Over My Shoulder

Over My Shoulder: Elisabeth Schumann and Jessie MatthewsSeptember 16th will be the first performance of Over My Shoulder, my latest McCaldin Arts project, about soprano Elisabeth Schumann and musical comedy star Jessie Matthews. In this recital I narrate the remarkable life-stories of these two women and sing some of the wonderful music most closely associated with them. Accompanying me in songs ranging from Mendelssohn, Strauss and Schubert to Noel Coward and Rodgers & Hart will be pianist Paul Turner, my regular collaborator on Haydn’s London Ladies.

It was a photograph of the grave of Elisabeth Schumann at St Martin’s church in Ruislip that first prompted the idea for a recital, followed by the discovery of Jessie Matthews’ grave in the same churchyard. It seems appropriate that Over My Shoulder should get its premiere at St Martin’s where these two women finally came to rest. I hope that, having heard me weave their stories together, the audience will not only visit the two graves, but seek out the substantial legacy of recordings and film left by Elisabeth and Jessie, many of which can be found on You Tube. I am delighted to be presenting their song repertoire, but the inimitable originals are really worth hearing too, and Jessie’s dance routines (she was the “English Ginger Rogers”) are absolutely extraordinary.

This performance of Over My Shoulder is sponsored by Edmission UK and all ticket receipts will go to the Myosotis Trust, a charity with which St Martin’s church and the local community have a long association.

Concert starts at 7.30pm. Tickets will be available on the door. Interval drinks.

Transforming the Operatic Voice with TORCH

A few months ago I blogged about a forthcoming project at TORCH, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, with Dr Toby Young of Somerville College. We have titled our work Transforming the Operatic Voice and this Monday was our first experimental workshop exploring different vocal genres and stylistic uses of the voice.

Toby and I were joined by regular McCaldin Arts collaborator Libby Burgess (above seated) and a new team member (above left) Heather Cairncross. Heather’s singing career spans a wide variety of genres from early music with the Monteverdi Choir to the chameleon vocals of the Swingle Singers, jazz and pop.

Heather Cairncross & Clare McCaldinWe worked with a range of songs and arias from different periods and challenged ourselves to analyse what we did intuitively (or through training) in one genre and to apply this to music from a different vocal heritage.

Nuit resplendissante (Gounod)
Ombra mai fu (Handel)
C’est magnifique (Cole Porter from the show Can-Can)
We’ve only just begun (The Carpenters)
Someone like you (Adele)
The Salley Gardens (folk arr. Britten)

We discussed technical issues (support, soft palate, mask resonance, consonant production, vowel shape and purity) and stylistic questions about the creativity of the response to the melody, situation, use of amplification and text. This was early-stage work to homogenise our language and understanding in preparation for making a new set of songs. The two versions of the song-cycle will be performed acoustically and in a recorded ‘studio’ form by me and Heather respectively, and we will be looking for points of contact and difference between the two performances, based on our experimental learnings.

Prior to the session we had also compiled a fascinating list of singers performing outside their normal musical or vocal territory. To see the list and listen to the tracks, click here.

 

 

 

Entente Cordiale

In March this year I will be on a mini recital tour in the South-West with one of my regular collaborators, pianist Libby Burgess, courtesy of Concerts in the West. This excellent organisation manages a large series of classical music concerts spread across small venues in Devon and Somerset, and gives emerging artists the chance to perform a recital several times in quick succession. Repeating a programme has such benefits for the performers and it is often difficult to engineer a series of performances close together from scratch. Concerts in the West has an established relationship with many venues and a loyal audience, and we are delighted to join the 2017 series. We will also give a London performance of the programme on Thursday 23 March at 7.30pm at St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, 32a Wilton Pl, London SW1X 8SH.

Camille Pisarro’s Lordship Lane Station (1871)

Our programme explores the cultural love-affair between England and France, in particular the romantic tropes and shared reference points: these include Fauré’s and Vaughan Williams’ settings of Verlaine’s poem Prison, Britten’s folk-song settings in English and French, and Richard Rodney Bennett’s jazz-infused A History of the Thé Dansant. Contemporary songs by Dominic Muldowney and David Owen Norris complement songs from the early C20th by Cole Porter and Poulenc. See below for full programme.

Finzi – To a Poet
Vaughan Williams – The Sky Above The Roof
Fauré – Prison
Fauré – Trois Mélodies de Venise
Head – Three Songs of Venice
Britten – French and English Folk Songs
Il est quelqu’un sur terre, Eho! Eho!, Salley Gardens, Oliver Cromwell
John Ireland – In A May Morning from Sarnia (piano solo)
Dominic Muldowney – In Paris with You
David Owen Norris – Big Ben Blues
Poulenc – Les Chemins de l’amour
Cole Porter – C’est Magnifique
Richard Rodney Bennett – The History of the Thé Dansant

Elizabeth and Jessie

Every so often someone casually suggests an idea to me that just grabs me, and one of my current projects in development comes from just such a moment. A friend noticed a connection between two very different singers: Elizabeth Schumann (above right), international classical diva, and Jessie Matthews (below right), darling of 1930s musicals, on stage and screen.

Each of these women reached the very peak of her profession, working with the creative giants of her day and experiencing the ups and downs, rivalries and challenges that the performing life unavoidably entails. It is fascinating to weave together the strands of their narratives as an introduction to their music and artistry, built around the curious facts of how their stories finally intersect here in England.

After the success of my first narrated recital Haydn’s London Ladies, this format seemed ideal for combining similarly varied musical items and historical anecdotes. The new programme ranges from Schubert to Rogers and Hart, from Covent Garden and Hollywood.

Elizabeth and Jessie is currently in development, for presentation in late 2017. Dates to be announced.

Taking the Lead


Last Wednesday, January 18, I visited the Edward Saïd Business School at Oxford University with one of my regular collaborators, Dr Toby Young. We were appearing as guests speakers in the School’s lunchtime series entitled Engaging with the Humanities. Among other speakers this term are Dr Ben Morgan (on how Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate the form, survival and collapse of all kinds of communities – national, political and domestic) and Pegram Harrison (on synchronicity as a key to high performance in teams).

We were encouraged to talk about leadership in general terms, but soon focussed on the unusual fluidity of the system that has developed to produce such a complex art-form as opera. The range and number of skills and contributors to the finished product requires a strongly-defined but flexible system in which different functions can take the lead at different moments.

We chose to illustrate the issue of leadership at a micro-level by performing Schubert’s An die Musik, Toby accompanying me on a piano suitably graffitti-d with inspiring quotes. Musicians often speak of the negotiations that go on between players or singers in rehearsal or performance. While many audience members understand the principle, it is always interesting for them to see and hear this in action. It is also a pleasure for us to find sympathetic listeners in a business world that sometimes appears exclusively concerned with tangible assets at the expense of the intangibles in which we deal. How appropriate, then, to find on the side of the piano, these words of Winston Churchill’s.

Broody Mary

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Two images of Mary I and Katherine of Aragon (top)

McCaldin Arts is excited to announce a new project with an old friend: Martin Bussey, whose music I first sang at the Ludlow Festival a couple of years ago.

We agreed we want to make a work featuring the Tudor Queens Katherine of Aragon, her daughter Mary I, Elizabeth I, with reference to the other wives of Henry VIII.  Martin is extremely well-read in this area of English history, which I am definitely not. So I have been catching-up by reading various books by Alison Weir, David Starkey, Jessie Childs, David Loades and Anna Whitelock.

Mary I has had a bad press. It suited her successors to denigrate her and she is chiefly remembered as Bloody Mary for her persecution of Protestant heretics.

But there’s so much more to her that she has become the key figure in our project.

Mary’s rule was in many ways unhappy, even disastrous, but she made political and legal changes without which it is unlikely that Elizabeth I could have reigned so successfully. Mary’s private story is not only sad because of her inability to bear the child she so longed-for but is also at the heart of her failures as a ruler because her deeply Catholic conscience could not substitute for the political astuteness she lacked. Several books have recently rehabilitated Mary’s image and our piece is essentially sympathetic to her in recognising her significant achievements while acknowledging her as a woman of her time.

Having completed our research and found our target, we are now ready to start writing the piece. I think I will leave that bit to Martin.

Listen to Martin’s song A Church Romance which I sang on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune with Iain Burnside.

 

Shedding some light with TORCH

TORCH Research Centre in the HumanitiesI’m delighted that I have been accepted, with Dr Toby Young of Somerville College, Oxford University, for a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship project with TORCH, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. Our work is entitled Transforming the Operatic Voice and is a ten-month research piece to explore the philosophical and technical space that exists between operatic and pop singing. We aim to develop innovative approaches and techniques with which to compose and perform contemporary opera and other vocal music. In addition to vocal production, register and timbre, we will be examining aspects of groove, pitch manipulation, expressivity, ornamentation and treatment of text.

Toby is a composer whose work explores the boundaries between pop music and sonic art. His academic research looks at the philosophy of creativity, in particular exploring the relationship between aesthetics, culture and the creative mind. This joint piece of work with McCaldin Arts brings together Toby’s academic expertise and experience as a practicing musician with our skill-set based more specifically in live acoustic performance.  A series of public workshops will explore the commonalities of approach in opera and pop and form the basis of a new programme of work by McCaldin Arts.

Conference Call

Clare McCaldin & Toby Young at UCLThis summer’s exploratory project with composer Toby Young and the dancers Estela Merlos and Thomasin Gülgeç has had an extended life, in the form of a joint paper delivered by Toby and me at a recent conference.

We made a twenty-minute presentation on Discourses of metaphor and gesture: towards a collaborative language as part of the day organised by the UCL Institute of Education. The overall conference title was Music and movement as process and experience and, as the event was hosted by the Royal Academy of Dance, a significant portion of the audience were teachers of dance and those in development as teachers.

The day revealed a wide and interesting range of philosophical approaches to the experience of dance as well as the process of making, and examined the important issue of how dancers and musicians communicate.

 

 

Towards a new language

FullSizeRenderLast week I worked with composer Toby Young and two dancer-choreographers, Estela Merlos and Thomasin Gülgeç to develop a new multi-media work from scratch. Thanks to the generosity of the Rambert company – with whom Estela and Thom previously danced – we based ourselves in a studio at Rambert’s spacious new home on the South Bank.

This was the first time that the four of us had worked together as a group. We carried equal weight as creative decision-makers, which was a first for me. As a singer I am still far more used to being handed a completed score at the end of the process, rather than encouraged to contribute to the thought and structure underpinning a piece. I found it challenging and rewarding to have to think in this way.

We had an agreed starting-point; the experience of being physically “locked in”, as described by Jean-Dominique Bauby in his memoir, The Diving-Bell & the Butterfly. We were keen to avoid literal narration or illustration; however, the immobility and the psychogical experience reported by Bauby, as well as by the rare souls who have recovered from being locked in, suggested themes around stasis, flesh, interior landscape, hallucination and memory. Memories overlap in the locked-in experience with hallucinations (constructed memories in some sense), erupting into the patient’s awareness and then abruptly vanishing. Through these ideas we also found ourselves circling back to a preliminary discussion about Camillo’s Theatre of Memory and the location of memories in physical space.

Estela Merlos, Thomasin Gulgec & Clare McCaldinA fundamental challenge for us has been to learn to understand each others’ terms of reference and, particularly, use of metaphor in relation to the work. Our creative starting-point was the same but once we start talking about abstractions, we came up against differences in the way we exploit metaphor creatively. This has been one of the most fascinating discoveries of our work together and our learning to communicate about this directly mirrored the search for a new language at the heart of the piece itself.

For example, the idea of a cave can represent any number of things metaphorically and, in a literal sense, might have suggested a way to think about the performing area. As an impetus for devising, ‘cave’ was something around whose many associations Estela and Thom could improvise as a way of generating choregraphic material. The idea ‘cave’ therefore not only generates, but also comes to signify, a created phrase or section. The noun becomes shorthand for that whole sequence and part of the map in the dancers’ heads that enables them to memorise their material. We non-dancers realised that the cave idea is not necessarily indicative of a scenario within the piece but is part of the chain of images forming the road-map for the dance, independent of a phrase’s technical ‘grammar’, which may continue to be tweaked for greater beauty or clarity.

Estela Merlos, Thomasin Gulgec & Clare McCaldinThe question of what overall shape the piece should take emerged relatively early, not least because Toby and I agreed that we like working within some kind of musical limits. Assessing and editing the quality of our own work was straightforward enough, but critiquing our colleagues’ work was much more challenging. The sheer beauty of what they do is undeniable but how do we know how good it is? As we ‘got our eye in’ over the course of the week and began to read the structure of their choreography more clearly, we felt more confident to offer our opinion. I suspect Estela and Thom may have had a similar experience with our musical offerings.

In the end, the piece comprised four sections: Rebirth – Animal – Immoveable – New Paths. Toby also proposed the idea of the madrigal – several different lines voicing a common experience – as an analogue for different kinds of inner voices, memories and hallucinations. Having settled on this, we immediately access to a classical language of imitation, ornamentation and vocal gesture that could be mixed with a the more modern forms of Drum & Bass. Toby still roughed out ideas on the piano as we improvised, but the laptop became a key tool to source, sample and mix sounds on the spot, including a heartbeat and electronic tones suggested by the worlds being explored.

Multi-tracking my voice on the three lines of the madrigal opened up options for me to sing live with myself or to participate in the choreography. We were all keen to explore whether we could cross even partially into each others’ territory. Estela and Thom sang a bit and I danced a bit. I can confirm that it’s not easy to move so fluently!

Estela Merlos, Thomasin Gulgec & Clare McCaldin Finally, how to finish the piece? We wanted to make a positive statement. Reports differ on the positive and negative emotions experienced by those who are locked in, but we didn’t want the experience of watching our work to leave people feeling hopeless about the subject. New Paths developed in part from Bauby’s description of “beginning to forge glorious substitute destinies for myself”. In the imagination one can experience the ecstatic freedom that is denied by the body’s actual immobility. Within the piece, this justified my move from the edge of the stage to full participation in the dance and was supported by a climactic build in the music. The rightness of this creative decision was bourne out by comments from our invited audience, with whom we discussed the piece after we had performed it.

 

TS Eliot and Vivienne in 2015

On the eve of this new year I have paused to consider that 2015 is the 100th anniversary year of TS Eliot’s marriage to his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood – and the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Vivienne’s life and relationship with Eliot were the subject of my successful staged cycle of songs in 2013, called Vivienne. I was subsequently invited to perform the cycle of Stephen McNeff’s settings of Andy Rashleigh’s lyrics at the 9th TS Eliot Society Festival in Little Gidding. (McNeff and Rashleigh already have form working on TS Eliot, having written a musical version of The Wasteland for the Donmar in 1994.)

I intend to give a performance of the piece around the time of the anniversary of Tom and Vivienne’s wedding on 26 June 2015. Plans are also well advanced for a recording of the cycle with pianist Libby Burgess, in a programme I have chosen around related themes. More news on this in the next few weeks.

The BBC is to mark the anniversary of TS Eliot’s death on 4th January with a programme of readings and music on Radio 3 from 5.30pm. Eliot is among the three most quoted poets in the English language and I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing other peoples’ artistic responses to his work throughout 2015.