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Best of times, worst of times: change and continuity

I absolutely love this term. And I hate it too. This is the term when we are really flying as an ensemble, on the back of the concerts we delivered last term; we’re confident, assured, we know the repertoire inside-out and are really enjoying singing it. We’re also experimenting again – you know me, never happy to do something exactly the same way more than once – in changing formation around with each piece we rehearse, looking for different ensemble sounds, looking to hear new things, find new corners to the music. It’s a terrific time.

And yet it’s also the saddest too; this term is very short, and in a few weeks’ time the Choirs will evaporate and be gone. Our last concerts for both the Chamber and Cecilian Choirs are on Friday 13 June and then a final farewell with the Chamber Choir on Sunday 15 June as part of Summer Music Week, and then that’s it; many of the singers will either be graduating or away on placements next year. It’s hard to realise that, in scant weeks, these two ensembles won’t exist any more. It’s a measure of the amount of time each of us has invested in our commitment to singing; regular rehearsals, the white-heat of public performance; from first steps to final flight, ensemble music-making is all about commitment to one another and to a shared endeavour.

leavingThis is my fifth year of working at the University, and you’d have thought that I’d have grown accustomed to this situation by now. But it doesn’t get any easier; there’s so much fun to be had amidst the hard work, and so much satisfaction accrued from delivering a polished performance, that bidding farewell to the ensembles, and the singers of whom they are comprised, is difficult. There will, of course, be new faces next year, new singers and new members as the Choirs re-form and begin anew their musical exploration together – always an exciting start to the academic year. But I will miss the incarnation of each Choir; it’s been a large part of my working year, in which my expectations for them have been matched by their whole-hearted commitment.

Change and continuity.

Posted in Sound thinking.

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Tonight, tonight…

How soon the Crypt concert comes around; it hardly seems a year since we were preparing for last year’s performance, and yet the wheel has turned once more, and here we are looking ahead to tonight’s concert.

I’m particularly excited about tonight, as a British composer Paul Patterson will be present in the audience, to hear the Chamber Choir sing his wonderfully serene Salvum Fac Populum Tuum Domine. It’s always nerve-wracking when the composer arrives to hear you perform his piece, but it’s a great privilege for us to have such a colossal figure on the British musical landscape coming to hear the Choir. I hope he approves of what we are doing with his music…

scoresThis morning’s critical pre-performance tasks have already been achieved: see offspring off to school, iron concert-shirt, polish shoes, leap around on Twitter to promote tonight’s concert; now I can sit with the music and work through the scores, until heading towards the crypt for this afternoon’s rehearsal. The first moment we sing in the Crypt on the Friday afternoon is always a memorable moment, particularly for those members of the Choir who haven’t sung there before; the rich, sonorous acoustics take your sound and echo it around for several seconds. We’re very excited at the prospect of launching the opening of Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque into that historic space.

Of course, the most challenging part of the rehearsal will be organising formation and processing in and out with sufficient dignity, bowing all at the same time, deciding in which hand we hold the folders (and sometimes, which way up; no detail left unobserved…). The music has been learnt; the logistics of operating in the venue, however, we’ll be picking up this afternoon.

Right, enough procrastination; the scores are waiting in a highly accusatory manner. See you after the concert.

Posted in In rehearsal, Sound thinking.

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Commitment, commitment, commitment…

With only two weeks until our opening concert of this term, last night’s rehearsal was all about developing an ensemble sound. As I said to the Choir, we need to start sounding less like eighteen singers standing around the edge of a wall, each putting our own individual sound forward, and more like a unified singing entity.

The key to unlocking this is, and always has been about, listening; listening to one another, to other voice-parts, to the harmonic landscape of a work. The voices need to be aware not only of others singing the same part (standing in mixed-formation really makes this essential), but also of how their line relates to other lines around them – moving in similar motion, working against, responding to or picking up from a line already in progress, and understanding how their line relates to everything else.

lux_coverThe moment of epiphany came during Whitacre’s ravishing Lux Aurumque; flying now without piano support, we launched into those colourful opening chords; it was fine, but wasn’t really working properly; the notes were in place, but the colours weren’t coming. ‘Listen,’ I said – ‘now really listen to one another – watch someone who comes in when you do – listen to another part and work your dissonance against theirs. Be aware of everyone around you, and commit to the sound.’

Commitment is the other crucial factor, particularly in those contemporary works we’re performing that rely on a firm embracing of a tangential tonal language, rich in dissonance, often without resolution. Those added-notes and chromatic relationships really need to beat against one another – you have to really stand your ground and commit to your note, and if everyone else does the same, the colours can really start to scintillate.

So we stopped, and began again. And the effect was immediate. There was a fullness to the sound, and the harmonic landscape was transformed; suddenly, those cluster-chords were working. As we sang on, you could see some real astonishment lighting up the faces of those who were ‘getting it’ – this is what it’s meant to sound like.

And the knock-on effect was such that the same core commitment to the sound emerged in the desolate yearnings of the Brahms songs as well. You need to learn your notes and watch the conductor, it’s true; but being prepared to commit fully to your line, to listen to others and understand how what you’re singing relates to what they are doing, means the music can really start to lift off the page and come to life.

We’re getting there…

 

Posted in In rehearsal, Sound thinking.

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Defeating the tyranny of the barline

I often find that notation gets in the way of music. Granted, it’s an evolved communicative system that works to impart information from composer to performer, but sometimes it actually runs slightly counter to what the music actually feels as though it wants to do.

Feeling chicken...This has become particularly apparent in recent rehearsals as the Chamber Choir works on Lassus’ Chi Chi Li Chi, a cacophony of bantam-banter in a late sixteenth-century chicken-shed, written well before the modern standard system of notation. Stepping deftly between different metres, full of rhythmic interplay, the notation actually works against the sense of flexibility and vitality which lurks at the heart of this outrageous piece. We’ve had to re-bar certain sections and write different stresses into the scores, in order to overcome the tyranny of regularity imposed by barlines.

It’s hard; as musicians, we’re so well-trained to observe bar-lines and time-signatures in our subservience to the printed score that we can find it difficult to ignore them, in order to allow the natural rhythmic language of a piece to come through. But, as I keep reminding the singers, notation is only a means to an end: the music lives not on the printed page, but in the moment of delivery, in the white-heat of off-the-page performance. Lots of work still to do, but it seems to be working. (Well, I’ll let you know after our all-day rehearsal this Saturday…).

Posted in In rehearsal, Not drowning but waving.

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Dashing Away with a cluckity-cluck

This year’s student conductor, Matt Bamford, reflects on recent rehearsals.

With only eight more weeks until our annual concert in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, our programme is really beginning to come together and the ensemble sound develop.

Reflecting on our first two rehearsals after the Christmas break fills me with great excitement. It was really difficult to predict how the first rehearsal back would go, with the choir not having sung together as a full group since the University Carol Service at the beginning of December. On top of this, much of the Crypt repertoire had not been rehearsed since late November and so returning to it could have been like starting from scratch again.

Matt finish...

Matt finish…

The first piece that we looked at was Chilcott’s arrangement of Steal Away; a very colourful piece that is driven by supported breathing and the motion of the sustained pedal notes in the male parts. To this end, we began the warm-up by lying on the floor and doing some very long breathing exercises. The idea of lying down to do this is that it encourages you to breathe from your diaphragm and directly from there rather than your chest. The sound of the ensemble had stuck from before our long break, and the colourful chords really pierce the great acoustics of the Colyer-Fergusson hall where we rehearse.In complete contrast to the tranquil Steal Away we have also spent time rehearsing Rutter’s arrangement of Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron and Lassus’s playful Rooster-Fight Chi Chi Li Chi. Dashing Away is deceptively difficult in terms of rhythm, and we spent much of last night pulling the first three verses apart making sure that each part had the confidence to attack each rhythmic phrase. After debate over whether to sing “Dash-ing” or “Da- shing” and making sure we don’t sing on the beat during syncopated sections, we began to bring the piece up to performance pace, which filled me with lots of excitement. It is such a playful piece!

We made more progress with Chi Chi Li Chi which can only be described as a piece like no other that I have performed before. Telling the story of a Rooster-Fight through singing and other vocal noises (come along to the Crypt and you will understand more…) is great fun, but also very challenging. There are constant meter changes and the opening section has a rather lethargic feel to it.

As we are now beginning to rely on the piano much less, we can begin to pull pieces apart and the choir are really growing in confidence. We have an all day workshop ahead of us, which will be another opportunity to bond as a choir and to develop the unique sound that we are already producing.

Eight weeks, and counting!

Matt Bamford

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Brave new world

The Cecilian Choir has always been something of a playground for experimenting with contemporary choral music, and this term we’ve been finding our feet with a selection of modern pieces that really challenges us.

Ubi caritas, in a setting by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, is full of exotic harmonies, still retaining something of its original plainchant ancestry at the start before blossoming into luminous colours as the piece begins to unfold;

 

Alongside this, the Choir is drawing out the rich dissonances in Latvian composer Arturs Maskat’s Lugums Naktij (Prayer to the Night); additionally, we’ve recently begun working on Indian Prayer at Evening, the third of ‘Three Native American Songs’ by the young British composer, Toby Nelms, with swinging, prairie-filled open-fifths and a suitably dusky tonal palette. We started our contemporary odyssey with the Hymn to the Dormition of the Mother of God by the late Sir John Tavener back in October, which will add an element of tribute to the choir’s concert in April.

This choir excels at picking up new music, and for next term I’ve lined up some pieces by Howard Skempton as well. The backbone of the programme is something rather less modern – movements from Hassler’s Missa super Dixit Maria, written somewhat earlier in 1599, and a piece I’ve wanted to do for a long while; the intention is to weave the contemporary pieces amongst the movements of the mass.

Before then, the Choir will be performing a clutch of carols at next Wednesday’s end of term, festive ‘Watch This Space’ event on the foyer-stage. But it’s in the contemporary music that the choir is particularly strong; next term’s concert will be a treat.

Follow the Cecilian Choir on Twitter.

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Carol Service at the Cathedral

As I drove a few of the Chamber Choir back to campus last night, after the Chamber Choir had sung in the annual University Carol Service in Canterbury Cathedral, we were all reflecting on how fortunate we are to be involved with such an astonishing space. The University holds its annual degree ceremonies for its Canterbury students there, and as well as the carol service, we also hold the yearly Colyer-Fergusson concert each spring in the vast Cathedral Nave; the Chamber Choir also performs each spring in the Cathedral Crypt.

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Waiting at the West Doors to start the service

Last night’s Carol Service was the traditional celebration of the season, with carols, readings and reflections on the message of togetherness and reconciliation. As the Cathedral lights slowly went out at the start of the service, we were gathered at the West Doors clutching our lit candles; a moment, and then Matt began the service with Ord’s Adam Lay Y-Bounden, launched briskly into the vaulted heights. The congregation then stood, and soprano Emma’s clear soprano rang out over the assembly with the opening solo verse of Once in Royal, and we were underway.

The most challenging aspect of the rehearsal earlier in the afternoon had not been the musical content of the service, but how we should arrange ourselves in formation and process down the Nave in order to arrive on the altar-steps by the end of Once in Royal. Plus the consideration of in which hand to hold the candle, how fast we should leg it (er, I mean, process in dignified fashion!) during the carol in order to be in place by the last verse, and how not set light to our copies or the hair of the person in front. (”I’ve doused my hair in vast amounts of hairspray,” wailed Livy in the altos – ”I knew it was a mistake!”) Thankfully, there were no conflagrations, although we did make it into place on the altar steps with scant lines to spare…

On the altar-steps

On the altar-steps

As the service unfolded in words and music, there was the customary minefield that is singing Silent Night in a multitude of languages, a celebration of the University’s international community; Marek, one of the tenors, is Polish and was able to deliver the Polish verse with aplomb; alto Charley had diligently been working on the Japanese verse with one of her flat-mates; the rest of us grappled heroically with trying to fit the syllables of other languages to the well-known tune with mixed results. We stood to sing the evocative Gabriel’s Message and, later, a rousing account of Deck The Hall. At the end, all the congregation candles were re-lit for the final prayers, proclamations and hymn – the Nave became a sea of small flames dancing intimately to O Come, All Ye Faithful, before they were carried out of the Cathedral into the Close and beyond, out into the city.

Warming up in the North aisle before the service

Warming up in the North aisle before the service

A wonderful occasion to which everyone looks forward from the moment we meet for our first rehearsal each October; an opportunity to sing in one of the world’s greatest cathedrals, and to celebrate the season with music, with friends and with the University community.

Merry Christmas.

Posted in Concerted effort.

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Troll the ancient Christmas carol

And so, the Chamber Choir’s first public concert has suddenly come and gone. After all the preparation, the eager anticipation and excitement, the Advent sequence evaporated in a whiff of Christmas spice.

With the first unfolding of the Advent antiphon into the church of St Damian and St Cosmus at Blean, we well and truly ushered in the season of Advent. Carols, readings, poems, ancient plainsong – all combined to bring about a time to contemplate different aspects of this period of the year. Because, after all, that’s what concerts do; they create a defined moment out of the humdrum of normal routine, away from the daily concerns of life, and offer a chance to experience time-out-of-time. For a brief moment, time is governed not by the remorseless ticking of the clock or by timetables, schedules and commitments; instead, time is dictated by the crotchet pulse of a carol, or the lithe agility of a piece of plainchant, or in the measured metre of a piece of poetry.

After the concert, there was a definite sense of achievement, of pride in what we’d achieved; it’s a big step between all the rehearsal preparation to delivery in performance, and nothing can quite prepare an ensemble for that crucible of performing in public. Our next commitment is in Canterbury Cathedral on Monday, for the University Carol Service, towards which we are all looking forward.

Advent is here.

Pictures by Matt Wilson:© University of Kent

Posted in Concerted effort.

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Some carols and some lessons

There was an eager sense of anticipation at last night’s rehearsal, as we gathered in the church of St Damian & St Cosmus, in Blean, for our last evening rehearsal ahead of Friday’s Advent concert. At last, we were taking the repertoire for the concert and running it in its entirety, including all the readings, in the space in which we’ll be actually be performing.

The church itself glowed with a gentle light as we all drove down the country lane towards it in the darkness. Spilling out into the crisp, chill November night, you could sense the excitement growing, coupled with a real sense of the Advent season’s imminent arrival. Gathering in the church to lay out the chairs took some time, as we gave crucial consideration to key ideas – could we stand throughout the whole concert ? If we sat and stood again, could we do so without looking ragged ? And why is the Carols for Choir compendium so darn heavy ?

It’s become apparent that Deck The Hall is something of a showpiece for this year’s Choir, the best we deliver best, so this was the first piece we sang, in order to set a benchmark for our standard of performance; then we launched into the first Advent antiphon, and we were off.

Matt rehearsing the Chamber Choir

Matt rehearsing the Chamber Choir

As Matt took his turns to conduct each of the carols he is directing in the concert, I took the opportunity to stand at the back of the church and listen. I learned immediately that all those hours spent working on ensemble, on clarity of diction, on getting the consonants in the right place and on the right beat, had paid off: the ensemble was terrific. When a group is performing as one, the effect is electrifying. Moving between music and poems, the magic of the combination of music and spoken word began to blossom, and one could see a dawning sense on some of the singers’ faces that the programme was coming together.

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Mid-rehearsal break

At the end of the run-through we took an interval, and Matt and I took stock; he was equally as excited as I was that things were really starting to come off the page. There had been a few moments where the antiphons hadn’t quite gone in the right direction or had seemed to drag, and we used the second half of the rehearsal to try to limber up the plainchant, instilling a greater sense of freedom to capture the ebb and flow of the phrases. Some of the intonation in a few carols needed checking, and Matt went over how some of his pieces will begin – beats given, note pitched – in order to get them to start with greater commitment. The most challenging part of the entire evening occurred next, when we practiced lining up in pairs and processing on, and how to sit and stand. As one of the sopranos pointed out, one needs to sit attentively during the readings; the Choir is still on view behind the reader, and needs to look engaged rather than shuffling through their music to find the next piece, or gazing off in some private reverie.

Ten minutes after the rehearsal finished, everyone had collected their belongings scattered amongst the pews and left. At ten o’clock on a November night, I found myself standing outside the darkened church beneath the stars – there is no street-lighting in this part of Blean, and the darkness descends swiftly, rendering the night-sky clear – reflecting on the previous three hours. We’d taken a good step forward, now starting to get caught up in the momentum of the programme and following its various narratives through music and readings; the key will be to maintain this through until the concert on Friday evening.

Advent is nigh.

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In-Choir Within: Joe Prescott

Meeting members of the Chamber Choir. This week, tenor Joe Prescott.

Tenor madness: Joe Prescott

Tenor madness: Joe Prescott

How did you get into choral singing? I first got into choral singing when I sang with Lichfield Cathedral choir at the age of nine.

What’s your favourite piece? My favourite piece is Allegri’s Miserere, when the soprano hits the top C it is such an amazing feeling! I get ‘goose bumps’ every time I sing it, from the first chord to the tierce de Picardie at the end.

What’s your best/worst memory about singing in a choir ? My best memory would be singing in Montserrat Cathedral in Barcelona as it was incredibly impressive to sing in such a prestigious place and to hear the sound fill the room was amazing .It was one of the best experiences of my life. My worst memory is when I forgot to bring my black shirt to a concert at Barcelona Cathedral! I had ten minutes to buy a new shirt and run through the streets of Barcelona in forty degree heat to get back for the concert! Thankfully, I got there just in time!

What do you find the most inspirational aspect of choral singing?

Listening to the harmonies in a choir inspires me every single time I sing. Just hearing the harmonies grow and fall through the choir is spectacular and when you finish a piece and the echo just carries the sound it is just one of the best feelings ever.

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