Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Building a New Society

At the weekend I met a friend for dinner. She's quite a bit more politically active than I am, not to mention being a trained economist. We are both very concerned about the human cost of the cuts brought in by the current, Tory-led government. But she is concerned, rightly, that my response -- that we must all participate in caring for one another and reduce reliance on state provision -- is unhelpful.

Her objections, as I understand them, are good ones:

1) A simple "I will work harder" approach, where charitable people and organisations take on additional burdens while banks re-instate bonuses, does not address the root of the problem.

2) The state has access to economies of scale which are unavailable to us everyday folk.

3) Relatedly, the state is in a position to be fairer in resource allocation than private companies or charities can.

I can understand the worry that volunteerism is exactly the position the current government is manipulating us into. It's hard not to have a sense of growing dismay as we are asked, again and again, to make more and more bricks as the daily supply of straw is reduced. But my response here is not an endorsement of the cuts, but rather a pragmatic reaction to the way things are. If I don't take action to help the least fortunate, I am colluding in a system that allows people to fall through the cracks. My volunteering at a homeless shelter isn't going to change government policy, but writing to my MP and campaigning in the street are not going to give anyone a safe place to sleep.

The economies of scale available to the government are a strength and I don't propose that we can find an alternative overnight. Specialist care is needed and it is difficult to see how small, locally-run initiatives could hope to meet that need. I know some basic first aid but that doesn't qualify me to treat cancer patients! I don't suggest that state access to specialist care can or should be abolished, especially not in the short term.

However, I also think that some of the economics of scale previously only widely available to the state or to large corporations are, in fact, becoming less clearly limited. Our opportunity to communicate with one another is more extensive than it has ever been. I believe there is huge potential for economies of scale to emerge, and things like Wikipedia are only scratching the surface of what is possible. It's important to note, too, that this is not just about online interaction, not just about kids who haven't left home sitting editing the article on photosynthesis or bloggers prattling away to a nonexistent audience: the notion of a sharp divide between "online" and "real life" is a false dichotomy in any case. We're starting to see this with the likes of Kickstarter and FundBreak which use online crowdsourcing to fund projects which may well be offline. There's a lot of noise at times, but the level of connectivity is incredible and if we can find a way to coordinate our efforts, the government no longer has a monopoly on economies of scale.

Another advantage of state-run rather than crowd-driven care is that it can be administered fairly. If you tick the boxes, you get the benefit -- regardless of your accent, gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, religion or intelligence. At least, that's how it works in theory. In practice, box-ticking systems are systems where people will jump through hoops and it is pretty much impossible to make a selection system complex enough to be completely fair. It becomes paradoxical, because the more complex the system is the higher the barriers to access. If you don't believe this, ask anyone who's had to fill out student loan forms!

I'm willing to accept a certain amount of "waste" from people gaming the benefits system, but another serious problem with state care is that delegating caring for one another to the state -- reducing our obligations to paying tax, voting if we feel like getting involved, and maybe writing to an MP on issues we really care about -- means we can exist in a little bubble of our peers, telling ourselves that the homeless person begging by the Tube station isn't our problem because there is state care available. Far from reducing localism and NIMBYism, I propose that delegating our societal responsibilities onto the state actually fosters the sort of isolated attitude that renders people unwilling to bear the collective costs of supporting one another. Letting someone else deal with the nitty-gritty allows us to reduce our awareness of the interdependence of people and to fool ourselves into thinking that this is actually a pure meritocracy (it isn't) and that we have our privileges because we've worked for them and not because we've been incredibly fortunate. It's never that simple, but we're upstanding citizens who pay our taxes and vote, and so we walk past the woman who is sleeping rough rather than go back to her abusive boyfriend and we congratulate ourselves on having done so well. Next thing you know, you've got the tabloid rags blaming benefits recipients (or asylum seekers, or some other disadvantaged group that receives some pittance of state support) for economic recession and people actually believe it. Sound familiar? It's where we already are. The government we have now is not an enemy of our society: it is a product of our society. We, collectively, have created this monstrosity.

It's up to us to build a new society. That doesn't mean just getting the current government to take proper responsibility for the care of the citizens who elected them (or voted for someone else).

A new society would be one where the government cannot be held hostage by the banks.

A new society would be one where the state works with people, not against them, for the good of all.

A new society would be one where we use financial resources to reduce human costs, not human resources to reduce financial ones.

A new society would be one where we contribute to economies of scale.

A new society would be one where protest works a lot better than it does now.

A new society would be one where we ask, "How can I help you?" rather than "How can I benefit from you?", and where we are not afraid or ashamed to ask for help ourselves when we need it.

I don't have all the answers about how to create such a society. But I think it goes much further than public protest and much further than reversing the cuts. It involves all of us thinking about how we live, how our actions affect others, and whether it is actually okay to walk on by while someone else suffers. Then it involves us choosing to live in ways that value human life.

It's up to us.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

First Fifteen music meme

I wasn't tagged by Phil Ritchie or anyone else, but thought I'd do this anyway...

1) Turn on your MP3 player or music player on your computer.
2) Go to SHUFFLE songs mode.
3) Write down the first 15 songs that come up–song title and artist–NO editing/cheating, please.

Oh, very well then.

1) Adams: Short Ride In A Fast Machine (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra)
2) Gregorian chat: Mass VIII - Ite Missa Est (Choir Of St George's Cathedral London)
3) Blow ye the trumpet words by Charles Wesley, tune "Rotherhithe" by I.P. (Brigantia Consort)
4) Kitten Intro (They Might Be Giants)
5) Rachmaninov: Vespers, Op. 37 - 4. O Serene Light (BBC Singers)
6) Bach: St. John Passion, BWV 245 - Und Neiget Das Haupt Und Verschied (Collegium Vocale Gent)
7) Tea Leaf Picking (David Wei He Yin)
8) Morley: Now Is The Month Of Maying (Canadian Brass)
9) Bach: St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 - Aber Am Ersten Tag Der Süssen Brot (Nikolaus Harnoncourt: Concentus Musicus Wien, Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Etc.)
10) Pärt: Lamentate -IX. Risolutamente (Hilliard Ensemble)
11) Bach: Italian Concerto, BWV 971 - 2. Andante (Glenn Gould)
12) Stuck In The 90's (Moxy Früvous)
13) Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 - Fugue #18 In G Sharp Minor, BWV 863 (Angela Hewitt)
14) Bach: St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 - Ja Freilich Will In Uns Das Fleisch Und Blut (Nikolaus Harnoncourt: Concentus Musicus Wien, Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Etc.)
15) Tomas Luis de Victoria: Requiem -- Offertorium (Spiritus)

Yes, okay, I listen to a lot of Bach.

I tag Kathryn, and anyone else who fancies a go.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Carol Service

As part of my work as organist and choirmaster at St Andrew's Leytonstone I am helping organise the annual Carol Service. This year the service will be on Sunday, 12th December at 4.30pm.

Choral singing is great fun, and I've always found it a good way of keeping my spirits up in the increasing gloom of November and December. Why not come and join us?

Rehearsals will be Fri 19th Nov, Thurs 25th Nov, Fri 3rd Dec and Thurs 9th Dec at 7.30pm, at St Andrew's. They're split between Thursdays and Fridays in order to accommodate those who already have commitments on one of those weeknights, and to avoid a clash with the popular Bistro Night at Cafe Refresh, our church cafe. If you'd like to participate but you can't come to all the rehearsals please do get in touch and I'll see if we can work something out!

All are welcome to come and sing.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

It's Up To Us

I've spent a lot of time and energy this week thinking about the Comprehensive Spending Review cuts, as well as the recent cuts to science and education in this country.

A lot of that time has been spent cursing under my breath at the Great British Public for voting in the Tories -- did people honestly think they wouldn't be horrible? -- and at the LibDems for selling out and allowing their coalition partners to get away with this. A further chunk has been spent in fuming ire at the banking bailouts of 2008 and the various unpaid tax bills of large corporations. I find it hard to believe that the money so freely given away by the government is justified by the contribution the banks and large corporations make to the economy.

None of those are useful responses.

I think that the cuts to education and benefits are wrong, but I also think they're very short-sighted. If my neighbour's house is on fire, you can bet I'm going to be there with a bucket trying to help put it out, not only because of any love I might have for my neighbour but also because I know full well that my house is next. Poverty and lack of access to good education don't work as fast as fire, but I know that the world is so interconnected that what affects the poorest in our society will have knock-on effects for the rest of us. Only the rich and very rich can insulate themselves from this with their money.

For the rest of us, I think it's been clear for some time that relying on the government safety net of cradle-to-grave welfare is just not going to work. The government is far too beholden to a financial services industry with not enough regulation to prevent bubbles, and has forgotten about Keynesian economics or about any sort of duty to act on behalf of voters. Single-provider welfare doesn't work because it is so vulnerable to abuse. This is just as true now as when the Church was the arbiter of assistance.

The idea of the "Big Society" that has been waved about is, in some ways, a solution to this. I don't think the current government really believes in it: if they did, they'd be funding Big Society projects to get us started rather than removing vital support from the most vulnerable people in our society. But the lack of government support for the Big Society doesn't mean it's a bad idea in and of itself.

Imagine a society where everyone volunteers for something, or donates a substantial portion of their income to charities. Imagine a society where people can form meaningful friendships with people different than themselves. Imagine a society where if you fall on hard times, there is not just one route to get help but three or four; where everyone is concerned with the wellbeing of their neighbours (near and far -- we are all neighbours), where people are involved in deciding how resources are used, where even the most vulnerable are valued as having something to contribute. Imagine a society where nearly nobody is on government benefits because their communities take care of their needs. That's the Big Society, as I imagine it. I don't think it'll be easy to build, and there are serious issues of competence in relying entirely on volunteerism (but this could be offset by those who don't volunteer but instead donate money). There will always be an element of waste in that there will always be people who game the system, even if that system is actually many systems which overlap. But I do think that the vision of a Big Society where people care for one another and the vast majority of basic needs are met is one that is possible and is worth striving for.

What's interesting about this is that there are parallels in access to information. For most of the 20th century we had mostly one-way broadcast media; that is now changing to networked media. There are advantages and disadvantages of this and it is becoming apparent that the peer selection effect is very strong now compared to the days when one had less choice in one's social surroundings. Rather than the internet being one huge network where everyone pays attention to everyone else, it functions more as a system of networks which sometimes overlap. I'm on the edges of at least two such networks that spring to mind immediately, one full of church folks and one full of geeks, but there are several more.

I don't think the Big Society is going to happen overnight and I don't think that we can expect the current government to lift a finger to help us, but I don't think that has to prevent us working for change. I've been trying to say this on Twitter for a day or two and mostly I am getting compared to Boxer in Orwell's Animal Farm, who, faced with each new difficulty in the fourlegs-led revolution, vows to work harder. I've been told that I shouldn't be trying to take up the slack because that's exactly what our rich Tory overlords want me to do. I've been told that asking Vodafone UK to pay their £6bn tax bill would be fruitless, because our government wouldn't spend that money on benefits for the disabled but on police-state surveillance and guns to kill brown people.

The reason I think this is different is that, while network communication (rather than uneven broadcast) doesn't guarantee democratization of information access, it does make it easier, in the same way that Gutenberg's printing press and increases in literacy brought about huge changes in the society of the time. We have amazing tools for connecting to one another and people are recognising that it's about relationships.

I do think that organised resistance does need to be part of this, and I've signed the statement committing to get involved with that.

I also don't think that my signing a petition is going to have much immediate effect. I don't think that the risks of going ahead with creating a better society outweigh the need to get on and do it. Signing a petition or a statement will not give a homeless person a safe place to sleep. Volunteering with a homeless shelter will. Writing to my MP will probably not change how my high-street bank uses my money, but switching to something more ethical will. That doesn't mean I don't sign the petitions or write to my MP, but it means I do need to think about how my decisions affect everyone else, not just fob them off onto the government.

The government, as far as I am concerned, has proven that it cannot be trusted to help.

It's up to us to build the Big Society.

The government won't enforce tax laws, so it's up to us to withdraw or withhold custom from the worst tax evaders.

The government won't stop banks lending irresponsibly, so it's up to us to provide debt counseling and aid to those who've been wooed into "cheap" credit they can't afford.

The government won't protect disadvantaged people from destitution, so it's up to us to provide food and shelter for those who have none.

It's up to us to teach one another the skills we need to survive.

It's up to us to strengthen the weak. It's up to us to care for the sick. It's up to us to comfort the brokenhearted. It's up to us to protect the vulnerable.

I'm not saying it should be that way, but that it is. Like it or loathe it, it's up to us.

What are you doing to help?

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Travel time and time travel

This morning feels about a million years away! Really, I only had two main events today, but the day felt much longer.

I started with a Gregorian Chant workshop put on by RSCM EEL. I wouldn't ordinarily have gone to something like that with such short notice -- I got an e-mail about it on Thursday -- but it was led by Nick Gale, director of music at St George's RC Cathedral, and it was close to home at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Wanstead. Our first chant of the day was not Gregorian but Ambrosian chant, a setting of the Gloria. It dates from around 400 CE, and it was interesting to see how the later additions to the text of the gloria were clearly of a different musical pattern than the earlier text. There was also quite a lot of actual Gregorian chant, including some things that might be useful for Advent.

I enjoyed the workshop immensely. After that I was off to a Harvest Supper at St Mary's Addington, where I was to play the serpent and the piano as part of the entertainments. The journey was quite horrific; I was kindly offered a lift by another workshop participant who lives near Addington, and as it had only taken him about 45 minutes to get to Wanstead in the morning I accepted. Unfortunately the southbound Blackwall Tunnel was closed and we spent about two hours on Blackwall Tunnel Approach. I couldn't even get out and take public transport until after we'd cleared the start of the tunnel.

I got there in the end, though, and the entertainments hadn't yet started. Phew! My piano playing was accompanying two friends singing "Misalliance" by Flanders and Swann. I was still a bit rattled after the journey and my hands were shaking badly, so I didn't play as well as I might have, but we got through okay and the audience loved their singing -- and acting! Later on was the serpent number. The choir had rehearsed "O God, my heart is fixed, 'tis bent", a metrical setting of Psalm 57 vv7-11 from the London Gallery Quire book Your Voices Raise, but we hadn't had a chance to play it together at all; it went well. The tune is "Lynn" by Uriah Davenport (1690-1784) and the words are from the New Version of Tate and Brady (1696). I had left my notes for the brief chat about the serpent and about West Gallery music at home, so forgot large parts of them; hopefully I didn't baffle people too much. I closed that set with a brief rendition of "Fly Me to the Moon" for reasons which I won't go into here. I have found that, anachronistic as it might seem, some of the jazz standards work remarkably well on the serpent. Possibly it's because I'm so accustomed to playing vocal basslines.

Then it was just the long journey home again... given the earlier transport problems, I accepted with some trepidation a lift as far as East Croydon station from a choir member, and though there were indeed some roadworks and a detour it was smooth driving all the way there. Then came the train, and the tube, and the rail replacement bus, and the walk home.

Dates for music I have sung/played today:
18th century
20th century

Types of transport I have used today:
private cars (not mine -- I don't drive!)
bus route 15
Docklands Light Railway (a sort of train)
London Overground (another sort of train)
Croydon Tramlink
British Rail
TfL rail replacement bus.

Clearly what I need is one of these:

No wonder the day felt long. It's far past my bedtime now, though; I've got to get up in the morning to play the organ at church.

Friday, 15 October 2010

A transport of delight...

Allow me to indulge in a little off-topic blogging...

Today was my day off, and it is nearing my birthday, so I went to pick this up:

Her name is Millicent, and she is a birthday present from a certain boy who seems to take inordinate pleasure in spoiling me rotten. No complaints here!

Since I was a teenager I have been hankering after a bicycle that is a grown-up version of the big old blue pushbike I had for a few years. I want to be able to sit absolutely upright, I don't use many gears and dislike derailleurs, I want to be able to carry a fair amount, and I don't want to get too muddy or have to wear much in the way of special clothing.

I think I may have found what I've been looking for. Millicent is more sophisticated than the old blue pushbike: she has three gears, which will be a help for hills, and also a front caliper brake to supplement the back-pedal brakes. In the picture above she's only got one pannier on but the rack is quite sturdy and will easily take one on the other side and a top rack as well; I haven't opted for a front basket just yet, but that is also a possibility in future. The model I opted for has battery-operated lights, and I have some extra ones to attach for added visibility. I have my cycle maps and I know that as I ride more, I'll get more confident riding in the traffic and be able to deal with unfamiliar routes and busy roads more safely.

Unfortunately, I'll still need to rely on public transport a fair amount. I like the pannier but there is no way it will take the serpent! Any trailer rack that will would add sufficient length to be a problem in traffic and sufficient width that getting through the keep-the-cars-out barriers would be a real pain. I don't want a longbike (longbike is lonnnnng), Millicent only just fits in the hallway as it is. In any case, bikes offer less padding for the instrument than either walking or being in a car, and that's just not going to work with such a fragile beast. It might be possible with a custom case, or a trailer with some shock absorption.

The horn is a little easier: I have a Marcus Bonna backpack case already, and though it isn't great for wearing for long periods it could be adapted (I've done this before when I had to carry it a lot). It will be a while, though, before I'm confident enough with the bicycle and the traffic to be happy about wearing my horn on my back whilst zooming about London. Give it three or four years, maybe.

Trying to cycle with a piano or a pipe organ? Right out of the question.

I do hope, though, that in a year or two I will be fit enough to manage my commute from Leytonstone to Hendon for teaching. I'm told there's a rather steep hill in the way, which isn't so noticeable on the Tube.

Meanwhile, tomorrow I am traveling to Addington Village via Wanstead with no Central Line (or not the bit of it I need) and a serpent. I don't think it's time to turn in the travelcard yet!

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Music for St Michael and All Angels

Today I've been to St Paul's Cathedral for Evensong, to hear the winning entry in the recent New Music Competition. There were 58 entrants, out of which one was chosen for the £1000 prize.

Andrew Cusworth chose the same text as I did for the competition, one previously used by Richard Dering in this gem (YouTube link). It was interesting to hear the difference in our approaches to it. I like to think that there are some similarities, and of course I can't make a fair comparison having heard his piece once and knowing mine rather better than that, but I think his is the better composition, both in terms of technical polish and in terms of suitability for that cathedral. So congratulations to Andrew Cusworth!

I struggled over my submission, trying to be faithful to the idea of angels as strange and terrifying beings, but also to stay within strict limits -- SATB + organ, under 4 minutes -- and keep the piece suitable for use in a liturgical setting. In the end I knew I hadn't quite managed the latter; what I wrote was too exciting, too dramatic, and too ragged round the edges to fit into a stately Evensong. I did start over several times with several versions of the text in English and Latin, and each time it seemed to demand such a treatment. Eventually I gave up, tidied up what I had and submitted that.

It doesn't look like Andrew's version is online. So, here is my version: Factum est silentium [PDF] [MIDI]. Of course, the midi version sounds like robots rather than angels, but that's always the way of these machines! As always this is released under a CC-BY-SA license. Perhaps in a different building with a different choir it will work better, or perhaps someone else can take my ideas and develop them.

It was while I was researching the Revelation-based text of Richard Dering's "Factum est silentium" that I happened across a blog which eventually led me to Dust, a blog I've been trying to keep up with and very much enjoying the last few days as its author has been to a very shiny conference. (He quotes Christopher Smart in his subtitle, too.) My own research into psalmody has mostly consisted of reading a lot and doing some singing, and is much less advanced; I expect that much of the Oxford Psalms Conference would have been beyond my grasp. Nevertheless, I'm really glad to have found this rather random connection, which I might not have otherwise stumbled upon.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Going loopy

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have caught me going on about something called "looping" or "live looping".

Basically this involves recording oneself playing and then playing back the recording within the same performance; in this way one can accompany oneself. There are all sorts of fantastic machines to assist in the process.

I'm interested for a few reasons. One is finally, finally getting around to listening to Zoe Keating over on Bandcamp, which seems to be where the cool kids are releasing albums these days, and reading an interview on her creative process. Another is the simple augmentation that looping can give to solo horn.

I love chamber music, and I hope it will always be part of my working life, but it always seems to result in a lot of time getting tied up, and a lot of effort arranging rehearsals. My main instrument growing up was the piano, which can be much more solitary; I am used to that sort of independence in my rehearsing and performing. Now, there is always unaccompanied horn repertoire, and indeed I want to learn more of it, but that is not exactly a bottomless well of material. Some of it is extremely technically demanding and it doesn't really appeal to a wide audience. Looping would allow me to do solo improvisation and could make me much more independent as a musician.

I think live looping could be incredible fun. I've always enjoyed improvising, and I recognise some similarities with my own inner world in the interview linked above: I, too, am seldom without music in my head, and very often it takes the form of short snippets which could be built into something else.

I'm not sure anyone else out there is doing much live looping on the horn; a quick search turned up one YouTube video. I think the horn might be quite well-suited to it, as are the cello and the electric bass: like the stringed instruments, the horn has a wide range of available tone colours and a decent compass in terms of pitch.

I'm a complete newbie to all of this, so at this point I'm just reading a bit, and thinking about whether to borrow or hire some equipment to play with. It would be a shame to buy it and then let it gather dust. But I'm also really excited about the musical possibilities, and it's good to have a horn-related project.

Further updates as events warrant...

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Give Us Grace

Earlier this year, Rev Kathryn Fleming asked me to write something for the patronal festival of St Matthew's, Cainscross, which was this Tuesday. It needed to be something fairly simple, a round perhaps, something the congregation would be able to pick up quickly and sing at the service; it needed to be relevant to the occasion but useful for other situations as well.

I was happy to make an attempt, of course.

I found writing a round an interesting exercise. I've written one before, which I released anonymously, but that one was not something I set out to write, just one of the little ditties that turns up sometimes. Keeping melodic interest while not writing too many harmonic crunches was a challenge, especially at one point when I got a deceptive (that's interrupted to you Brits) cadence stuck in my head.

Give us grace [PDF] [MIDI] is the result. As usual, I have released it under a CC-BY-SA license; you are welcome to use this music, as long as you attribute me appropriately and as long as any derivative works are released under a similar license.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

With Merry Glee

Over two months after the actual performance, I'm finally sorting through some of the music the Brigantia Consort performed this summer.

The first track went up to Soundcloud just over a week ago; since then it has had 48 plays and six downloads. I promise you only one of the plays was me! I didn't advertise it very widely, and I know it might seem like small beans, but if those are unique plays rather than duplicates it has already been heard by over double the number of people who came to the concert. A larger concert audience would of course have been good (apparently, there was some sort of game involving kicking a ball around happening at the same time -- who knew it would affect our numbers?), but being able to reach people who couldn't be there is wonderful. The recordings were made, with the help of Dearest Button-Pusher, on a little Olympus LS-10 linear PCM recorder.

I'm not sure whether we'll keep using Soundcloud, or move to something like Bandcamp. It seems like Soundcloud is great for getting rough tracks out there quickly, while Bandcamp might be better for a more polished album with artwork and so on, or at least fewer sirens than on "She's Like the Swallow". I love Steve Lawson's approach of putting all of his stuff on Bandcamp with a pay-what-you-will label. As an aside, I also really have him to thank for making me aware of Bandcamp and Soundcloud, and his article on Talking About Awesome Things gave me a major kick up the backside.

Coming soon: a way for people to give money to Brigantia Consort. That will probably start with a PayPal button, unless someone can tell me what the cool kids are doing these days.

Today I blogged ever so briefly on She's Like the Swallow; it will be interesting to see what the publicity there, and here, does to the Soundcloud stats.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010


I've just been to Greenbelt, a Christian arts festival held at Cheltenham Race Course. There is music, but I didn't get to much of that, tending instead to be drawn to talks, workshops and worship.

The days are already merging into a sort of blur, but some things stand out.

One of the most memorable and perhaps transcendent experiences for me was an Orthodox Vespers on Sunday night. The room was a small space near the top of the grandstand, and crowded. The east-facing windows looked out over the hills, glowing gently in the sunset. Two icons served as a visual focus for prayers.

There was a short introduction before the start of the service. We were invited to stand, as the Orthodox do, to join them in their prayers, and gently reminded to think of the choir as praying, rather than performing.

The entire service was chanted or sung, in English -- nothing was spoken. We weren't given any service sheets, which left my hands relaxed and my eyes free to look at the icons or out at the beautiful horizon. The portions sung by the choir were beautifully simple and reverent, and repetitive enough that the rest of us could quite easily join in with "Lord, have mercy."

So we did, again and again.

It was very moving, and 45 minutes flew by. I can't speak for others but I was caught up, absorbed, really not thinking of the technical details of the music or liturgy at all after a while. Afterward, I thanked a choir member, and she said it was wonderful that we sang, too, and that her daughter had said it was something special, that there were "so many prayers".

I sat for a while, pondering, with the sound of the repeated song ringing in my ears.

Then I went to an entirely different service. This one, called "Transendence -- an Ancient Future Mass", was using the Common Worship liturgy -- with a bit of a twist. Like the Orthodox Vespers, large parts of the service were sung, and there was near-constant music. Like the Orthodox Vespers, there was a strong visual component. Like the Orthodox Vespers, there were no paper service sheets.

But my impression was not one of reverence and awe but of busy-ness. I found the electronic music more disruptive than meditative, with some disjunct transitions between sections. I found it hard to sing along when the clergy and choir had microphones (with significant amplification) and I did not. I found the visual displays were also distracting, constantly moving, and as all the words for the service were projected onto screens (and it was too dark for me to have been able to read a service sheet even if I had one) I didn't have the option of looking away. The very best parts of that service, for me, were when the background music dropped away and the choir sang a capella polyphony... but that wasn't something that I was able to participate in. Overall, my experience wasn't one of transcendence at all, but of being overly aware of a liturgy which could have been much simpler.

The thing that troubles me about this is that I can see how it could have worked. I think that the electronic music would have been alright had it been selected in such a way that it didn't jar with the other music; I think that the images on the screens would have been much more effective if they hadn't moved as often or as fast. I understand the need to use microphones with so much going on, but much simpler music at a lower volume would have meant that the human voices could have been amplified much less (though in that particular space, full of carpet and not acoustically kind, some amplification would probably still have been necessary).

I mustn't judge too harshly, as I did arrive late. There were elements of the service that worked. There were physical intercession stations of a sort; I didn't visit all three, but some people did. The darkness of the space gave people freedom to sit or kneel, stand or even prostrate themselves, and being able to do that without worrying about what everyone else is up to is a strength. Maybe the whole thing works better in York Minster.

The Common Worship liturgy is far more familiar to me than the Orthodox Vespers liturgy. I'd never been to the latter at all and I attend the former most Sundays. But the intimacy and simplicity of the Vespers service made me feel very much at home, so that phrases I'd never heard were somehow familiar enough to become prayers.

I'm not going to run off and join the Orthodox church, but I do want to think about how to develop that sort of beautiful reverence and simplicity in music at St Andrew's.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

St Albans Organ Theatre and various other sundries

This afternoon, N and I went to the St Albans Organ Theatre, a marvelous museum of various instruments. There were a number of instruments, from tabletop music boxes and cob organs to two impressive theatre organs and four mechanical, "self-playing" organs -- like player pianos but much larger. There were also some player pianos; I don't think I've seen one in action before.

Possibly my favourite specimen was the roll-playing Aeolian Orchestrelle. The picture on the website really doesn't do justice to the beautiful intricate oak. The instrument had been painted black, so someone had to remove all that black paint... but the real beauty of it was a lovely warm tone colour and quite a few drawstops. I'd encountered a parlor organ or harmonium as a child in Canada but they were generally in poor repair. This one had the addition of a roll, similar to a player piano roll -- but with the additional twist that the foot pumps seemed to control the speed of the roll, and the various stops could be pulled to change the tone. The roll demonstrated had dynamic instructions and even some pauses marked.

The various mechanical instruments put me in mind of a sort of steampunk pre-cursor to MIDI files. That in turn reminded me of this:

The video is of a sort of robot that fits over the manual of a pipe organ and plays it from a midi file, made by Dorkbot Alba.

Searching for that, in turn, turned up the Odd Musical Instruments website. Some of the contraptions on there make the serpent look quite tame!

Sunday, 15 August 2010


I've been on vacation for most of the past week, staying in a guesthouse in Mark, Somerset and cycling a lot.

I'm well aware that I have a shiny new job starting in September, and I didn't want to miss too many days of practice. So I rang up the local vicar to ask if I could use the organ in Mark Church. I'm glad I did; it's a lovely instrument in many ways and I spent a few hours on Wednesday morning playing, as well as a bit of time on Thursday. I don't think the organ has the range of tone colour that the one at St Andrew's has, and I'm accustomed to three manuals rather than two and a greater range of pedal stops, but the blowers were much quieter (probably on account of not being broken) and -- this was exciting -- all the notes work. It's being kept in reasonably good tune, too.

Yesterday was back to work, of a sort -- I was playing serpent with the London Gallery Quire at a wedding in the afternoon, and then again in the ceilidh band in the evening at the reception. The wedding itself was very long, with a range of liturgy and music that showed a fair portion of the breadth of the Church of England. After the wedding some Quire members had kindly arranged a lunch, which was very much appreciated, especially by those of us going on to play in the band. Playing the ceilidh was good fun -- I'd like to do more of that sort of work -- but it did mean I got home after 1am!

Today, then, is for tidying, laundry, all the post-holiday stuff, so that tomorrow I can settle into a working routine again without tripping over myself. That's the plan, anyway...

Friday, 16 July 2010

Chanting tunes

Dr Francis Roads has written an article on Joseph Key's chanting tunes. An extract:

"The chanting tune was developed as means of enabling local quires to sing prose psalms and canticles. The Anglican psalm chant was the usual manner in which prose psalms were rendered in the cathedral style. But Anglican psalm chanting is an art, which entails the ability of singers to fit phrases of several, sometimes many, syllables to a single note in the manner of speech rhythms, and then to change notes together at the right instant. Then as now many local quires found this art beyond them. The metrical psalms developed as one means of solving this problem, and proved a popular option. But chanting tunes remained an alternative."

We had a chat about these the other evening, and I'm just getting around to reading the article myself and looking up the form in Temperley.

Chanting tunes are a way of singing prose psalms and canticles to metered music -- unlike Anglican chant, the words aren't sung in natural rhythm on a single reciting note. Instead, each word is assigned a note value within the melody. The tenor and alto alternate singing verses of the psalm, the basses sing throughout, and the sopranos tend not to have much to do until the doxology. Like other music of its period it would likely have been accompanied by whatever instruments were available. Having sung with musicians who are not singers or even wind players, I wonder whether the challenges of getting a number of amateur instrumentalists to accompany chanting with a freer rhythm was another factor contributing to the need for regular, metrical music. This would especially apply if there were few enough resources that the person directing the music also had to sing or play.

I think there are some advantages and disadvantages to this method of chanting psalms. The first thing is that it will require rather more paper than either Anglican prose chants pointed for singing, or metrical psalms in Common Metre. But there is an advantage too -- with flexibility of word placement but metrical music it should be possible to make sure the emphases stay on the right syllables, which is not easy in Anglican chant.

A second disadvantage is one that applies also to other chant forms: the longer psalms and canticles may get tedious with so much repetition of the same melodic material. In Anglican chant this is sometimes worked around by not only the alternation of the cantoris and decani sections (which is echoed in chanting tunes by the alternation of alto and tenor) but by dramatic treatment of the text, easier in a free rhythm, and by creative registration on the accompanying organ (if any). Having all the music written out without any specified variations might make people less likely to experiment with such variations; but in the hands of a sensitive and competent director, even a small group should be able to give an effective performance.

One of the things Francis mentioned was the adaptation of chanting tunes to the resources available today. This is definitely an area of interest for me -- this evening at St Andrew's I had three choir members turn up for rehearsal, and I consider myself fortunate on Sunday mornings when there are twice as many as that. With three, I would need to adapt the tenor and alto parts to be sung by all, and play the bassline on the organ; with six, if the two gentlemen turn up, it should be possible to alternate the ladies and mens voices. Since I'm using an organ all the possibilities for creative registration are there; and this style of chanting is going to be much easier to learn and to direct than the more fluid Anglican chant.

I guess my next steps in exploring the possibilities of chanting tunes for modern liturgy are to visit the British Library to look at some more examples, and to try my hand at writing some -- perhaps using the Common Worship psalter, which aims to retain some of the feel of the Coverdale psalter used in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer but uses somewhat less archaic language.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Play Me - I'm Yours

Back by popular demand, the City of London Festival brings you Street Pianos.

I played one of these at Liverpool St station last summer, for a few minutes. There were many notes that did not work, and it was horribly out of tune; my suggestion is that if you want to get out and play, it's best to do so sooner rather than later, while the instruments are still in a better condition.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The Week, er, Behind

On Monday I posted about all I have to do this week.

Things are some things that didn't get done. I still haven't rescheduled my dental appointment, and there are a few other phonecalls that have piled up, which isn't so good. I fought with the piece for the St Paul's competition but still I don't have a rough draft I'm happy with, so I'm having to consider whether I'll submit anything at all. I didn't get around to finding recordings for the choir at St Andrew's to listen to, and I didn't get to the recitals at Trinity that I wanted to attend.

There were some good things, though. The choir rehearsal at St Andrew's yesterday evening went well despite my rather shallow preparation and only having two people there. It's quite hard work to sing with so few people present and those who did turn up worked hard and did well.

Also yesterday I met with Rev Kathryn Robinson, the newly-appointed Performing Arts Adviser for the Barking Episcopal area. It was good to meet her and to talk about some of what I do, what's going on at St Andrew's, and some of the collaborations that might be possible.

The Brigantia Consort rehearsal on Thursday night felt efficient and useful, despite all of us being rather exhausted. We've managed to share out the writing of programme notes in a way that I think makes sense, we made some decisions about clothing (always difficult if you decide you don't want to just wear black), we narrowed down some of the repertoire for the concert on 11th July and oh, yeah, we rehearsed some music. I don't want to speak too soon -- it definitely needs more work -- but tuning between serpent and violin does seem to be improving.

At Quire on Wednesday night I did not completely disgrace myself at playing a rather tricky bassline on an instrument with a turning circle the size of an elephant, and as usual I enjoyed the rehearsal immensely.

Teaching on Monday and Tuesday went well. It was the first week of trying out some new timing for Tuesdays, which looks like it's going to work a lot better for my students as well as meaning I get home a good 45 minutes earlier. Hooray! The long-term viability of making the journey from Leytonstone to North London two days a week has been weighing on me recently; the later nights on Tuesday definitely weren't helping. I was still too tired to do as much psalmody-related reading as I would have liked, though.

Today has been a Day Off, except that writing this post probably counts as work, oops. Tomorrow will be mostly church and another attempt at some composing, and then a look at what lies ahead next week.

Monday, 14 June 2010

The Week Ahead

This week is looking pretty typical in terms of what I need to do, at least musically.

I'm teaching tonight and tomorrow night. I've done most of the preparation for that, but need to remember to bring music with me for my students. I'll be leaving home at 2pm each day and spending a lot of time on public transport... I usually use this time to read. Right now the important reading is all to do with psalmody and church music. I had rather hoped to have finished my psalmody-related reading by now and be well into writing workshop outlines, but the last few weeks I've been flagging.

Wednesday night there will be a London Gallery Quire rehearsal. Some of the music is a bit technically challenging on the serpent so I need to take some time to look at it.

Thursday night Brigantia are rehearsing at my place, and I need to practise that music beforehand, too. I also need to spend a significant amount of time on programme notes and organisational aspects of our concert on 11th July. It would be nice to get a gallery up on the website, too, but I don't think that's going to be realistic this week.

Friday night I am taking the choir rehearsal at St Andrew's, and I will need to learn the hymns well enough to accompany. I also want to find recordings of some of the pieces for a joint Evensong on 27th June at which we've been invited sing. We're a small choir and don't usually have all four parts at rehearsals, and it can be disorienting to suddenly have whole sections of tenor and alto rather than one each, and any bass part at all. Since I haven't been taking the choir rehearsals for very long, I don't even know what the facilities are like for listening to a CD. This could be a challenge.

I've been working on a piece for a competition which has a deadline of 30th June. Late last week it became clear that I'd managed to go onto the wrong track and was writing something that wouldn't really be suitable for the terms of the competition, so I went right back to the drawing board, decided to ditch the organ for now and stick to SATB a capella... I found a new text, but alas no English translation that is in the public domain in this country, so ended up commissioning someone else to make a new one for me. I ought to try and have at least a rough draft by the end of this week.

In addition to that, there is a final recital at Trinity College of Music that I'd like to attend, I need to reschedule a dentist appointment (cancelled this morning due to transport difficulties), I have two peer support meetings and one project planning meeting, perhaps some other meetings getting in there as well and a physiotherapy appointment on Friday afternoon. Errands need to get a look-in, too.

I'll try and report back later in the week with how I'm getting on...

Friday, 11 June 2010

Brigantia Consort hath a website.

It's very rudimentary, but Brigantia Consort now has a web presence. Yay!

Why the rush to get this done? Well, we're busking tomorrow morning at Parliament Hill Farmers' Market, weather permitting, to raise money for Shelter. While we're there we'll also hand out some flyers and maybe even sell tickets for our next concert:


With Merry Glee

An eclectic programme of psalmody,
folk music and improvisation
with an early music twist.

Anna Michel -- violin
Jessie Holder -- voice, recorder
Kathryn Rose -- horn, serpent

Sunday, 11th July 7.30pm
St John on Bethnal Green
200 Cambridge Heath Road London E2 9PA

Tickets £5 (£4 conc.) available at the door
or contact brigantiaconsort@gmail.com

Pretty neat, eh? There's a lot to do yet, of course. But the posters and tickets themselves have the address of the blog where we're parking the website for now, so there had to be something up there, even if it's rudimentary.

Meanwhile, I've not been posting here much, despite my best intentions. I think that after I stopped posting lots of degree-related things, I sort of "lost the voice" of this blog. I suspect the only way to develop it is going to be to post, though, and I make no guarantees about just how often I'll manage that.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Bobby McFerrin

I've just come back from hearing Bobby McFerrin perform at the Barbican, along with the London Vocal Project.

The concert was wonderful. Bobby McFerrin was in fine form, and although the performance was in some ways his usual "bag of tricks" (I had seen several portions of it before on YouTube and so on), that bag of tricks is simply astounding. The improvised numbers were, of course, fantastic.

The choir -- the London Vocal Project -- was technically excellent and understandably enthusiastic. I found the music they sang much less varied and flexible than McFerrin's solo numbers; the harmony and melody were somewhat less engaging, though the rhythmic complexity was quite good. I wonder what they can do in a wider range of genres and idioms.

The best thing, of course, is that I have come away full of ideas and enthusiasm for my own playing and writing. Whee!

Thursday, 22 April 2010

I will sing praises

I've been incubating a project. It isn't done yet -- won't be for a while -- but I think it's time to start writing about it.

I have developed something of an interest in the psalms. Partly to encourage their use in (Christian) liturgy, and partly to indulge in my passion for learning more about them, I want to run a series of workshops. The idea would be to look at the psalms in what we understand of their original context, and then go on a sort of meandering path through liturgical history, examining how they would have been sung, chanted or said in various situations, and why. I'd like to draw on what we do know about the Hebrew chanting/singing of psalms in Temple times... and of course Gregorian chant will feature, and Anglican chant, as well as the West Gallery metrical psalmody which I have grown to love so much through my singing and playing in the London Gallery Quire. Gelineau's translations of the psalms into French will feature, and the Grail responsorial versions and their offspring. I'd also like to look at other English vernacular psalmody in Christian worship in the 20th and 21st centuries, with a view to finding, disseminating, developing or creating resources for using the psalms in worship in situations where existing musical traditions are inappropriate or inaccessible.

Ideally I'd like each of the workshops to include some listening, some teaching, and some audience participation. With Gregorian chant, for example, I could sing some chants, or have another performer or even a choir sing them. Then I would talk about the history of Gregorian chant, the issues around singing in Latin as opposed to Hebrew, the use of the psalms in monastic worship, and the problems inherent for us when we try to use Gregorian tunes meant for Latin to sing in English with its very different word stress and vowels. I could highlight resources for further study and discuss in which situations Gregorian chant -- in Hebrew or in English -- may enhance worship, and in which it might be inappropriate. And then we could try some ourselves, myself and everyone there who is interested in trying... I could do a five-minute crash-course in chant notation for anyone who wants to have a go at reading it, but would provide modern notation as well for those that want it. We'd start with something we heard earlier so it wouldn't be completely unfamiliar, and take things gently, seeing how far we get, just to get an idea of what it feels like. I'll have to adapt this part of the workshop quite heavily to the capabilities of those attending, but I think that my topic is narrow enough that most people who are interested will have enough interest in music and singing to be able to cope with simpler chants in unison.

Obviously, I cannot hope to present a complete treatment of the topic of musical aspects of psalmody in the four to six workshops which would make this a manageable project, and there are considerable barriers to accurate performance of the earliest sung and chanted psalmody and copyright issues with the most recent publications of music for psalms. However, even with light academic content, I want to be able to answer people's questions or refer them to appropriate resources for learning more. This means I have spent the last several weeks reading quite a lot, and e-mailing various people about the project and getting, in return, varying degrees of delightful encouragement and support, and an even longer reading list! I'm now at the point where I'm feeling rather overwhelmed by the number of books still on the "to read" list, and I need to start getting some rough outlines written down so that I can read more purposefully and begin to think seriously about selection of the music.

I'll try to blog about some other things, too, once in a while, so it isn't just all psalmody, all the time.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Sweet singing from the choir

In late summer of 2009, I was talking with the organist at St Andrew's Leytonstone. I mentioned that I wanted to write more church music, but that I realised that many parish churches in England don't have large choirs and so in order to write effectively for existing resources I would probably need to learn more about the organ.

One thing led to another, and to another, and soon not only was I learning to play the organ, but I was directing the choir in our carol concert, helping choose some of the hymns, and even playing for a service here and there. I've been loving the work, and learning a lot.

Earlier this year, the organist asked if I'd be willing to take over his position. I said yes, and had a chat with the vicar, who is happy to employ me. In September I will be officially taking over as organist and choirmaster. This was announced to the choir on Easter Sunday, which means I'm now free to blog about it.

I'm looking forward to it, and also feeling some apprehension. I still have an awful lot to learn, and five months doesn't seem like a long time to learn it.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Two compositions

At some stage I will probably stop thinking of my life in terms of "since I finished at Trinity", but for now it's still such a change that I'm quite regularly struck by how different life is.

One of the joys of having more control over my time is that I have been doing more composing. I have half a dozen things unfinished at the moment, but I've also written three pieces since December. One of them is not quite finished, though it was performed on the occasion it was written for; there are some harmonic issues I'd like to sit down and sort out properly before posting it here.

The first of the others is A Marriage Blessing. It's the first time in many years that someone has asked me to write a piece of music, and the last time, I was about fourteen years old, so I was a bit worried that this would miss the mark. It's based on traditional Celtic texts, and meant to be sung unaccompanied, though I don't see why an accompaniment on appropriate instruments couldn't be improvised if desired. I wasn't at the wedding, but I'm told it was performed con lacrime and went down very well.

The second piece, Crux fidelis, is a setting of the English translation of the text of the same name. In thinking about music for Holy Week at St Andrew's, Leytonstone, I happened across the King John of Portugal setting, which beautiful -- but which we do not have the resources to sing. I thought a simpler work for soprano and organ might be welcome, perhaps with an optional alto part, and this is what I ended up with. There is a MIDI file of this, but as with most MIDI files, it sounds like R2D2. It's the first time I've done any writing for the organ: all of my choral music before now has been SATB or TBB a cappella.

Both works are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010


Good rehearsal today with the other members of the Brigantia Consort -- we looked at some new repertoire, rehearsed stuff we've been working on for performance probably this summer, and did some improvisation.

We recorded some of the rehearsal, and it was interesting to hear the results. Two things, to my mind, really stood out.

The first is that we do talk rather a lot between playing. Of course this is necessary to an extent and good conversations about the music now can make for much less work later on.

Some of the talking, I think, is because we don't have fixed repertoire, very tight limits on rehearsal time or any concrete engagement to work toward. We have some idea where we're going, but because there isn't a huge amount of urgency in getting there we have the flexibility to take the time to discuss things properly. Another factor is that as our instrumentation is non-standard (various combinations of voice/recorder, violin/recorder, horn/serpent/voice) and our repertoire rather eclectic we do have to approach each work from a few different angles. Baroque bow or modern? Vibrato or not? Should that line be played on the recorder, or sung on a relevant syllable? Do we need to scratch this arrangement and write our own, or can we swap the voices around to make it work better? Are the instruments being faithful to the stresses of the language if there are words? That does take a lot of talking through!

It's a great luxury to have rehearsals that are laid back enough that we can burst out laughing, explain things in detail or go off on the occasional tangent; on the whole I think we are reasonably focused. But listening to a recording, it's amazing just how much chattering we do, and how little playing. Perhaps we would be better off making more notes and fewer words.

The second thing, and one we all noticed, is that the improvisation was superior to playing from sheet music in just about every way. It wasn't just that we had warmed up by then; if anything I was getting tired, mentally if not physically, from lots and lots of C basso transposition. It is partly that improvising freely as we did today gives us the option to play to our strengths and avoid technically challenging passages. The biggest difference, though, is that without the dots in front of us we are forced to listen. Intonation and timing immediately improve, because we're not worried about playing or singing a "wrong" note, but instead listening to one another and really playing together, really creating something that none of us could create on our own.

We are learning what we need to do to rehearse better. As far as focus and use of time are concerned, we've started jotting down a rehearsal plan at the beginning of every session. That sounds like an obvious thing, but most of my chamber rehearsals have had such a limited repertoire that the schedule would sort itself out quite simply, and most larger ensembles have been led and planned by someone other than me. In this group we do need to spend time surveying repertoire together, sight-reading together, and improvising. Each having more than one possible instrument, and having to adapt our repertoire accordingly, also requires a different sort of rehearsal than just going in and learning the music. There are also administrative tasks, and we're still figuring out who is best in which role as far as paperwork is concerned. In order to keep track of all this I think the best thing is going to be to start a notebook, much as I have for each of my music students, and jot down not only a plan for each rehearsal but any comments on pieces and secretarial tasks.

The other thing I think will be useful is to start each rehearsal differently. Today we started by singing a piece we know reasonably well, then launched straight into sight-reading. It was useful, but given how much the improvisation changed our playing, I think it would be good to incorporate that into the beginning of the rehearsal. I know that with choirs and other larger ensembles, some sort of warm-up routine does seem to make a difference not only with the quality of each individual's playing and singing but with people's ability to listen to one another. It would make sense, then, rather than just doing our individual instrumental warm-ups (if any) and having a quick tune, to do some kind of communal warm-up. I think this will need to be fairly flexible but it would make sense for it to include some sort of improvisation.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Still ticking.

What have I been up to?

I'm learning to play the organ. This is a lot of fun, but rather difficult. I try to play the right hand line with my right hand, the left hand line with my left hand, and the pedal line with my other left hand. It's going well, though; I've played at a few services, and a funeral, and I have a few more lined up.

I'm also rehearsing a lot with the Brigantia Consort. No, we haven't a website just yet, but soon, hopefully!

I'm still playing serpent with the London Gallery Quire, and enjoying both the metrical psalmody and the camaraderie.

I'm still teaching piano, and I still love it. I'm finding I do notice the commute much more than I used to, partly because it's a little further but also because there are days when I don't have to leave Leytonstone at all, so the days when I travel across London seem very long indeed.

Longer-term, I'm writing some bits and pieces of music, some for competitions and some for specific performance situations. It's mostly choral, mostly liturgical. I love doing this, but I lack confidence; I'm never quite sure whether what I have written will turn out to be very good, or a bit naff. I guess that comes with experience.

I'm also planning a series of workshops on psalmody. I want to start with the origins of psalmody and then explore how the psalms would have been said, sung or chanted in different liturgical traditions. I know that I won't be able to do a full treatment in the four to six sessions that would make this a manageable project... at this point I'm just reading a lot and letting ideas slosh around in my brain.