Tags: art, bronte parsonage museum, bronte sisters, bronte society, dance, diane howse, exhibition, haworth, music, review
It’s easy to see how people become obsessed with the Brontës. The interweaving of their short, strict lives, their intense fictional worlds, and the unforgiving landscape they inhabited is heady. This small exhibition by Diane Howse and collaborators encourages these kinds of connections, and plays with them. Quoting from the brochure, The Silent Wild ‘… takes as its starting point the written word, and how silent shapes on a page have the power to conjure whole worlds of sound, noise and commotion.’
Situated in the Brontë Parsonage, the exhibition interacts with the existing layout. The Parsonage is part museum, part reconstruction. The rooms are decorated with historically-accurate papers and paints, and are largely set up as they were in the time the family lived there. Cases display Brontë relics – Charlotte’s wedding dress, a first edition of Shirley – alongside Mr Brontë’s piano, the children’s bed, and Branwell’s portraits of his sisters.
The effect is to pull you in and out of the Brontës’ world, real and imagined, and their stories, factual and invented. The exhibition is focused around sound: the sounds of words themselves, and the sounds the Brontës might have been surrounded by – the tick of a clock, the tinkle of a teaspoon on a china saucer.
Some exhibits abstract tiny elements from the writings of the sisters – single words (silent), phrases (not a fluttering lark or linnet), or quotations. If your impression of Wuthering Heights is all doom and gloom, you might be surprised to learn that giggle, laugh and chatter feature in it, alongside shriek, howl and wail. It’s not over-explained, this exhibition, which I liked; I came away chewing over thin murmurs of life, wondering if this was about the potential of written words, the Brontës’ own brittle existence, or the resilience of their writings.
It’s easy to become immersed in brooding over these driven, gifted women and their fierce lives. The best thing about this exhibition is it takes us out of this inward spiral, and pushes us to think about bigger things. The dance piece, The Silent Wild, does this beautifully. Set to music constructed from found sounds in the Parsonage and readings of the Brontës’ works in many languages, the dancer starts on a floor plan of the Parsonage’s small dining room, reproduced in the enormous empty space of Salts Mill. His props are a dining table and chair, like those in the Parsonage. This is a special dining table, of course, as it’s the place where Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and other works were written. The dancer moves around, testing his physicality against these hard surfaces, exploring their affordances; small movements give a sense of internal focus, of potential. He moves outwards and inwards, under the table then outside the limits of the room: claustrophobic, then agoraphobic. To a rising cacophony of unknown languages, he pirouettes over and over, ending up with a crash under the table again. The table supports him, launches him into the world, then protects him again.
I found myself pondering what we know, and what we imagine. The museum hints that we can over-romanticise the Brontës’ lives; for example, although many people assume they didn’t travel, one exhibit is a trunk used by the sisters on trips to London, Ireland and Brussels. It wasn’t quite the claustrophobic, intense life we imagine. The house is small, and the weight of the tragedies it saw hangs heavy. But it’s also possible to imagine it as a refuge from the heave and thrust of life; there’s a quotation from Mr Bronte on how his little family comforted him, and brought him happiness after the death of his wife. It’s easy to focus on the heartbreak, but there’s life and potential here too.
- The Silent Wild continues at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire, until 28th September 2015.
Tags: 2015, cycling, humour, professional, tour de france, transparency
In the latest of my handy Guides, I explain why you shouldn’t worry about transparency, but just go back to shouting ‘That’s ADAM, not SIMON!’ at the telly. Ah! Doesn’t that feel better?
1. Power data cannot be released because it is DEEPLY PERSONAL. Skilled analysts can ascertain riders’ sexual peccadilloes, how they like their tea, and how frequently they call their mothers from power data. One prominent rider got into trouble with his sponsor when his power data revealed that he spent the whole of the 2013 Mont Ventoux climb muttering under his breath that he’d be better off riding a Raleigh Vector.
2. Power data cannot be released because it is a TRADE SECRET. If teams knew other teams’ power data, it would be the End Of Cycling As We Know It. Which would be awful.
3. Power meters are, like, totally unreliable anyway. Which is why everyone puts $6,492,830 p.a. into their development, and everyone uses them, and even people who regularly come thirty-fourth in local cyclocross races fantasise about owning them.
4. All sorts of things can affect power readings. Having one leg stronger than the other; riding over ley lines; phases of the moon; sitting a bit wonky on the saddle; the sun being in your eyes; not being ready. Just knowing I was only a mile from home was responsible for a 0.5w/kg spike in my power data the other day. I’m just saying.
5. VO2max testing was invented solely to heighten the dramatic tension in American Flyers. Just like Vangelis soundtracks and Keira Knightley doing keepy-uppies, it has no application in real-life sport.
6. Weight can fluctuate by KILOGRAMS, like, every MINUTE. Nobody weighs themselves in professional sport, because sport cares about its people, and it’s more important that they feel beautiful on the INSIDE.
7. Heart rate is REALLY complicated. It’s down low sometimes, then it’s up high sometimes. NOBODY understands this. So weird!
8. On no account should anyone other than a trained professional employed by a cycling team attempt to interpret ANY data. This is DEEPLY dangerous to Cycling As We Know It. Mathematicians are NOT qualified. Nor are sports scientists. I don’t care how many PhDs you’ve got. Stick to what you know. Quantum physics? Yeah, that. Run along.
Tags: barbershop, clitheroe, concert, diary, ladies, music, sing-out, singing, Trinity Methodist Church, women
At two-thirty, I was already bopping around the kitchen. The White Rosettes don’t perform in public that often, and this was a rare chance to show off: my first sing-out. (In barbershop, we don’t call them ‘concerts’. Pay attention at the back.) I’d been busy learning repertoire so I could hold my own in the second half, when the trainees were going on, and Caroline had lent me her swishy dress and heels, so I looked the part.
I applied foundation for the first time in about twenty years, packed sandwiches and three pairs of tights and put my Chorus Scarf on. Margaret picked me up and I made polite conversation with her friends and tried to act nonchalant.
We arrived at Trinity Church in loads of time, ambushing the lovely tea ladies, who weren’t expecting us until later. (They let us in anyway.) Sharon gave the trainees some makeup direction (‘Slap on loads of blusher, and then someone’ll come round and tell you to put some more on’) and we pouted at the mirror in the ladies’ and sang each other’s parts and decided we really needed to move the audience in there, as the acoustic was so smashing.
Sally summoned us to the stage for a warmup, and we sang Joshua and Shine and a couple of other things with a PROPER PHOTOGRAPHER wobbling on a chair and a few good-natured people clapping encouragingly. A chap kindly moved some chairs so Sally could direct without giving herself a dead arm. There was some last-minute stack rearrangement; I found myself in a cosy little bass enclave with Jane, Kate, Emma and Irene around me. Then everyone raced off to change.
Well, the White Rosettes certainly scrub up nicely. It was a real thrill to see everyone in their sparkly frocks. The trainees snuck into the back of the hall to watch. And, crikey. It sounded amazing. I tried my best not to cry in You Don’t Know Me, what with having mascara on and everything, but no luck. Emma shushed me for shouting WOO! at the end of the first half. I couldn’t help myself. I was just thinking, ‘We should be on the TELLY doing this!’
Trainee excitement levels got cranked right up to 11 in the interval, as we FINALLY got to put our velvet dresses on and struggle with our tights and tiptoe around in our high heels. Last-minute lipgloss application and a bit of jumping up and down, and we were ready.
And it was utterly marvellous. You might not guess from my usual bouncing-around-being-irritating demeanour, but I always used to have sickening performance anxiety, and I was secretly petrified it was still festering away in my unconscious, like something forgotten at the back of the fridge. But I felt great. My voice was steady; I didn’t do anything stupid; I couldn’t stop smiling. Okay, I’ll admit that when Sally came to sing right next to me, I spent three terrified minutes thinking DON’T MUCK IT UP. DON’T MUCK IT UP. SHE CAN HEAR YOU. But the rest of it was brilliant. I had an absolute ball.
The audience loved us, too. I’m not surprised. We do put on a terrific show. There were custom song introductions from various members of the chorus, and a Barbershop Demystifier, and Sally got the whole audience singing in four parts, and tried to recruit most of the front row. We even made a couple of ladies cry. YES! (Barbershop’s so cruel.)
I think I managed to talk sensibly on the way home. It’s all a bit of a blur. I grinned non-stop for the next two days. I felt cradled by this beautiful chorus, supported and encouraged and cheered on. So much generosity, so much heart. And if you have that around you, it’s impossible not to sing it back out.
Tags: barbershop, beginner, chorus, diary, ladies, music, singing, trainee, white rosettes
The Retreat has been and gone, but life is in no way back to normal. The juggernaut of Convention is rumbling towards us, and rehearsals are a whirlwind of dress-fitting, shoe-swapping, lipstick-testing and furtive questioning about whether we really need MAC primer, or will the stuff from B&Q do?
On top of all this, trainee life continues, a learning curve that sometimes feels more like a climbing wall. It is UTTERLY MARVELLOUS being a White Rosettes trainee. Don’t get me wrong. I wake up every day and think, ‘Is it Wednesday yet?’ I stand on the risers, and the pure thrill of the sound lifts me off my feet. I can’t do the warmup exercises where your lips have to go ‘brrrr’ because I’m too busy grinning my face off. But MY, is there a lot of work to do.
Okay, part of this is my fault. You can take traineeship at your own pace. There’s no pressure. Spend a while learning a song, then learn another one. But I want to know them all, right now. At the moment, Sally lifts her arms and names a tune, and I either think ‘Damn!’ or ‘YES! I know this one!’ The sooner it can be all YESes and no DAMNs, the better.
No-one uses sheet music performing barbershop – it’s all done from memory. So, I’m learning repertoire. The cycling podcasts and cheesy salsa on my ipod have been replaced by tracks called things like Orange_Bass_Words. I walk down the street going ‘Dum dum dum dum dum dum BUSINESS!’ and ‘Gah, NO! It’s ‘ba-da, ba-da, da, da!’ Not ‘ba-da, ba-da, ba, ba!’’. Luckily, I live in Hebden Bridge, where this kind of carrying-on is regarded as normal.
It’s harder than you’d think to learn songs without many words. Basses get a lot of dums. And dooms. And ooohs, and aaaahs, and dooohs. In desperation, I write myself a crib sheet for the latest song. It says things like “Doom-bah, doom-bah, doom, (stay down) bah bah bah (up) doo-wah (down) doo-wah”.
At this point, Liz looks over my shoulder and offers me her special baritone highlighters. I gaze at her in awe as she produces eerie strings of perfectly-tuned double-flatted thirds and augmented seconds. At least basses don’t normally have fiendish notes to worry about (although one teach track goes down to a bottom A, which I can manage, but only if I have a tot of whisky first).
Remembering which order the notes go in is a challenge, though, especially as barbershop arrangements specialise in doing the same thing several times in slightly different ways. I have an impressively geeky mental map for Lift Up My Head, which counts off three different kinds of repeats. Sadly, I’ve not managed to replicate this for any other song. I start Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho like a vaguely-familiar car journey, unable to visualise it but daftly optimistic I will remember what to do when I get to each roundabout.
And, unexpectedly, the words give me their own problems. If I know the song, I’m stuffed: one of the warmups is I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, and every time, I JUST manage to stop myself singing ‘Then like West Ham, they fade and die…’ Meanwhile, my brain regards learning song lyrics as the perfect opportunity to have a bit of a laugh. ‘Great big polka-dot sky’ comes out reliably as ‘Great big coconut sky’. ‘The lamb ram sheep horns began to blow, and the trumpets began to sound’? Lamb ham sheep horns. Crumpets. I’m not even kidding. My ten-year-old points out the food theme running through these errors, so maybe I should start having some lunch before I practise.
I used to be a linguist, so part of me is busy going, ‘Ooh, well that’s JOLLY interesting, because ‘coconut’ and ‘polka-dot’ have a lot in common phonologically, and…’ But mostly I’m just trying to find a way of remembering that it’s FLASH! and then WHAM! and then FLASH! again, and not the other way round. And stopping my boys from singing ‘COCONUT SKY!!’ and guffawing. It’s NOT funny, you two. Cut that out. I’ll pop your sprocket money.
Tags: 2015, a capella, Arts Festival, barbershop, busking, HBAF, Hebden Bridge, ladies, music, remingtons, sextet, singing, Street Sundae, women
Well, all right. Donning red jackets and boaters isn’t exactly inconspicuous. The ‘stealth’ aspect was because we were barberbombing the Street Sundae, when a glorious riot of street performers takes over Hebden Bridge as part of the annual Arts Festival. An Arts Festival volunteer approached us with a clipboard at one point. I feared a ticking-off, but she just said, ‘If you’d let us know, we’d’ve put you on the programme!’ Oops. We did mean to. Sorry. My fellow Remingtons and I had met an hour or so earlier to drink tea and run through bits of repertoire. We ended up with a short list of songs that a) we all knew b) we could do without the sheet music and c) we felt were appropriate in style. (Liz: We can’t do that one, it’s not barbershop. Chrissie: I don’t think anyone’s going to wave the Trades Descriptions Act at us. Me: MR SANDMAN! Everyone else: No. NO*.) Then we headed out (via the chippy) to scope out potential sites. We started off under the clock opposite the Town Hall. It was a bit windy, and our advertising sign (The Remingtons! Hebden’s very own Ladies’ Barbershop Sextet!) kept blowing over, but a few people stopped to listen, and someone tried to get us to come and sing at his event for free, which was encouraging. Excitingly, the Arts Festival volunteer bounced up and said she had an ACTUAL SLOT for us in the PROPER PROGRAMME at the Marina, as someone had dropped out. Gosh! A quick move into the Town Hall itself, where we serenaded the coffee-drinkers on the terrace with Ain’t She Sweet? and Don’t Fence Me In. We were getting into our stride now, adding choreo to Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue and hamming it up outrageously in Wait ‘Til The Sun Shines, Nellie. On to the Marina, via the Wavy Steps where we did a quick couple of numbers before being moved along politely by another volunteer who was waiting for a proper act to show up. The Marina was occupied by a bluegrass group who looked very settled. The volunteer came up to us again: ‘I’m really sorry, but they’re running over.’ Hmm. It was VERY windy, and there was nothing to reflect the sound. They were amplified, and we (of course) are not, because a capella, so we decided to cut our losses and ambled off to the park.
This, our last barberbomb of the day, was the most successful. At the end of the canal bridge, with lots of stone to reflect the sound and trees to cut the wind, we could hear ourselves, and so could our little audience (which included the boyf, our boiz, Liz’s husband and their son, a chap with a grin, a woman who recorded some of it on her phone, several dogs and toddlers and a couple of mountain bikers). And you know what? We didn’t sound at all bad. Some audience reactions: 10yo: Mummy, I LOVED it! That was AMAZING. 7yo: Can we go to the playground yet? Boyf: There are some good voices in your group. Liz’s husband: It sounded crisper when there were only four of you. Woman I know from school: That was LOVELY! I didn’t know you sang! It was beautiful! . N.B. We’re available for weddings, private functions, parties in wine bars, etc. Go on. Give us a call. * This is because all the parts are fiendishly difficult apart from the lead, which is me.
Tags: barbershop, harmony, ladies, leeds, music, retreat, sally mclean, singing, steve jamison, white rosettes, women
Retreat. The word suggests a place of calm and contemplation; of quiet solitude and peaceful reflection. The odd hushed conversation. Maybe a bit of yoga. Line dancing doesn’t normally spring to mind. But the White Rosettes’ retreats are no ordinary retreats.
As you know, Providence intervened a few weeks ago and propelled me towards the White Rosettes, the WINNINGEST chorus in British ladies’ barbershop. (Providence: ‘Stop carrying on about how you’d kill to do barbershop, and GO. Go ON. For heavens. This is getting really boring.’) This turned out to be excellent timing, as I just managed to sneak under the wire for the Retreat, where the Rosettes get together for an intensive weekend of singing and learning and chatting and bonding and probably wine.
Our guest educator/ animator/ sorcerer for the weekend was Steve Jamison. We’re heading towards LABBS Convention in October (the big annual competition for British ladies’ barbershop choruses and quartets), and Steve’s visit was part of our preparation for this. Industrial espionage is RIFE in barbershop, so there are lots of things I’m not allowed to write about. I won’t be telling you about how we’ve made enormous strides in [REDACTED] or how all the chorus are really excited about [REDACTED] or how Steve is just simply unbelievably amazing at getting us to [REDACTED]. It’s a good job, really, as I’m not sure I can put much of it into words. Steve’s guidance, interpreted and applied by Sally, made us sing entirely differently; it moved us on in ways we’re still struggling to fathom. Steve was the catalyst; Sally was the conduit; and blimey, magic happened. I mean, it really did.
I can’t tell you the intricacies of what we went through, so you’ll have to make do with my scrambled, half-parsed reflections. But I feel like I’ve found my spiritual home. As someone who blesses her smartphone every day because it means I don’t have to talk to anyone in the school playground, I can’t believe I feel so comfortable in this group of people I barely know. Liz says barbershop’s the perfect hobby for a control freak; rehearsals are a heady combination of obsessive attention to detail, and everyone cackling like Sid James. But there’s more to it. These are special people: outgoing enough to want to perform, but lacking ego. Barbershop choruses have no stars*, no soloists; no first and second strings. The aim is the polar opposite: to create a sound where nobody sticks out, where the blend is so seamless that it sounds like one voice.**
There’s something about a shared endeavour. I was struck by how many women came and started conversations with me in my first few weeks, and offered me advice and support, and made me laugh, and made me feel like it was all within my grasp. Competition – which seemed so odd at the beginning – is a straightforward, powerful motivator. Instead of vaguely hoping we’re going to be ready for a concert in a month or two, we’re thinking in terms of scores. Can we improve on last time? This bit’s good, but can it be even better? How do we make the judges drop their pencils altogether?
But it’s also about sharing peak experiences. At one point, singing a ballad, we were trying to apply something new. About two-thirds of the way through, I could suddenly sense the thrill as the whole chorus realised how brilliant we were sounding. The energy was insane. My shoulders started to shake. Sally released the music, barely able to speak. ‘Five minutes. Get out of here.’ Liz and I had a good Barbershop Hug™ and a bit of a cry. Other people drifted by, red-eyed. Someone smiled and gave us a tissue. High points like these I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
My latest theory is we are designed to sing barbershop. That’s how it feels. In the same way that discovering your own relaxed, natural running pace makes you feel like you could keep going for ever (Margaret and Liz gave each other ‘What’s she on about?’ looks at this point), barbershop, done properly, simply makes the best of what we have naturally. The whole spectrum of women’s voices is there; you find your place in the chorus according to your natural resonance and range. There are no People Who Have A Voice and people who don’t. You breathe and sing naturally, neutrally; if you don’t feel like you’re trying, you’re doing it right. Your body moves, easily, as you sing. You sing for other people; to captivate and entertain. And those raging harmonics, the overtones and undertones from singing in close harmony, and the buzz in your ears… they’re just Mother Nature showing you what VERY good work you’re doing.
* Apart from Sally, of course, who should be a DBE at the very least by now
** There’s a whole branch of necromancy around the ‘stacking’ of voices on the risers. Swap singers about, and you can hear the difference immediately. It’s nuts.
Tags: 2015, barbican, britten sinfonia, countertenors, fangirling, iestyn davies, music, nico muhly, premiere, review, sentences
The day started fairly unpromisingly. My +1 had cat problems and couldn’t make the wandering-around-the-V&A-in-the-afternoon bit of our assignation, so I found myself in St James’s Park on a sunny Saturday feeling a bit lost, and wishing my kids were there so I could buy them ice creams.
Things improved swiftly when Tiffany arrived – ‘We spent half an hour trying to get him into his box then gave up’ – and we sallied forth for pizza and wine and a good gossip. At the venue, we stripped off (gad, it’s hot in the Barbican, etc.) and immediately ran into Sanae, Sakie and Adrie; it turns out the key to finding your friends at gigs is not to sit in the cheap seats. I’m pleased to report the Barbican’s new FanFinder™ seating app works, as Adrie was in the seat right next to mine. We earned a few disapproving looks from nearby ladies for squawking and giggling before curtain-up.
Anyway. ROW D. Some people always sit at the front (I’m looking at you, Sanae) but this was a new experience for me. I felt a bit self-conscious, as if Iestyn might think, ‘Why does that woman keep STARING at me?’ But given that I couldn’t hear much last time I went to the Barb, it was a good move. The programme hung together nicely – Dowland’s If my complaints could passions move, which muses on love and rejection; Britten’s Lachrymae, a set of variations on the Dowland piece for viola and chamber orchestra; and Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, portraying Mary’s grief at seeing her son on the cross. These laid the ground for exploration of similar themes in Sentences, Nico Muhly’s new meditation on the life of Alan Turing.
Well. The Dowland and the Vivaldi were lovely, of course. Iestyn sang, as ever, so beautifully, expressively and perfectly that I’m beginning to doubt he’s actually human. I can get a bit grumpy during the instrumental bits in gigs ‘cos, well, SINGING. It’s the THING, isn’t it. (I know this is unreasonable of me.) But I enjoyed the Britten very much, not least because I could see all the detail of Laurence Power’s sparky playing and his interaction with the Britten Sinfonia.
We spent the interval queueing for the loo (as you do in the Barb) and wondering what to expect from Sentences. I’d read the Telegraph piece and listened to the podcast. Adrie had been to the pre-concert talk (‘there was a lot of hand-waving’), and we’d read the programme notes, but we were still none the wiser, really.
For all that the piece featured knitting needles, a typewriter and crotales (don’t worry, I had to google them, too), it was unthreatening. Most of the contemporary stuff I’ve been to in the past was much harder work for the audience, but I found that freeing; I would give up trying to follow it, and just experience it. Sentences had tunes and harmonies and themes I could understand, but in a way this was discombobulating; I was caught between ‘lie back and let it wash over you’ and feeling I should try to work out what was going on, to spot developments or recapitulations. Eventually I settled, more or less consciously, on the micro approach, and came away with an impression of textures: layers of fizz and crackle, filmic strings and woodwind, moods that shifted between sombre and shimmering, Iestyn’s voice looping and merging with itself.
Nico seemed to tower over the orchestra, beating a time I barely comprehended with Wing Chun blocks and punches, then stooping to add keyboard lines, one hand still conducting above the fettled piano. Again, it was terrific being up close; his energy was palpable, and Iestyn was alive and engaged, counting under his breath, giving away little grins and frowns. It made me think how unusual it is to see this at recitals, and how I miss it; I spent a few years going to wiggy out-there free improvisation gigs, and one of the things I loved was the sense of the music being created before my eyes, the conversations between performers in a glance or a nod or a smile.
The let-down for me was the libretto. Nico’s Old Bones is brilliant, weaving found texts into something incredibly moving, and I’m in love with his settings of folk songs (the encore was one of these, The Bitter Withy, which is breathtakingly beautiful). I wanted something realer or subtler or more out-there than the words Adam Gopnik came up with for Sentences.
It was all over by 9:20pm, which was a bit of a surprise. I tried to get Tiffany to go dancing, but she had to be up in the morning to play her piccolo. Sigh. Still, there’s always the FANGIRLING, right? I’ll admit my heart sank when I saw Iestyn would be signing CDs after the gig; I know I’m being selfish, but in my experience fangirling is much more successful when there isn’t a queue and your fanobject isn’t protected by a desk. We managed to say hello, despite the best efforts of some chap who thought he had more right to be there than we did (not for the first time, I regretted forgetting the Iestyn Davies Appreciation Society badges). Never mind. I’m sure there won’t be any desks on the Glyndebourne bus.
Tags: a cappella, barbershop, harmony, if you think you need some lovin', ladies, music, pomplamoose, singing
My first bash at arranging (well, partly improvising) this marvellous song, for four parts. I couldn’t work out how to listen to something I’d already recorded while I was singing another part, so I just listened to a metronome to keep in time while recording each part separately. I’m quite ridiculously pleased with how it came out.
* I’m aware that this arrangement probably violates all the Rules Of Barbershop, but, you know. Baby steps
Tags: audition, barbershop, fear, harmony, ladies, leeds, music, singing, white rosettes, women
Every now and then, it seems like someone is trying to tell you something. Ages ago, I went to a barbershop singing weekend at lovely Benslow Music, and came away besotted. But I was pregnant, and having small boys charging about turned out to be a lot more complicated than I was anticipating, and I never did anything about it.
Fast-forward ten years, and a series of almost-chance encounters leads me back. Sarah, my singing teacher, persuades me to go to the women’s singing group by telling me Liz, the leader, is a barbershop freak. I somehow inveigle myself into Liz’s quar-/quin-/sextet, the Remingtons, and spend a few weeks happily stumbling my way through Mr Sandman and Ain’t She Sweet? and feeling chuffed to have met this bunch of lovely people. And then one Wednesday, Liz takes me to a White Rosettes rehearsal.
The legendary White Rosettes. They’re the WINNINGEST chorus in British ladies’ barbershop. I mean, they win EVERYTHING. Here they are, winning in 2013:
Well. I’ve never been to any kind of practice and heard something that already sounded so perfect. Even the warmups seem impossibly complex and beautiful: cascading harmonies, perfect pitch shifts. The director gives out soft, rapid-fire points and tips and ideas and explanations. Everyone is alert. There’s no ‘Right, come on everybody, are we ready?’ Everyone just IS. They apply what Sally says immediately. There are words I don’t understand, explanations of how to produce a phrase or a sound. Everyone seems unfazed.
There’s something compelling about ladies’ barbershop. Not only is close-harmony singing the absolute BOMB, but there’s a place for everyone. From deep bass tones to stratospheric high notes, the whole range of women’s voices is there. Each barbershop part has its own special role. Leads carry the tune without overwhelming everyone else; they’re the hook that everything hangs on. Tenors soar above the lead, giving the mix that unmistakable barbershop ring. Baritones are the brains of the operation, weaving around the lead with mad intervals and counterintuitive harmonies. Basses are the corset of the barbershop sound, keeping everyone grounded and supported.
They’re working on a song with fiendish words, cross-cutting syncopated rhythms, tempo shifts from dead-slow to rattling-along and several changes of key. And did I mention the choreography? People strut and act, dance and merge in formation across the stage, like the Red Arrows, while staying pitch-perfect. Um. How do they do that?
And however impressive it looks on video, it’s phenomenal live. This clean sound. The perfect tuning. The ring. The harmonics. The buzzing in your ears. After the break, Sally introduces me, and the whole chorus turns to face me, sitting in my orange plastic seat, and sings to me. ‘You are welcome as the flowers in May…’ It’s like being the receiver in the middle of a satellite dish. The focused sound makes my heart try to leap out of my chest. Tears pour down my face.
Afterwards, we hang around chatting while the trainees do their appraisals (singing songs they’ve been given to learn, to see if they’re ready to move on). Then Sally appears. ‘Come on, then, Alison.’ There’s something of the charismatic leader about Sally: if she’d said, ‘Right, take off all your clothes and jump into the lake,’ I’m pretty sure I would have done it. Thankfully, she is just auditioning me. Wait, what?
OK, I knew this was possible. I’d spent quite a lot of the rehearsal thinking, ‘Could I do this? I couldn’t do this. Damn, I really want to, though. But, argh. I’m not up to it.’
But there I was. OK, then. The audition’s simple: sing up the scale as far as you can, then down as far as you can. Sing Happy Birthday. That’s it. Sally: ‘Well, this is where I do my spiel about how we’re only looking for basses at the moment…’ Everyone laughs. She grins. ‘So, I’d like to welcome you to the White Rosettes as a bass.’
HOLY CRAP. I AM IN THE WHITE ROSETTES.
Sally compliments me on my resonance. I manage to squeak, ‘Thank you.’ I turn round and Liz engulfs me in a hug.
I sit in shock all the way home. What have I done? A large glass of wine, and I’m starting to feel a bit less terrified. That night, I dream that I’m trying to leap aboard a speeding car. By the next morning, I’m grinning like an idiot. I’M IN THE WHITE ROSETTES. I spend the next two days learning When I Lift Up My Head. The 9yo interrupts me singing along with the CD: ‘That’s AMAZING.’ The boyf bounces in: ‘I was listening to you upstairs. You sound great!’
COME ON, WEDNESDAY. COME OOOON.
Tags: 2015, advice, eddie izzard, electoral reform, fangirling, general election, humour, marginal seat, safe seat, spoiled ballot, tactical voting, voting
Still agonising over your choice tomorrow? Help is at hand! Follow my simple voting guide and place your cross with confidence.
First question: Is your constituency a safe seat? (You can check here.) Yes? Congratulations! You’re one of the lucky ones – FREE to vote with your heart! Go, examine the manifestos in minute detail! Quiz your candidates mercilessly at the hustings!
Of course none of this will make a sod of difference because the outcome’s already certain, so (unless you happen to support the outgoing MP, in which case you have my permission to look slightly pleased with yourself) you might as well wrap your voting slip round a brick and chuck it through the UKIP candidate’s window. In fact, that’s probably a more effective gesture than using it to vote.
So, you’re in a marginal constituency? DAMN. This should be the sexy scenario, right? Every-body wants you! Every-body wants your love! Leafleters and canvassers are all OVER you. Lock up your baby in case someone tries to kiss it.
The SINGLE good thing about being in a marginal constituency is EDDIE ACTUAL IZZARD might show up.
Other than that, it’s rubbish. If you like the outgoing MP, you have to fret about all your neighbours suddenly deciding they’re going to vote for the Stop Costa Coffee Coming To Little-Itching-Under-The-Armpit party, letting the rival in by mistake. If you don’t like the outgoing MP, you have to vote tactically, which is like that time you were in the school play and you had to kiss Martin Notyourtype while your real love, David Blindtoyourcharms, flirted carelessly with the third years.
But! you cry. There are other options! I could spoil my ballot! Or maybe not vote at all!
Firstly, spoiling your ballot: No. No. Believe me, over-worked up-all-night vote-counters are NOT separating that pile of dog-eared scraps into ‘people who are definitely making a considered gesture about the inequity of the first-past-the-post voting system’ and ‘people who don’t understand that you only vote for one person’. Really. You’re wasting your time.
Secondly, not voting at all: They’re all the same, right? You can’t tell them apart! Except, well, you can. They may all be bastards, but there are degrees of bastardry. As Dave Walker points out in his cartoon, even if you don’t vote, plenty of people will, and you might not like their choices. And also, Emmeline Pankhurst.
So, there you go. I suggest you hold your nose, vote, and then join the Electoral Reform Society. Or move to Scotland. The SNP have definitely pledged to get rid of midges and snow. Definitely.