in a cathedral choir, and only encountered folk, rock, and pop music in my teenage years. I was immensely inspired by these, particularly folk music, which often deals with life, faith, and philosophical issues. The first heavy-rock album I heard was by Black Sabbath, Master of Reality — not my preference at all. If you Google the lyrics to “After Forever”, you’ll be very surprised.

In my final year at college, I was signed to a record label, which led to two further contracts, eventually signing with Virgin Records, after being championed by the Radio 1 DJ John Peel, and playing for some of England and Ireland’s finest singer-songwriters.

I became a composer, arranger, facilitator, worship leader, director of music, choirmaster, performer. I’m not expert in any, though I enjoy them all, especially exploring innovative genres.

Working with choirs and bands and producing music is like coaching a football team. Participants have different skill levels, and need guidance, encouragement, and confidence. The more accomplished raise the bar and inspire those not so far along. Keeping friendships with God and with each other on track makes for the best music.

Music has an inherent power to unite people and to divide us — and flowers, beauty, and the arts. It’s particularly true of church music. I often quote a clergyman in 1723 complaining about the innovation of hymns, which he considered was the downfall of the Church.

We all have a spiritual language of the heart: an innate manner of expression, communication, and supplication through which we draw near to God, and we’re particularly sensitive about arts that connect us with the divine. We experience hurt or conflict when criticised or faced with something new — or old, come to that. The thing to remember is the true purpose of singing or flower-arranging: our lives and attitudes must be offered in spirit and truth. Prepare church music as if Jesus himself is preaching the sermon — which, in a sense, he is.

Music, rhythm, and melody in all its forms, across vast frequencies, are the secret and revealed language of the entire cosmos. It facilitates patterns of communication and intimacy in the world and its creatures. A Quaker sitting quietly is musical, with rhythmic heartbeat, the complex musical neurological frequencies and oscillations released by brain function, sounds of life-giving bloodflow, the whistle of air flowing through lungs. . . We are living worship songs, if we offer our selves as living sacrifices, and live accordingly. Structured musical beauty is God’s unique gift to us.

The beauty of ceramics is that we’re dealing with natural elements: earth, air, fire, and water — and space. Clay and glaze include all manner of chemical components. A good potter should be both artist and artisan, able to create functional bowls, plates, and mugs — and beauty, fun, and inspiration.

Dare I say what I think about the pandemic? We should be stewarding our beautiful planet more accountably. We’re commissioned with the care and protection of its flora and fauna, to live in harmonious relationship with the earth, yet we’ve exploited and ruined the world for financial gain and personal and political expediency. We’ve sown a storm and we’re currently reaping a whirlwind in ways that will soon be impossible to reverse with regard to habitat and wildlife. I always pray that those in power will heed David Attenborough’s message to the world.

We lived in Pinner until I was six, and then moved to Nairobi, Kenya. For me, that was akin to the Garden of Eden. When we moved back, I sang in Peterborough Cathedral choir under the direction of Dr Stanley Vann — the most wonderful experience imaginable.

We lived in Germany, Edinburgh, then near Salisbury, and then Manchester; and my parents eventually settled near Oxford. College and university was Chichester and Brighton, and then I moved to London, playing music all over the world, and then went to Knoxville. Now I live a village near Witney.

The love of family was my first experience of God; and lying in bed, aged about five, with double pneumonia, I experienced the sense of dimensions that were infinitesimally small, detailed, and precise, and correspondingly immense and overwhelming. I was aware of an enveloping loving otherness.

The mystery of God is revealed to me in myriad ways: in relationships, and love revealed through the beauty of the natural world and the arts. Poetry, painting, film, literature, and my first sense of the powerful Holy Spirit speaking through worship, particularly evensong in the cathedral choir, and, later on, through all Spirit-filled music and art.

I’d like to take more flying lessons. I got to fly a Spitfire TR MKIX for ten heavenly minutes on my 40th birthday. I want to record an album of hymns, maintaining their integrity though presenting them in a contemporary format, like my Ikos Christmas album.

Injustice, exploitation, violence, oppression, and the evil that infects and mars our beautiful world make me angry. And my own shortcomings, of course.

Family, friendship, peace and tranquillity, beautiful music, painting, inspirational books, poems, and films — they all make me happy. Life — it is such a privilege, despite all the ups and downs: a great adventure.

I’m hopeful, because of the kindness, compassion, and love that shine through the hearts and lives of most people, which is the potential for the change and transformation of all the bad stuff worldwide.

I pray for wisdom, constantly, and family, friends, and godchildren; for greater awareness of my own shortcomings, and the strength to do something about them; and, most importantly, that everyone on our verdant planet will know they are loved by God.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Johann Sebastian Bach. He gives an extraordinary window into the heart of heaven through his life as an ordinary family man, organising his church musicians, writing, teaching, playing in the town, coping with all the ups and downs of life, and yet hearing God speak through it all. If he’s unavailable, I’d like Jacob Collier. He’s the most innovative skilled musician and composer in Britain.


David Clifton was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


Forthcoming Events

15 May 2021
Send My Roots Rain: a poetry retreat
With Pádraig Ó Tuama, Malcolm Guite, Rachel Mann and others.

18 May 2021
Lift Up Your Voices, Lift Up Your Hearts
Speakers include John Bell, Noel Tredinnick and Helen Bent.

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