Far-Away Singing

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Is it a coincidence that both the international singing events I’m attending this month are in rather beautiful places off the beaten track?

Last weekend I was in St John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador for the 7th biennial Phenomenon of Singing Symposium, and I could have stayed on for the associated choral festival called Festival 500:Sharing the Voices were it not for my commitments at Llangollen International Eisteddfod in North Wales. Both events attract people from all over the world and present a level of quality that one might not necessarily associate with ‘provincial’ or remote locations.

St John’s is a reasonably large town: it has about 300,000 inhabitants, and has the kinds of institutions commensurate with a population of that size – cathedral, university, seat of local government. But perched on the very eastern edge of Canada, surrounded by hills, it has the feeling of being somewhat separate from the rest of the world. There’s a lot of empty land (and an interestingly frilly post-glacial landscape) to fly over to get there, and unless you live in Halifax, Montreal or Toronto you’re likely to have to change planes at least once en route.

Llangollen is less remote in location – it’s 80 miles from Birmingham and 65 miles from Manchester – but it is a much smaller town, with a population of around 3000. And getting there involves picturesque winding roads; it doesn’t even have its own railway station. It too is nestled among hills.

Now, conventional wisdom considers urban centres to be the places where culturally important things happen. Tim Harford, in The Logic of Life works through the logistics and economics of why this would be. The combination of ease of travel and the higher population density make cities good places to bump into other people involved in innovation. This of course becomes self-fulfilling: as soprano Wendy Nielsen discussed in her presentation in St John’s, when she wanted to start a career as an opera singer, she ‘moved to the centre of the known universe: Toronto’.

So why do we see these quite wonderful events happening in places that confound conventional wisdom? There are three key factors, I suspect:

  1. The beauty of the location is inherently appealing to the people the events seek to attract. This may not work for other industries, but artistic activity flourishes where there’s a good view.
  2. The regularity of the events allows a sense of community to build up amongst the visitors over time. People make friends from around the world, and returning to the events becomes a way of reconnecting with them.
  3. There is a high level of participation in the arts in general and singing in particular in the population who live there all year. Both Wales and Newfoundland have strong singing traditions, which means that the events connect well with their hosts. There is a ready body of volunteer labour to help with the logistics, and the visitors share an interest with and learn from the locals. I suspect that the easy cohabitation of classical musical traditions with folk song and dance at these events helps too. Both have an ethos that sees high quality art as emergent from and nourished by mass participation, rather than in a hierarchical relationship with it.

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