Category Archives: Sound thinking

Developing the ensemble

A visit to a Kentish village in May

The University Chamber Choir (pictured) and members of the String Sinfonia travelled to the picturesque village of Hernhill, in Kent, last Friday to perform The Agony and The Ecstasy to a packed audience in the twelfth-century church on the village green.

Set amidst the rolling orchards and fields of rural Kent, the countryside was filled, on a perfect summer day, with choral music ranging across the centuries, from Tudor polyphony to a modern Lenten motet by composer Sarah Rimkus, with at its heart the dramatic Stabat Mater by a youthful Pergolesi, completed shortly before the composer’s tragically early death. Assistant conductor, second-year Matt Cooke (pictured in rehearsal), also led the Choir in music by Rachmaninov and Passereau.

The audience at St Michael’s church responded with enthusiasm and rousing applause at the conclusion of the performance, and we’re delighted that the retiring collection, in support of the church’s much-needed renovation funds, raised close to £500.

Thanks to all the performers and to everyone involved; the Chamber Choir is back on Tuesday 29 May, when it will sing Choral Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral, and the String Sinfonia will perform next on Thursday 7 June as part of the annual Summer Music Week festival at the University; more details here.

Where science meets art: the Cecilian Choir and Cellular Dynamics

The University Cecilian Choir recently performed Ola Gjeilo’s colourful Sunrise Mass as part of the continuing Cellular Dynamics project, an initiative between the Music department and the School of Biosciences bringing together live music and cutting-edge research images.

Gjeilo’s orchestral mass setting is a perfect foil for the array of images and media culled from the School of Bioscience’s research portfolio, which unfolded live on the screen over the heads of the performers, managed by Reader in Pharmacology and Deputy Head of School, Dr Dan Lloyd.

Amidst a hushed darkness, the music and projections combined to create a marvellously meditative atmosphere, which held the audience enthralled throughout the performance.

The Cecilian Choir comprises staff, students and alumni at the University, and the performance, together with the String Sinfonia, was conducted by Deputy Director of Music, Dan Harding. The Choir and Sinfonia will perform the Sunrise Mass again on Friday 8 June at St Mary of Charity, Faversham, as part of Summer Music Week.

Images © Matt Wilson / University of Kent

Between two worlds: O Vos Omnes by Sarah Rimkus

The University Chamber Choir is forever tackling contemporary works as it develops its repertoire for the annual Crypt Concert, and this year includes the haunting O Vos Omnes by the American composer, Sarah Rimkus, in its programme.

The motet is a setting of a text for Holy Saturday in Lent,

O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see if there be any sorrow like my sorrow. Pay attention, [all people] and look at my sorrow, if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.

and treads a wonderfully ethereal line between medieval plainchant and a sparse yet colourful modern musical language, rich in open fifths. The harmonic language unfolds in a slow procession of colours, as though the listener is passing a series of stained-glass windows, that is highly expressive, yet wonderfully understated; the recurrent motif, first heard right at the opening, is built from the melodic line, broken up across voice-parts and with notes extended such that a four-note cluster chord arises as a vertical incarnation of the linear melody. It creates a wonderfully ambiguous tonal landscape, as the listener is moved across harmonic planes without ever quite knowing how they were taken there; it’s only with the return of the melody, hummed gently above a tonic pedal, at the conclusion of the piece that our feet touch the ground once more.  In places the music unfurls in steps of an open fifth to build very stark sonorities, answered by lines that rise and fall like plainsong above a pedal-point, creating tension between motion and stasis. There’s a yearning quality to the shape of the melodic line, which, for all its motion, cannot escape the tyranny of its starting note.

Born in Washington in 1990, Sarah has previously studied with Morten Lauridsen, and is now based in Aberdeen, where she is currently studying with Paul Mealor (whose Ave Maria will also feature in the programme). Her music has won numerous awards, and is performed around the world, including at the Cheltenham Festival and Buckingham Palace. Her evocative setting of O Vos Omnes, hovering between the old world and the new,  will be a luminous gem when the Chamber Choir performs in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral in a few weeks’ time.

http://www.sarahrimkus.com

It’s oh so quiet…

The Chamber Choir resumed rehearsals earlier this week, having had a break over Easter; the choir is preparing for two performances in June as part of Summer Music Week, the Music department’s annual festival which bids a musical farewell to the academic year. It’s a busy time for the singers, with revision and examinations and dissertations all exerting pressure – and with only five rehearsals left, rehearsal time is at a premium.

The first concert is a revisiting of the programme the Choir performed in the Cathedral Crypt back in March, which includes Fauré’s richly-hued Requiem and several tricky contemporary pieces. With so little rehearsal time this term, and members missing rehearsals as they prepare for exams, it’s an opportunity to rehearse and to perform without having the additional stress of trying to learn new repertoire. But – and this is where the magic begins – returning to pieces that you’ve already learned and delivered in the glare of the public eye is a fascinating experience; you know the pieces really well, and are confident in them because you’ve already aired them in public, and so the level of performance improves from the previous concert. There’s a new-found freedom in revisiting them, a surety that comes from trusting that you can deliver them, which leads to increased confidence, which leads to greater freedom – and so it continues. At this point in the academic year, the choir is really flying; a rich, assured ensemble sound, a tremendous pleasure in knowing the pieces will come off the page successfully.

And yet…there’s always something new, some new direction the choir takes, some undiscovered aspect to its performing that emerges. And this week was no exception; as we picked started our first piece, the dynamic level reached new depths of piano and pianissimo that were entirely unpremeditated; we hadn’t elected to explore singing much more quietly than before, but there was an empathetic, collective response that found us singing much more intimately than we ever had before; and it worked. As the rehearsal unfolded, this contrast appeared in other pieces, and was particularly exciting. Where had it come from ? As the conductor, I certainly hadn’t asked for it; instead, it emerged as a result of the choir’s renewed confidence and trust in one another and in the music; the singers know the pieces extremely well, and can afford to take more risks, broaden the dynamic scope, push with greater energy, bolstered by their confidence in the unity of ensemble sound. The effect of reaching a much quieter sound served also to heighten the contrast with forte passages, which felt much louder (and more exciting) without our having to exaggerate them.

That’s the best and worst thing about this point in the year; having worked so hard together since those first early steps in October, the choir has become a fully integrated musical unit, and is at its apex; in a few weeks’ time, the group will disintegrate as members graduate or go on a year abroad, and that will be that. I’m reminded of that line from Blade Runner: ‘The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.’ This choir is burning very brightly now – we have only a few short weeks left in which to enjoy it, but enjoy it we shall; next month’s revitalised programme will be quite something.

The Chamber Choir performs at St Peter’s Methodist Church, Canterbury on Friday 9 June and in Colyer-Fergusson Hall on Saturday 10 June; details here.

Images: Molly Hollman

#EarBox: lunchtime concert at Studio 3 Gallery this Friday

The University Chamber Choir is busy preparing for its annual concert in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral on Friday 3 March, and as a curtain-raiser the choir will perform in the sonorous acoustic of Studio 3 Gallery this Friday lunchtime, 24 February.

Continuing the #EarBox series exploring the dialogue between  music and visual art, this Friday’s event will see the choir perform amidst the gallery’s latest exhibition, Soft Formalities. An exploration of line, form and colour in painting, tapestry and ceramics, the gallery will host an equally exploratory programme of choral music, ranging from the stark, haunting beauty of Tavener’s setting of William Blake’s The Lamb to an almost-minimalist dream awakening by Alec Roth; there’s also a tour de force Lithuanian folk-song for double choir by Vaclovas Augustinas, madrigals by Lassus, richly colourful pieces by Peter Warlock and Alexander Campkin, and more.

The concert is free to attend and starts at 1.10pm in the gallery in the Jarman Building; if you can’t make it in person, the concert will be live-streamed here.

Join the Chamber Choir either live or online, as it presents a concert exploring dreams, sleep, desire, dance and lullabies in the echoing space of Studio 3 Gallery this Friday. More details here.

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…

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.

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.

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.

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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.