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Rob 22nd November 2013

After a bit of a break, we're back with our next concert tomorrow (Saturday) in Upton-on-Severn, just over the border in Worcestershire (but we won't hold that against them). It's the first full outing of "Faith, Folk and Frivolity" - another alliterative addition to our array of programmes, and an eclectic mixture from right across our repertoire. If you're thinking of coming along, note it's at the slightly unusual time of 3pm (which means I can get home in time for the Doctor Who anniversary special!)

Today of course marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. His centenary year can scarcely have passed many music fans by, with countless commemorative concerts across the world; Britten has even, through the efforts of Britten 100, become the first composer featured on a UK coin. I heard his "children's opera" Noye's Fludde for the first time last month, and am looking forward to my third time taking part in the War Requiem next summer, marking not only Britten's centenary but also that of the start of World War I.

A driving force behind much of Britten's music, like Noye's Fludde, was his desire to make it accessible to young and amateur performers and listeners, a goal we share and strive for through our own workshops and educational programmes; Britten's own Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra inspired Nick to write his own Young Person's Guide to the A Cappella Group which we premiered at the Worcester International Festival for Young Singers this summer. We all greatly enjoy these opportunities to work with young singers, for their varied talents and boundless enthusiasm. Britten himself was only 16 when he wrote his stunning Hymn to the Virgin - who knows what virtuosity might be waiting to emerge amongst our youngest audiences?



Chris 15th November 2013

HI all,

I am sure, like me, many of you were shocked at the sudden death of John Tavener earlier this week. Growing up in the choral tradition as a young chorister in the late 1980s, John Tavener’s music was as much a part of our musical performance and education as other fine British composers like Tallis, Stanford and (contemporary) Rutter.

I have always been struck by how simple Tavener kept his music. I think in the past I had mistaken that for lazy craftsmanship (why write any more notes when I can simply add a repeat mark...), but as time goes on, I think I can start to appreciate the deliberate beauty in not over-writing his music. Why introduce continual new themes and ideas in a work when you have not finished exploring the current one? Coming up to Christmas now (sorry – we are. I heard my first playing of a Michael Bublé Christmas song on the radio today), churches and halls across the land will attempt to sing Tavener’s “The Lamb” (and again at Easter) - a perfect example where a single phrase is manipulated, restated, inverted and generally explored. A deceptively hard piece to sing, yet still popular and entrancing as ever.

We recorded Tavener’s “Funeral Ikos” for our Sacred Place album late last year. I remember the recording session very well – another example of a simple, harmonically unadventurous work, making great use of gentle repetition (this time in long verses, as opposed to phrases). It was a hard piece to get our heads around. If ever there was a work where planned dynamic and performance pencil markings come to naught when you actually sing, this is it. “Funeral Ikos” is pretty much the definitive example of our "let the music decide" mentality.

For those in the UK, BBC Radio 3’s “The Choir” (a show we are not altogether unfamiliar with) was already scheduled to broadcast some of Tavener’s newest work performed by the South Iceland Chamber Choir from Southwark Cathedral this weekend. All the more poignant now. Apparently, the choir director has an email from the composer on the morning of his death indicating a change in plans around tempo of the work. Working in his art to the end.


C x


Guy 7th November 2013

Hi all!

I hope everyone had a happy Halloween and fun bonfire night...

It was great to see our good friend Mike Browne the other week when we were recording our new EP.

Mike does all the tracking and recording for our studio based work and it never ceases to amaze me how quickly he can find his way around complicated recording software (or indeed the speed at which he can set up and pack away a studio).

Mike was in charge of the recording of our album Midnight and the fact that he comes from a rock background might seem odd to some people... "Why don't you get an engineer who specialises in the voice?" "How does he understand what you're trying to achieve vocally?" You see the thing is that Mike, like many engineers we have worked with, has a deep appreciation of all types of music and his enthusiasm in the studio is amazing. He will happily sit behind a desk for 12 hours at a time and still be as keen and exact in his quality of work from the onset to the end result... which is more than I can say for us singers...

I taught Mike in my previous life as a teacher many years ago and it's so nice to see a familiar face the other side of the screen when I'm behind the mic. He makes me always want to give each take my absolute best and I feel lucky that I have played a tiny part in the well-rounded musicianship and love for all genres that Mike possesses.

If any of you readers are looking for a 'sound' sound engineer in the coming months drop me an email and I'd be delighted to put you on to him!

Thanks Mike!

Speak soon!



Nick 30th October 2013

Happy Halloweve everyone.

Those of you paying mildly close attention to the group will know that over the last few months we've been tackling some little Poulenc pieces. I have to say I consider him my favourite 20th century composer for a cappella music. Memorable and quirky tunes are surrounded by scrunchy but perfectly crafted harmonies inspired by the early jazz scenes in Paris.

On Saturday night, BBC radio 3 treated listeners to a feast of Poulenc including some of the Huit Chansons (which we perform) as well as his stunning masterwork Figure Humaine.written in 1943, this 18 minute tour de force sets texts by surrealist poet Paul Eluard about the feeling of "silent suffering of the people of France" and the hope for triumph over tyranny. It was smuggled out of France and premiered in 1945 by the BBC Singers in English, who performed it on Saturday (none of the original performers remain I believe...). Its last movement, Liberté, has an effervescent build up, constantly gathering speed and exploding at the end into a massive E major chord with a top top E for some lucky soprano (who in Saturday's performance was 8.5 months pregnant).

It is an incredible work, and I highly recommend you invest for 20 mins at some point before the weekend when it disappears from iPlayer... - it's at the beginning of the concert...

Here are a few tunes we will be singing on hallowe'en:
Music to watch ghouls by
Londonderry Scare
Come die with me (j. rutter)
Now is the month of slaying
Overture to the Demon Barber of Seville
Down in the river to Prey

Any more?


Ben 23rd October 2013

I really do not know where to start with my blog this month. I think I led with that a couple of blogs ago but this time I'm genuinely stuck. What has just sprung to mind though is the Coen Brothers' film 'Barton Fink', which is about a screenwriter suffering from writer's block. This has led me to thinking about the fantastic month of film music across the BBC, Sound of the Cinema. In particular I thoroughly enjoyed Neil Brand's short series celebrating film music over the years. 
I've always been drawn to film music and it's power to enhance what we see on screen. Two of my favourite examples which Neil Brand focused on were the saxophone solo in the theme for Martin Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver', composed by Bernard Hermann, a long time collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock; and the opening scenes to 'Bladerunner', Ridley Scott's dystopic view of a futuristic Earth, with music by Vangelis, the master of the synthesiser. The reason these two stick out are because they set the atmosphere of their films so brilliantly. Barton Fink had a mention too but more so for lack of music and clever use of sound, to show this wordless writer descending into madness. 
What I find most interesting is how styles and techniques disappear then return over time. For instance, Star Wars signalled a strong return to the symphonic score which had been prevalent a couple of decades earlier. Personally, I find film music a little formulaic at the moment - the last score to really stand out for me was the simplicity of American Beauty. 
Earlier in the month I attended a very good course on Vocal Science for Choirs, held jointly by ABCD and BVA. It focused a lot on how the body works, acoustic considerations and the importance of warming up before singing (or doing just about anything for that matter). I also had the opportunity to lead my own training for the first time, promoting the importance of singing to Heads of Music from across Gloucestershire. I'm now looking forward to the three day Gloucestershire Youth Choir course next week and, on Saturday, my first opportunity to conduct a great choral work in the form of Haydn's 'Creation'. Songmen-wise, we've just had a productive weekend on the studio laying down tracks for our new EP, but Jon and Rob talked about that in their blogs so I'll just leave you to wait expectantly until we release it!

Last, and certainly not least, Festival Passes for January's London A Cappella Festival are now sold out but you can still get you ticket for our concert on Friday 24th January at 6.30pm for the bargain price of £9! Don't miss out.
Till next time, keep singing!


Jon 17 October 2013

This week we're back in the studio starting work on our next EP and I have to say I'm quite excited.

Now there are purists out there who believe that all choral recording should be done with a pair of microphones and a nice acoustic, and I have to say that up to a few years ago I was also firmly in this camp as well. However, it is a feature of modern A Cappella music that more and more is being produced in the studio.

So a few years ago we decided the time was right for the first Songmen studio album. What followed was a roller coaster of new experiences and new friendships which culminated in Guy, Ben and me taking a trip out to San Francisco to visit Grammy-winning producer Bill Hare as he worked his magic on our tracks. I have never seen anything like Bill working - he played the slides of the desk like a pianist caresses the keys, feeling every nuance of the music and instinctively adding just the right amount of je ne sais quoi …

As I sip my ice-cold root beer and listen back to Midnight, I am reminded of good times and, studio or not, that's really what it's all about.

Take care

Jon x


Rob 10th October 2013

Exciting times this week, as we had a first sing-through of some new Ben arrangements for our upcoming recording project!

I can't say too much about this at this stage, but it's been in the pipeline for a while… in fact some of the songs on the line-up have already become Songmen classics, like Ben's take on "Be Your Husband" (here we are performing it in Perugia in May 2012!)

Arranging presents different challenges to composing. When composing for voices you generally start with just a text and are free to see where your musical inspiration takes you. With an arrangement, as well as the words and the tune you often have the sounds and harmonies of the original version in mind, and the challenge is to put your own stamp on the music — trying not to simply transcribe, but also not to overcomplicate things and just let the tune shine through.

Whilst I've written a few pieces for the group, it's a slow process and they tend to take weeks or even months to surface. In contrast, the speed at which Ben churns these arrangements out continues to amaze me — although you'd never suspect that, given the craftsmanship of the finished product. Furthermore, he seems unfazed by his surroundings and can often be spotted scribbling away in a hotel lobby or on a long plane journey (both of which we had plenty of this summer!)

Meanwhile, I have a pile of half-started pieces just waiting for me to find the time to add a few more bars. Maybe this weekend…

Rob x


Chris 2nd October 2013

Keen a cappella lovers will have noticed the line-up for 2014's London A Cappella Festival has just been announced and if you head to Kings Place, London (the dual home of excellent vocal music and questionable journalism) next January, you will get to hear such impressive groups as The House Jacks, the Swingle Singers and the Real Group. Oh, and us too!...

Plug over.

As a casual external observer of American politics, I am fascinated by the annual struggle around agreeing the national budget and the impact it has had this year in causing a partial shutdown of the US government. The real argument is around the introduction of Obamacare - the president's wide reaching healthcare programme - and it has been tied into the budget kerfuffel by those opposed to it in what looks to be a massive game of chicken. Basically, to force the President to drop Obamacare, they massively rasised the stakes thinking he would not risk a government shut-down over it, however, no-one blinked, resulting in the current cluster-fudge of a situation, with 700,000 federal employees being forced to take unpaid leave until the mess is resolved.

On a much, much smaller scale, singing in a group like ours could envoke similar tensions; we are all individuals and have our own opinions, tastes and preferences. Unlike a conducted choir, we do not have one person in front telling us what to do, or how to perform. We have to work together for the common good otherwise we would never get anything done. We have a saying in The Songmen, "let the music decide". We typically work on new music on our own so when we are together we can maximise the time rehearsing. Often you can find that music you have learned by yourself will sound, and feel, quite different once you perform it with others. When we sing together, we have to keep ourselves open to the music we create and not get stuck into the one way of performing because that is how we practiced at home. Letting the music influence and direct our performance gives us a unified approach - six individuals put our faith, trust and passion into the same thing and that helps us achieve a united sound.

A bipartisan approach to politics is always going to prompt challenges (and it should), but in any disagreement or conflict, keeping a keen awareness of not only _what_ you are arguing about, but _why_ it is important might just help a little.

Let the music decide.



Guy 26th September 2013

I've just been glancing through our blogs and I've noticed that Chris and Rob haven't written one in a while... don't fret... it's not like they don't want to... they do... but our time in China, and our limited access to the internet there, threw our blogging schedule out a bit (yes, we have a blogging schedule!). You can be sure that they'll post some utterly engaging blogs in the coming weeks (no pressure gents!).

Anyway, we've got a bit of time off now after a very busy summer (the busiest we've ever had). So, to help pass the time I've taken up badminton. I used to play a bit and I was OK. It's a bit like riding a bike really and I've picked up the basics again quite quickly. Even if I am a little slower than I was, I certainly haven't lost my competitiveness.

Being in the Songmen, in a strange way, kind of helps to foster this inherent desire to be the best. Obviously we're not competing against someone on a badminton court (although we have performed a concert in a gym in the past), and we're certainly not competing against each other when we sing, but we do fiercely strive to be the absolute best we can.

We're back in the studio soon finishing off an E.P of pop songs and we're really excited to hear the results. In other recordings news, our friends The King's Singers release their new studio album this week and I'd urge you all to take a listen if you can. I've not heard it yet but I know it will be great. The King's Singers never fail to impress but on this occasion their awesomeness will be compounded, I'm sure, by the deft touch of Bill Hare who sat at their recording desk. Bill produced our debut studio album Midnight which you can buy here: if you like!



Nick 18th September 2013

Hi everybody,

Been a while since my last blog.

Most recent songmen occurrence was last Saturday at the giant melting pot that is the Kings Place Festival. It was so exciting to be part of such an incredibly diverse few days at the Guardian HQ. Jazz bands, world music from all over the globe, top quality string quartets, and of course a modest helping of a cappella.

Despite a miserably wet day, we had a pretty great turn-out, and despite a heavily becurtained room, the audience seemed to enjoy it!

Acoustics are always an interesting paradox for the style in which we perform. We work so hard on trying to get a lovely blend and precise clarity to our performances. That attention to detail shows most obviously in a very dry acoustic like that in King's Place. However for us it's often quite tough to perform in as it's we get no sound back from the room, and we can't really hear what we're doing! On the flip side, big boomy church/cathedral acoustics feel very comfortable to sing in, but almost all of the detail that we put so much effort in to doing gets lost in the echo! Ah well. There's always a middle ground in most places!

Since I last wrote, I've been to Todi with Ben to run the Songmen's inaugural Summer Masterclass. It was a fascinating week, far from the Umbrian holiday I had envisaged! It was great to meet lots of new people from all around Europe, in the stunning "Green Heart of Italy" as it's known. Ben and I certainly didn't let any of the singers get off lightly during the week, as we constantly threw new rehearsal ideas and techniques at them. My favourite moment of the week, however, was when Ben and I let them rehearse by themselves - not just because it meant I didn't have to do anything... We watched, of course, but left the choice of pieces to rehearse, and problem solving to them. Very interesting to see how people who are used to following conductors orders cope without a leader!

Anyway, better go and use my evening off to catch up on my new favourite tv show, the gritty american drama "Breaking Bad". Can't believe it's taken me so long to discover the show!

Enjoy the crisp autumn months.




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