Category Archives: Performance

Marvellous Millennium Gallery

On Saturday we sang at Sheffield’s iconic Millennium Gallery, to support and raise awareness of the Refuge/e installation. AMP-Art have transported a real shelter, one of those issued to Syrian refugees arriving in Lebanon, and erected it in the gallery space.  They give us a chance to walk through a real space, listen to people’s voices, look at their stuff.

Everyday things – shirts, plates, baby’s bottles, boots – have been frozen in time by being cast in plaster and brass. I liked this touch, and I liked knowing that it had taken quite a time.  It seemed to add a layer of distance and respect, this transformation of the ordinary into artefact, so that when as a visitor you walk through the space it is not just walking through someone’s home and staring.

The outside of the shelter is insulated with discarded advertisements – giant photographs incongruous and colourful. The two images on the Refuge/e shelter are a model wearing an elaborate wedding dress, and the president of Lebanon (upside-down).  The value of the advertisements is purely practical, in that they add vital insulation.

What should we sing to complement the exhibition? We had already embarked on learning a couple of songs before we were asked to perform and I decided to leave them in the set.

I ended up with a list of nine songs. Two were specifically written in response to the plight of refugees: Alison Burns’ haunting When Death was Behind Me and Kirsty Martin’s resolute Different Ships. We sang the lovely round By the Waters of Babylon (Philip Hayes via Don McLean), about missing one’s homeland, and we revived Ain’t Gonna Study War (Roxane Smith), an upbeat six-part anthem for peace.

We opened with Bambelela (Zulu for “Never Give Up”), and also brought in E Malama (A Hawaiian song calling for love and respect for the earth and sea.

And then we threw our other songs in – Aida Idem Jano, where we sing in the voice of a Bulgarian youth persuading his girl to come to the fair, and The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More,  which went down well with the audience and had a poignant edge in the context. (“Emptiness is the place you’re in, Nothing to lose, and no more to win…”)  I have name-checked the other songwriters so here’s to Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, who wrote this beauty along with many other classics – most of the Four Seasons’ songs and the wonderful “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”.

We finished the set with a new addition – I’m Gonna Lift My Sister Up,  by Faya Rose Toure, who as well as writing a great song, was the first female African-American judge in Alabama. It’s simple to learn, easy to improvise harmonies to, and can be rousing or gentle. I love the simple twist in the lyric – not just saying that your loved one is not heavy, but “If I don’t lift her up, I will fall down.”  Sometimes being strong for other people is what keeps you going.


Every so often somebody asks us to perform somewhere and it requires a certain repertoire.  We generally have a repertoire that rolls around, a mixture of songs old and new – I mean this in both senses, things we’ve sung for ages and things we are learning for the first time, and songs that were written last year or hundreds of years ago.  Learning from a couple of experiences, I am now reluctant to learn a particular song for a particular event or even one particular person if I don’t feel we’ll use it again – because that means 30+ people putting in a great deal of time and effort over weeks or months.

However, when we were singing at the Walled Garden in May, someone came along from the volunteers at Bishops’ House, a brilliantly preserved half-timbered house at the top of our park. (See the photo above.)   She asked us if we could sing some Tudor songs for their Autumn Fayre in October, and I thought, why not?

appleIt falls on the same day as Apple Day, which is celebrated across the park in the Walled Garden. This year we had a BIG concert on 3rd September, and then this little window of 5 rehearsals before the twin feasts of Apple Day, at the bottom north-east corner of the park, and the Tudor fair at the top south-west corner.  What could we do in five weeks?

First of all, what have we got in the back catalogue? We learnt Greensleeves four years ago when other people were getting giddy about the Diamond Jubilee, so that’s on the list.

Many people believe Greensleeves was written by Henry VIIi, but apparently it is definitely after his time – though it is still Tudor.  And then there is Non Nobis Domine, a lovely chant we learnt in the very early days of choir and it sounds ancient. I re-scored it for three parts when we had no reliable men in the choir but we had not sung it for years and it would be nice to go back to the four-part version now that we have a strong bass section. With a minimal amount of Googling I found that this was as Tudor as 1988, written for the Kenneth Branagh film of Henry V.  Still, on the list it goes.  (The battlefield scene where it is played is utterly heartbreaking- have a look on Youtube).

What is quintessentially Tudor? Why, Shakespeare! Let’s find a traditional setting of a Shakespeare song.  “When that I was an a little tiny boy” from Twelfth Night, for instance.  There is an old tune to this which is used in all the “authentic” performances – but I now discover the tune is  by Joseph Vernon, 1738-1782.  Not Tudor. Not even Stuart. Definitely Georgian. But it’s very Shakespearean, so we will add that to the set.

We are adding in a couple of rounds which were definitely a-round in Shakespeare’s day (Hey Ho, Come Follow, and Gaudeamus Hodie) and also Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, without which no Apple Day would be complete.

And finally, Henry VIII was a real musician, and did write songs, probably the most famous being Pastime with Good Company, which we are singing in three parts. It is not hard to believe the words were written by a famously wilful and high-living king; a brief paraphrase would be, “Having a good time is good for me, and anyway, who’s going to stop me?”

So our Tudor set is a mixture of real and fake, but overall I think it conveys a historical atmosphere and is, crucially, both fun to listen to and to sing.


Video (fun and) games

I’ve been wrestling with the video footage we took at our gig at the museum. It seemed such a simple idea, putting a little film on the site to give an idea of the performance.

It’s great, the video – but not ideal.  It was shot on a tablet and we were too loud for the microphone so I had to enhance the sound to make it sound like the choir. The full set is half an hour – it’s a daunting amount of video to edit and would be a huge file so I had to search for the best bits.

I’ve finally got the best bits of four songs (our favourites, the real belters, did not do themselves justice) and you can see the video here.

I made some interesting discoveries watching the footage – first of all I realised that I don’t stand as straight as I thought.  I bend my knees and wander about a bit so that I look as though I’m herding cats.

My beat is not as clear, as vertical as I would like.  It could be better. We’re about to embark on something rhythmically demanding so I am practising in front of a camera!

The other important thing that emerged was that my highlights included the second or third verse of every song.   None of the actual beginnings were spot on. Words and notes took a while to become clear.  In the worst, it took half a line before it was clear what key the song was in, and even the best were not as good as subsequent verses.

Terry Pratchett once described the difference between European and American people as this:
A European says: I can’t understand this person, what’s wrong with me? An American says: I can’t understand this person, what’s wrong with him?
The choral American is the choir leader who belabours the choir and itemises their failings without helping them to do better. I watch that video and know that it’s my responsibility to give clear, quick, signals that everyone understands and responds confidently.  It’s my job to rehearse in a way that means the start of every song is as good as the ending.

So that’s something to work on this year. Here’s to new beginnings!