Hi I’m Matthew Swann; I am the Associate Producer for Classical Music at the Roundhouse. And my role in Reverb is producing programming, putting together the whole thing. Sort of quite a far reaching role but it’s basically making sure that everything happens, everybody’s talking to everybody else, everyone knows what going on the stage, so yeah, quite an exciting but busy role.
Reverb as a whole started in 2010 and basically we are trying to capture an exciting movement in contemporary music at the moment, not just classical but right across the board. A lot of people have started using this title, ‘alternative classical’ which I’m not sure whether I like or not but it’s as good as any. It’s really a lot of people in classical music that are trying to break out of traditional concert format, trying to break out of sort of traditional repertoire and programming ideas and really bring to an audience that we feel were part of anyway, there’s a whole generation of people in a time where, sort of alternative music and rock and roll and electronica were very much part of contemporary culture and we were part of that culture as well and we go to club nights and gigs and all the rest of it, see loads of people there and we couldn’t work out why those people and our friends that we went to those sort of gigs with weren’t coming to classical music.
We decided all independently actually, not so much with each other, to do something about it. We felt there were two issues with classical music, one is the perception of it and one is the experience of it. I think perception wise, people often feel that it’s not something for them, it’s stuffy, it’s for an older generation. And the experience unfortunately brought that out but we all thought, there’s nothing wrong with the music, the music’s amazing so we just need to put it in different venues, we need to do something completely different with it, we need to give people a route in, so if you like Radiohead for example, there’s absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t like Steve Reich and Stockhausen, Hugh Brunt of the LCO is going to try and prove that theory in his concert.
So the festival as a whole, five nights, five of the best performing and producing groups in classical around at the moment. There are some times when you do want people to be quiet and you do want people to sit here and really concentrate on it. But I’d rather do that through an amazing performance and really good lighting and really sort of creating an atmosphere and in which people would want to respect that and explain what the music was about. It’s just a much nicer way of doing it and having that whole sort of club night is brilliant.
My name is Robin Osterley, I am Chief Executive of an organisation called Making Music. Making Music looks after amateur groups around the country, so if you’re a member of a choir, a samba band, a gospel group or something there’s a good chance that your group will be a member of Making Music.
We’ve been very heavily involved in the Voices Now part of the Reverb festival which takes place on the last day, on the Sunday and it’s been very exciting for us because it’s an opportunity to showcase all the various different types of singing that our members can get up to and we’re very proud and pleased to have been involved in it.
One of the greatest things about Reverb is its ability to make classical cool. I happen to think classical music is cool anyway but there’s a lot of people out there that don’t and I think Reverb’s job is to show them how mistaken they are. That’s actually plenty of ways you can present classical music which aren’t in the least bit stuffy, there are plenty of types of classical music which aren’t in the least bit stuffy which really do have a tremendous amount of appeal, including to young people. So what I think is so exciting about Reverb is its conscious attempt and ability to break those barriers down and to make sure that, especially for young people, classical can be shown off in all its glory rather than presented as a kind of stuffy, elitist thing.
Voices Now is not just a night, it’s a whole day activity, and that’s what’s really exciting about it, that you can drop in and drop out, it’s completely free to come, you don’t even have to acquire a ticket, you can just literally walk in and that means that you can pick and choose, if there’s an event on that doesn’t take your fancy you can go to another one instead, or you can move on and go somewhere else and come back a bit later, it really is a kind of pick and mix type of activity and there will be literally every conceivable type of choir performing. We have Georgian choirs, we have classical music choirs, we have youth choirs, we have amateur choirs, we have professional choirs like BBC Singers, I mean I know this is an overused phrase but there really is something for everyone. And it’s just a question of being able to go in and drop and drop out and I don’t think that something that has ever been done before for choral music and it’s something that we’re really excited about.
written by Matthew Swann, Associate Producer of Reverb Festival 2012
Classical music can seem full of jargon. Most of it is very useful to professional musicians and academics*, but it can be confusing and off-putting to people coming to classical music gigs for the first time. But perhaps the most difficult jargon of all is how we describe the thing itself. Classical Music implies stuffy concert halls and formal etiquette to a lot of people – all things that Reverb and the Roundhouse definitely aren’t, so what words should we use to describe what we’re doing?
Perhaps a better phrase than ‘Contemporary Classical’ would be ‘Alternative Classical’ or even ‘Alt-classical’. What we mean by this is that we still have all the amazing, wonderful rich music, but in an environment where there are no pretentions, no set formalities, and anyone can feel comfortable. The Night Shift perhaps have the best phrase: “Classical Music – minus the rules”.
The above all describes what this movement doesn’t do. What this movement does say is that we should put this amazing music in equally amazing venues, that if the best rock shows can have incredible lighting and visuals so should we, we should bring musicians like Imogen Heap and Johnny Greenwood into the fold and explore what they can do with an 80-piece orchestra or an a cappella choir, it says we should explore more of the music being written today and in the last 50 years (much of it a huge influence on electronic, dance and alternative music – just ask any techno DJ about Steve Reich.) and when we do delve into previous centuries, we should present the music in fresh and innovative ways. One more thing this movement doesn’t do though, is mess around with or dumb down the music. The performers are world-class, and the music is incredible.
Hear Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians, here.
Describing the indescribable is always difficult. To use the famous phrase (variously attributed to Steve Martin and the 19th century composer Clara Schumann), “talking about music is like dancing about architecture”. I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t talk about the music and the experience. One of the things I enjoy about going to alternative classical gigs is the chance to have a drink and conversation about the performance. Don’t take my word for it though – ultimately the best thing to do is come and experience this beautiful, exhilarating (at times shocking), and wonderful music for yourself.
*Perhaps a glossary of some of the terms used in Reverb 2012 might be useful:
To music academics, ‘Classical’ music actually refers to a very specific period in musical history, roughly 1750-1830. The term ‘Western Art Music’ is the phrase used to describe the full span of music from around 1200 to the present. (‘Western Art Music’ always seems to me like describing fine wine as “fermented, barrelled, grape juice”. Accurate, but it kind of kills it…). Beyond academia we tend to use Classical Music as a catch-all for anything written from about 1600 to the present day. The Aurora Orchestra (Sat 25 Feb) explore three different examples of how classical music evolved in the 20th century and how it was influenced by lots of different musical styles including jazz.
Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story:
A solo instrument accompanied by a larger ensemble – usually an orchestra. The word concerto (lots of musical terms are Italian) is thought to come from the words conserere (to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight), and concertos tend to both pit the orchestra against the soloist and weave them together. Again, difficult to explain the real complexity of the relationship between soloist and orchestra, and different composers have different interpretations, but Gabriel Prokofiev explains in music far better than I do in words. His Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra is performed on Sat 3 March. Visit myspace.com/gabrielprokofiev for examples of Gabriel’s music.
This means playing music on the instruments used when the composer was alive. Musical instruments evolve all the time. Until 100 years ago violins and cellos, for example, used gut strings (yes, actual gut from actual animals – usually cats). Nowadays they use metal or plastic strings. This makes them louder and easier to play but hearing music written in the 18th or 19th centuries as the composer would have heard it can be an enlightening experience, and there is something raw and visceral about the sound they make. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are one of the world’s greatest period instrument groups, and are pioneers of the Alternative Classical movement with their Night Shift format (Fri 24 Feb), and will play music written in the aftermath of the French Revolution on the instruments of the time.
View The Night Shift’s trailer or see The Night Shift play music by CPE Bach, son of JS Bach, possibly the greatest ever classical composer:
Unaccompanied voices singing together in a choir. Its literal meaning in Italian is ‘in the manner of the chapel’, and comes from a time where instruments were used sparingly in religious services. Today, it tends to cover a wide variety of musical styles and choirs from beat-boxing and R&B to classical, but what they all have in common is that they can create a huge range of textures and sounds without needing instruments. A great example of this is Imogen Heap’s a cappella sound track to The Seashell and the Clergyman on Sun 26 Feb – Imogen creates the most amazing sound world from spooky, whispering effects to driving rhythms, all produced by the human voice, and you can hear a cappella groups in styles ranging from folk to punk at Voices Now (Sun 4 Mar)
See what happened at Voices Now 2011 and some great examples of a capella singing, here.
Reverb Festival runs from Fri 24 Feb – Sunday 4 Mar at Roundhouse, Camden. For full programme & to book tickets, visit roundhouse.org.uk/reverb
Roundhouse Radio interviewed Margaret Cameron, alto in the BBC Singers who will be performing as part of Voices Now, a day showcasing some of the UK’s best choirs following the huge success of the first Voices Now Festival at the Roundhouse in March 2011, which saw over 2,000 singers perform at the venue.
Read the interview below or listen here
So, tell people what the BBC Singers is about, because it may not be obvious!
MC: The BBC singers is a radio choir. We are a full-time, professional ensemble. We work for the BBC and we produce programmes for Radio 3. We do either a concert or a studio recording every week depending on what the needs of the Radio 3 network are.
Quite interesting to hear that you’re full-time. You basically go to work to sing, which sounds quite fun actually.
MC: Yes it is fun, we do everything, the whole repertoire, from very early to new commissions. A few weeks ago we were up in Scotland with the BBC Scottish Orchestra, doing the first Scottish performance of James Macmillan’s A Gospel According to St. John, which was an amazing performance to be involved in.
Brilliant. Now, explain how things work in a vocal ensemble – obviously, you’re an alto? What other bits do we have that make up the BBC Singers?
MC: We have the sopranos, on the top line, we have the basses on the bottom, and in the middle doing all the lovely harmony stuff, you’ve got the altos (the lower female voices) and the tenors (the higher male voices).
Now I was reading on the BBC Singers website that people can apply. What kind of variety of experience have you got within the BBC Singers? What are people’s backgrounds? Are you all singers by nature, who have worked their way towards this?
MC: They’re all classical singers, and there’s probably many pathways to a full-time job with the BBC singers, but most of us have been to university or to music college and studied our instrument, the voice, to a very very high standard.
It sounds beautiful, some of the stuff you’ve done. You’ve worked with a variety of composers and conductors. We were talking earlier about Gabriel Jackson, who’s your current associate composer. Do you think it’s important to keep changing your conductors and the people that compose for you regularly? I know that some people think its quite important to change things around so that things sound fresh, whereas others say stick with someone that knows your sound. What’s your opionion, and what do you think the BBC Singers prefer?
MC: I think both are true in balance. It’s good to have continuity. It’s good to be in a full-time choir because we get used to singing with each other and we know how we work together. It’s good to have a conductor for a period of time, someone that you get used to and who gets to know you and that you can work with. But it’s also very important to stay fresh. So it’s good as well, after a period of maybe a few years, that we move on and we work with another conductor or another composer starts writing for us. So I think both are true, it’s good to have some continuity and it’s good also to have change. And although we have a chief conductor and an associate composer, we work with a lot of conductors and a lot of composers.
There are some period instruments that feature in some of your pieces. As a BBC Singer, do you have much input into the final sound of the piece or are you very much instruments yourself, with the voice? How does it work when you’re working with a composer or conductor to finish a piece?
MC: Well it’s always interesting to work with a composer because they write things on their music, instructions, that can be interpreted in lots of different ways, so it’s really nice to be able to talk to them and say ‘what do you mean by that?’ and they can show you or explain to you, so that’s very interesting. But yes, we spend a lot of time in rehearsals discussing how the sound should be and how the words should be conveyed.
Is there a particular piece that you’ve really enjoyed performing, or you’ve taken a personal interest in recently?
MC: The piece that I mentioned earlier on, James Macmillan’s Gospel according to St John that we did a few weeks ago up in Scotland; I thought it was a wonderful piece. It was a piece for orchestra, a large choir which was the London Symphony Chorus, and we were doing a smaller chamber choir. There were 16 of us. And we were the narrator choir, so we were telling the story. The big choir were sort of directly involved in the drama of the Passion, and I really thought it was an amazing piece. A piece where you’re on stage thinking I’m so glad I’ve had the opportunity to sing this piece. And also a piece that I imagine will become part of the repertoire and will be performed many many times. So that was very exciting.
So tell us about a day in the life of a BBC Singer. So you turn up for work – is there any sort of warm up exercises that you have to do? How does it pan out?
MC: How it is, is that we do our own warm-up at home, before we turn up to work. Or there’s a small room where we can warm up at the Maida Vale studios, which is where we’re based. We go into our studio, Maida Vale 2, which is in the basement, so we don’t see much sunlight during the day. And at the beginning of a programme, our music arrives on our music stand, we open it up, it’s the first time we’ve seen it, so we’ll read it through with the conductor in front of us, and then we’ll start working on the nitty-gritty of it. We do music in a lot of different languages so we may have language coaches who come in and help us with the pronunciation and the understanding of different langauages. And then if there are other instruments involved, after a couple of days we start to rehearse with the other instruments. And by the end of the week, we’re ready with our performance.
It’s quite a quick turnaround then?
MC: Very quick.
Especially the learning another language as well. Give me examples of other languages. Are we speaking in terms of French, German, Latin?
MC: All those standard European languages plus some more unusual ones. We do the Scandinavian languages, we’ve sung in Finnish, we’ve sung in Hungarian. The piece I’m looking at for a concert in a couple of weeks is in Hebrew. So, yes. And Russian. We sing in many many different languages.
Do you pick up any words through doing that?
MC: You do pick up the odd word yes.
Perhaps not useful in conversation?
MC: Often very romantic language really for everyday conversation!
The BBC Singers work with a nationwide outreach programme, so you go into schools, and you work with youth choirs. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and the work you’ve done with schools and youth choirs?
MC: Yes, we go out to schools a lot. We go into the classroom and work with the school choirs, and the teachers who run the school choirs, and we’ve done projects where we’ve put concerts on together with the choirs that we’ve worked with. At the moment the project that I’m involved in is with setting up community choirs in the borough of Lewisham. And there are 5 community choirs that have been set up in different areas of the borough, so that they’re all quite particular to their locality. And they’re just fledgling choirs at the moment, but we’re working towards them being involved in the Voices Now weekend here at the Roundhouse, where they’ll be taking their first steps and performing on their own as choirs.
For someone like myself, and I’ve been saying this in every interview, who’s sort of starting out in classical music, and choirs, listening to this style of music, is there a particular composer of a piece that you can recommend to me to get stuck in?
MC: I think it’s so much a matter of finding the styles that make you tick, but I would listen to some Bob Chilcot, who works with us and has written some wonderful pieces for choir. When I was first listening to classical music, one of my O-level pieces was by Stravinsky, and I started listening to the Symphony of Psalms choral piece, and I thought that was absolutely wonderful. I would listen to some of the old masters – I would listen to Bach, maybe St Matthew Passion; I would listen to the Mozart Requiem; and I would also have a listen to James Macmillan’s St John’s Gospel.
And for those of us that are looking forward to coming to Reverb 2012, and this is possibly putting you on the spot, but perhaps a little tagline for your event? A reason for us to come and enjoy the instrument of the voice?
MC: Yes, come and listen to the voice because it’s an amazing instrument and you’ll be astonished at how many different colours and sounds can be achieved by the human voice, particularly a group of human voices – the amazing harmonies that can be produced.
We’ll be seeing you in February 2012, next year!
MC: Yes – I’ll be looking forward to it.