Chorus for Change

Michael McGlynn

Chorus for Change

The time is right to look at choral music in Ireland as a whole and open up a debate concerning its future.

We Irish are a very musical people. There may even be a genetic factor involved in this, for the musicality of this nation is recognised throughout the world. In recent times we have excelled at popular music, and our traditional music is the envy of other nations. Where we do not excel is in emphasising the importance of music through our education system, currently treating it as a luxury and elitist subject.

Choral singing is a mainstay of musical education internationally. It is cheap, everyone can do it and in Irish classrooms where as many as 15 different languages are being spoken it can be the only thing that connects children together. An early dalliance with choral music develops into a love affair for life. In this Ireland of plenty do we have the vision to develop a choral community that will be the envy of the world?

I founded Anúna in 1987 after conducting two chamber choirs at college. I come from a non-classical music background and I didn’t really understand the etiquette that went with the ‘art’ of choral singing, but this, in retrospect, was an advantage. In fact I have to admit that most of the best performances of choral music I have heard in Ireland have been give by amateur singers, with their natural and unaffected energy and vitality. I have always valued a fragile but heart-felt sound over the perfection of a trained voice. That said, the best choral music, I feel, combines the amateur and trained voice.

I had never sung in a choir until I was nineteen. Without a choral background I had no preconceptions about choral music, so I kept asking ‘Why?’ Why did we sing English in fake English accents? Why did we roll our ‘rrs’? Why didn’t choirs perform more Irish music? Were those hideous faces we made when we sang absolutely necessary? Was there any ancient choral music from Ireland? If there was, did anyone perform it?

I felt that there was no reason for Anúna to mirror other more developed choral cultures, particularly in light of the innate musicality of the Irish people. I wanted to create a choir that recognised and embraced the lack of a choral tradition in Ireland, and by accepting the things we did not do well it might just be possible to develop and nurture the things that we did do well to such a standard that we created something original. As there was no blueprint or ancestor for Anúna to learn lessons from, I can accurately state that since then I have made every single mistake that could be made.

For a short period I tried many different performance techniques – mixing backing tapes and live sound, dodgy ‘acting’, processions and anything theatrical I could even tenuously justify putting into a performance. This approach culminated in an extraordinary gig at the Project Arts Centre in 1991, where we performed contemporary Irish work, combined it with traditional instrumentalists, and also acted out a number of the pieces using theatrical effects. That night I realised that less could mean more, so I began to simplify the performance. Movement became much more ritualistic and used only when strictly necessary. This worked. People are used to ritual, and many of the pieces had a spiritual basis. The arrival of my twin-brother, John McGlynn, into Anúna at that time was crucial in this respect as he is an architect and has an instinctive understanding of performance spaces.

Anúna was attempting to search for a unique choral voice and to create a sound that was refreshing and beautiful, but not beyond the capabilities of the singers. My hardest job was to change the mindset of singers unused to such innovation and experimentation. This was not always possible, and unfortunately I lost many of them as a result. However, it was these same singers that were graduating from a system that trained them inadequately for the professional music world in just about every facet of their musical education. So the ethos of Anúna was at odds with all the accepted norms of Irish choral music, but I now had the vehicle for my own choral ideas and compositions.

Anúna has been more successful than I would have ever imagined, creating a fresh and original choral concept. The group has single-handedly spawned the entire ‘Celtic soprano’ genre of singing, having provided crucial training and experience to singers who have subsequently gone on to front some of the biggest theatrical shows in the world. In Ireland, however, we have been labelled as ‘the choir from Riverdance’, despite only being part of the show for just over a year in the mid 1990s. This is unfortunate as the ethos of the choir and performances, particularly on CD, has elicited admiration from choral professionals all over the world. The highlight of Anúna’s performance career was not Riverdance as many people would expect, but rather being invited to give the first ever Irish Prom in 1999 at the BBC Proms series in the Royal Albert Hall, the largest and most important classical music festival in the world.

Time for change
Anúna reaches the age of 20 in 2007. I still enjoy my job as much today as I did in 1987, which is something that very few people can say about any form of employment. I feel that the time is now right to look at choral music in Ireland as a whole and open a debate concerning its future. I hope to outline some of the problems and offer some possible solutions to what I, and many others, see as unacceptable neglect of one of this country’s most important musical forms.

In February I met with the Arts Council to discuss some of my ideas and concerns in relation to choral music. I was very surprised when informed that the Council had no integrated choral strategy for this country. The majority of their choral funding is given to two bodies that serve very different functions, and cover the two extremes of choral music in Ireland.

Firstly there is the National Chamber Choir (NCC) which received €345,000 in 2006 from the Arts Council. Their grant allocation has risen by just under 350% since the year 2000. This choir is made up of 17 full-time singers and sees itself as a professional choir similar to organisations such as the BBC Singers in the UK. It broadcasts frequently on Irish radio, regularly performs throughout the country and in recent years has undertaken some international touring. Its self-declared vision is to be at the forefront of professional choral singing internationally.

Although the National Chamber Choir aspires to being at the forefront of choral music on an international stage, by their own admission they are unable to get sufficient quantities of Irish singers with suitable musical and choral skills to join the choir. Since their formation in 1991 they have instituted no training schemes for Irish choral singers that would improve this situation – many of their Irish singers ‘graduate’ from groups such as Anúna to join the NCC. This leaves groups such as ours in a situation where we are providing basic performance training and skills to singers who are then lost to us simply because we do not have the financial resources to retain their services. This should not be the case.

I am aware that the NCC intend introducing some form of training scheme for aspiring members in the Autumn of 2006, but they have been unable to provide me with any details for this article. If this is the case, then I would ask any bodies concerned to bear in mind that there are distinct differences between professional solo singers and professional choral singers. A trained solo singer aspires to have a solo career, whereas a trained choral singer is a singer who intends specialising in choral singing professionally. Training singers who simply want to join a professional choir for financial reasons and to develop themselves for an exclusively solo career will not enhance the quality of choral singing in Ireland. However, training a singer who aspires to being a professional choral singer would be of enormous value to Irish choral music. Such a scheme must account for this crucial distinction. Otherwise it will have little or no effect on the quality and enhancement of Irish choral singing.

As is common among professional choral groups internationally, the NCC invites international conductors to guest with the choir for various periods of time. This practice is valuable for a professional choral group, exposing them to the obvious benefits of working with professionals from other musical cultures. But why don’t they invite Irish choral conductors (i.e. conductors who only conduct choral music) of good quality, many with third-level qualifications in conducting, to guest with the choir? In so doing the benefits to choral music in Ireland would be far reaching in that these conductors would gain invaluable experience working with a professional choir in a professional environment.

As they are the only choral group who currently receive regular state revenue funding, in my opinion the NCC has a very important role to play in choral music in Ireland, but not solely as an isolated body with aspirations to international standards of performance. It has the potential, in an integrated choral structure, to offer enormous benefits to Irish choral music. Personally, and as a professional choral musician, I understand why the NCC aspires to creating a choir that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in the world, but it is essential that they do this within the context of Irish choral music as a whole. The NCC needs to be integrated far deeper into the existing choral structures than they are currently.

The second major grant-aided choral body is the Association of Irish Choirs – Cumann Náisiúnta na gCór (CNC), an umbrella organisation for all choral groups in Ireland of all ages and levels of ability. Its mandate is huge: it provides training to choral conductors of all levels, maintains an archive for Irish choral music, administers and runs the Irish Youth Choir (a residential choir for young singers), provides personal skills development for primary school teachers as part of the new primary curriculum, and publishes a quarterly newsletter sent to every choir on its books. It is the sole representative of approximately 10,000 Irish singers and choral directors, with membership numbers rising year by year.

Despite being the single supporting organisation for choral music in Ireland, CNC is chronically under-funded considering what its mandate is – in 2006 it received just €185,000. Choral music is a holistic art form needing cooperation and development of many different facets simultaneously for it to be effective. Singers need to be educated to sing as individuals, choirs need to be educated to sing chorally, choral directors need to gain greater experience and skills and living choral composers need to write choral music for choirs in order to keep repertoire fresh and challenging. However, CNC’s budgetary restrictions allow them only to provide some limited training for choral conductors. This is not enough.

CNC are very aware of the needs of Irish choral music. One solution that they suggest is the setting up of County Junior Choirs feeding into County Youth Choirs. The choirs would then feed into adult choral music at a local and national level. At all of these stages they would be supported by masterclasses for choirs, choral directors and individual singers. I would go further and suggest that this structure should feed into a number of ‘super’ state-aided choirs which specialised in various forms of singing including ethnic, contemporary and early music. Anúna itself is a specialist choral group and would then, for the first time in its 20 year history, be part of an integrated choral structure.

There is much enthusiasm, diversity and sheer choral excellence to be found in this country, despite the lack of direct state funding for amateur choirs and the lack of an integrated strategy. Anúna is an example of what can be done through sheer commitment and determination: we grew without the aid of a system that should have nurtured us. In this day and age there is no reason why the issues I have outlined should not be addressed as a priority. I won’t underplay the enormity of the job that faces agencies such as the Arts Council should they decide to fundamentally alter the system as it currently is. However, the possible rewards for all of us, and our children, are vast.

Published on 1 September 2006

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