Circle time: in rehearsal

At last night’s rehearsal, we spent a large part of the time with our backs to one another, not looking at each other, not watching the conductor.

Before you ask, no, we hadn’t had a row; we were working on singing as an ensemble, listening to one another, keeping an internal pulse so that we all moved together, and not waiting for others. That shared, indrawn breath that anticpates the start of a phrase; that sense of not waiting for your neighbour to sing, but taking the lead; last night was largely about developing an ensemble instinct.

When you’re all facing outwards, standing in a circle, there’s no eye-contact, no conductor to watch, no ability to wait for someone else; you have to take charge of your own line, count strictly, enter with confidence; there’s also a need, at pauses or at the end of a verse, to breathe together. Listening becomes crucial: there’s no other way to establish contact with anyone else, and the need for everyone to count rather than rely on a conductor to lead the beats of the bar is critical to keeping the music flowing.

img_0960There were moments where this worked very well; there were also moments when words ended at slightly different times amongst the voices, consonants tripped early and peppered the sound, and some entries were rather hesitant. The more we do of this, though, the better we will be as an ensemble.

Assistant conductor Doug worked with the Choir on establishing consistent vowel-shapes in works by Hassler and Purcell, on using the right sounds and avoiding diphthongs.

img_0962It’s four weeks until we sing in the glorious Nave of Canterbury Cathedral for the University Carol Service, and so last night we drew out that seasonal favourite, ‘Carols for Choirs,’ to look at the second verse of, you’ve guessed it, ‘Once in Royal David’s City.’ The Carol Service is such a fantastic occasion, I’m definitely not taking that night off…

The singing will never be done: Cecilian Choir perform Memorial Ground

Thank you to all the members of the University Cecilian Choir and other performers, who took part in Memorial Ground by David Lang earlier today.

Combining music with poetry by Siegfried Sassoon, and a new poem by Nancy Gaffield, ‘The Turtle Dove,’ a member of the School of English, with archive image projection from the Special Collections and Archives, curated by Joanna Baines, David Lang’s haunting commemoration of the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme filled the resonant acoustic of Studio 3 Gallery, with percussion played by postgraduate Cory Adams. The sombre mood of the event was set by third-year trumpeter, Alex Reid, who prefaced the performance with ‘The Last Post.’ The readings were by James Cavalier, Masters student in Creative Writing.

Vintage photographThe arriving audience was greeted by the evocative sound of an original period portable phonograph playing records from the time, generously loaned for the occasion by Andrew Briggs, member of staff and also a member of the Choir.

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Playing with space: workshop day for the Chamber Choir

The Chamber Choir had its termly workshop day on Saturday, a concentrated rehearsal period that offers scope to work for longer than our customary weekly two-hour period, and really drill down into the nitty-gritty aspects of the music we’re singing this year.

This year’s assistant conductor, second-year Doug, roused the Choir into an early Saturday state of wakefulness with a series of technical warm-up exercises, before moving in to rehearse the group in Tavener’s The Lamb. The piece sounds deceptively straightforward, hiding the angularity of the lines that weave around one another in ever-changing intervals and palindromes. We then worked on two Italian madrigals, one of which is Lassus’ The Echo Song which creates the illusion of a choir playing with (and mocking) its own echo, throwing material antiphonally between two choirs and which we’re hoping to exploit spatially to the full in the concert in the Cathedral Crypt in the spring.

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Second-year Doug rehearses the Choir

Perhaps the most rhythmically challenging piece we are performing this year is Augustinas’ Tykus, Tykus, which again pitches two choirs aganist each other in rapturous and cascading sections, driven by a fierce, almost tribal energy. We initially rehearsed in individual choirs (the other choir going for a well-earned tea-break), followed by putting both choirs together. You really have to know exactly where your line enters during this piece, with short phrases often scattered throughout the texture coming in on the half-beat; and the fact that we’re also singing in Lithuanian creates additional, linguistic hurdles for the choir to face.

In contrast, Doug took the choir through Purcell’s solemn Thou Knowest Lord, which has spaces in the music of heightened dramatic tension, as the Choir beseeches God ‘shut not Thy merciful ear unto our prayer.’ The morning ended with Warlock’s Lullaby, My Jesus, arranged by Andrew Carter, full of yearning chromaticism in the inner voices that need to be delivered confidently if we are to deliver the quite astonishing dissonances which Warlock unfurls throughout this highly expressive carol.

Lunch was dominated by the eager anticipation of this year’s home-made quiche made by Matt; last year, Inger had set the bar high and there was some pressure, but I’m pleased to say that Matt’s was every bit as good – at least, if the fact that it apparently disappeared extraordinarily fast is anything to go by.

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Great expectations from Quick Captain Matt and the Choir at lunch

Amongst the repertoire we rehearsed in the afternoon, the hynotic, dancing lullaby (a recurring theme amongst repertoire this year) And by Alec Roth; another two-choir piece, it combines circling ostinati with bell-like cluster-chords in a lulling opening, supported behind by sighs and sussurations in the second choir in a soundscape mimicking the sleeper’s breathing. Doug’s third piece, Hassler’s Cantate Domino, combines lyricism with a sprightly triple-meter middle section, which the choir is starting really to enjoy.

anthologyWe ended by playing with space in a literal sense, arranging the choir around the balcony of the concert-hall to sing Alexander Campkin’s carol, Sleep, Holy Babe. This is all about removing the safety of singing in close proximity, encouraging each singer to sing confidently, committing to their line and developing a rich ensemble sound.

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Panoramic shot of the spaced-out choir…

This took some getting used to, but when the Choir came back together to sing in formation, the effect was immediate; the singers felt more confident standing together, but still sang with the commitment to the voice-parts, and the result was a fuller sound. The Choir will be singing the piece next month in Canterbury Cathedral, so it’s important that they grow accustomed to filling quite a large space…!

It’s customary, on workshop days, to do the latter part of the day in concert-mode, i.e. with the dress-code and performance folders that we will be using on the night; it’s a particularly effective means of focusing the Choir’s attention on the fact that they will soon be performing in public, and to start getting used to standing, holding ourselves as a group. (It also allows everyone to check they have the right clothing in the right colour…). It definitely creates a mock performance condition, as we head towards our first engagement, singing in the Nave of Canterbury Cathedral to over a thousand in the congregation in the University Carol Service next month.

Getting into performance mode

Getting into performance mode

The afternoon ended with the Choir learning a carol, Sleep My Jesu, written by Jamie W Hall as part of a seasonal initiative to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Care under the #choirsagainstcancer hashtag. The choir took the piece up very quickly, and half an hour later we recorded a performance as a means of participating in the nationwide project to raise money for this very worthy cause. Considering that this was only the fourth time we’d sung through the piece, and the second without the piano, the group picked this up very quickly indeed! (Find out more about the initiative or make a donation here).

My thanks to all the singers for their hard work on Saturday, and for giving up a large part of their weekend to rehearse; we all came away afterwards with the sense that we are really starting to find our feet as an ensemble. There’s still some way to go, but we are heading in the right direction…

A premiere for Minerva Voices

Shiny new copies of a brand-new piece hot from the the presses of Banks Music arrived on the desk yesterday, a setting of In Paradisum by Russell Hepplewhite for upper-voices, which I’m delighted to say Minerva Voices will be premiering in March.

paradisumrussell_hepplewhiteRussell’s chamber operas for younger audiences commissioned by English Touring Opera have been garnering acclaim, including his Laika the Space Dog, which won the Armel Opera Festival in 2013, and more recently Shackleton’s CatIn Paradisum is part of an exciting new series of choral publications from Banks Music, and Minerva Voices is delighted to be premiering this sublimely ethereal setting in their March concert.

We’ll keep you posted…

In rehearsal: Memorial Ground

The University Cecilian Choir spent this afternoon rehearsing Memorial Ground over in Studio 3 Gallery, ahead of performance next Thursday.

The event brings together a new choral piece by the American composer David Lang, together with poetry by Siegfried Sassoon, and also period images drawn from the University’s Special Collections and Archives. Here, the ‘hymn’ of the piece is interspersed with a new poem, The Turtle Dove, by Nancy Gaffield, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing in the School of English.

img_0886img_0883The performance on Thursday 10 November at 1.10pm in Studio 3 Gallery, which will be prefaced by a performance of The Last Post, is free, and is one of three events taking place across two days as we commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme; more details here.

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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.

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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…’

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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.

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

With thanks to Amy Bebbington for the photos.

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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…

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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.

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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.