21 March 2002
The phone rings. Would I be interested to do an Artangel piece? Yes please - with Alain Platel? Yes please - involving masses of amateur choirs? Of course.
Our aim: to find ‘choirs of character’. It's almost a mantra.
Our first choir visit: to the Italian church in Clerkenwell. Mad Rococo décor, girls in sunglasses. The church is very full, people coming in throughout the service, kissing hello, chatting. An exciting sense of a hidden community for whom this is an important social as well as religious event. And a warning sign: the choir is miniscule, & old.
The Deaf Carol Service. Before the service, the church is almost silent, full of gesticulating people. A man next to me signs a dirty joke to his friends, roars of laughter. People converse easily with friends twenty yards away. The room is on a rake so that the congregation can see more easily. Vera Hunt, the leader of the choir (and one of the first women to be ordained as a vicar), is an immensely charismatic person - her very method of signing seems to carry with it an enormous moral authority. The organist is profoundly deaf, but everyone manages to keep up with the hymns somehow, the choir mimicking Vera's signing in unison (apparently they do counterpoint signing as well).
Studio 2 at the Drill Hall, off Tottenham Court Road. A rehearsal of ebullient, witty, committed Velvet Fist, twelve women & a man singing political songs with immense energy and charm - a secular choir who sing what they believe.
Each choir will sing a song (two songs? three songs?) from its own repertoire, and together they will sing something (a refrain?) which Richard (from The Shout) and I will write.
The basement of Cecil Sharp House in Camden. Our first encounter with the immense, powerful, ambitious London Gay Men's Choir - what a sound! They sing serious music and they sing cheesy music with enormous gusto. The arrangement ofBarbie Girl is accompanied (enhanced!) by tongue-in-cheek choreography. The tenors sound like Jimmy Somerville.
A draughty church in Nowheresville, North-West London. Gagneurs d'Âmes, a Congolese Christian Choir, are rehearsing. The church lights up with the sound. I could easily listen to them singing for hours. Their leader Diakiese is (understandably) quite wary of us. Like a lot of the choir leaders, he has a suspicion, I think, that we are a bunch of smart-arses that want to send up his choir. Fortunately he's quite wrong.
A room full of teenage girls at South Hampstead High School. The choir director Diana Kiverstein seems to break all the rules - there's no pandering to teenage taste (half the songs are in Latin for God's sake, and the arrangements are immensely sophisticated). But the girls clearly love it, and they sing with amazing expertise and commitment. Diana bullies them, cajoles them, has frequent tantrums.
On our first visit to Ngati Ranana, the Maori choir, famous for their welcome songs, we get more of a welcome than we bargained for. According to ancient Maori custom we must sing for them. We manage to stagger through our favourite gospel song Soon And Very Soon.
The London Jewish Male Choir is performing at the Sacred Voices Festival in Richmond, down by the river. Drizzle. They are dressed in blue shirts; they look like security men. Beautiful songs separated by terrible jokes. A strange Gilbert-&-Sullivan jauntiness to some of the songs, and a sentimentality, like a Welsh choir. The bass soloist David Hilton has one of the most moving voices I've ever heard.
A break in the morning's activities at the Swiss Music School. Christine Sigwart has been trying to firm up a rather tentative version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. The children burst into a robust & immensely funky jam session.
A Greek Orthodox service in Camden, an Armenian Orthodox service in Kensington. Beautiful, mysterious, awe-inspiring.
The choir leaders gather together at the Roundhouse for the first time, sit in a circle and announce themselves - it's like a UN meeting. Great excitement and anxiety.
Even better than the Met singing Gwahoddiad is Gwalia, the Welsh male voice choir singing Gwahoddiad. As it should be.
Alain wants to know: “Who are these people? Where do they come from? Why do they sing?” And he finds out by quiet, pertinent, extremely (to me terrifyingly) direct questions. "A Deaf Choir" he says to Vera – “isn't that a bit cynical?" She is not offended.
The Shout, the (professional) choir run by Richard and me, is becoming involved. A group of singers with a diverse range of backgrounds, they are, in a way, a microcosm of the whole project. They will be a kind of glue for the piece, providing short choral interventions, making connections between the songs of the amateur choirs, leading the refrains.
A late entry: Maspindzeli, the Georgian Choir. On the face of it, the choir is a nonsense - a Georgian choir with only one Georgian person in it. But the sound is wonderful - raw, gutsy, committed, folk-like but sophisticated. A must.
A sequence of songs is emerging - leading from the exotic, distant (Armenian liturgy, Renaissance polyphony) to the familiar (Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, The Internationale). A high proportion of religious music, but wonderfully varied. Very few love songs for some reason. We'll end with each choir singing a different well-known song, simultaneously, a choral Tower of Babel. But very quietly!
The first ensemble rehearsal at the Roundhouse. The choirs are initially (understandably) nervous, wary of each other; by the end of the day they are giving each other ovations. Particular support for the Swiss School. Ah! this is why we decided to do the project.