BBC Singers Workshop

Today I took part in a workshop with the BBC Singers at Maida Vale Studios. It was co-ordinated by The Royal College of Music in collaboration with the BBC Singers. The workshop was led by Gabriel Jackson and David Hill (Conductor). There were a number of RCM Composers involved; all having written pieces lasting 3-6 minutes. One of the pieces was my ‘Breathe, Shine, Seek’ (based on a poem by John Donne).

I was really impressed with the Choir – they sightread extremely difficult pieces and seemed to pluck notes out of thin air. They had a repetiteur/pianist present to help them with the pitches as all the pieces were written for choir a capella.

My piece was the second – at about 11.45am. I was initially concerned about the time constraints (we were given 35 mins approx per piece), but it worked out perfectly as the singers sightread everything almost flawlessly at once, and some of the pieces were more challenging than others, so they were allowed more/less time. I ended up getting about 40 minutes which was perfect.

I learned a few things – firstly about layout; I need to create Ossia-type staves rather than dividing up the line, and put one line of text above the stave if there is an elaborate divisi passage. (Alison warned me that this would be mentioned, but I’d already handed in the piece by the time I showed it to her).

Also – comments were made about my metronome marks (I’d written the piece in 3 or 4 days as there was about a month’s notice for the workshop..not including ‘rumours of’ the workshop, and I’d been working on something else at the time). The metronome marks were a bit inaccurate and some sensitive suggestions were made by David about varying it a bit more, most of which I took on board and worked out really well. I also changed a couple of dynamics based on balance (solos etc) and learned something about the subtle difference between grace notes ‘on the beat’ and accented semiquaver upbeats. A debate was triggered over whether the composer or the conductor should be responsible for the tempo variations. I thought: Surely the composer is responsible, but the conductor can create a unique interpretation based around the directions…(?) David Hill reminded me that some composers are more meticulous than others when it comes to directions, and don’t want their ideas to be ‘meddled with’.

My poem gets pretty dodgy towards the end – I only used the first few lines. Jude told me that John Adams used the exact same poem in ‘Doctor Atomic’ (with more of a ballady setting), which surprised me, as since I started setting it all I could think of was what a terrible choice I’d made…! It did work out though, apart from the whole ‘Battered Cod’ joke it evoked (again thanks Alison, for the heads-up)! Text below for the few lines I used:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but O, to no end;

BATTER my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due, 5
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,