What is the song or piece of music that has got you through the last twelve months? Have you discovered new artists, or maybe you’ve taken a trip down memory lane and listened to songs from your past? Maybe your tastes have totally changed, or become more eclectic?
When Finn Anderson was announced as Cameron Mackintosh composer-in-residence at The Lowry and Hope Mill Theatre in March 2020 with curiosity I dipped into his first album Until the Light. Not only did I become immediately enamoured with his mesmerising soundworlds and soothing vocals, but I was drawn to the honesty and simpleness of his stories of same-sex relationships. At the time, having recently experienced a break up after a long relationship, Finn’s work spoke to me on a very personal level. It was the first time I was really aware that – as a gay man – there are so few songs that actually describe and depict same sex relationships in this very direct, yet simple, way.
Leading a choir the past year has been a real test of my creative skills. Whilst everyone across the arts, especially the live arts, has faced extreme challenges, the limitations of conferencing software make ensemble singing almost impossible. Whilst there is some software that has made real-time singing online a reality for some (Jamulus, for example, with choirs such as C4 leading the way at the beginning of the first lockdown), the additional technical challenges, such as needing to not use wireless and have super fast broadband, make it too costly and cumbersome, especially for large choirs like us.
Yet the choir is still here. And, if it’s not too bold of me to say, we’re thriving. In July 2020 we launched an online gig entitled At Home with The Sunday Boys that premiered on YouTube to our largest audience yet. This project combined videos from our archives with new material created entirely remotely including this wonderfully campy version of I want to break free. It was a mammoth task and we were scrabbling in the dark a lot of the time, but audiences were thrilled by what we managed to produce. I’m glad we braved it and jumped in feet first during lockdown one.
In the handful of weeks we’ve been able to come together in person legally and safely we’ve made the QPark multistory car park on First Street near HOME our rehearsal venue. When the second national lockdown scuppered our plans for an outside immersive choral experience we commissioned local writer Joshua Val Martin to create a text reflecting on the year that was 2020 juxtaposed against us performing a new arrangement of a Swedish psalm entitled ‘Summer will come again’.
Like many artists, producers and venues we’ve had to be dynamic, open minded and creative to produce interesting material for our audiences. We’ve also had to be even more collaborative looking to creative friends and artistic partners in order to make work happen. So we were absolutely delighted when The Lowry commissioned us to work with Finn. Our last performance to a live audience was in fact at The Lowry itself in March 2020 so it feels fitting to be returning for this collaboration.
Commissioning and working with artists is a big part of what we do as a choir, not just because we find the process interesting and exciting and want to support LGBTQ+ artists create new work, but also it gives our audiences – both LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ – an opportunity to hear a range of new and contemporary stories and experiences through voices and music. Finn’s Distant Dream is a magnificently queer work in which the narrative voice describes reaching out to their younger self gently imploring them to see past, potentially painful, events as part of their whole self and accepting how the rich and complex tapestry of our own individual experiences make up a beautifully imperfect existence. I feel it is a work that speaks to everyone, but, as workshops and conversations with the choir have demonstrated to me, it is particularly pertinent to LGBTQ+ people.
The process of bringing this work to life has been no mean feat and definitely one the most challenges projects we have undertaken to date. We started the process rehearsing using conference calling software, which, whilst useful, is no replacement for live rehearsals. Then, when it was safe and legal to do so, began rehearsing in our car park venue. Audio recording took place over a whole weekend with singers working in small groups of six, leaving extended time between each group to ventilate the space. Finally, the whole choir took to the stage and the stalls of the Lyric theatre to record the video element of the work. Due to how singing increases the spread of particles we had to lip sync or sing very quietly to our pre-recorded backing track in order to do the video recording safely as well as maximising social distancing by leaving at least two metres in between each performer.
Despite the challenges, and the rigorous safety measures put in place, the energy in that room on filming day was electric and after our final take I definitely shed a little tear. Whilst we were not making live music together in the traditional sense we’ve come pretty close and produced something exceptionally meaningful for our audiences. Who knew that when I was playing Finn’s ‘Hitchcock’ on loop in April last year that we’d be recording a brand new work of his only a year later? It has a been a very artistically and emotionally nourishing experience not just bringing a new choral work to life, but also being able to examine my own past experiences and relationship with my younger self. I always feel the best artistic work combines both excellent craft and technique with the personal and Finn has gone above and beyond in creating a work that speaks not just to us as a choir, but, hopefully to audiences at The Lowry too.
And what have I been watching and listening to these past twelve months? In all honesty I’ve really struggled to engage in online content. However, I have found it easier to engage with work where I have a connection to the artist. Seeing so many colleagues adapt and transform during this period has been really inspiring. Anna Appleby – who has created two brilliant works for The Sunday Boys – has developed a synth pop alto ego ‘Norissette’ and the music she’s creating has been a brilliant antidote to lockdown life. Check out the acoustic version of ‘Permission to Land’ here. Green Carnation Company – co-run by Dan Jarvis who sings with The Sunday Boys – has done some phenomenal work commissioning and developing a diverse range of early career LGBTQ+ writers in their ‘Queer All About It’ series.
And whilst creating work remotely has been a challenge for so many of us I have to remind myself that for many artists, specially disabled artists or those with caring responsibilities, remote working was part of many people’s every day prior to the lockdowns. I’ve experienced some fantastic work over the past year, but one particular piece that really moved me – as well as angered me – was the digital opera We ask these questions of everybody. The work takes a real interview for a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment as its starting point and interweaves it with verbatim interviews. It is a bold and powerful work that I would encourage everyone to watch.
As for The Sunday Boys what’s next for us? This summer (Sat 17th July) we will be performing at Manchester Cathedral a new 45 minute work called Stay as long as you like alongside Meraki an upper voice choir based in Stockport conducted by Michelle Robinson. With music by myself and text by Rebecca Hurst it explores friendships between men and women taking inspiration from a workshop between the two choirs in January 2020. Postponed since July 2020 it will be a glorious reminder of two main aspects of ensemble singing: making music together and forming long lasting friendships. I hope to see you there.
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