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The 'Vocal Constructivists' performing four visual scores at V22, Bermondsey, followed by 'We Sing U Sing' gospel choir soloist rehearsal at the Croydon CVA. 1st & 2nd July 2012

By Stefan Szczelkun, 2 July 2012
Image: Paula Matthusen's 'In Words of One Syllable'


Two consecutive days, hearing two choirs from opposite ends of the spectrum of culture. On Sunday Jane Alden's Vocal Constructivists performed four visual scores at V22 in Bermondsey. On Monday I attended John Fisher's 'We Sing U Sing' young people's Gospel choir soloist rehearsal, with my seven year old daughter. They were preparing for their big performance with the full, nearly 600 strong, choir at Fairfield Hall later in the week.


John Fisher has written a series of songs within the Gospel form, with the young participants of his local school workshops in mind. The lyrics he has written are pure good vibe inspirational messages that every child could do with a major dose of. The soloists I heard are a sub-group of over 30 young people with a wide range of vocal ability and culture. Each soloist is handed a microphone for just 30 seconds to make their mark in the massive Fairfield concert halls in three days time. With lyrics like: "One voice!; One heart!" and, "You can see, the greatness in me", the audience will be advised to buy extra supplies of tissues. We are all starved of uplifting validating messages. Fisher has a fluid and mobile method of teaching which incorporates oral cultures techniques - like whoops as each vocalist launches their short verse; as well as gestural dance moves to underline the rhythmic unity and lend emphasis to the uplifting slogans. I was reminded of Sweet Honey in the Rock who I haven't heard for years.


John Fisher's way of working with so many soloists is a powerful way of cultivating the foundations of future leadership: if by leadership we can mean having a strong sense of how we are all able to make things in our purview go well, and being able to speak out above the babble of the crowd when needed. And the inclusive nature of the enterprise was more evident than any striving to nurture virtuoso talent. The children that had been chosen to be soloists had not been selected on the basis of having standout singing voices.


Not that I'd argue for a culture without formal innovation of course. The Vocal Constructivists take on Christopher Small's message in his book 'Musicking' that the established canon of classical music is an activity that minimises performers expressive range. Here the visual scores hand-over a great deal more responsibility to the ensemble of what melodic, rhythmic and vocal textures will result. This implies also a more democratic opening up of music, at least to the performers.  


The performers were all unpaid but with a great deal of experience to draw on and huge commitment. The V22 space was like an aircraft hanger with bright resonant acoustics. Even a quiet voice sounded amplified, to the extent that I kept looking for a hidden PA.


The first piece, Mark Applebaum's 'Medium' was visually complex, pages were projected large but distant. With 17 black clad performers, singing often independently, even when arranged in groups, the space's resonance tended to drown out the complexity. Although visual scores (I can always only think of Cardew's Treatise) often seem to be without humour the performers here made some exceptions. Bron Jones brought a humourous touch when she stuffed coloured balls down her top and then removed and bounced them on the ground. Humourous but also poignant and suddenly, in the midst of all the abstraction, a dimension of social comment. One cannot but associate the image with the recent mass failure of breast implants.


The next piece in contrast worked perfectly with the acoustics. At least that part of them that was like a cathedral. The piece was 'A City of No Allusions' by Ronald Kuivila. The visual score has not stayed in my mind but the poly-harmonics of the voices were exquisite and ethereal. Amazing that improvised voices could give as coherent a musical experience as the old polyphonic choral pieces I heard in Edinburgh cathedral recently.


The third composition was by Paula Matthusen who was present. It was called 'In Words of One Syllable' and again worked well in the space as the complexity it generated was contained by a great structure. The performers formed four queues in front of four metronomes. The first performer set the metronome to pace the improvisation of the performer who followed in line. The actual score was probably more sophisticated but that is the gist of it. The metronomes were set on top of wooden cubes that acted as sound boxes, so the tick-tocks sounded amplified. Extraordinarily exciting rhythms ensued and challenged each performer to give a fresh response. Great Piece!


Finally the ensemble performed the painterly 'Falling River' by Anthony Braxton. This had some of the acoustic mush problems of the first, but this was saved from drowning by some strong gestures and movement especially from Jane Alden and Linn D and a man being an aeroplane. In spite of their efforts at levity it had a sense of alienation - in spite of the coloured shapes that comprised the score I was taken down the lonely echoic boulevards of modernity.


The events on both days gave a lot of power to the performers. One was aimed at formal innovation whilst the other was aimed at putting a set of positive life messages at the heart of music pedagogy. The new world we so urgently need probably could do with both things. 


The 'We Sing U Sing' choir does probably have a submerged religious agenda but I never heard this even implied. The message was one that was uplifting and of general empowerment. A strong anti-racist and anti-oppression message that is attuned to its audience is bound to be refreshing. And us adults can respond because we were there once ourselves, and often without grown-ups holding up the banners of such basic truths for us.


Certainly 'We Sing U Sing' stimulated my emotions. Mind you, how much this was due to my daughter being involved I don't know. The Vocal Constructivists probably stimulated my intellect more but it was certainly much more dry - literally, I was dry-eyed and in the gospel rehearsal frequently brimming up at the soulful ardour of such young people. 


Stefan Szczelkun July 2012



 Footnote on the inherent Christian message in 'Gospel'. Having been reading about early C19th Saint Simonianism in Ranciere's 'Proletarian Nights' recently it reminds me how their emancipatory arguments also didn't made recourse to biblical references. The 'Gospel' songs written by John Fisher avoid explicitly Christian references although JF is a committed church based Gospel leader with a soul saving agenda. There is, I think, just one reference to God. Everything else, like the use of the word 'faith', can be read in a secular way, as belief in human goodness and so on. Through this his songs do affect a powerful universal contradiction of oppression. I guess it might possibly have come about as a prerequisite of teaching music in multi-faith state schools.