I didn’t go to the world premiere of Liz Johnson’s glorious new choral work intending to write about it. I just went to support the endeavours of a friend I hadn’t seen so much of since she moved out of Birmingham – it would be nice to see her, I admired her fundraising and awareness-raising efforts for refugees, and I knew the music would be beautiful.
It was beautiful, and also moving. I can’t remember the last time I actually dripped tears during a concert. And then she brought us back to a place of hope by the end of the piece so we were emotionally safe to head back into the real world.
There are two particular aspects to Liz’s compositional voice I’d like to reflect on here. The first is her distinctive and assured handling of dissonance. The music moves seamlessly along a continuum from very harmonic and euphonius to uncompromisingly dissonant whilst always sounding realistically like it belongs in the same musical world. Part of this I think comes from the way she’ll season the consonant passages with strategically placed diatonic clashes that provide poignancy in the moment, but also help to mediate between the different regions of her harmonic palette.
On Saturday I headed down to London to participate with 100,000 or so other people in the Unite for Europe march, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome. As you may have seen from my blog past last month I had got involved in a group intending to spend the march singing, and had done some arrangements for the occasion.
What I wasn’t entirely expecting to happen was that I ended up leading this scratch choir for the whole of the day. It’s fine, I’m always happy to help people harmonise, but it was an interesting case study in how, in a fluid situation, people get assigned roles very quickly.
When Jonathan and I found our way to our assigned meeting place, there were probably no more than 10 people gathered from our group. (It was kind of hard to tell as there was a horde of Liberal Democrats passing through the same place - some of whom stopped to sing with us en route.) But there were clearly enough of us to have a crack at one of the songs, and it just happened to be me who gathered together the various thoughts floating about (let’s start with Ode to Joy, let’s do a verse of unison and then go into parts, let’s try out the online karaoke app that delivers lyrics to people’s phones), gave a key note and start note, and coordinated the start with Alan who was controlling the app.
In my post last month on developing the director I wrote about the usefulness of having a regular appointment with yourself for structured work on a specified area for development. Today I’d like to talk about a set of questions that I give to conductors I work with to structure their reflective process.
What did we achieve?
How does everyone feel about themselves?
What does the music need?
What do the singers need?
To start, a few words about the choice and phrasing of the questions.
There have been some alternating rumbles of excitement and disappointment in the arranging community over the last year or two over a programme developed by Sheet Music Plus in collaboration with Hal Leonard. They have produced a list of about 1000 songs pre-approved for arranging, so long as you publish the arrangements through SMP. Anyone who has to grapple with the bureaucracy of copyright permissions for new arrangements finds their ears perking up when they hear of it.
The disappointment arrives when you realise that one of the excluded ensembles is choral. I’d been round that loop a couple of times when my friend Debi Cox had the bright idea of actually contacting them with a query, and established that while they don’t know when they’ll be able to add choral arrangements to the list, they are able to accept arrangements for chamber-sized, one-a-part a cappella groups such as barbershop quartets and contemporary a cappella ensembles, up to 8 parts.
I don’t write very much about my one-to-one work with choral directors, as it’s mostly too personal. The coaching process with an ensemble is inherently a social process (though I am mindful about which aspects to share with people who weren’t there), but work with an individual is much more private.
But there are general themes that emerge repeatedly with different directors that I’d find it useful to reflect on, and other directors may find useful too.
A common dilemma is, given how much time and attention it takes to run a choir, how do you get time to develop your own skills too? We all have areas in which we can feel our weaknesses, but we don’t necessarily have space in our lives to take a course in music theory or conducing technique, or go for singing lessons, or whatever.
This week brought an interesting creative collaboration my way – working with someone I met in a Facebook group to produce a singable arrangement in English of the EU anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. I’ll talk about the creative process in a mo, but first I’d like to invite you to download it from the bottom of this page and sing it with all your friends. In particular, if you can join us on 25 March in London, that was the primary occasion we produced it for, but really sing it wherever and whenever you like.
So the thing about this that was interesting is that it would seem on the face of it a simple and obvious thing to do to sing the Ode to Joy in a mass open-air gathering. It is, after all, written to evoke the great odes produced for mass open-air gatherings during the French Revolution, and the melody is transparently accessible in both its vocal demands and its memorability.
Joanna Russ, whose detailed analysis of critical strategies that thwart female artists I have had reason to cite before, makes an observation about the constitution of anthologies and curricula in the study of English literature. Quite reliably, about 5% of the writers represented will be female. It won’t always be the same women listed, as different editors bring different interests to the task, or focus on different nationalities or time-periods, but the proportion is remarkably stable.
You can check this if you like. After all, Russ was writing back in 1983, surely things have got better now? I did with The Oxford Book of English Verse, published in 1999, and it is up to about 6%, so that gives you a measure of historical progress. Ahem.
Anyway, I have been aware of this form of tokenism for some years, but have only recently started getting an insight into how it works, thanks to the work of people like Daniel Kahneman and Rolf Dobelli, who have done such sterling work in diagnosing habitual errors of thinking.
I had an email recently from a regular reader whom I’ve had the good fortune to become friends with in person through some of my European trips over the last 15 months. She is about to take up her first chorus director position in the new year, and had an excellent question, which she correctly diagnosed as the kind of thing it would be useful to share here.
I’ll quote her at length, because she has done a good deal of the analytical groundwork for us, so I can get straight onto the pragmatics:
One of the central takeaway messages for me from both the German and the Dutch harmony college this year was that performance is fundamentally different from rehearsal. During rehearsal you may focus on technical stuff whereas during performance you have to accept the technical level of singing that you're at and essentially forget about the technical stuff. Performance was characterized by having fun, staying in the moment, trying to connect with the audience and so on.