Sunday, April 27, 2008

Georgia on my mind

Following on from my post the other week: Why don’t you sing songs from India? I came across a really interesting article written by a Georgian ethno-musicologist based in Australia.

Now the internet is a funny thing! Most people don’t really understand how to do decent searches (but that’s a whole other story), and even if you do, often you stumble across something unintended but interesting. Rather like browsing in an old-fashioned bricks and mortar book shop (remember them?), or record shop (can’t remember the last time I saw one of them!).

I was trying to find a recording of a particular Georgian song to see if it sounded like the sort of thing I could use with the choir (I find it really hard to imagine what a song sounds like just by looking at the written score). I stumbled across a blog called the Georgian Music MP3 Archive. Just the sort of place to find recordings of Georgian songs you would think. Well, they are there, but you have to do a bit of digging since recent posts include How does cloning work? Why humans bother with emotions, and 10 tips for avoiding cancer. Methinks this is a good example of blog title not telling you what to expect! (You can find lots of interesting articles on Georgian music, folklore and history by clicking on the appropriate category in the side bar)

Any way, to cut a long story short, I stumbled across: Distribution of Vocal Polyphony among the World’s Musical Cultures by Joseph Jordania. A fascinating read which covers many of the issues I raised in my earlier post, but this time from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about! Joseph has also written an interesting piece about Georgian singing.

I first met Joseph in around 1990 in Cardiff when he (and the sadly departed Edisher Garakanidze who founded the Georgian choir Mtiebi and inspired the book 99 Georgian songs) came to run a week-long Georgian singing workshop organised by the Centre for Performance Research. This was pretty much the first time that Georgian singing had been introduced to the UK in any formal way and we took to it in a big way. Georgian songs now feature in the repertoire of many UK community choirs and there are even several who focus exclusively on Georgian songs.

In the singing world we have become used to it now, but to the uninitiated in this country, when you say ‘Georgian’, it usually refers to the historical period when the Georges were on the throne: 1714 – 1830. Whilst in the States, it also means the state of Georgia or maybe even the South Georgia islands. Interestingly, the Woven Chords choir rehearse their Georgian songs (from the Republic of Georgia) in a Georgian ballroom (dating back to 1768).

The workshop participants were pretty much in awe of these two amazing teachers who could not only sing, but could give detailed background to each of the songs. We were desperate to get more of this harmony singing tradition which dates back to before the 12th Century, but Joseph was more interested in learning Beatles songs! One day he even taught us a version of the Stones’ ‘Can’t get no satisfaction’ in a Georgian style arrangement! Ah, yes, the grass is always greener: your culture is more interesting than mine.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Just one of those days

I’ve been rather under the weather lately struggling with the legacy of a nasty chesty cough back in January (see Little voice ). I’m not after sympathy, so you can put your handkerchiefs away now! What I wanted to blog about was how we struggle with our work when we’re not feeling 100%.

I had a short break (much too short actually!) over Easter (I say ‘break’, but what I really mean is there weren’t any concerts, workshops or choir sessions, just website updating, song preparation, planning for next term, publicity – you know the sort of thing). When I came back to ‘work’ (i.e. regular sessions with regular folk) I was feeling pretty rough and found it a real struggle. My energy was low both physically and mentally and although I managed to do my job (what a professional – hooray!!), I didn’t really enjoy it. What I really wanted was another month off, preferably in the Bahamas with a personal masseur. I was uplifted by the singing as always, but it was very, very hard work to actually plan and run the sessions.

We all have our off days when we’re feeling below par and it often colours our view of the world. Even though it might be a beautiful sunny day, somehow it doesn’t impinge on our soul. Our usual pleasures don’t quite get through to us. What is worse is that we often perceive events very negatively. What might normally be an ‘OK’ choir session feels like a huge disaster or a complete waste of time. We criticise ourselves for not teaching very well. We go home feeling that we’ve not done our job properly and that people have been disappointed. If we’re doing a performance, we don’t much enjoy it and perhaps feel that it was pretty awful compared with our normal concerts.

But ask the choir members or the audience and they may not have noticed anything untoward or out of the ordinary! Our personal experience has been entirely coloured by our thoughts, and our thoughts have tended towards the negative because we are not feeling very well. This can happen at other times even when we’re fit and healthy. We may have had an argument with our partner; it may be one of those days when everything seems to go wrong and the traffic lights are always against us; we may have had a grant proposal turned down. Whatever it is, it’s put us in a negative or highly critical frame of mind and that often ends up colouring our other experiences.

At times like this, we just have to get on with the job and understand that this is not a permanent state of affairs. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. Just because it feels like one choir session/ concert has been lousy, doesn’t mean that the next one will be. Just because today we feel like a bad teacher doesn’t mean that we are a bad teacher. Each session, each workshop, each concert is a new and different thing and we mustn’t bring the past with it. (see Zen beginner's mind in Blame it on the weather)

Our experience is subjective. Just because we’re having a bad day doesn’t mean that we’re not doing a good job. And it’s not good asking those on the receiving end (choir members, workshop participants, audience) because their experience too is subjective. Each individual will have their own experience coloured by their own thoughts. All we can do is trust that we have prepared properly and are up to the job – we have done well in the past and there’s no reason to suppose that today will be any different. Just because we feel that it’s not been a good experience for us is no reason to be down with ourselves. And for most of us who do this kind of job when we have our inevitable bad days, just remember: we’re doing what we love and being paid for it. How many people are lucky enough to be able to say that?

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Why don't you sing songs from India?

Well, the simple reason is that India doesn’t have a harmony singing tradition, and that’s pretty much what I’m about. The same goes for most other countries in Asia. I’m also asked why we don’t do more Islamic songs. Well, there are many groups within Islam that take the view that the only music that can be made is the call to prayer. Some groups extend this slightly to include devotional songs with words from the Koran. At the other extreme, the Sufi tradition uses music much more than most other Islamic groups. But still the songs are not in harmony.

I’ve often thought of taking a course in ethnomusicology since I’ve always found it fascinating that some cultures have harmony singing traditions whereas others don’t. I was once told by an ethnomusicologist that there is a country in Eastern Europe (I forget which) divided in the middle by a major river running East-West. The cultures to the North of the river have a harmony singing tradition, whereas those to the South don’t!

I was told that if the story in a song is important (i.e. the lyrics are the most important part of the music), then the melody tends to be quite simple with no embellishments and no harmonies which might get in the way of the telling of the story. This is evident in, for example, the English ballad tradition. Conversely, those songs which have complex tunes, rich harmonies and many ornamentations tend to have very, very simple lyrics. It is the sound of the words that is important in these cases, not the meaning. For example, the many versions of Mravalžamier from Georgia, most of which have just the one word: mravalžamier.

Apparently there was a strong harmony singing tradition in Britain way, way back, but none of it survives. The more recent harmony singing traditions that we have come out of the church and have spread (via the British Empire) to Australasia and Africa amongst other places. Which is where the roots of the fantastic Maori and South African harmony singing from.

I’m currently trying to source some interesting material for my new voice-theatre project. I would like to have as wide a spread of musical genres as possible, but always tend towards the traditional. So I’m really struggling at the moment whether to go with a harmonised Tamil song and an arrangement of a Sephardic songs, neither of which were originally sung in harmony. Maybe I should let go of my insistence on tradition. Or should I? By doing modern harmonised versions of songs from traditions where there is no history of harmony, am I honouring those traditions? Or am I doing them a favour by polishing up old songs and giving them new life in the 21st century? And where do I draw the line?

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Dancing the song

A while ago I tried a new idea (for me any way) for helping people to learn songs. I taught a fairly simple round (Shalom Chaverim) by ear as usual, but decided to associate a different movement/ gesture with each phrase to see if it helped people learn the song quicker. The movements weren’t traditional in any sense and had no connection with the song’s origins (I made them up myself), but I tried to ensure that the quality of each gesture somehow reflected the quality and lyricism of the phrase it was attached to.

The other effect I wanted was to engage people’s bodies in a natural way so that they would loosen up and not focus technically on the singing part. Also, the extended gestures would (I hoped!) help people sustain the breathing through each phase.

The experiment worked really well, achieving everything that I wanted. I even had people working in groups of four singing the round which meant that their gestures also worked as a round. At one point I even had them stop singing out loud so they were just ‘singing’ with their movements. It was a joy to behold!

When it came to performing the song, I asked people to keep the feeling of the movements within their bodies, but not to do them outwardly. I asked them to imagine actually doing the movements, but in a tiny, tiny version. The effect of this was for everyone to engage their bodies fully and to be very focused. It made a subtle, but tangible difference to the presence of the singers on stage.

Last night at choir we sang Shalom Chaverim for the first time in a very long time. I had completely forgotten that I’d taught movements with it, but several people automatically began the gestures as they sang since the movements and song had been learnt at the same time. I guess it’s a similar effect to the memorising of song lyrics: the words are associated with the melody in the same part of the brain. Scope for further experiments methinks!

go to Chris Rowbury's website