THE FIRST GIG
Promoted by Serious, The Shout’s first gig took place in the Spitz in Spitalfields, now sadly defunct. We shared the bill with the electronic artist Scanner. We were billed as a ‘club’ choir. No one really knew what that meant. On a short rehearsal period, we performed three pieces, Tall Stories, Axaxaxas Mlö and Why Do You Sing.
Inspired by the photographs of Lewis Hine, Tall Stories is about the building of the Empire State Building and implicitly about the immigrants who built it. By a small stretch of the imagination it was about the choir itself. I wrote the lyrics and Richard the intricate, beautiful music. The lyrics are epic, mythologizing, plundered from many sources – Sumerian accounts of the building of the Tower of Babel, Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin Of A Lion, a message found in the walls of Saddell Castle in Scotland…..They’re written in choral speak – we did this, we did that (a technique used in two books that I love, Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came To The End and Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha In The Attic). I had no idea how to write lyrics, so I wrote pages and pages of material, and then butchered it. The music is epic too, symphonic, containing some passages in 16-part harmony (what’s the point of having sixteen singers?), and some of extreme transparency. I was very struck during the rehearsals of this piece, as we dissected it, by some of the music that was revealed (three vocal parts, for example, of a section in eight parts), and had the idea of making a re-mix of the piece, making a feature of music that is almost hidden in the original.
We projected some of Lewis Hine’s photographs, including the famous ones of workers calmly eating their lunch while sitting on girders high above New York City.
Axaxaxas Mlö was originally commissioned by the choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh. It follows the structure of a classical Carnatic (South Indian) piece. There are (almost) no recognisable lyrics. Carnatic music uses two mnemonic systems, one for rhythm, one for melody. Konnakol is for remembering drum patterns, swara for remembering raga melodies (sa rig a ma pa dha ni sa - similar to the Western solfège system) The system I constructed for Axaxaxas Mlö was an extension of these two. The resulting language, nonsense semantically but sense musically, reminded Shobana of Borges’ story The Library of Babel, about a library containing every possible book of a certain length, with every possible combination of letters. So the five singers sat at a table reading, as if they were in the process of discovering new languages. Axaxaxas Mlö was a vehicle for the Carnatic singer Manickam Yogeswaran, a key member of The Shout - though the other four singers also work their socks off.
Why Do You Sing? isn’t overloaded with lyrics either – a ten-minute piece with the text: ‘Why do you sing? I sing because I sing’ (from Earth Poem by Mahmoud Darwish). This piece, the most straightforward of the evening, is nothing more than a celebration of the joy of ensemble singing. It was inspired by Intonos, the amazing singing of Sardinian shepherds, which had been introduced to the world beyond Sardinia by Frank Zappa in the 1980s. This music is about sounding chords and then camping out inside them. Why Do You Sing was partly a vehicle for the jazz and blues improvisers in the choir.
How to take advantage of the improvising abilities of some members of The Shout? Improvising abilities of very different kinds. Manickam Yogeswaran (always known as Yoga – a person as well as a philosophy), from Sri Lanka, trained in the classical Carnatic tradition, for whom improvisation is based on extraordinarily intimate knowledge of a large repertoire of ragas, and who has the ability to sound as free as a bird (interesting simile – how free is a bird?) while following the complex rules of the genre, a monophonic music in which melody and rhythm are all, and harmony is incidental; Carol Grimes, brilliant blues and jazz singer, instinctive, able to improvise over simple or complex harmonic sequences.
What they have in common is that at their (frequent) best there is no barrier between the thought and the sound. The mechanism that converts experience and emotion into the movement of air is stunningly effective.
It was evidently possible to ask for solo improvisations to suit the individual singers, and I did; but The Shout was a group, and I wanted to find opportunities for group improvisation. Dangerous territory. Solo improvisation can be awful. Group improvisation can be spectacularly awful. I felt a need to create a context, or a structure. One of the more successful attempts at this was I Said She Said. The score consists of nothing more than a couple of chords and a set of instructions. It was inspired by Inuit kattajaq, a game for two singers – usually women – in which one makes a provocative sound, the other responds with a complementary sound, the first repeats her sound, or subtly changes it, the second responds….and so on, in a rapid call and response. The pace increases until one gives up, usually bursting into laughter. In I Said She Said three pairs of female singers play a game of this kind, with the added idea that they’re in the midst of one of those arguments where you’re so angry you can’t express yourself, where you say things you never meant to say, and where you find out things about the other person that you never wanted to find out.
The guiding principle is rapid call and response, with the idea of wrong-footing your partner; the piece starts in a prescribed way, rhythmically and harmonically, and then opens out unpredictably, before returning to a version of the opening (come to think of it, like every jazz piece you’ve ever heard, whoops). It is both theatrical and playful - typical of The Shout.
NO SCORES, NO CONDUCTOR
No scores. No conductor. Guiding principles of The Shout. And both in the same service - to allow the singers to relate directly to each other and to the audience.
No scores – obvious. To know the music well enough so that your attention is entirely on the sound rather than the score. To be aware of everything that is going on round you, both aurally and visually. To be able to communicate freely with every single singer in the group. For some Shouters, an entirely natural way to learn music. For some, habitually used to reading from scores, extremely hard work. Particularly since some of the songs were long and complex.
To make the learning process easier, we sent out, as well as scores, stereo learning files in which your part was isolated on one track, with all the other parts on the other track. These files were of course particularly useful if you were not a great reader of music – an excellent democratisation of the learning process.
No conductor, less obvious. Sixteen is large for a self-regulating group. In the classical world a sixteen-piece choir would almost certainly be conducted, both for purely practical reasons – starting, stopping, ensemble, keeping in time – and for expressive reasons, the conductor moulding the music as it progresses, giving it an ongoing shape. But I’d watched too many choirs that seemed to be totally in thrall to their conductor (in fact many singers in amateur choirs, having done a day’s work, welcome the renunciation of responsibility); it’s as if they have agency, no free will. In an individualistic, often narcissistic world, this is arguably a virtue. What I wanted from The Shout was quite different though, a sense of individual and collective responsibility.
Breath was important. The choir became adept at coming in together by listening for in-breath,
One of the mechanisms that emerged was a revolving leadership. A singer would take charge for perhaps only a few bars at a time, when his/her part suggested a leading role, like the player on the ball in a football match. In fact the combination of individual flair and collective responsibility was very similar to what one might ask of a footballer. And the role of music director very similar to a football manager’s – to prepare the performers and then to step away and allow them to express themselves. Yes, possibly screaming instructions from the dugout, but not necessarily expecting to be heard.
This system required a higher degree of ego from the singers than one would normally expect from a member of a choir. But an ego that could be sublimated when it needed to be sublimated. It became obvious that the degree of ego is at least partly related to the singer’s background. A classical singer would be used to realising the implied ideas of the composer and the actual ideas of the conductor; this would lead, at least in principle, to a comparatively modest sense of ego (yes I know, in principle; in practice the ego could be unbridled, and hang the composer and conductor). For a jazz singer, on the other hand, a high degree of ego is essential. It’s partly the interpretative aspect of the singing, partly the improvisatory aspect – the composer provides the framework, but the music is coming directly from the singer’s imagination and experience.
On a tour of Holland in 2003, some Shouters and I went to a concert of contemporary music by the Eric Ericsson choir, more or less the polar opposite of The Shout. The choir, the women all dressed identically in strange lime green robes, like a cult, or rather like a green Polyphonic Spree, the men in sober suits, came on to the stage from opposite entrances. For a moment I wondered if the two halves had met before. It felt like a formal mass blind date. A few moments later, it became obvious that they had met, frequently. They sang complex music with amazing precision and (apparent) ease, making a feature of singing a ferocious atonal passage and then landing on the most beautifully tuned major triad I’d ever heard in my life. It made me want to cry. (Angela had to act as therapist.) I wanted The Shout to be capable of this, while also sounding like a vocal big band in full flow. We’d never manage it. Perfection was not in our repertoire. In principle I understood: they do what they do; we do something else. But I wanted both, everything.
The main reason that perfection was not available to the Shout was in fact tuning. Consider two kinds of singer.
Jazz singers (in common with a pop, rock or folk singers) don’t necessarily sing in tune. Their singing is characterised by a purposeful stretching of tuning. The tension and release created by this stretching gives the singing an expressiveness which it would lack if it were perfectly in tune. (Wabi-sabi!) This is part of the reason that choral arrangements of pop songs are invariably so ghastly. The characterful tuning of the original solo version is incredibly difficult to achieve with a conventional choir, which is specifically trying to sing in tune. The problem with The Shout was the opposite of this – the natural tuning of the jazz and blues singers in the choir was extremely characterful, but undermined any attempt at perfect tuning.
The tuning (swara) of Carnatic singers is related to a fundamental tone (in practice a drone played on the tambura). And this tuning is not equal temperament, but natural temperament. So not only does Manickam Yogeswaran, the Carnatic singer in The Shout, not think of tuning in the same way, but the structure of the tuning is different. Besides this, in the interests of expressiveness, he moves between the main notes of the melody via wonderfully subtle skirls of secondary notes whose tuning is slightly different to the main swara.
Eventually I realised that actually I didn’t even want the Shout’s tuning to be perfect. The challenge was to reconcile the glorious glitchy nuances of solo singing with the need for a kind of overall group tuning. That group tuning was hard to achieve. In hindsight, it needed more thought and analysis.