THE SHOUTING FENCE

This extract is a duet sung by Kayte Harding and Adey Grummet.

 

Music by Richard Chew and OG

for ten professional singers, 250 amateur singers, and two drummers

First performances directed by Lucy Bailey

 

The town of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights on the border of Israel and Syria is divided by a wide chasm of no man’s land. The townsfolk – families and friends separated by a never-ending conflict – gather on either side to converse. They have to shout to hear each other: news, arguments, stories, gossip, declarations of love, discussions of the price of potatoes.

 

This is the inspiration for The Shouting Fence, a choral piece about communication under extreme circumstances of separation. It’s about the everyday life of a group of Palestinians. The singers should be of all ages and backgrounds. They are positioned in two locations from which they are just able to hear each other – on two rooftops, or on either side of a river, on two stands - with the audience in between. On each side is a mixture of amateur and professional singers, and one drummer.

 

The singers sing in groups and individually, trying to bridge the space in between. The children are more wayward, playing games, hurling insults, ignoring their friends on either side of the divide; perhaps they have been dragged along by their parents and are simply passing the time. The singing is sometimes concerted, organised, communicative, sometimes disjointed and chaotic – many voices clamouring, none comprehensible.

 

Towards the end of the piece a third choir, a choir of exiles, sings from a distant place. Their song is about their guilt at being removed from the conflict.

 

The singing is not amplified, though the singers sometimes use megaphones. The piece is about the challenge of long-distance acoustic communication. 

 

Score available on request.

CORONA

Music by Richard Chew and OG

with The Shout, large chorus, Mount Charles Brass Band

first performed at a disused tin mine near Carnkie, Cornwall

 

Corona is an outdoor oratorio for voices, brass instruments and percussion.

It was written in celebration of the total solar eclipse of August 11th 1999.

 

The piece is about the heavens: about astrology and astronomy, about superstition and measurement, about telescopes, about eclipses, about obsession. The piece asks: What is happening up there? Does it matter to us?

 

A monolithic, celestial music - hymns to the sun, moon and stars, music about the movement of the heavens - is contrasted with earthbound music - raucous attempts to scare the eclipse dragons who are devouring the sun, a ferocious omen song, love songs, and finally a gospel version of the song Blue Moon.

 

At the centre of the piece, a monumental, quiet unison song, almost like a prayer:

‘as dark as light  as bright as dark night  as blind as perfect sight

a ring of fire  and the scorpion is  for a moment  tamed

as deaf as dark  as quiet as thunder  as dead as loud life

at last we can gaze on this terrible beauty’

 

Score available on request

 

BECAUSE I SING

with The Shout, The Armenian Church Choir, Gagneurs d’Ame, The Kingdom Choir, South Hampstead Girls School Choir, The Lea Valley WI Singers, The London Gay Men’s Chorus, The London Jewish Male Choir, The Ealing Deaf Choir, Maspindzeli, The Swiss Church Choir, Gwalia, Ngāti Rānana

Directed by Alain Platel

 

Find out more

Michael Morris rings me. 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 Roccoco décor, girls in sunglasses. The church is very full, people coming in throughout the service, kissing hallo, chatting. A whole gang of men in very fetching Umbrian hats, green felt with feathers  – a Central London foxhunting party has strayed in, or what? An exciting sense of a hidden community for whom this is an important social as well as religious event – a chance to speak Italian, to be Italian, to escape temporarily the strain of having to belong in a foreign country. And a warning sign: the choir is miniscule, and old.

 

The wall of the Roundhouse! Almost like the Wailing Wall…… the piece will begin with the choirs whispering to the wall.

 

Our second visit: to an interminably dull service at the French Protestant Church in Soho Square. Gradual realisation: there is no choir…….

 

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 friend: miming of enormous breasts etc, 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 – even so some of the deaf have an associated vision problem & need binoculars. Vera Hunt the leader of the choir (and one of the first woman 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. Maybe if I’d met her when I was fifteen I wouldn’t have irritably given up on Christianity…… 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 and 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 Chew 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 of Barbie 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’Ame the Congolese Christian Choir, are rehearsing. The church lights up with the sound. I could happily listen to them singing for hours. Their leader Diakese 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.

 

In Enid Gratton-Guiness’s front room the Lea Valley WI Singers sing Gospel Train and Enid stops conducting, cavorts joyfully in front of the choir. Since I don’t like watching people conduct, I am very taken with this.

 

Taste! Some of the choirs don’t seem to know what the word means – and that is part of their attraction.

 

Down to Fulham to visit the Seventh Day Adventist Choir. Most of the congregation have stayed on to listen to choir practice. The choir leader David’s three-year-old daughter Eden bounces around him imitating his conducting. I feel utterly ashamed of my preconception of Seventh Day Adventists as gullible idiots.

 

A roomful 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, hurls insults at Edward Kay as he plays the piano. It works!

 

Directors (themselves often professional musicians) of amateur choirs give their choirs such a hard time! They’re so rude! Richard and I, running The Shout, are soft in comparison. ‘It’s sounding nice, it’s going nowhere.’ ‘Vinegary high notes sopranos.’  ‘Can someone let the cat out?’ But when the hectoring is good-humoured, when there is respect and delight, the method is wonderfully successful; and a disparate bunch of amateurs can sound like angels.

 

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 (or is it something they’ve cooked up ten minutes before?) we must sing for them. We manage to stagger through our favourite gospel song Soon And Very Soon.

 

The London Jewish Male Choir (what is it about male-voice choirs? why is the sound so inexpressibly moving?) 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-and-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. For a couple of songs the choir are joined by the Korn Brothers, three nervous willing boys in gold waistcoats; their voices sound infinitely high, about twenty octaves above those of the men……

 

The Met! We love them. They’re not an especially good choir, and half of them aren’t even policemen any more, but we love them. We love their London medley, we love their rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody, and we love their Gwahoddiad, a Welsh hymn. They must sing on horseback.

 

Songs most likely to be chosen by amateur choirs:

1 Cantique De Jean Racine an irremediably dreary piece by Faure

2 Bohemian Rhapsody

3 Soon And Very Soon

4 Satin Doll

 

Michael and Alain and I on West Drayton Station after visiting the Deaf Choir – trains in chaos – every time the (digital) station clock advances one minute, so does the expected time of arrival of the train – a Beckettian vision of hell.

 

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 and immensely funky jam session.

 

Our choral excavation leads to a stratum of WMM (white middle-class, middle-aged) choirs, many of them attempting extremely ambitious oratorios, sometimes with great gusto and commitment, sometimes with a kind a patient misery – and it’s their lunch hour they’re giving up! Handel is the composer of choice. Most WMM choirs are having trouble recruiting new members – oratorios are perhaps a dying art. But there’s something gloriously ambitious about attempting this kind of project in your lunch hour - not to be derided.

 

Rumours of a Firemen’s Choir, of a Politicians’ Choir, of a Cabbies’ Choir, of a Retail Choir (John Lewis) turn out to be false. The Prisoner’s Choir at Holloway pose a problem – how can we get them to the Roundhouse? Perhaps if the Police Choir is there too??

 

Where is that Asian choir? How can we do a choral piece in London without an Asian choir?? Well it turns out there is no real choral tradition in Asia, and we’ll have to do without. Realise that we can’t have a PC checklist of essential choir types. We just need to choose choirs we like. But a Bollywood choir??? Surely we can find a Bollywood choir?

 

A Greek Orthodox service in Camden, an Armenian Orthodox service in Kensington. Beautiful, mysterious, awe-inspiring. But the congregation is scarcely involved – the children are almost insane with boredom by the end of the service. At the Armenian service an old woman comes in, sits down, stays a few minutes, leaves, comes back in, stays a few minutes, leaves, comes back in…….. The Armenian music is exquisite. We talk to the choir director Mr. Demirdjian. He can’t believe we’re interested in his choir – he thinks they’re hopeless – undisciplined, under-rehearsed, underpowered. We think they’re wonderful.

 

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.

 

Some of the Maori choir are definitely not Maoris! They are enthusiasts from Radlett or somewhere who are interested in Maori culture. Does this discount the Maori choir? When is a Maori not a Maori?

 

Even better than the Met singing Gwahoddiad is Gwalia, the Welsh male voice choir singing Gwahoddiad. As it should be. There are two Welsh male voice choirs in London. Apparently there used only to be one, but sometime in the 1960s the director had an affair with the pianist, and half the choir were so shocked that they splintered off to form Gwalia. So we’re working with the prudes…..

 

Alain wants to know: Who are these people? Where do they come from? Why do they sing? 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. ‘Music is so beautiful you don’t have to hear it,’ she says. She tells him about the last thing she heard before she became deaf – a boy singing a Welsh hymn. Eventually she will tell this story to the audience in the Roundhouse.

 

Pianos! Very important to most amateur choirs, in fact crucial to the choir’s well-being. Many choirs are nervous about a cappella singing.

 

The Shout 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.

 

Ouch. I stand in front of the choir leaders at a meeting at the Welsh Centre, waiting for a phone call to tell me whether or not my father has survived a massive heart operation, while a man from Gwalia gives me a hard time about the lyrics of the refrain that Richard and I have written.

 

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. Makes the Maoris look like buffalo mozzarella. 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!

 

A problem with the Saturday performance. The Jewish choir must not set out for the Roundhouse until after sunset.

 

The Gay Men’s Chorus stupendous arrangement of The Crying Game doesn’t fit into the sequence. And the choir themselves don’t want to sing it – fools! They suggest the Kylie Minogue song Keep Your Disco as a replacement, but it won’t work without a backing track and amplification.

 

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.

 

The Shout, whose members all have the same job, parades its diversity; the singers wear what they like. Most of the amateur choirs have uniforms, some gorgeous, some less than gorgeous.

 

The wonderful Kingdom Choir decide that they cannot bear to share a stage with the Gay Men’s Chorus. Oh God.

 

Two years after Michael’s phone call, the first performance. Muezzin-like calls from Richard and Wills (Morgan) are answered by the choirs. The Jewish choir are singing in Arabic. Wonderful.

 

Enormous sets of stairs lumber round the room like a herd of elephants. The audience has to scatter, reform itself in readiness for the next song. Alain has ensured that each song is an event in itself, each choir shown off at its best.

 

Standing in the middle of 600 people singing the refrain, the sound is unbelievable. It’s like drowning in warm water, but you’re still alive at the end of it…..

 

The audience is initially not sure whether to clap after each song, but quite soon they can’t help themselves. After you’ve heard Gagneurs d’Ame sing Mpeve Ya Nlongo it’s impossible not to cheer. The Jewish choir gets a response which takes them completely by surprise.

 

The Gay Men’s Choir and the WI Singers have an intertwining sequence of songs – the Battle of the Queens, as the Gay Men’s Choir call it. Enid is in heaven (and so am I). Plans are laid for a joint concert later in the year.

 

Many of the choirs are used to performing to their own people – the London Jewish Male Choir to Jewish people, the Deaf Choir to deaf people – so the experience of performing at the Roundhouse to a very mixed audience is exciting and daunting. It seems to me incredibly brave and generous for the Armenian Choir, in particular, to emerge from their hermetic environment and sing in a secular event.

 

After the second, delirious performance, several of the singers want to know when we’re going to do it again. Aiiiieeeeee!

 

SEA TONGUE

Sea stories.

 

Music by Richard Chew and OG

for The Shout, 100 children, 200 amateur singers, four pianists, the percussionist Giles Perring and thirty ballroom dancers.

Directed by Rufus Norris (Huddersfield), Felix Barratt (De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill)

 

The piece starts in harbour in calm weather; we set out, pray, rage against the dangers of the sea, encounter a gull colony, go whaling, are becalmed, become superstitious, run into pirates, get scurvy, are involved in a mutiny, run into a storm, are blown up by a U-Boat, drown. But the piece ends calmly, with a description of the view from a bathysphere at the bottom of the ocean.

 

Sea Tongue is not so much the story of a journey, but the stories of many journeys, from the disastrous expedition of the whaling ship The Essex (which was the inspiration for Moby Dick) to the strange voyage of Donald Crowhurst, who set out on a round-the-world yacht race and finally disappeared mysteriously in the Sargasso Sea.

 

The Log Book

Dear Mama, We are sitting in port. Everything is just fine with me. I have been awarded my submariner certificate. We were called to the command post and we all drunk a cup of sea water and then the commander shook hands with us. But after drinking the sea water I felt a bit sick. When we come back from the sea, I’ll show you my certificate. Bye, I love you, I miss you. Your Seryozha (assistant cook, Kursk submarine)

 

The last good wreck, everyone on the Scillies agreed, had been as far back as 1910, when the New York-London liner Minnehaha ran aground on the island Bryher. Most of the cargo had to be jettisoned, including 243 head of cattle, Model-T Fords, grand pianos, sewing machines, carpets, shop tills, harmoniums, Panama hats and Old Judge cigarettes. Islanders are said to have smoked Old Judge for years after.

(Sebastian Smith, 2001)

 

An idiosyncrasy peculiar to the herring is that, when dead, it begins to glow; this property, which resembles phosporescence and is yet altogether different, peaks a few days after death and then ebbs away as the fish decays. Around 1870, when projects for the total illumination of our cities were everywhere afoot, two English scientists with the apt names of Herrington and Lightbown investigated the unusual phenomenon in the hope that the luminous substance exuded by dead herrings would lead to a formula for an organic source of light that had a capacity to renew itself. The failure of this undertaking constituted no more than a negligible setback in the relentless conquest of darkness. (W.G.Sebald, 1995)

 

The first eel larva was found by chance near the Faroe Islands in 1904. Smaller larvae were found in the following years, further away from the coasts of Europe. The biologist Johannes Schmitt realised that if he could follow this trail of diminishing larvae, he would come to their home. Which he did in 1922 (the First World War had held things up). Right over the spawning ground, at the seaweedy eastern side of the Sargasso Sea, he brought up in his net the tiniest larvae of all – 5mm long…………

Once in salt water, the silver eel streaks out for the Sargasso Sea, thousands of miles away, fathoms down, along dark cold currents, with no light and no fishing nets to impede its path. Eel from the Black Sea may take a year, but eel from Western Europe will do it in about six months, ready to spawn in the spring. Only the European Eel, Anguilla anguilla, makes so arduous a journey. As the salmon knows its way back to the river where it was born, so the eel knows its way back to the Sargasso Sea – but how much longer a journey that is………… (Jane Grigson, 1993)

 

Across the Sicilian Channel lies the small Tunisian port of Kelibia, on the Cap Bon peninsula. Among the Kelibians is a group of people with atypical red hair, said to be the descendants of the survivors of a shipwreck long ago, who were Irish. The Kelibians have their own way of dealing with red mullet. They gut them through the gills, leave the fish unscaled, cover them with a coating of fine salt and then grill them.

(Alan Davidson, 1972)

 

The cuttlefish secretes an ink which was formerly used to make the colour sepia. The murex mollusc used to be a source of purple dye. The liquid when extracted from the vein is actually white, & only becomes purple on exposure to sunlight.

The octopus can change its colour as well as its shape at high speed. The colour change is effected by the expansion or contraction of pigment cells distributed all over its skin. A frightened octopus which has failed to escape the notice of a predator by melting into the background has one more card to play – what is called a dymantic display, when it turns itself into a ghost-white figure, drained of colour & with only the dark eyes affording a sinister contrast.

 

According to Oppian, the dolphin fish (not to be confused with the dolphin itself) congregates around the floating timbers of a wreck and may be caught in the neighbourhood of bundles of reeds set out to attract it. All of which is true & confirmed by the unusual kannizzati fishery in Malta. Anchored floats are set up at intervals along courses running out into deep waters west of Malta. The dolphin fish collect around the floats and are then taken in an encircling seine net.

(Alan Davidson, 1972)

 

For a voice the dolphin has a moaning or a wailing similar to that of the human. (Pliny)

The voice of the dolphin in air is like that of the human in that they can pronounce vowels and combinations of vowels, but have difficulties with consonants. (Aristotle)

 

A Fast Fish belongs to the party fast to it.

A Loose Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.

(Whaling code – Holland 1695)

 

The names of the whale: keetos – cetus – whoel – hvalt – wal – hwal – whale – baleine – ballena – pekee-nuee-nuee – pehee-nuee-nuee

The tongue of the blue whale is heavier than an elephant.

 

August 7, 2001, Osaka. Returned to port with 158 carcasses – 8 sperm whales, 50 Bryde’s whales, 100 minkes. They’ll be sold for meat and blubber: kohige – ikawata – hyakuhiro – mamewata – takeri – kaburabone. We’ve announced that they were caught for the purposes of scientific research. I don’t think anyone believes us, but who cares?

 

August 10, 1927, Falkland Islands.  Yesterday, a large sperm whale was sighted. Two boats were launched and one of the harpooners managed to spear it. The other boat was upset by the lash of its tail and the men thrown into the sea. James Bartley disappeared and could not be found. The whale was killed and the blubber removed. This morning the stomach was hoisted on deck. We were startled by something in it which gave spasmodic signs of life. It was Bartley, doubled up and unconscious. A new Jonah! We laid him on the deck and treated him to a bath of seawater which soon revived him. He is unharmed, but raving and incoherent.

 

These fish are in bigness as great as a middle-sized dog, with a snout like a hog, small eyes, no eares, but two holes where his eares should bee. As I tried to sketch him, he ranne along the hall upon the floore & in every place snorting like a hog.

(Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, Goa, 1591)

 

Now I will relate something of a strange creature that I first saw there in a morning early as I was standing by the water side, in the harbour of St. Johns, which I espied very swiftly to come swimming towards me, looking cheerfully, as it had been a woman, by the face, eyes, nose, mouth, neck; the shoulders and back down to the middle were as square, white and smooth as the back of a man, and from the middle to the hinder part, pointed in proportion like a broad hooked arrow. (Richard Whitbourne, 1610)

 

September 9, 2000, Black Sea, 12 miles off Sinop, on the Turkish coast. The sonar has detected signs of habitation, so we send down the robot scouts. The video pictures seem to show a collapsed wooden house. Also tools of highly polished stone, fragments of ceramics. Could this be the landscape of Noah? Could this be evidence of the biblical flood?

 

The eight and twentieth, it was faire weather, and the Sunne shone, the wind being West and very calme, the Sea as then being open, but our ship lay fast in the Ice and stirred not; the same day there came a Beare to the ship, but when she espied us, she ranne away, and we made as much haste as we could to build our House.

(Gerrit de Veer, trapped in the Arctic ice, on an expedition led by William Barents which was trying to discover a north-east passage to Asia, 1596)

 

It has been a good game that

Must be ended at the

I will play this game when

I choose I will resign the

Game  11  20  40  There is

No reason for harmful

(The last entry in the log book of Donald Crowhurst’s yacht Teignmouth Electron, becalmed in the Sargasso Sea. Crowhurst was competing in a round-the-world yacht race. Instead of travelling round the Cape of Good Hope, past Australia, across the Pacific and round Cape Horn, he had waited in the Atlantic, and faked the log book.)

 

Cautiously we stepped on to the deserted deck. We examined the ship from stem to stern. No one was aboard, that was certain. And the ship was perfectly sound, her hull, masts, rigging and sails in good condition, her cargo intact, plenty of food and water aboard, and no sign of damage, disorder or confusion. Why had she been abandoned?

(Oliver Deveau & John Wright of the Dei Gratia, on discovering the Mary Celeste floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean)

 

At his first coming on board us, he had so much forgot his language for want of use, that we could scarce understand him, for he seemed to speak his words by halves.

(Woodes Rogers on Alexander Selkirk, prototype for Robinson Crusoe, who had being living alone for four years on Mas a Tierra, an island in the Juan Fernandez cluster, 400 miles west of Valparaiso, Chile, 1709)

 

I have no fancies about equality on board ship. It is a thing out of the question, and certainly, in the present state of mankind, not to be desired. If I expected to spend the rest of my life before the mast, I would not wish to have the power of the captain diminished one iota. (Richard Dana, 1840)

 

We had not had the sight of one fish of any kind, since we were come to the Southward of the streights of le Mair, nor one sea-bird, except a disconsolate black Albitross, who accompanied us for several days, hovering about us as if he had lost himself, till Hatley (my second captain) observing, in one of his melancholy fits, that this bird was always hovering near us, imagin’d, from his colour, that it might be some ill-omen. That which, I suppose, induced him the more to encourage his superstition, was the continued series of contrary tempestuous winds, which had oppress’d us ever since we had got into this sea. But be that as it would, he, after some fruitless attempts, at length, shot the Albitross, not doubting (perhaps) that we should have a fair wind after it.

(George Shelvocke, October 1, 1719)

 

Caught a giant sea turtle today – over 2 metres long. At last something edible on the menu! Newman has chronic toothache so tried rubbing some of the turtle’s blood on his gums. Magic! A few minutes later the pain had gone. Newman claims it’s also a cure for dandruff, so most of the men have been smearing it on their scalps. They look like the victims of some terrible atrocity. Difficult to tell if it works as yet.

 

And wandering thus certain days in these unknown seas, we ate anything we could find, hides, cats & dogs, mice, rats, parrots and monkeys: to be short, our hunger was so great, that we thought it savoury and sweet, whatever we could get to eat. (Miles Phillips, on a slave ship captained by John Hawkins, in the Caribbean, 1568)

 

Instead of a bed, the slaves are allowed, sick or well, only a board a foot and a half broad. And those who have the unfortunate honour of lying near the officers, dare not presume, though tormented with vermin, to stir so much as a hand for their ease; for fear their chains should rattle, and awake any of them; which would draw on them a punishment more severe than the biting of the insects. (John Bion, on board the French galley La Superbe, 1704)

 

Soon after our passing the Streights Le Maire, the scurvy began to make its appearance among us. After the loss of above two hundred men, we could not at last master more than six fore-mast men in a watch capable of duty. This disease is attended by a strange dejection of the spirits, and with shiverings, tremblings, and a disposition to be seized with the most dreadful terrors on the slightest accident. It was most remarkable that whatever discouraged our people, or dampened their hopes, never failed to add new vigour to the distemper. (Richard Walker, 1741)

 

Matsushenko, the leader of the mutiny, found himself ultimately opposed to the rest of the crew. He wanted to blow up the ship, but as all the rest of us were anxious to surrender to the Romanians, he had to give way. I heard that when the mutiny broke out Matsushenko himself killed ten officers. (One of the crew of the Kniaz Potemkin, 1905)

 

He being allotted to be cast overboard in the sea, had a younger brother in the same boat, that suddenly rose up and desired the captain that he would pardon and make free his brother, and let him supply his place, saying, ‘My brother is older, and of a better knowledge of the world than I, and therefore more fit to live in the world, and to help my sisters and friends in their need: so that I had rather die for him, than live without him.’  At which request, they let the older brother loose, and threw the younger at his own request into the sea. (John Hughen Van Linschoten, on a lifeboat after the shipwreck of the San Jago, Mozambique, 1585)

 

The steamer appeared to be close to us and looked colossal. I saw, with surprise and a slight shudder, long rows of wooden partitions right along all the decks, from which gleamed the shining black and brown backs of horses………Soon, soon this violent, terrifying thing would happen. I saw that the bubble-track of the torpedo had been discovered on the bridge of the steamer, as frightened arms pointed towards the water and the captain put his hands in front of his eyes and waited resignedly. Then a frightful explosion followed, and we were all thrown against one another by the concussion, and then, like Vulcan, huge and majestic, a column of water two hundred metres high and fifty metres broad, terrible in its beauty and power, shot up to the heavens.

(Adolf von Spiegel, aboard U-Boat 202, April 1916)

 

She was a beautiful sight then. Smoke and sparks were rushing out of her funnel. There must have been an explosion, but we heard none. We only saw the big stream of sparks. The ship was turning gradually on her nose – just like a duck that goes for a dive. I had only one thing on my mind – to get away from the suction. The band was still playing. I guess all of them went down. They were playing ‘Autumn’ then. I swam with all my might. (Harold Bride, wireless operator on the Titanic, April 15, 1912)

 

August 12, 2000, Kursk Submarine, Barents Sea. All the crew from the sixth, seventh & eighth compartments went over to the ninth. There are 23 people here. We made this decision as a result of the accident. None of us can get to the surface…I am writing blindly.

(Lt D.R. Kolesnikov)

 

Ever since the beginnings of human history, thousands upon thousands of human beings had reached the depth at which we were now suspended, and had passed on to lower levels. But all of these men were dead, drowned victims of war, tempest, or other acts of God. We were the first living men to look out at the strange illumination: And it was stranger than any imagination could have conceived. It was of an indefinable translucent blue quite unlike anything I have ever seen in the upper world. The blueness of the blue seemed to pass materially through our eye into our very beings. (William Beebe, 1934)

 

Score available on request

 

THIN AIR

for chorus, alphorns, brass band

 

The alphorn looks more like an Anish Kapoor sculpture than a musical instrument. It's twelve feet long, like an unrolled french horn, and has no valves. It has scarcely ever found its way into classical music, partly because it plays natural harmonics, so there's a tuning problem, and partly because it wreaks havoc with your stage lay-out. It's mainly used in festivals in the Alps, for example when the cattle are brought down from the mountains in winter, the music of the alphorn ensembles fuelled by prodigious bouts of drinking.

 

Frank Ifield gave yodelling a bad name with his dismal hit song She Taught Me How To Yodel, but yodelling is a  wonderfully expressive vocal technique, not easily acquired, which is practised in many parts of the world, for example by Miriam Makeba the great Zulu singer, by the Georgian choir Rustavi and by the nomads of Mongolia.

 

In Thin Air, the extraordinary Tilt Yard at Dartington, its stepped terraces crying out for antiphonal music, became the Swiss Alps.

There were four groups of musicians: six alphorn players, a brass orchestra, two yodelling choirs, and an ensemble of drummers.

We wanted a herd of cows too, but the grass was too precious.       

 

The piece was partly a carnival, partly an investigation of life at high altitudes, partly an experiment in long-distance communication, partly a study in tuning.

Score available on request

 

SHIFT

Commissioned by David Temple for the Crouch End Festival Chorus

for large chorus, children’s choir and percussion trio

 

Shift is a large choral piece about work. In particular it’s about the changing relationship between us humans and the material world. So it’s mostly about manual work, and about science. It’s about how we have moved from shaping materials to burning them to modifying them from the inside; it’s about how we are now capable of altering the planet irrevocably. It’s no more than a series of work songs, but the work ranges from cotton picking to genetic modification, from coal mining to the discovery of radium.

 

Shift is written for large amateur chorus and children’s choir, accompanied by three percussionists. The singers are treated as one huge massed chorus, from which elements rise briefly to the surface – a soloist, a quartet, a whole choir.

The piece dispenses with most of the things you’re supposed to have in an oratorio – great fugues, complex polyphony, big arias where the choir can recover its breath – in favour of a kind of expanded folk music – the roar of the working people, inspired by work songs from America, from Albania, from Scotland, from Spain. There’s very little instrumental support, and it’s an absolute slog to sing – it’s meant to be. If Mozart’s Requiem is a three-star meal, Shift is a bacon sandwich.

 

‘My dearest Pierre, you are never for one moment out of my thoughts, my head bursts, and my thoughts are muddled. I cannot comprehend that I must continue to live without seeing you, without smiling at the dear partner of my life. I would like to be able to tell you that the golden rain is flowering, that the wisteria & the hawthorn & the irises are in bloom - you would have loved that. I would also like to tell you that I have been appointed to your chair, & that there were even some imbeciles who congratulated me. I spend all my time in the laboratory. I do not think that there is anything which I will be able to enjoy apart from perhaps scientific work - & no, not even that, for should I succeed, I could not bear it if you were not aware of it.’ (from the diary of Marie Curie)

 

Score available on request

 

THE SINGING RIVER

The final song Vogel sung here by Stavanger Vocalensemble

 

for choirs, boats, amphicars, cranes, locomotives

Directed by Tom Ryser

 

The River Neckar runs through Stuttgart, but no one in the city takes much notice. Marie Zimmermann, the director of the Theater der Welt Festival, wanted an event that would bring the city’s attention to it. Tom Ryser and I decided to make an event that would bring together the working harbour with a large group of local choirs. The audience would be on the bank, and the choirs would come past on boats, singing songs of wanderlust, farewell, exile, and arrival.

 

Four members of The Shout would be soloists – Jeremy Birchall as a cantor, singing from half-way up a silo, Manickam Yogeswaran, singing from the basket of a crane, Carol Grimes as a bird, singing from the rooftops, and Wills Morgan on a raft, lost in the middle of the river and needing to be rescued.

 

The harbour-workers were at first utterly baffled by the project, but became very involved, operating cranes, driving trucks, helming the boats. The captains became more and more gung-ho. At one moment a pair of barges lashed together, containing two choirs singing different versions of the South African song Shosholoza, careered down the river doing pirouettes (the barges, not the choirs).

 

It was a harbour concert, a ships’ ballet, a carnival.

 

Download the score of Vogel here