In my New Year post I mentioned that I would be seeing a significant change in 2017, though was not at that point quite ready to talk about it. And whilst it’s still too soon to reflect in any depth, now is the moment to tell you that yesterday Magenta, the choir I founded 10 years ago, gave its last concert in its current incarnation.
The reason we are stopping is a concatenation of circumstances happening in Real Life (work, family, health, relationships – the usual) that led to a significant number of established members needing to leave in a short space of time. Our plan as of the middle of the autumn had been to recruit in the New Year – a good time of year to find people on the lookout for new adventures – and start a new cohort after our concert at the end of January.
But between forming that plan and Christmas, two more established members announced they would be leaving shortly, and our plan stopped looking viable. You can integrate new people into an established ensemble reasonably readily so long as that ensemble has the body of experience to maintain the musical fabric while the newcomers learn. But get the proportion of people needing support relative to those in a position to offer support too high and that process no longer works. You’d have to do things differently.
And it wasn’t clear how to make that work effectively. We’d need to rethink repertoire – we had gradually worked up to increasingly intricate and sophisticated arrangements over the years, and had gathered a body of repertoire quite unsuitable for a group with a large proportion of novices. By the time this became apparent, there wasn’t a lot of time to choose and arrange new material.
Moreover, how to continue to stretch established members while helping beginners find their feet becomes a significantly tougher challenge when beginners form over a third of the choir. I knew I couldn’t deliver the same experience to those loyal singers who had spent some years growing together in skill and confidence under these circumstances.
Indeed, it wasn’t even clear what we would be inviting newcomers to join. With gradual membership churn you can maintain a sense of identity as an ensemble – it’s the ‘same’ choir as the one that started 10 years ago, even though it only contains two of the same people, because at each stage there has been continuity of experience. It feels a bit different as individuals come and go, but the sense of ‘us-ness’ can absorb those changes.
But a change as dramatic as this, where we would be replacing not only a lot of the membership, but therefore also repertoire, working methods and anticipated performance patterns, puts everything up for question. The collection of routines, in-jokes, habits – all those iterated behaviours through which we constructed our identity as an ensemble – would all be up for question. Would it make sense to keep doing things in the same way if the narrative line that explained why we did that was interrupted?
I think any chamber-size group in our situation would face this difficulty. But it’s compounded with Magenta because I had, right from the get-go, developed an ethos that the choir should emerge from and be shaped by the individuals that form it. I was fascinated by the alchemy of interpersonal identity, of how people influence each other’s thoughts and ways of being, and how this plays out in our voices and ensemble sound. And that has been one of the things that people most value about it. By the same token, though, it left us particularly vulnerable to sudden change.
Anyway, that was the circumstance. To attempt an effective start at short notice with inadequate preparation appeared to me a decidedly risky undertaking, and I didn’t want to commit both new and existing members to an enterprise that would be demanding of emotional and attentional resources without being sure I could deliver the musical rewards to make it worth it.
We’d had this concert in January booked in for a long time, so the plan became to do the concert and then suspend activities for the time being. Whether we will re-start, and in what form, it is too early to say. But we have booked a date to get together for an afternoon’s workshop during the Moseley Festival in July. It seemed important, when making momentous decisions like these, to have something to look forward to. It would make the final concert too sad otherwise.
And it is sad of course. Magenta has been a huge part of our lives for up to a decade. But it has been much better to cadence in a purposeful and celebratory way than to struggle on trying to maintain something that on the one hand has changed too radically to be continued but which on the other hand carries within it the memory of what it has been.
And at least it was an amazing concert to finish on. Two members we had lost in 2016 were able to come back for the last handful of rehearsals and participate in the concert, and another who had planned to leave at Christmas stayed on for an extra month. Our friends came out in force to support us, and our voices rang true the way they only can when the heart is in the music.