Summoned by bells: rehearsing ‘Memorial Ground’

So far this term, the University Cecilian Choir has been at work rehearsing Memorial Ground, a commission by the 14-18NOW project from composer David Lang to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. This fragmentary, hesitant choral piece is full of energy-charged moments of stillness, and the Choir’s performance next month will combine the work with poems by Siegfried Sassoon as well as a new poem by poet Nancy Gaffield, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing in the School of English and the author of Tokaido Road and Continental Drift.


The University Cecilian Choir

In rehearsal this afternoon, words and music came together in dialogue, with phrases from various poems answered by musical responses from the Choir creating moments of real tension. Underlining both words and music, the intoned notes of the tubular bells hung in the air (reminiscent on occasion of the opening of Britten’s War Requiem), evoking a sombre tone that enhances the commemorative atmosphere that Memorial Ground conjures forth so effectively. Even though we were rehearsing in the wood-panelled concert-hall rather than the intimate, resonant surroundings of Studio 3 Gallery (where the performance on Thurs 10 November will take place), there was still a theatricality to the session as we ran through the whole piece, complete with poetry readings. Particular phrases took on a highly charged dimension – the Choir’s truncated ‘Those who…’ creating an air of expectancy; the sudden tension as Sassoon’s line ‘Soldiers are sworn to action: they must win’ is answered by the Choir’s haunting ‘Those who have fallen…’


Rehearsing ‘Memorial Ground’

The event on Thursday 10 November will also include a series of image projections drawn from the University’s Special Collections archive, curated by Joanna Baines, relating to materials of the time. The combination of words, music, bells, images and silence promises to create a profound, moving and evocative moment of remembrance.

Admission to the performance on 10 November is free: more details here. The event will also be live-streamed: details to follow.

Chamber Choir 2016

New term, new Chamber Choir

So, the dust of two days of auditions has settled, and the University Chamber Choir is now two weeks in to its rehearsal schedule.

Chamber Choir 2016 squareStarting with a new choir is always a nerve-wracking experience for a conductor: establishing protocols early on, showing the Choir how they will be expected to learn in rehearsals, working to bring the group together as a unit – all with people whom you don’t necessarily know, or who don’t know one another. You want to make sure that they feel they are achieving quickly, in order that they feel motivated – especially when you want them all to come back the second week!

I’m relieved to say they all returned last night, and am particularly excited by the fact that we have already sung off-piano and in mixed formation (the latter always an ambition but not necessarily articulated in early rehearsals, when singers are ensconced in the safety of singing in voice-parts), in a contemporary carol by Alexander Campkin, Sleep, Holy Babe, the title piece from an exciting new anthology of contemporary seasonal choral works published by Shorter House. The choir has taken to the carol with considerable alacrity, and so it was thrilling to step away from the piano and direct the piece a cappella so early on. The piece has a richly colourful tonal palette that will work well in the Cathedral in December.

Second-year Doug Haycock, this year’s assistant conductor, introduced Hassler’s sprightly Cantate Domino in last night’s session, guiding the choir through the metric change into the dancing triple-metre central section.


Still in Christmas mode (a chorister’s Christmas always begins well in advance of anyone else’s, although this year apparently we’ve been outdone by a certain large supermarket chain…), we also started looking at the utterly lovely Lullaby My Jesus, a choral arrangement by Andrew Carter of the slow movement of Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite for strings. This ravishingly beautiful publication from Banks Music immediately appealed to the Choir, and we moved through the first verse slowly, relishing each chord – it’s a piece that also makes you wish you were a tenor, for its arcing, aching line which unfolds part-way through the verse. We ended with an exploration of the darker harmonies of the ‘Agnus Dei’ in Fauré’s Requiem, which we’re preparing for performance in the Cathedral Crypt in early March, marvelling all the while at the dextrous ease with which Fauré induces harmonic motion of such concentrated power, yet so effortlessly done that it’s easy to miss its dramatic impact.

second-week-rehearsal Chamber Choir 2016It’s early days, of course, and we are still finding our feet, experimenting with different formations to find a suitable balance, and gradually working on singing more confidently to bring out the Choir’s particular sound; but it’s an exciting time, being a part of the start of the gradual unfolding of the group into what potentially will be a very exciting ensemble.

Good conduct: second-year Doug reflects on the ABCD Young Conductors Course last month

Each year, the University Chamber Choir auditions for the post of student conductor, mentored by Your Loyal Correspondent, to work on several pieces with the choir during its performing year. This year, the task falls to second-year Law student and bass, Doug Haycock, who, in preparation for the role, attended the Young Conductors Course as part of the Association of British Choral Directors Convention last month. Here, Doug reflects on his experience.

On the 26th-28th August I was lucky enough to take part in the Association of British Choral Directors annual convention. The University of Kent Music Department sent me on the course due to my being awarded the position of student conductor, where I shall deputy under Dan Harding conducting the University Chamber Choir.

Doug Haycock (left)

Doug Haycock (left)

Over the span of the course I was taught several beginner tactics and tricks that every conductor should know. I was taught how to conduct most simple time signatures, both simple and compound. It was also demonstrated to us how to to easily teach melody lines by simple aural methods, and, leading from that, a round.

As well as the Young Conductors course, I was able to meet John Rutter as well as other British composers. I also attended several repertoire sessions that took me through new editions and compositions that had been released in the last year. I also attended vocal training sessions where we were taught how to try and obtain the best sound out of your choir.

Doug Haycock (back left) at the convention.

Doug Haycock (back left) at the convention.

The whole weekend was amazing for what it taught me in conducting, vocal training, and repertoire.


Doug (second from left); spot last year’s student conductor and recent alumni, Joe Prescott too…

With thanks to Amy Bebbington for the photos.


A contemporary Christmas: new anthology from Shorter House

It always feels like Christmas when new music lands on my desk, and doubly so this morning with the latest anthology from Shorter HouseSleep, Holy Babe.

Planning choral repertoire for the Christmas season, for me, begins in the summer, looking for repertoire for the University Carol Service in Canterbury Cathedral each December, and this year the Chamber Choir will be working from this collection of contemporary works, a rich anthology containing seasonal lullabies, carols, settings of the Magnificat, and Advent antiphons. The collection includes new setting of favourite seasonal texts, including Lullay my Liking and the Coventry Carol, and features both a cappella and accompanied pieces from a range of contemporary composers. There’s a great versatility to the set, which also includes pieces for upper-voice choir, which makes it particularly appealing – whilst you develop a clear programme for the choral year, it’s always useful to have scope for flexibility in case, as happened this year, the audition choir turns out to be upper-voices rather than SATB.

IMG_0120There’s also some really beautiful music contained in the collection, which I’m hoping will surprise anyone who tends to think that New Music means aggressive dissonance, irrational time-signatures, metric uncertainty and angular lines. These pieces are all singable – care has been taken by the composers to make the music easily performable – without compromising on an arresting musical language or sonorous colours.

Sleep, Holy Babe will be thrust into the hands of the newly-auditioned Chamber Choir in the autumn, and I’m very much looking forward to exploring these new landscapes in time for December. We’ll let you know how we get on…


Planning for the autumn: Memorial Ground

With the University year now over, it’s back into the planning period, developing ideas for repertoire and programming for next year.

David_Lang_imageOne of the projects I’m currently devising for the University Cecilian Choir is a performance – well, perhaps ‘realisation’ is a more appropriate term – of David Lang’s Memorial Ground, co-commissioned by East Neuk Festival and the 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, to commemorate the Battle of the Somme.

What’s fascinating to me about the piece is the multitudinous ways in which it can be realised. The piece’s great strength is its adaptability, its flexibility which allows ensembles to craft it in a way which will make it unique to their performance. The possibilities of including poetry, spoken word, wordless solos, even instruments, offers plentiful creative opportunities to put together a performance that can reflect, resonate with, or speak to different spaces, different venues, different times. Usually, as a conductor, you’re endeavouring to be as fidelious to the score as possible, paying close attention to realise the piece in a way faithful to the composer’s intentions. With this piece, however, you are given freedom to realise the piece in any manner you wish, using content supplied by the composer but also with the ability to involve additional material beyond that supplied by Lang. Of course, there’s a responsibility to make sure that new material is appropriate to the nature of the piece’s artistic intent, that it fits thematically, emotionally, such that the piece can accommodate it, without the new ideas feeling deliberately grafted or imposed onto the pre-composed material.

Once the new academic year begins in September, the Cecilian Choir will form at the beginning of October, which will give us approximately four rehearsals to put the piece together, and I’m hoping to be able to perform the piece several times during November, the month of Remembrance, in contrasting venues – one of which might be the bomb-crater on the hillside north of the city, on the University campus. The crater dates from the Baedeker Raids between 31 May – 7 June during World War Two, rather than from the First World War, but it remains as tangible evidence of the countryside scarred by armed conflict. A performance of the piece, with the Choir at the bottom of the crater and audience arranged around the slopes, might be particularly effective, as the piece speaks across the years to a site directly connected with the country at war.

Bomb crater Canterbury - Copy

It’s particularly exciting to be preparing the piece to start rehearsals in October, searching for suitable materials to use as text, including poems, and songs from the period, to imagine different ways in which to bring the piece off the page, and to consider suitable venues in which to bring it to life. It would be a fitting way of commemorating the events of the Battle of the Somme, and all those who gave their lives – both then and ever since – in war.

We’ll keep you posted as to how the project unfolds.


When splendour falls: Minerva Voices at Canterbury Castle

Congratulations to Minerva Voices on a splendid evening concert last night, amidst the historic flint and sandstone walls of Canterbury Castle.

IMG_0378_webAs the sun set, the ancient site rang to the sound of medieval plainchant as the performance opened with a Kyrie by Hildegard von Bingen, the long lines lifting and skirling around the keep and lifting into the blue skies.

IMG_0376_webAs the programme unfolded, you could feel the audience draw closer to the music across the shingle area which separated the singers from the boarded walkway, around which the audience stood or sat. Assistant conductor Joe Prescott drew forth a tight-knit Ave Verum by Mozart and and sprightly O Swallow, Swallow by Holst, amongst other works.

WP_20160524_005_webWP_20160524_004_web The performance came to a dramatic conclusion with a militant Norwegian setting of the Song of Roland, with drummer Cory Adams positioned above the audience in one of the castle towers, stridently beating a decorative accompaniment that recalled the military nature of the castle’s history in vivid, echoing sound.

The Choir will perform next in the Saturday gala, Music for a Summer’s Day, during Summer Music Week on Saturday 11 June, and then as part of the Illuminating the Past day at the ancient pilgrims’ hospital, Eastbridge Hospital, as part of the MEMS Festival on Thursday 16 June. Still time to come together before the sun sets on the academic year for the final time… WP_20160524_013_web WP_20160524_015_web

An in-depth exploration of just four notes next week

Minerva Voices is currently rehearsing four notes. No more, no less. Just four notes.

This chromatically-related pitch-collection forms the basis of Alvin Lucier’s remarkable, other-worldly Unamuno, with the Choir is preparing to sing in the sonorous acoustic of Studio 3 Gallery next Wednesday, in the next in the #EarBox series. You’d think that the ear would become bored quite quickly with only four notes on which to focus; far from it. The notes are presented in a sequence of twenty-four variations, providing twenty-four alternative glimpses, almost, of a particular sonic phenomenon, strangely beautiful in its repetitive simplicity. With each sequence lasting for as long as a natural breath, it feels as though a stately procession of glass planets is slowly turning about you.

At some points, you feel as though you are in the midst of a Kubrickian film soundtrack, or the opening to the Alien movie; films often exploit Bartok, Ligeti and the like for their sense of otherness, imparted by dissonance. But the dissonances in Unamuno aren’t fierce or unsettling; rather, they unfold gently, almost reverently, beguiling the ear through over six minutes of intensely concentrated music.

Alvin Lucier

Alvin Lucier

The event next Wednesday in Studio 3 Gallery is a short, twenty-minute performance, the heart of which is this strange, hauntingly beautiful meditation on chromaticism, in which the singers will be spaced around the gallery, immersing the audience in the middle of the sound. The programme will also include music from Norway, and a medieval Kyrie.

Find out more online here; the performance is on Wednesday 18 May at 1.10pm, and admission is free. Come and be transported to another world…

Radio days: Cecilian Choir to feature on BBC Radio 3

Fresh from its appearance on Heart Kent Radio recently, the Cecilian Choir will once again take to the air-waves when it features on BBC Radio 3’s My Choir this Sunday.

radio 3 logoThe weekly programme celebrating choral singing will feature the Choir as part of its ‘Meet My Choir’ slot, in which it highlights choirs from around the country. Needless to say, the student and staff members of the Cecilian Choir are very excited at the prospect.


Image: Matt Wilson

You can listen to the programme this Sunday at 4pm here; thank you to English lecturer and member of the bass section, Dr Michael Hughes, for coming up with the idea! The audio extract will also feature the University String Sinfonia.

And if you want to hear the Choir and Sinfonia live in performance, they will be celebrating Easter with two of Vivaldi’s dramatic choral works, the Credo and Magnificat, alongside a trio sonata and Mozart’s Ave Verum at St Peter’s Methodist Church in Canterbury on Thursday 31 March at 1.10pm; details here.

England’s Gateway to the World: rehearsing the Anthem for Kent

If you’ve been following the Cecilian Choir recently, you might have noticed a small flurry of excitement around the Choir’s involvement in the Anthem for Kent, which was presented on HeartKent Radio a few weeks ago. Presenters James and Becky created a stirring piece celebrating the glories of the county, from its White Cliffs to its Roman roads, its plentiful castles and the glory of the Canterbury ring-road.

Conductor Dan Harding responded to the piece, entitled ‘England’s Gateway To The World,’ by writing a full, mixed-choir arrangement, about which both the Choir and the radio team are very excited, and today, for the first time, the Cecilian Choir has rehearsed the piece, filling the Colyer-Fergusson concert-hall with an Elgarian anthem to the county’s attractions.


The Choir has responded to this – if I may say, ever so slightly bonkers – project with vigorous enthusiasm, delivering the piece with all the grandeur called for by its text. We hope to do more with this piece – keep an eye out on Twitter, let’s see how far this can go…

Make it new: rehearsing Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’

Minerva Voices and Consort came together for the first time last night, to rehearse Vivaldi’s enduringly popular Gloria ahead of Friday’s performance in Canterbury Cathedral’s evocative Crypt.

The overriding intent behind the performance is to ‘make it new,’ to make the piece sound as modern as possible. Now, before all you historically-informed authenticity-types run shrieking from the room, I should perhaps qualify that statement: the idea is to present the piece in such as way as to make the audience feel as though it is new. The Gloria is so well known, our idea is to make the listener hear it afresh – they might not have heard the upper-voices version, which may well have been familiar to  audiences during Vivaldi’s lifetime, or they might have forgotten just how shockingly dissonant the second movement is, or how Vivaldi tries to trip you up  rhythmically at various points; there’s the tension between the solo alto and the chorus in the Domine Deus, Agnus Dei which creates moments of high drama, or the sudden weightlessness as the alto enters poised on the brink of nothingness; or the dynamic drive of the Domine Fili unigenite and the light-footed, darting rhythms in the Qui sedes. We want the listener to discover new aspects to the piece, or remember its fiercely inventive qualities, that may have paled over the years of familiarity with it.

Minerva_Ensemble_rehearsalLast night was spent, therefore, making the piece sound as vital, as alive and challenging as possible. From the brilliant opening cry of the chorus, through the pastoral intimacy of the central Domine Deus to the fervent finale, we built a revitalised reading of Vivaldi’s masterpiece, which we will unleash in the Crypt this coming Friday. Combined with the exploratory first half – choral pieces across the centuries, from Hildegard von Bingen to Veljo Tormis – the concert promises to be something quite special.

The next time the Choir sings, it will be in the historic, mystical surroundings of the Crypt; we’re very excited at the prospect. See you there…