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The beginnings

It is so inspiring to hear the comments of singers from the first choirs to try Memorial Ground: just to take the two you might have read in our recent newsletter:

“I’m absolutely hooked, I think it’s wonderful.” Ursula, St Andrew’s Chorus

“It’s very atmospheric and quite hypnotic to sing, it becomes very compelling.” Alex, Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral Glasgow

This heartens me hugely: as always, when you really believe in something you love to find others who share your passion. Commissioning new music is always a roller coaster ride: having an idea or possibility then finding the artists to work with is the exciting collaborative bit – a lot of talk and discussion. But at some point you step back. It is out of your hands. The piece arrives. That’s an interesting enough moment with a more conventional work like a string quartet or song. But nothing quite like Memorial Ground has ever been done before. Its combination of professional and amateur musicians, freedom and controlled elements – it takes quite some explaining!

When David emailed the score back in January, I printed it off and went and sang it through lots of times at the piano. What struck me instantly is that this is music that only comes to life in performance. On paper it looks very bare and stark. But singing it, you discover the hypnotic effect of its phrases and silences. Amidst the repetitions, you enjoy the small, subtle changes in harmony from phrase to phrase. The mood of it builds: reflective but intense; understated but imbued with a compelling quality that draws the listener in.

It has been a fantastic experience since then to sit in as 3 different groups of singers have been working with the piece. The SCO Chorus were first, and recorded the hymn – they gave it that intensity and focus that you can hear in the clip of their performance on the website. Next came the assembled singers from 3 choirs in Fife who will give the world premiere. Their much greater numbers changed the quality of the phrases, making each utterance more of a crowd than an individual. Most recently, Frikki Walker and the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow took spent a 90-minute session to run through the piece and then put together a number of different versions that anyone could use in a church service. It was the first time that any choir had tried combining the fully written out part of the score (what David Lang calls the ‘hymn’) with the free solos that can be sung out at any time in any tempo at any register. The effect was spine tingling – and you’ll be able to hear it in a few weeks when we upload their different versions to the website.

As I said, the piece takes some explaining – and I really hope that that does not put any choir off doing the piece because what I have discovered is that many of the questions that come up have the same answer: Yes – you really can do it in the way you want, to make it personal to you and your place. You can do it short or long, complex or simple, have instrumental support or do it a cappella. Add as many solo lines as you want – or perhaps have just one. No two performances should be alike: every singe one should belong to its performers and audience alone.

Svend Brown