A late October Sunday morning last year at St John’s Upper Norwood. We’ve had a busy and tiring weekend so far, and a long day ahead of us to complete our album of choral music by Owain Park.
Recording choral music is hard work. Rather than live performance where the overall impression is what counts and the odd glitch is part of the fun, it needs to be exactly right. Nothing escapes the notice of our brilliantly fastidious producer Paul. He is all ears for any rogue tuning or rustling music from the choir, or street noise from the occasional passing motorbike. We find ourselves singing what feel like endless patches of one or two bar phrases so that Paul can expertly stitch together the final product.
But it’s a beautiful morning and our spirits are high. The sun is streaming through the windows at an autumnal angle, creating that pleasing play of the light so characteristic of church buildings. The composer is here, playing the piano for this morning’s session, and seems happy with our progress so far. The music is rich and interesting and I’m enjoying the company of friends old and new. Standing between my fellow altos, I reflect on the friendships that grow out of making music together.
This morning we are recording “Sing to me Windchimes” and Tim, our conductor, has just told us all the story of how Owain came to write it. The piece was commissioned by Louth Choral Society, Lincolnshire in memory of former member Gill Fraser. Sadly, Gill had died in 2014 and it subsequently transpired that she had made a substantial bequest to the choir to commission a piece of music in her memory.
The result is a set of six movements for choir and piano, and two piano interludes. Owain has clearly taken great care over the choice of texts and has unearthed some unusual and distinctive poems (several are completely new to me). Later, in our coffee break, he’ll tell me more about the process of composing the set, his meetings with Gill’s friends, and little details and flourishes in the music that reflect aspects of her life.
The poems he’s chosen share common themes: the beauty and hope of the natural world, the passing of time and the seasons, the fleeting nature of happiness. A. E. Housman’s “loveliest of trees” from A Shropshire Lad is well known to me – the youthful twenty reflecting on how many more springs he’s likely to see before his “three score years and ten” have passed, and concluding that he’d best roam the woods now to see the cherry blossoms.
Sara Teasdale is a writer I’ve not come across before, but her poem “Barter” has a similar message to seize the day: “For one white singing hour of peace/ Count many a year of strife well lost”. Her words manage to be both deeply poignant and profoundly hopeful, and Owain has set them beautifully.
I’m particularly fascinated by the enigmatical first piece that gives the set its title:
sing to me, windchimes
of eventide’s lullaby
beneath dim shadows
when dragonflies reel
farther from the horizon
my soul needs music
Owain has written the last line to be a few bars of unison where the choir all sing the same tune together. Early on as we learned the piece, Tim has cleverly rehearsed this segment on its own, and so it has the feeling of musical “home” each time we sing it.
As we record the track I think of the piece’s first performance by Louth Choral Society – a gift of music from Gill to her friends – and their performance giving it back to her again. This in turn leads me to reflect on our wonderful tradition of amateur choirs singing together for pleasure. It feels right that we are recording this today and I hope that in turn we will inspire other choirs to sing and enjoy Gill’s piece too.
Fast forward to June this year and the world has changed in ways none of us could possibly have predicted back in October. Tim has just biked over to drop off my copy of the CD (socially distanced of course) and I am delighted simply to interact with someone not in my immediate family. The world is tentatively emerging from lockdown but our plans to launch the album are up in the air, and we’re not sure when or how we’ll be able to sing together again. It’s unclear what the future will hold for musicians, and I feel sad both for the professionals whose livelihoods are at risk, and the amateurs like me who miss the joy and purpose that music brings.
But listening to the recording of “Windchimes”, and thinking about the friendship and generosity that inspired it, gives me hope for the future. My soul will always need music, and one day soon I will be with my friends, making it once more.