Sunday, 4 May 2014

Crowd Out: The people running the biggest Birmingham choir ever

I've decided to participate in a HUGE event: Crowd Out. It's a new piece from New York composer David Lang. I will be one of a thousand voices singing and declaiming my head off. 

It's a world première. It's twenty groups of fifty people singing and shouting and giving out, arranged across four levels in Millennium point in Birmingham. It's insane, it's demanding, it's an adventure. It's going to happen in June this year. 

It's free to watch. Anyone can join in, including you. But you've got to do some rehearsing. 

I'm going to post closer to the date with something detailed about the process and the involvement. How are the rehearsals going to work? In the meantime I've got two of the people involved who are building all this: Simon Halsey and Clare Edwards. They both run choirs. 

Simon Halsey's conductor podium
You may have seen this earlier post with Simon Halsey. Simon is directing Crowd Out. He runs elite level choirs in Birmingham, London and Berlin, and has initiated an outreach campaign that involves choirs at all levels in Birmingham. The post is well worth reading for his take on arts funding alone. On the day, Simon will conduct, live, from halfway up an escalator – a two-story escalator in Millennium Point that gives me the willies every time I use it. 

Clare Edwards is one of the co-ordinators and whippers-in on Simon's team. She's ever so competent and likeable, and she's drafting her entire choir - Notorious - into the project. 

Clare has run Notorious for 17 years now. They don't audition, but you kind of need to get up to their standard quickly: they're damn good and very adventurous. They sell out most of their gigs. Clare also sings with the exquisitely excellent Ex Cathedra. When she's not doing that, she sorts out music projects all round the country. The last time I talked to her for this blog was in the run up to Simmer Down, a huge free reggae-centric party in Handsworth Park. She stage manages that - dawn to dusk - as well. 

Crowd Out needs a thousand volunteer voices. You're invited, by the way, they still need a few to sign up. One constant choral challenge is to bring random people up to standard, fast. All the choruses and choirs Simon and Clare work with in the UK are amateur, but they're sharp as tacks. So that is the first hurdle to clear.  

The problem is: you're working with amateurs. And you're a pro. People don't audition for your choir, Notorious. How do you pull amateurs up to a professional standard?
Clare Edwards A lot of people audition for their choirs, we don't. In those choirs, people have to reach a certain standard. Then they get chucked out when they reach a certain age and their voice goes. There is a growing movement of non-audition choirs; we were one of the first. But we're also a bit weird, compared to some. One the one hand you've got community choirs, where anyone who wants to can join. The music is simpler; they don't tackle big choral works; you don't have to read music. But there are the amateur choirs who do do a lot of classical stuff. Very serious. The top of the range people do re-audition every two years. 
Simon Halsey's CBSO Chorus is one such choir. 
Simon Halsey A singer, in the chorus who is trained and knowledgeable, nevertheless has to treat the Chorus as a hobby; it's not their job, and they don't get paid. It's up to us to provide a hobby that is stimulating and will make the singer want to come. The CBSO orchestra needs to have a chorus to sing, for different concerts, and it's my job have a group of amateur people in good condition, to do it for them. 
Clare Edwards It's a serious business, though, and you do get chucked out if you're not careful. 
I would assume that can be tricky to handle
Clare Yes. People get very upset. It can bring a lot of tension into that mix. So as a result you've got a lot of different attitudes. Community choirs are a lot more sociable. It's about having a great time singing your heart out. We - Notorious - sit somewhere in the middle. We do tackle hard-end stuff – Britten, for example. But we also do stuff like U2, Catatonia and Deacon Blue arrangements on our last gig, which a 'serious' choir wouldn't do. Our arrangements – they're done for us by Richard Salt, our in-house arranger – can be very complex. So we are sociable... but we try to hit a very high standard
So the old question comes up. What and who is a choir for? The people who sing in it, or the people who come to the gigs? The emotional impact of being in a choir, or any collaborative art project, is very powerful. It has appeal and creates expectations. You have to manage that.
Simon If I run a chorus well, if all the rehearsals are good, if all the singing teachers who work with the chorus are excellent, if there's the right amount of language coaching, the right amount of sectional rehearsals, if the room is warm, if music copies are new, tea is taken at the right time, the rehearsals begin on time and don't over run, if the parking has been sorted out, and when we go on tour, everything runs like clockwork, if people are proud of what they do... then there is comparatively little complaining. 
Clare A lot of people in Notorious want to be in something that pushes them, too. One or two people find the pushing taxing and difficult. But a lot of people relish it. What's lovely for me at the moment is that we've got people who've never been in choirs, who don't read music... and we've equally got one or two people who have sung in the very best choirs - 'proper' choirs. And they get as much of a kick out of it as the ones who've never sung in choirs before. 
You've got to be checking how people are doing...
Clare I spend a lot of time doing that. Are they comfortable? Are they into what we are doing? Some people like some of our material – we do a variety of stuff – but not everybody does. So some vote with their feet, concert by concert. 
You're a choral director. You have to seduce, cajole, persuade, encourage, train... sometimes hand out a slap or two. How do you feel about cracking the whip? You don't always have to be nice to get results... 
Clare I'm not terribly comfortable with it most of the time. But I've been in a lot of different rehearsal situations – other choirs, orchestras, ensembles... If you go to that serious end of choral singing, where people audition to get into high-end choirs, conductors can be pretty harsh. I've been on the end of that. People can be quite fearful of those conductors. You don't arrive late, ever, for those choirs. You don't make mistakes too often – really obvious ones, anyway. I've been in that environment. I never wanted that from my choir. 
So the big, big challenge for Clare Edwards, Simon Halsey and the Crowd Out team is in pulling it all together, working with rank amateurs. Um... like me. There will be lots and lots of seasoned singers piling in – it's a big project, and it will lean heavily on top of the line Birmingham music expertise. It's being driven by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and rehearsals - so far, I've only been to one – are in the lovely CBSO Centre. So we are talking connected. 

I'm looking forward to this. I'm going to bump up against people I don't normally collaborate with. It's going to be challenging. The music is, frankly, difficult to explain. I don't care - that's a something to get to grips with. And there's ginormous, collaborative performance or two at the end of it. What's not to like?

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group

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