Exploring Expressive Performance with Diversity Choir

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I had a trip down to Kent on Saturday to do an afternoon’s workshop with Diversity Choir on the theme of ‘Expressive Performance and the Musical Imagination’ as part of their annual retreat. We built the workshop around the music they are preparing for their concert next month, on the principle that, since the goal was to explore methods to enhance the communicative impact of the choir’s performances, the most direct way to do this was to develop them in the context of music they will performing in the near future.

We approached the workshop through the ideas of the Manager and the Communicator. These are always useful concepts, but you notice it particularly when you are working with music that is only partway through the rehearsal process. You need the Manager on duty a good deal of the time for this stage of learning, but it is also the right moment to give an explicit role to the Communicator, so that the performers’ mental map of the song has meaning, imagination and imagery built in to it, rather than just layered on top of a technical learning process.

A theme that repeated through the workshop was that people are naturally expressive pretty much all the time - whatever is in your mind is what will show in your face and colour your voice. This makes visual performance not a matter of ‘doing’ things with your face and body language, but of focusing your attention on the musical meaning and trusting your body to reflect that.

A particular instance of this was the piano interludes in a new piece by Bob Chilcott that the choir has commissioned for its concert next month. If you just consider the vocal parts, there seems to be an alternation of ‘on duty’ and ‘off duty’. But of course the audience wants to hear a continuous musical narrative. The singers needed to direct their attention to the parts of the music that they’d want the audience to be listening to in order to avoid distracting from this sense of musical continuity. (It occurs to me at moments like this that the term ‘rest’ is unhelpful. Silence within the music does not equal a tea break.)

This in turn brought attention to how easy it is for singers to forget that they’re still visible when they’re not singing. This is partly a function of the conventions of classical music in which performers are in some ways conceptually invisible - it’s not about us, it’s about the music. This is what allows performers to evoke the suspension of disbelief and build up such wide-ranging imaginative worlds.

But the effect of autonomous music is an illusion that needs to be constructed, to be conjured up. People are actually visible, and if you don’t want to be seen in all your glory as an ordinary, every-day person, you need to take on your role in that illusion. Within the music this involves directing your attention to the meanings you want the audience to be engaging with. Before the music starts, you need to frame the performance so as to get the audience in the right frame of mind to enter into your musical world.

We talked a little about what an audience wants from a choir in these first moments of a performance: a sense of anticipation, of communication, a reassurance that the performance is going to live up to their hopes. And the key thing that will offer this is a sense of competence, as sense that the choir members know what they’re doing and are in control. There was some discussion of different styles of stage entrance: free versus regimented, calm versus energised. What we didn’t talk about in great detail, due to pressure of time, was how this choice might be inflected by a particular programme as well as the ethos and style of the choir.

But in all cases, the common theme was of being clear on what to do so that nobody had to distract themselves, and therefore anyone else, with uncertainty or faff. People are naturally expressive, so if you are worried about which hand should be holding your folder or when to open it, that is what your demeanour will communicate. Fortunately, a little rehearsal can go a long way in taking these questions out of the equation.

There is a wonderful moment of potential at the start of a concert, a pregnant pause, like just before you look into Heisenberg’s box and learn if the cat is alive or dead. The anticipation of the premiere of a new piece has a similar quality on a larger scale.

People come to a performance of pieces like Duruflé’s Requiem that have an established performance tradition with a similarly established set of expectations. They know, more or less, where their heads need to be to make sense of the music. The premiere of a piece by a well-known composer like Chilcott will have more uncertainty around it, but his prominence in British musical life means that Diversity’s audience on 1st December can have a fairly settled sense of what to expect from that particular first performance.

But Rautio’s Gloria, the other piece written for them for this occasion, is a much more open proposition. Most of the audience won’t know which dimensions of their listening experience to bring to bear on it, so will have to learn how to make sense of it from programme notes and from the choir during the performance itself.

We talked about how they would describe the piece to their friends to entice them to the performance. Some placed it relative to known musical worlds (Bernstein meets Gorecki); others used metaphorical impressions (a very colourful work); others talked about how the piece reflected the character of its composer, who they all know as the choir’s accompanist.

There was an engagement, a life, a sense of presence in their voices during these conversations. The singers know what is interesting, distinctive, exciting about this music. And it is this knowledge that they need to bring to their performance. Not everyone in the audience will have had the benefit in advance of hearing them talk about the music. So they need to convey the same meaning in the way they sing it.

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