Music News August - September 2020

Martin Hugall-1089-800During lockdown the SMAA reports have focused on parts of the church’s musical life which are less visible to the congregation. Last month starred the Junior Choir. This month we have contributions from our organist, Jeremy Allen, and from Peter De Vile who keeps our aged instrument in good order – though this time he explains the tricky process of combining everyone’s individual voice recordings into what appears to be a whole ensemble performance.

But first an invitation to everyone to join the choir’s evening plainsong workshop on Zoom, leading to a service of Compline on Friday 14th August from 7.30 – 9.00pm. The hour long Plainsong workshop begins at 7.30pm and ends with a service of Compline which starts at about 8.30pm. Further details will be in the Grapevine in due course.

Ottilie Sefton

Away from the organ loft

I have not played the organ since Sunday 15 March, by far the longest such period since I started learning the instrument almost 42 years ago. Having held successive organist posts without break since 1998 there have been times when thoughts of a sabbatical have surfaced in my mind. Be careful what you wish for! All plans in every area of one’s life have been swept aside by the coronavirus lockdown. That said, I’m lucky not to have been otherwise adversely affected by the situation: apart from the enforced abandonment of church activities in the normal sense I have been able to continue with my main occupation unhindered, and no-one of my close acquaintance has suffered badly from the virus.

A long-standing intention of mine had been to mark the 125th anniversary on Sunday 5 July of the birth of Gordon Jacob, Saffron Walden’s own composer of international repute. Last year I decided that in 2020 I would learn his Festal Flourish for organ and play it as the organ voluntary at St Mary’s on the very day. This was also to be the closing music when the choir of St Mary’s sang choral evensong at Birmingham Cathedral on 20 June – a musical calling card of sorts. I hope that a delayed performance in honour of the great man can occur before many more months elapse. At least I can say that, when called to play the National Anthem at St Mary’s, I have always played Gordon Jacob’s harmonisation, which he prepared for the 1953 Coronation.

Many of you will be familiar with online church services on YouTube or Zoom. Oli King, our indefatigable Director of Music, hit the ground running by implementing Zoom choir practices for the adult choir, soon complemented by practices for the juniors. It has been a strange yet welcome experience. Strange because participants’ devices must be set to ‘muted’ during singing, and therefore the leader cannot hear the choir and hone the sound as would normally occur. Welcome because it is a lovely opportunity for the choir to stay in touch as a group, with a time of socialising available after the singing is over. Zoom breakout rooms enable division of the choir into its separate voice parts for 20 minutes or so, supervised by various leaders. In the same way, ribbon training for juniors is undertaken by small groups at different attainment levels. It is only fair to say that, musically speaking, rehearsing via Zoom is a mixed blessing. Undeniably it is beneficial for the choir to be able to continue in this way, but over time it is draining for the leader to maintain distance rehearsing, largely because you can’t hear and respond to singers’ efforts as would be the case in a normal rehearsal – the leader is forced to work in isolation.

Having recorded hymns and reflective music for two of our YouTube services, Lorna and I have experienced the dark side of online church. You’d think it a privilege to make such an offering, but it’s challenging in so many ways. First of all, on which device will you record: my smartphone or hers? The old laptop or our daughter’s MacBook? (Need to tread carefully there!) First, test each device to ascertain best audio quality. Next, work out how to position the device for best visual result, taking into account the optimum angle for room lighting, and avoiding distracting and/or inappropriate background objects. Then there’s the minor challenge of having to record each item in one take – is the slight sense of breathlessness in take 9 worse than the bum note in the piano part in take 5? Then you find that the smartphone ran out of memory during the last take, freezing the image. And (horrors!) you notice the onset of pianist’s wardrobe malfunction. Having overcome all of that it remains merely to send the mp4 file to Oli. Oh dear! The file is too big to send by e-mail … using WhatsApp reduces the sound quality … er … try Dropbox! Did it really take four hours to record two hymns?

Jeremy Allen

Baking a 25 tier choir layer cake

As I’m sure most of you know, St Mary’s choir has been continuing our weekly practice during lockdown via Zoom - an unheard of piece of wizardry to me until we all needed it to stay connected and sane. It has been a learning process in more ways than one, in that we can’t all sing at the same time as normal because of the delays in computer speeds, internet speeds and so on. We tried it - sounded like the sheep that had certainly gone astray and thought again. The result is that Oli directs and we basically sing along to ourselves, whilst trying not to watch our friends surreptitiously glug some wine/beer/whatever during the motet…
Oli hit upon a plan that we could record ourselves singing something to a backing track. He chose Tallis’ beautiful motet ‘If ye love me’. We were sent a karaoke-style singalonga part (Bass in my case) which involved listening to it on earphones from the computer and then recording ourselves to another device, in most cases the smartphone. It went out to the world and was really rather good. I offered my computer services for the next one and ‘Locus iste a Deo factus est’ (translated as “This place is made by God”) by Bruckner went out on Sunday 21st June.

Putting together all of the separate recordings of this was, I have to say a joyful experience because I would get one or two a day and add them, so building up the ensemble. The way this is done is a bit like putting a layer cake together electronically. You get each recording and set the first layer, then add the layers as they come in, to create a 25 high tower which doesn’t sway around.…The only retake I asked for was from my dear wife Caroline. It wasn’t her fault - she sang wonderfully and then got to the quiet bit, when with perfect timing a Spitfire flew by! I wanted to add some photos too - to reflect the text - so drew on my own.
We are all missing church and hope that very soon services can resume. There is a little way to go before we can sing lustily but rest assured, it will come and we - the choir - will be back.

Peter De Vile, Organ Builder