Visual artist who knows the score

The Snow Queen - Tell Tale Hearts in collaboration with Lawrence Batley Theatre and The Civic, Barnsley
The Snow Queen - Tell Tale Hearts in collaboration with Lawrence Batley Theatre and The Civic, Barnsley

THE two sides of Michael Szpakowski’s artistic talent are on show in his native South Yorkshire this weekend.

As a musical director he has composed the score for children’s theatre company Tell Tale Hearts’ new adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story, The Snow Queen, which is premiering at the Civic in Barnsley on Friday.

Sheffield-born composer and video artist Michael Szpakowski

Sheffield-born composer and video artist Michael Szpakowski

Then on Saturday he is taking part in an electronic music concert at the Showroom but this time providing the visuals rather than the sound. Sheffield-born Szpakowski also enjoys a reputation as a video artist and a selection of his films will be screened to a musical accompaniment by the Coastguard All Stars led by Sheffield improvised music guru Martin Archer.

“I am a musician and have been most of my life and I have known Martin since I was five or something,” says Szpakowski. “This is the first time we have done anything together since we were younger but this will be my video work.”

Michael, who grew up in Crosspool, going to Lydgate junior and King Edward’s secondary schools, but has lived in Essex for many years, says: “I think of myself as a visual artist now but I don’t see that and music as being separate. They are creative ways of doing interesting things.

“I come from a theatre background and composing and still do some of that. I have a special relationship with Tell Tale Heart and do one show a year with them as a minimum. It’s great for me to be able to keep that side going.”

Huddersfield-based Tell Tale Hearts are an international touring theatre company devising and delivering visual theatre productions for primary children and younger years in schools, theatres and festivals. Music is an important element of their highly inventive productions combined with performance, puppetry and design.

The Snow Queen is a larger-scale production than usual. Seating the audience in the icy and magical world of Hans Christian Andersen, the highly-visual show will enable some audience members to race on sledges, become spring flowers and help defeat the wicked Snow Queen.

“It’s a work for youngsters but we don’t make any concessions in terms of the music,” says the composer. “It’s quite complicated but I find kids take to it very well. I have never pulled my punches with Tell Tale Hearts.”

He himself was drawn to music at a young age. “I did a lot of musical things as a kid. I was in a band and I wrote music for the school play at King Edward’s – Matthew Bannister, who became well known in radio, was in it.” Graham Fellows (aka John Shuttleworth) was also a contemporary.

“I went to university but dropped out to be a musician in theatre,” he recalls. “I began writing music and doing the odd bit of acting and I acquired skills in the course of doing things.

“I think in a lot of ways it was unusual but it was a cultural boon to grow up in the Sixties and Seventies. There was so much going on in terms of theatre and film and it was brilliant if you were in any way creative.”

And he believes Sheffield was a great place for that to happen, although by the mid-Seventies he had left for London. “I’ve always been very close to Sheffield,” he says and often returns to see his sister, who lives in Crookes.

Indeed, he came back to stay for a while in 2004 during the last months of his Polish-born father Lukasz’s life. “Many people will remember him. He was a character around Crosspool and lived into his nineties.”

Since his professional career began in 1977, Michael Szpakowski’s music has been performed in Russia, the United States and all over the UK, at such venues as the Purcell Room on London’s South Bank and Birmingham Symphony Hall, and has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and the World Service.

So how did the transition into visual artist come about? It began with a site-specific commission which got him interested in what went into creating a visual dimension to the work. Soon he was making his own short videos and “they started to get shown,” he says casually. Subsequently his short videos have been screened in the US, Russia, Canada, China, Croatia, Turkey, Sweden, Finland and the West Bank and he has exhibited work in galleries in both the US and the UK.

He is also joint editor of the leading online video resource “I have got a piece showing in Sydney later this year and another in Madrid,” he adds.

There is a place too for video work in the theatre. Though its “beating heart” is the human presence on stage, he says, music and video can add to the magic.

Music has always been there and video is a newcomer. “If it’s used sensibly and doesn’t think it’s the guest of honour it can really help, and help in its own particular way, to heighten atmosphere, storytelling, humour, wonder. That’s what I try to do, anyway.”

The Snow Queen is at the Civic, Barnsley, from Friday until December 9. The Discus concert is in Showroom 5 on Saturday.