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Tampere Retrospective 2…

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.

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