It’s been a month since my last post, but let’s put it into perspective, shall we?
Things I have not done during the last month:
- Written blog
Things I have done over the last month:
- Gone on two walks and three runs (only one of which was accidental*)
- Attended four dinner parties, one pancake party and a coeliac vegan cake party
- Participated in eleven rehearsals
- Learned how to make three delicious new cocktails, including this neon green one
- Composed 68 tweets for @vocechoir’s new and improved Twitter account
- Done seven loads of laundry
- Performed one audit of polka-dotted clothing in my possession (currently peaking at seven dresses)
- Sung in three services (without noticeably fucking anything up)
- Been five minutes early for work twice
- High-fived one Grammy award-winning internationally-renowned solo artist with AMAZING hair
It’s that last point I want to dwell on, really. Without wanting to drop names, singing with Imogen Heap *CLANG* and the Holst Singers *CRASH* this weekend at the Roundhouse *BOOM* was, on a scale of one to excellent, very much completely excellent.
[Disclaimer: although I was singing with the Holst Singers, the views expressed here are entirely my own. This isn’t even going to be a proper review. Don’t get excited.]
The concert on Sunday 26 February was part of the Reverb festival, ten days’ worth of stellar contemporary classical music programming staged in the Roundhouse’s Main Space. You can currently catch a number of these concerts (and the second half of this particular one) online at the Guardian website. The first half (in which I wasn’t involved and therefore will not dwell on, because I am selfish like that) showcased the talents of rising star Ana Silvera. She was accompanied in a self-composed song cycle by the effervescently brilliant Estonian TV Girls’ Choir, who are, frankly, way too good to have a website that shit.
I’m afraid that I spent most of this half trying to source dinner, so can in no way be regarded as a reliable critic. However, my mum, who initially fumed over ‘having to sit through a whole bloody 90 minutes that you’re not even IN’ said that she loved Silvera’s set and was so thoroughly engaged that she had no concept of the time passing at all.
The second half kicked off with a screening and live performance of Imogen Heap’s soundtrack to the 1928 Surrealist film La Coquille Et Le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman). Imogen has has performed this twice with the Holst Singers before: once at the Birds Eye View film festival in 2011, and again for Latitude last year. I was lucky enough to join the choir just in time for this, the work’s third major outing.
Over the years I’ve sung quite a lot of stuff that I would mentally file under ‘weird, difficult modern shit’, but this piece was still one of the oddest pieces of new music I’ve ever performed. It was also one of the most enjoyable: three days later, I’m still humming bits and pieces. I expect we all are. It’s not just the singable, scat-like parts – it’s the humorous, playful touches, like soprano Polly’s amorous squeakings (around the 18 minute mark if you’re watching on the Guardian website) – the heartbeat chest thumps – or the mournful whale-like noises that punctuate the clergyman’s fevered imaginings. They stick in the mind.
As Imogen explained during rehearsal, she’d aimed to keep the music unrepetitive and unthematic to match the film’s surrealist aspirations, yet engaging enough to keep a modern audience interested. The result is a meeting of primitive vocalisations, bizarre vocal effects and enthusiastic body percussion with catchy, poppy tunes, lush harmonies, and almost Klezmer-like melodies. Singing it was a mental challenge, a vocal work-out and an advanced assault course in score-reading.
It was also, let’s face it, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Standing mics enabled the choir’s sound to fill the arena. Overhead screens carried footage of the performance captured by roving cameras. There were also exciting lights, bright colours, and soft fabrics, and a click track** to keep everyone in sync with conductor Hugh Brunt and the film itself.
It was a bit of a culture shock. Most of the concerts I do tend to be in churches or concert halls where the choir / orchestra is at one end, and the audience, facing them, at the other. The settings are almost universally quadrilateral. The Roundhouse is different. The clue is in the name: when we arrived for rehearsal, a note on the door of the ladies’ changing room advised the men of the choir to ‘find a quiet corner to change in’. As one smartarse tenor noted in a scrawled addendum: “It’s a Roundhouse. There ARE no corners.”
A former railway shed that was designed to allow whole engines to be rotated inside, the Roundhouse has been a cultural and performance centre since the 1960s. Although the performance space isn’t entirely in the round, performers on the stage of the Main Space are surrounded by an audience that stretches to the very edges of their peripheral vision. In this instance, hundreds of audience members were seated around cabaret tables at ground level. One level up, there were banks of seats and a bar with squashy sofas and armchairs. Around the top there was room for standing ticket holders.
But it wasn’t just the venue – it was the atmosphere of the event. When the film finished, a man came on stage and asked the audience to ‘give it up for Imogen Heap and the Holst Singers’. That just wouldn’t happen at most concerts I do. I’m not saying those concerts are bad – they’re just different. And I can see how, if you weren’t ‘into’ classical music, it would be more intuitive for you to attend a gig like this rather than diving in at the deep end of cultchah. I go to hundreds of classical concerts, and I still think I’d find it easier to relax sat around a table in comfortable darkness with a drink than wedged in a cold, hard pew in a building where you can see your breath in June.
The film was followed by a second, blindingly good set from the Estonian TV Girls’ Choir. It was so perfect that, by the end of their fourth Tormis song, my face hurt from grinning. And then it was time for the choirs and soloists to join together for a final performance of their most well-known songs: Letter From New York from Ana Silvera, and Hide And Seek by Imogen.
A couple of people I told about this project were just a little bit snobby about it. And to them I say: screw you. Because Hide And Seek, friends, is a peach of a song. It has a gentle melancholy and wistfulness that, despite the fact I hardly ever listen to the words, taps into a very tender part of me. Here’s my favourite part from the SATB arrangement by René Gagnon that we performed (at around 1h 3m on the video):
Mm, what you say? Mm, that you only meant well? Well, of course you did.
Mm, what you say? Mm, that it’s all for the best? Of course it is.
Mm what you say? Oh, it’s just what we need? (Tenors, with feeling) YOU decided this.
Oh, what you say? Oh, what did SHE say?
This is, in short, the kind of song that makes you yearn for a messy break-up – just so you could sing it through the tears and the snot. And when you’re part of a performance featuring the composer and 50 trained voices in a venue like the Roundhouse in front of an audience who know and love the song and who drench you with a tidal wave of applause barely seconds after the final notes have died away… well. That’s a pretty special feeling.
The video of the second half is available on the Guardian website until midday on Wednesday 7 March. It’s worth a watch – not only does it highlight the purposeful surreality of Imogen’s score for Seashell (something I couldn’t fully see until I’d watched the footage back, despite having been involved) but there’s boobs. Yes, boobs. I didn’t even know they HAD boobs before 1930. I’m not sure if that part of the film is shown in the Guardian coverage. You’ll have to watch it to find out. It shouldn’t be too much of a trial.
* Accidental AND ironic. Through a blizzard and six inches of snow to catch the last train after singing in RWV’s Sinfonia Antartica, thereby inadvertently gaining a whole new insight into the hardships of polar expeditions
** In future, when anyone mentions ‘the click’***, I will be able to nod carelessly and make small talk about earpieces. FUCK yeah.
*** If you don’t know what ‘the click’ is, I’m afraid that you’re not cool enough for me to explain.
EDITED at 08.48 on Thursday 1 March for grammar, bullshit and lols.