Saturday, March 26, 2005

National youth choir course day 1

Today was surprisingly interesting, mainly because it was so full, professionally. I started off with an life-history interview with a friend that, while I expected to find it interesting, turned out to be far more illuminating on a personal level than I expected. It's a cruel irony that it often takes seeing someone else's pain to put your own in perspective. In this instance, I couldn't believe how many similar issues we've dealt with, at relatively similar points in our lives. Another irony is that the few differences between our histories that do exist, I think, almost entirely determined how we differ as people. He has been told over and over how smart he is, and yet he is, and is aware that he is, an under-achiever. I, on the other hand, have been told one time to many that I'm incapable, and the result is that I am a complete over-achiever. And in fact, I think, our motivations, despite the different results, are similar. I really do think it's all about recognition. You see, if he achieved his potential, there would be nothing out of the ordinary about that. On the other hand, if I only achieved what was expected of me, there would be nothing out of the ordinary about that. My whole life is devoted to this projected career, and as my brother once delecately put it, I "have no life." Not that I mind, I love what I do, I find it extremely satisfying, and I am happy, but I do crave recognition. I wonder whether I would have taken this route if my highschool music teacher hadn't devoted so much time and energy to helping me "catch up" (I started music as a subject only in my second-last year of school, and so had a lot of catching up to do. The result was many hours of one-on-one supervision with said music teacher, the development of a really close friendship, and a real sense, for me, that I was in some way significant in his life). And I wonder whether I would be doing what I am now if my supervisor hadn't devoted so much time to helping me do it. I don't think working hard, for any reason, is a bad thing, but I think needing recognition for it may be. Am I capable of doing this with or withour that recognition? Am I willing to risk finding out? Perhaps not. So after all that, my point is that all this talk about fieldwork being as much about the researcher as the researched, is very true.

The second thing that made today really great was the start of teh National Youth Choir Course. I love this for the personal experience, but right now, the fieldwork potential is also huge. I really did try to observe it all, "suck it dry," as my anthropology lecturer says, but it's difficult when there is a personal investment in the process. I have to shut off certain levels of stimulus at certain times, because I will have real difficulty learning and performing the music if I don't at least try to give it my full attention. On the other hand, between singing, there are just so many people to talk to. I spent lunchtime chatting to a girl from the choir at North-West University, which, among other things, caused a mental lightbulb which had beed flickering for a few days already, finally come on. When I was in Finland, I got some comments indicating confusion over my use of the term "choral." The problem is that a particular variety of South African choir is commonly called a "Chorale," and this type of choir sings "Chorale music". While I still have to attempt to develop a full definition of this type of music, it seems to have a religious connection, and a general hymn-like structure, with conventional four-part harmony. Another thing that stood out for me, was the repeated emphasis on "propper technique," and its connection with "using your diaphragm." I understood this technique as rather old-fashioned, though I certainly was raised on it. I also understood it as producing what I perceive as a very "Western" sound. I interpret diaphragm singing with headvoice, restricted chest voice range, and a static body. I wonder whether there is any connection between the emphasis placed on this technique, and the relatively European-influenced "chorale" style.

On the other hand, when we began working with the conductor who is taking the "African" section of the choir course, the contradictions were many. He spoke several times about "using your diaphragm," but usually in relation to achieving full chest voice in higher registers. He also mentioned mouth shape in relation to sound. He demonstrated a rounded mouth shape, with lips forward, and called it "too European." He then suggested that "more space," which he demonstrated by smiling, and producing what I would interpret as a "flatter" shape, as "more african." The choice of music was also incredibly revealing, to me. This conductor does a lot of his own composing, and while I haven't yet determined this for certain, I suspect that the piece we worked on tonight is one of his own compositions. The last time I sang one of his pieces, it was an "African Gloria," which combined some words from the gloria of the Catholic mass with fragments of words from the South African national anthem, both in their original language, and in English translation, and essentially textural sounds, which sound like, or are in fact derived from, Black Southern African languages. There was a mixture of drum and piano accompaniment, and the effect is, in his own words, "powerful," and "moving." The piece we worked with tonight was similar. the music is "effective," and "affective." Everyone I spoke to during the break had enjoyed the music, and no one, yet, has questioned its "African-ness." To me, there is evidence of the influence of popular, particularly gospel, music, and a definite exoticist slant to it. I also enjoyed the music, and had fun singing it, though it was a huge challenge. We learned this piece by ear (the last one was in score), with only words for a guide. The words were also really only a guide, as they were not sung exactly as written. There is again much use made of "African sounding" textural words, and simply sound effects, and one section calls for the inclusion of improvised praying by a specific chorister. The solo sections are composed, but designed to sound improvised, as does the drum section, which may have been workshopped between the composer and the drummer. The conductor/composer commented that he felt that "this music shouldn't be written down," and a chorister I was sitting near related an annecdote relating to the music. It's called "Rain Song", and according to said chorister, on the choir camp at which he taught this piece to his own choir, after a full day of hard work, just as the song was finally learned, it started to rain. Things changed as we worked. Choristers who had been singing this piece for a while noted unexpected changes, or re-taught sections to the conductor when they had changed. Much use was made of the piano, both to teach melodic lines, and to support the choir with chords which assisted, but did not mirror the singing. I found it interesting that this piece was included in what is usually a section of the program focusing on so-called "traditional," or "folk" music.

Another interesting part of the rehearsal, and what proves to be interesting about the course as a whole, is related to the presence of a visiting Latvian conductor and his wife. The conductor speaks some English, and his wife, who took today's warm-up, speaks very little. It was interesting to note how they demostrated what they could not explain, and how effective this was for things like phrasing and tempo changes. On the other hand, they had great difficulty over matters of sound production, because, while they could demonstrate some of what they wanted, and it could to a certain extent be mimicked by the choir, a lot could not be immitated because of technique differences, which were difficult to explain in a foreign language.

I also took note of the effect that different conductors had on the over-all atmosphere, and the seating arrangements that choristers selected, both during and between rehearsals. While there were general groups based on who knows whom, and how well, by and large, there was lots of racial mixing, and, as far as I could see, no particular attention. One girl was excited to discover that I had an english, rather than an Afrikaans accent, as the majority of the white choristers are Afrikaans speaking (nothing unusual about that. same is true for UJ choir, and many other mainly white youth choirs). A few people expressed annoyance at the grouping of people, and one girl said that "everyone is too scared to talk to anyone else", and commented that she didn't like the "atmosphere," and one girl felt excluded by a particular group of girls, however I did not notice anything different.

The third thing that made today special was what I hope is the first signs of a rebuilding of a relationship I had feared was irreprably damaged. but that, and my contemplations on it, are for another space.

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