:: Tampere Vocal Festival


Tampereen Sävel!

Sunday, June 9th, 2019

Last week I was invited back to Tampere to join the celebrations for the 30th contest for vocal ensembles.   I stopped chairing the ensemble jury four years ago and I still get Tampere withdrawal symptoms in the first week of June. I first joined the jury 28 years ago and chaired it for 22 years, so it was wonderful to be back. I’ve written many blog posts about the Tampere experience – there is nowhere else on earth where singers can experience such joy and warmth, and for audiences and participants alike it’s the one event in the acappella calendar that no one wants to miss.  This year was very special for me, as for the first time I could enjoy the performances without having to judge anyone. It was such a relief! We always made the point that it’s not actually a ‘competition’ – that the competitive element is only the excuse to bring everyone together to celebrate the music we love – but you can’t help being conscious of the fact that of the twelve groups you hear on the first day only a small number will be winners. I was asked to say a few words at the opening of an exhibition commemorating the contest’s 30 years and I should have realised that there would have been a translator on hand. The sensible thing to do would have been to write something down and deliver it in short chunks, but as usual I tried to busk it, got carried away and became increasingly lost in ever longer sentences, which the translator (the formidable Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, one of the country’s most distinguished choral composers) had to distil into Finnish. I eventually gave up before I got to the bits I really wanted to say. I have all my notebooks from every jury session. Many of them are undecipherable or incoherent-seeming as they’re full of crossings-out, bemused comments or even comments on my fellow jurors’ thoughts. No one else will ever see them, of course, but they are a reminder of just how difficult it is to compare ensembles from the different genres and cultural traditions that the contest encourages. It’s actually an impossible task. I also have the CDs of the final concerts that were made for several years, and these sometimes confirm that we got it right, and sometimes make me wonder if we may not have done. The standard in some years was ridiculously high. In 1999, for example, the final concert included Rajaton, Amarcord and Trio Mediaeval, all of whom are among the most successful vocal ensembles on the planet.

With every contest we would revisit the rules, and this evolution was comprehensively documented in the commentary that accompanied the photographs in the exhibition (drawn from the Kalle Kaihari archives and beautifully translated by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi). It was this kind of attention to detail that kept the contest in the moment and not dependent on a traditional set of conventions. We always looked for originality, and we almost always found it. This year was one of extreme contrasts for me as a listener. The groups came from Europe, Turkey, South America and Uganda; the overall winner was flamboyant Danish group Sønk , with the German Ensemble Nobiles (sometime coached by yours truly) winning the acoustic category. There were some stunning performances as always. The evening concert was  billed as a special 30th anniversary concert with Club for Five and the Tampere Philharmonic, though I wasn’t the only one totally bewildered by what turned out to be a rather middle of the road programme of film music. Later though, we heard Tuuletar in Telakka, the bar/restaurant that acts as a kind of festival club. This group of four women singers had only been together a year when they came to Tampere in 2013. My notes mention their beautiful voices, dynamic stage presence, total commitment and original arrangements. I place them third, but as the jury discussions ebbed and flowed they end up without a prize. That’s juries for you.

Yet here they were, pioneering an entirely new genre – folk hop – blistering vocals and dynamic choreography, with no attempt to ‘entertain’ the audience in a conventional way. We were just witnesses to an intense emotional outpouring. I couldn’t understand a word, but I understood the visceral heart of it. It was the highlight of the festival for me, and exactly what the festival has been about for all these years.

I hope they’ll ask me back  for the 40th anniversary, and I fully expect the festival still to be the place to hear the world’s best ensembles. Where will ensemble singing be then? I still have my wish list – no onstage note giving to break the spell, a post-beatbox percussion that is generically vocal and doesn’t try to imitate a percussion section? Maybe make a start by not miming the instrument you’re imitating (sooo infantile these days…)? Maybe groups could not start by thanking everyone (we know you’re grateful…), and please please don’t say ‘enjoy…’? I live in hope. Oh, and no film music…

Thankyou to everyone for three decades of great music making and wonderful hospitality – to my fellow ex-jury members, to the magnificent and long-suffering jury secretaries, to executive director Minnakaisa Kuivalainen, to Eija Koivusalo and her team, and to whoever first got me into all this (was it you, Heikki?). And very best wishes for the next thirty years!

June/July concerts

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

Just back from another trip to the Trollhättan Festival in Sweden. A drone strike at Frankfurt airport where I had to change planes on the way out caused complete chaos and I ended up running the length of the airport and just made it before they shut the door. Post-Brexit and without freedom of movement I wouldn’t have made it (and doing the gig at all may even have been just too much hassle). I’m sure anyone reading this in the UK will vote Remain on the 23rd…

Tampere Vocal Festival

At the beginning of June I’ve been invited to the 30th Tampere Vocal Festival, where I’ll be saying a few words at the opening of the ensemble contest exhibition. I chaired the jury for more than 20 of those years and it’ll be great to revisit the Manchester of Finland (now famous for skateboarding as well as singing and its Scottish heritage).

Concerts in the UK

Even though Jacob Heringman and I live less than fifty miles from each other we most often meet somewhere on the European mainland at an Alternative History gig (often Spain) to which he has travelled by train and for which I have blown the carbon on a plane. This month we’re being a bit more carbon neutral, beginning with the screening of Mark Burghagen’s Sacred King film for which we provided the music (and subsequently re-used for our own Brexit video). We then have four concerts in the UK: two with the Herschel Trio, one with Pellingman’s Saraband and a lutesong recital of our very own.

The first of these is on June 15th at the  Alwinton Summer Festival when we’ll be joined by Susanna Pell for a mix of old and new music including the winners of the Alwinton Composers’ Competition which we’ll workshop earlier in the afternoon.  Then on the 22nd we’re in Stanhope with the Herschel Trio:

and then on the 23rd we have a concert in York at St Olave’s church:

 

The programmes for these two concerts will feature a unique copy of the Queen Elisabeth Virginal. This exquisite instrument formed part of the collection of Queen Elizabeth I, and its decoration includes both the Royal Coat of Arms, and an image of a Crowned Falcon standing on a tree stump, hence our title.

A couple of weeks later, on July 6th we’ll be appearing in York again, this time in the Late Music series. This will be an all-20th/21st century programme and we’ll be repeating the winning piece from Alwinton as well as Jake’s transcriptions and arrangements of early twentieth songs by Warlock, Vaughan-Williams, Holst and others, together with some of the songs given to us by Tony Banks and Sting.

…and Portugal

On July 21st I’ll be at the Marvao Festival  for a rare foray into Mozart. I’ll be singing the Missa Solemnis K 337 with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra and Juliana Banse conducted by Christoph Poppen (with whom I recorded Hilliard Morimur album many years ago).  The next day David James, Jacob Heringman and I will be doing an extended version of the programme we did in Sheffield cathedral last year, based on Dufay’s L’Homme Arme Mass (at the  Igreja de Santa Maria / Museu Municipal, starting at 4.00.

After that I have a break until the Dobrs Festival in the Czech Republic in August. It’ll be a unique one-off with Milos Valent and Ariel Abramovich. More details in a while.

 

Details of these and other ECM-related concerts can be found on my page on the ECM site.

 

Farewell to Tampere

Friday, June 5th, 2015

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This year was the 40th anniversary of Tampereen Sävel, the wonderful Finnish festival of vocal music centred on competitions for choirs and vocal ensembles. Except for the year when I was Artistic Director of the Festival I’ve chaired the ensemble contest jury since 1997, having first been a jury member sometime before that. For the last ten years or so my fellow jurors, Jussi Chydenius, Anders Jalkeus, Jenny Wilhelms and Anna Maria Friman, have alternately argued and supported each other in the impossible task of evaluating some of the most diverse, polished and inventive ensemble singing to be heard anywhere. It’s unusual for a completion jury to stay together for so long, so we presumably got it right more often than not. But inevitably the axe has finally fallen (in the nicest possible way) and this year is the last time we’ll meet. We went out on a high – I think we all agreed that the final concert (in which all the competing groups took part) was the best ever.

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It would have been great to give prizes to everyone, though apart from the overall winners we’d have found it very difficult to rank the others in order, so high was the standard. So congratulations to OnAir & Sjaella (both from Germany), The Quintessence (Georgia), Voco Novo (Taiwan), proModern (Poland), Sekunti (Finland) and Estonian Voices, and congratulations and commiserations to Kumo, Mamo and Shalla Lalla (all from Finland), Söörömöö (Estonia), Jazzation (Hungary) and Vesnalika (Russia) – all fantastic performers, as you could tell from the very appreciative audience reaction. The club session in the old Customs House, brilliantly hosted as always by Jussi Chydenius, really rocked (and Jussi even managed a spontaneous appearance from Rajaton to sing Bob Chilcott a birthday song).

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The first time I sat on the jury was before the revolution in the Baltic States, and I was only dimly aware of the subtle historical ties between Finland and Estonia during the Soviet occupation. On this occasion there was an Estonian group that my fellow jurors – all Finns – were very keen to give a prize to but which I vetoed as it seemed pretty obvious to me that there were more deserving candidates. At the post-competition dinner one of the festival organisers leaned over and whispered ‘I hear you’ve just sent some poor Estonian musicians to Siberia…’. Then there was the sauna episode. I was still fairly new to the sauna experience and a bit unsure of the etiquette, especially in a hotel. But I was determined to brave it so set off before breakfast prepared for a number of clothing options. As I went in I saw a couple of my fellow jurors naked, so I took my clothes off and went to join them. They meanwhile had caught sight of me and obviously thought, ah English person – we don’t want to embarrass him let’s put on some trunks. I strode in confidently… to find myself the only person without any clothes on.

 

I’ll miss the warmth, the hospitality, the wonderfully efficient organisation, and of course the fantastic music making. Over the last 25 years acappella singing has evolved out of all recognition – not only incredibly virtuosic jazz groups and very creative folk and pop ensembles, but groups that defy categorisation altogether. It’s been an exhilarating experience. The demise of the ‘classical’ ensemble is perhaps not surprising: it’s hard for classical singers to generate their own material so they never quite seem to own the music, and because the performers generally expect the music to speak for itself there is a reluctance to engage with the audience with the commitment you find in every other genre (the two brilliant classical groups from this year being notable exceptions, of course). There is huge potential for classical groups if they can learn from the trajectory of other genres.

 

So heartfelt thanks, Tampereen Sävel. Especially to Minnakaisa, Eija, Heikki and all the jury secretaries, and the best jury colleagues I could have had, Anna, Anders, Jenny and Jussi. We should start a group and come back and compete…

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Amores Pasados & Conductus

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Beverley minster

The diary for the next few weeks looks like this:

May 21: 3 Medieval Tenors Beverley Early Music Festival
Conductus: the forgotten song of the middle ages

This is the first of our AHRC-funded concerts this year. It’s a lunchtime concert with a morning workshop and the programme will include at least one piece probably not performed for 800 years. You can book tickets here.

We’ll have copies of Conductus 1 & 2 for sale (no news yet of Conductus 3 but we’re hoping for September).

June 2-5: Tampere International Vocal Festival (Finland)

Tampere

 

The ensemble singing season is in full swing. I’ll once more be chairing the ensemble jury at Tampere and am looking forward to some great music making. My fellow jurors are Jussi Chydenius from Rajaton, Anna Maria Friman from Trio Mediaeval, Anders Jalkeus from The Real Group and singer and composer Jenny Wilhelms-Seppälä. I’ve just heard that the German Ensemble Nobiles that Werner Schüßler and I have coached on a couple of occasions were prize winners at the Leipzig Acappella Festival run by the legendary Amarcord ensemble who attended Hilliard Ensemble summer schools when they were just starting out.

June 10: Durham: 3 Medieval Tenors Conductus: the forgotten song of the middle ages

Details still emerging but we’re expecting a workshop 2.00 – 4.00 and a concert at 8.00. Programme as for Beverley.

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 June 12: Amores Pasados Aranjuez Festival (Spain)

This will be the launch of the ECM CD and our first live performance of the programme. We’ll do all the music from the album plus some Dowland, Finzi, Vaughan-Williams and C W Orr. We’ll have copies of the album for sale (it’s available on advance order from Amazon.de on advanced order for June 12.

The US release is a bit later, and copies can be ordered for July 17 on Amazon.com

AP cover

 

June 22: UK/Ireland release of Amores Pasados

 

June 21: Gavin Bryars Ensemble Glasgow

This is a Laude programme danced by the Stephen Pelton Dance Theatre. Tickets are available here

July 2: Amores Pasados Santiago de Compostela

Our second visit to Spain in three weeks. More to come in Spain later in the year, and also in Poland, Germany, Ireland and Cuba.

July 6: Brussels: 3 Medieval Tenors Conductus: the forgotten song of the middle ages

Workshop and concert at the MedRen Conference. The concert is in the beautiful abbaye de la Cambre. Details still sketchy but you should be able to get more information here. More Conductus gigs in the UK, Germany and Slovenia later in the year.

July 10: recording Roger Marsh’s Poor Yorick

 

Shandy Hall

I’ll be joining fellow ex-Hilliards at Shandy Hall to record the setting of Sterne that Roger wrote for the Hilliards’ 40th anniversary tour in 2013.

July 19: Selene Mills Memorial Concert Great St Mary’s Cambridge

Join the ex-Hilliards and many old friends to celebrate the life of Selene Mills.

THE NIGHT SESSIONS – nearly there…

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

 

Night Sessions cover

It’s very nearly here. If you have Twitter you may have come across the first German review (‘erstaunlich…) and I’m eagerly awaiting my Amazon pre-order (I always do this – it’s the only way I can be sure it’s for real). I’m working on a dedicated reflective blog post, partly to give some background to the sessions and partly to try and explain it to myself. I can’t help wondering how the band might have developed had this album come out, say, five years ago. Anyway, there it is. We have no plans to promote it; it’s just a record of a couple days from earlier in the century. We do still do gigs, but we’re into Schubert now.

Terje Rypdal

I see the Hilliards have their Terje Rypdal piece out on disc at last. When I was putting our stuff into store a few weeks ago I came across Terje’s reply to my sounding him out about a joint project. I should have checked the date – it must have been a couple of years after the group began working with Jan Garbarek and I was thinking about other possible collaborations. So the genesis of that goes back even longer than the Night Sessions (which happened after I’d left the group).

Replica

I had a lot of fun doing Ed Jessen’s Minghella-inspired theatre piece at Rich Mix last week. This has also been germinating for almost as long as the Night Sessions (well, not quite) and it was great to see it finally flowering.  It was like an opera in miniature – with three intensive days instead of three weeks to put it on. Couldn’t have been a nicer or more creative team to work with: Ed himself, Dominic Murcott and Hannah Bruce, and of course Peyee Chen and Consortium 5. Great troupers and lovely people all. Good to see lots of old friends at the performances too. We hope there will be more performances in the future.

Tampere

Before that I was in Tampere. Wonderful experience as always. Also as always, we were asked why there are almost no classical groups these days. In the nineties we tried out separate categories for classical and pop, amplified and acoustic and so on. This year there were only two acoustic groups in the final. What’s changed? Well, the brutal truth is that the rock and jazz-orientated groups have become seriously creative, constantly producing new material of their own and exploring innovative ways to perform it.  That’s something that doesn’t happen with the old sit-up-and-beg renaissance masses and madrigals, a more or less fixed repertoire which always seemed to look backwards or to some other abstract point of reference (such as the early music movement).  It’s hardly surprising that the old stuff is withering away. It’s hanging on in England though; Twitterland seems to be populated by journalists and broadcasters naively  enthusing about music they must have heard countless times before. How much longer will they be able to keep it up, I wonder?

Sound and Fury

Maybe the answer to the classical music problem is the Sound and Fury solution: just record, don’t perform (or if you do, do it on the radio). The recordings are ‘live’ (sort of) so they have many of the characteristics of a performance and you can enjoy them on your own sofa without sitting in a draughty church. How post-modern is that? We meet in Mauerbach for Pipelare later this week and I’m really looking forward to it.

Wistreich and Potter

Richard and I have often said we’d like to write something together but we’ve never managed to get it together…until we crafted this conversation for Early Music. It’s about singing, the early music movement and higher education…

A little jaundiced, some may feel (and I had to change the last line when reminded by the editor that it’s supposed to be a celebratory issue), though I’m not half as exercised by early music as I am by Orange, who still haven’t reconnected my broadband. The call centre people are unfailingly polite (unlike the last time I moved house when an Orange operative called me a racist), but always begin by asking if you’ve plugged it in etc, and then refer you to someone else who asks exactly the same questions and gives you the same answer. In my case this is variations on it’s not our fault, but BT (or whoever) will fix it within 24 hours and then to save you waiting the usual ten days as a special favour you’ll have expedited broadband only a day later.  Someone will ring again tomorrow to confirm this. And they do – so every two days I’m told it will only be two more days. My file is now so big it takes at least six people up to an hour to repeat this mantra, and between each one I get the waiting music. I know it all off by heart now and have started to sing along. If you sing loud enough you can’t actually hear it, though you do risk giving the Orange man a bit of shock if he interrupts you mid-shout.

So this comes to you from my office in a York branch of Costa, if I’ve managed to get there.

Tampere – the winners!

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

 

We have four winners: Ommm from  France, JazzIn Sisters from Estonia, Vocal Motion 6 from Namibia and Taiga from Finland! Congratulations to all! It was an inspirational final concert, ending with another electric performance from Postyr Project (the 2011 winners).

It’s all happened so quickly – hard to believe that the ensemble event is all done and dusted in a couple of  days. For the jury it was even more difficult than usual this year. The overall standard was very high and although we were pretty clear on most of the groups to make the final cut, it was very hard to decide who to eliminate and who would actually win.  As always, we agonised over those that didn’t make it – all were terrific ensembles in their way and in another year might have made it – and we know only too well how much blood, sweat and tears goes into putting this kind of thing together.

Unlike Postyr Project last time, there was no single group that stood out as the obvious winner on grounds of originality, but there were many that excelled within their chosen genre. We were impressed by the large number of Finnish girl groups (men, where are you??)  and also by the fact that some groups were brave enough to enter after being together for quite a short time (the members of 2Loud from Estonia are still at school). Most ensembles did their own arrangements or compositions, which was a huge and exciting change from some years ago. Sometimes the material didn’t quite do the job, but producing your own music is the biggest single factor that makes each group unique, and sometimes the arrangements were startlingly effective – such as 2Loud’s take on a Tormis Lullaby and Ommm’s hard-hitting ‘Wonderful World’, both of which were extraordinarily creative transformations of the original pieces. Put them together with Nambians singing in Chinese and you have the perfect Tampere experience.

Our deliberations went on so long that we missed the interview with Penderecki and the concert by Key, so you can see how difficult it was. Finally four groups emerged as possible winners, and most of the time was then spent arguing what order to rank them in. As last time, we didn’t set the result in stone until after the concert itself, and we were still debating during the interval.

Once again, the organisation was spot on – everyone so thoughtful and efficient. And in these dark times for arts and culture in Europe a big thankyou to Tampere City Council and the other sponsors who make such a magical event possible. We ran a bit late and I forgot to thank three key individuals in my little speech: festival director Minnakaisa Kuivalainen, producer Eija Koivusalo and our impossibly hard-working secretary Kaisa Kelloniemi. And I even practiced the pronunciation… Thanks to all three – you amazed us all as usual.  Thanks once more to my fellow jury members: Anna Maria Friman, Anders Jalkeus (happy Swedish National Day guys),  Jenny Wilhelms, and Jussi Chydenius. We’re getting quite good at this now.

 

THE DOWLAND PROJECT

Here it is, emerging from the dark,  The Night Sessions cover…

Night Sessions cover

 

It doesn’t get more ECM than that. I was hoping it would be out in time for Tampere and Spitalfields, but at least you can pre-order it on Amazon for June 24th.

 

SOUND & FURY

The Sound & Fury Ockeghem multiple Cuius Vis Toni is now available here. The music has arrived for our Pipelare recordings later this month. Let’s hope Vienna isn’t under water.

 

So now it’s off to London to do this on Tuesday:

Jessen flyer

 

The music for that has arrived too…

 

EARLY MUSIC

Richard Wistreich and I bang on about the state of early music in Early Music (2013) 41 (1): 22-26.  You can download a pdf here.

 

Monday, April 15th, 2013

 

Cambridge Festival of the Voice

Chris O’Gorman and I unleashed our latest Conductus offering at the Cambridge Festival of the Voice. A big thankyou to John, Louise, Selene, Nick and the team for a terrific time. It’s not easy music to promote or to listen to, but promoters and audience were magnificent. And what a wonderfully creative festival it is. Sorry to miss Encantar and Joel Frederiksen.

The Why Factor

I did a long interview down the line from Radio York for the BBC World Service Why Factor and  my ramblings on why we sing were eventually edited to a couple of soundbites as is the way of these things. Interesting programme though.  It’s always a bit of an adventure navigating World Service schedules, but I caught up with the podcast.

Sounnd & Fury

The proposed Gombert concert in Venice, scheduled for late May, has been postponed till September. We’ll still be getting together in June for a week of recording. We also opted out of a Monteverdi Vespers at the Frari (where Claudio now hangs out). A few years ago I’d have lept at the chance to do it there, but I’m just all Vespered-out.

Tampere Vocal Festival

The full programme is now available. This year’s festival, curated by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (who’s produced some of the most wonderful Finnish vocal music) promises to be the usual eclectic feast of inspired vocalism The ensemble contest features groups from the Nordic Countries, central Europe and Africa. Get on a plane and join us – Ryanair from Stansted is practically free! It’s one of the best things of the summer.

Spitalfields Festival

One of the other best things is in London the following week. Details of Ed Jessen’s REPLICA are up on the Spitalfields site. There will be two performances of this ‘visually sumptuous experimental music-theatre work for recorder quintet Consortium5 and the voices of tenor John Potter and soprano Peyee Chen’ on June 11th.

A History of Singing

CUP have confirmed that there will be a paperback, and it’s just a question of when. Neil and I were both staggered at the cover price of the hard back (our musings couldn’t possibly be worth that much…) and I can’t help thinking most of the target readership found better things to spend their money on. But hang onto your savings, there may be an almost-affordable paperback soon.

Aldeburgh postscript

I keep getting wonderfully supportive emails after the Aldeburgh/UKBA debacle, most recently from people who’ve just caught up with the Private Eye piece. Thanks again to everyone – I’ve been very touched. And Victor Lewis-Smith – if it was you who wrote that – thank you too.

Twitter…

I’m gradually getting the hang of it…@johnpottermusic

Choirs as Ensembles

Saturday, June 18th, 2011

 

Some years ago I was asked to contribute a chapter to a choral yearbook in Finland. The project didn’t actually materialise and I came across an old draft of it a few days ago. It’s about choir singers taking more responsibility, rather than relying on the conductor too much.  Post-Tampere seems a good time to re-consider this sort of thing, so here are some edited bits of it…

Choirs and ensembles

As an ensemble singer I’m used to the subtle nuances that are possible when you work with the same people over a long period of time, or with musicians who have a similar background and experience: Red Byrd has always works on the principle of equal creative responsibility from everyone taking part, and the Sound & the Fury works in a similar way (as does the Dowland Project). For me it goes back to my time with the Hilliard Ensemble, which evolved an intuitive way of doing things and would make a point of singing even quite large-scale works such as Arvo Pärt’s Passio with no one out front. This was a liberating experience and while I sang with the Hilliards I certainly didn’t envisage becoming a conductor myself; ensemble singing had become so sophisticated that it was hard to imagine handing over creative responsibility to one person.   Over the years I began to put my thoughts together on how ensemble singing actually works, some of which found their way into the ‘Ensemble Singing’ chapter in my Cambridge Companion to Singing, and when I went to work at the University of York I began to apply some basic rules to student ensembles, trying to equip them with the means to work on their own without outside input. I ran an MA in Ensemble Singing and a number of excellent ensembles came to work with me over the twelve years I was there.  Eventually I also found myself conducting various chamber choirs, beginning with a small women’s choir (there was the usual excess of women singers at the university). I had done some coaching sessions with the Finnish Radio Choir in the past and more recently with the Latvian Radio Choir, and it was understood that my role then was to give them an idea of how to sing without a conductor or at least to encourage them to be more responsive and pro-active, to be active participants in the creative process in partnership with the conductor. My only experience of actual conducting was a very long time ago when I conducted a concert by the Worcester Police Male Voice Choir as a favour to a friend (Henry Sandon, he of the Antiques Road Show; we were both Lay Clerks at Worcester Cathedral at the time). I was able to agree to this because it was made clear to me by the police chief that whatever I did in the way of gestures, the choir would sing the pieces the same way they did them last time and the time before that; all I had to do was put on the uniform and wave (and a certain leniency with regard to future parking fines was hinted at). So when I (reluctantly) came to conduct at York, with virtually no experience of conducting and no recent experience of singing in a choir, my ensemble singing experience was all I had to fall back on; the logical approach was to make the choir as much like an ensemble as possible.

Channels of communication

From my perspective as a singer it has always seemed a bit odd that the choir seems to do all the work and the conductor gets all the credit, so one of my first concerns was to establish a way of working that made it quite clear that the choir was an organic entity, capable of performing by itself. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to take the credit for my part in the proceedings – I have a performer’s ego just like anyone else – but rather that my role was defined a little differently from that of a traditional conductor.  The first thing to do was to convince the choir that they didn’t need me standing out in front, provided we could agree on a number of basic performance conventions that would, in effect, replace some of the actions that they might expect a conductor to take. I have found that the way to do this is to go right back to basics and discuss the question of communication: who is communicating with whom and what is it that they are communicating. Of course, singers communicate with audiences; we all understand that. But perhaps even more important is the communication that singers have with their fellow performers. As an image, I’ve found it helpful to suggest to singers that these two types of communication are conceptualised in two directions. Their voices, faces and body language, communicate directly with the audience but their ears are operating at right angles to this, starting with the singers standing next to them and continuing along the line as far as they can hear. Once the idea of this two-element model of communication is established we can begin to analyse what actually happens in performance.

Communicative value

The dynamics of such a model are much more complicated than this simple strategy appears to imply. Communication with the audience is not usually a problem: choirs are used to looking up from the music and demonstrating their own enthusiasm or emotional commitment to the music. The listener constructs his or her interpretation of the performance and this is only partly determined by anything the performers might do: the meanings transmitted by the singers will be modified by the listeners in the light of their own knowledge and experience.  Communication between voices in the choir is a different matter and has to be learned. The first thing to demonstrate is that everything has communicative value, whether it is a gesture, a note or even a breath, and unlike the broader relationship with the audience, communicative acts between singers contain specific information.   This is the first and most important principle that will enable the choir to work as a thinking creative entity. Everything else flows from the understanding that everything a singer does contains information useful to his or her fellow singers.  We can elaborate on the basic model by thinking of audience communication as visual and vocal and essentially one-way, whereas internal choir communication involves a two-way channel that is both vocal and auditory. Essentially, singers transmit and receive information among themselves with every gesture they make, whether vocal or physical.

Auditory awareness: tempo and breath

Once we know that we can communicate with each other, we then have to think about what sort of information we are giving and receiving.  Much of the useful information is to do with tempo, and almost all communicative acts between singers contain information that either confirms the tempo or offers the possibility of modifying it. The process begins before a piece starts with the first breath that the singers take. If, for example, a piece starts on a downbeat, then the first breath will act as an upbeat.  Everyone will have an idea of what the tempo should be, and roughly when the piece is going to start. An alert choir should be able to negotiate a tempo within the space of that upbeat breath, leaving only one place where the downbeat will inevitably come. It may take a bit of getting used to in rehearsals if the choir has always relied on being brought in by the conductor, but I found with my York choirs that the singers very quickly got used to starting themselves and it became routine (I just told them where to start from and they would automatically set off in a unanimous tempo). Giving singers the responsibility for their own music causes a rise in energy level: they know they have to be awake and listening in order to make it work. In concert this frees their eyes to be looking directly at the audience, rather than focusing on the conductor. The effect of a large body of singers starting simultaneously and in tempo without any visible means of support can be breathtaking for audiences, especially those who have previously thought of the conductor as the prime source of inspiration. The whole process seems to happen by magic. The ‘magic’ element is an important part of ensemble singing, and it’s at this point that my previous witterings about note-giving come into play…

More ramblings to follow…

Note-giving

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Most people seemed to have appreciated my thoughts about note giving, but I did have one email from someone who clearly didn’t understand what I meant. Of  course you can’t just start without any note at all – my main point is that you shouldn’t be sharing the note-giving with the audience.  This means that for the first piece, you get the note before you come on stage (and similarly with the second half) – and you don’t come  on stage till you’ve really got it! Then going from piece to piece you take the note for the next piece from the last chord of the previous one.

Going for it

The difficult bit is sometimes having the confidence to try it in the first place, but it’s not something you do without preparation and thought. You have to practice it, just like anything else. But once you’ve tried it a few times you eventually discover that the ground doesn’t open up and swallow you, and your audience thinks you’re miracle workers.

Pitch

There may well be times when you still need to take a new note between pieces – if there’s been lots of applause or if you need a bit of a rest and may forget the previous chord, for instance. That’s fine of course, and you just need to make sure you leave a long enough gap for the audience to forget the last chord too, in case you’ve gone out of tune.  That’s one of the reasons to try to avoid a new note when you can: if you’ve started a piece in G and you’ve sunk to G flat, taking a new note will tell the audience you’ve gone out of tune. It not only breaks the atmosphere, but it makes them conscious of the pitch.  You don’t really want the audience to be thinking about the mechanics of the performance at all – just about how wonderful and mysterious it is.  If you’ve sunk in pitch it could be for all sorts of perfectly understandable reasons – sometimes pieces just won’t stay up. In that case, what often happens is that you sink into a new ‘slot’ – a pitch that’s consist with itself but a bit lower than the concert pitch you were aiming for. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s much better to sing at a comfortable pitch that you can maintain more easily – there’s nothing absolute about a 440 A.  So you don’t need to correct the pitch between pieces, just stay in the slot. Of course there will be times when this won’t work either – if you’ve sunk so low that the basses can’t manage the next piece… But then you just take a new note.

The Note itself…

When you do have to give a note, be careful that it doesn’t become a performance in itself. Be discreet…Singers don’t need to tune every single string like a violinist does (or worse still, early music ensembles some of whom are notorious for the amount of time they spend tuning). We also don’t want to give away the start of the piece to the audience, so try if possible to give only the key note. This again is just a matter of practice and familiarity. It might take a little longer to work out your own note within the chord, but that’s just part of your own personal responsibility: it’s not something you need to rely on a conductor or leader to do for you.

None of this is very complicated or difficult – it just needs a bit of thought, but sometimes quite a bit of courage…

 

Tampere Retrospective 2…

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Competitive singing is a weird and wonderful phenomenon. For most ensembles, taking part is the vital thing and winning something is a bonus. The atmosphere at Tampere is always very friendly and supportive – even those desperate to win seem to enjoy other groups’ performances. It’s a chance to spend time with musicians who do the same sort of thing you do.

Getting it right

In the ensemble jury we’ve been fairly consistent over the years in terms of what we hope to hear in a good ensemble. Of course there are the basics: an ability to sing in tune and in time, to blend, to communicate ideas, emotion or a sense of narrative. The standard is so high these days that groups who are weak in any of the above are usually eliminated before we hear them (we never hear the recordings which are sent in or choose which ones will do the first day – that’s done for us in advance). In a ‘market’ where everyone is above a certain standard, it will usually be originality that makes the difference (after all, if you’re singing in tune, you can’t sing more in tune). Maybe a certain choice of programme, a particular way of presenting the music, creating one’s own material, improvising or using technology creatively. Best of all, something we’ve never thought of, of course.

Getting it wrong

There are some things that I don’t  enjoy quite so much (though I should stress that these are just my personaL opinions). A surprising number of groups (and it was the same in the choir competition) can’t seem to go from piece to piece without giving a note. This really isn’t difficult, especially for the first piece when you can easily get the note before you come on stage. It looks really dumb to arrive on stage all ready to go, with the audience full of expectation, then the first thing you do is fiddle with a tuning fork.   If you then give a note for the next piece, you break the atmosphere you’ve created, and if you happen to have sunk in pitch it’s a sure way for the audience to find out. It’s much better to get your note from the previous piece (whatever’s happened to the pitch) and to programme pieces where the key relationships make this easy. The worst thing of all in the choir contest is when conductors get out the fork or pitch pipe, then sing the keynote followed by an arpeggiated first chord. All of that could be done off stage, then the start would seem like magic. It’s easy: you just have to risk it to find out.

Another thing that I could do without is clichéd introductions. Establishing a relationship with an audience is obviously important, and talking to us can be a good way to do it. But expressing the hope that we will enjoy it – or even worse just telling us to ‘enjoy’ isn’t the way to do it. It makes us think you haven’t got anything interesting to say;  of course we’ll enjoy it – that’s what we’re here for.  Avoiding clichés is one of the big things that separate the innovative from the ordinary. For instance, we don’t really need you to show us what instruments you might be imitating: if you’re any good at it, we’ll know! Some beatboxers are especially guilty of pointless hand movements – you might as well play a real cymbal if you’re going to all that trouble.

The ensemble of the future?

Things have come a long way over the last two decades. I hope we don’t lose classical and folk polyphony – and it was good to see plenty of acoustic groups this year. I’d like to see beatboxers doing more than just imitating a drumset – the art is now so highly developed in the best performers that they surely must be able to think of more original ways of using it. It would be sad if such skill ended up just representing one thing. The Extended Vocal Techniques movement of the 1970s and onwards eventually petered out as no one could think of anything else to do with the skills. It would be a shame if that happened to beatboxing.

I’d like to see people exploring new sounds. By making themselves polyphonic, for example – either by exploring what the voice can do by itself, or by playing instruments or using technology while singing. It was interesting that no groups used any accompanying instruments this year (the rules allow up to 5). Vocal percussion is obviously partly responsible, but it may be that groups are now able to be more sophisticated and self-contained in purely vocal terms. But there might be interesting things to explore such as singing string quartets or folk fiddlers that sing at the same time;  and wind instruments have all sorts of modulatory possibilities when you sing into them. All that can be done acoustically, of course, but there are also technological toys to be played with, which these days are often very sophisticated yet simple to use. There are plenty of  possibilities for clichés there too, of course (no Auto-tune please!), but also the chance of finding something completely new.  The thing to aim for is something that only you and your group can do. Then people will seek you out.

Then there’s the question of genre. I don’t like the term ‘crossover’ but I do like the blurring of genres, the feeling that you’re listening to somethng that you can’t easily categorise. Some of the most interesting ensembles I’ve heard at Tampere have been very hard to classify. I’ve done lots of things that people sometimes refer to as crossover, but they’re mistaken: I’ve never crossed over. It’s like a Venn Diagram: you can work with musicians from other genres if you can find that point in the overlapping circles where you’re both on the same planet. That’s when you can have the most fun of all.