Report on the Weeks Centre, Choir Symposium, London South Bank University

Natalie Hyacinth
PhD Researcher
Departments of Geography & Music
Royal Holloway University of London

“If you can walk, you can dance, if you can talk, you can sing!”- African proverb

I had the opportunity to enjoy a wonderful and stimulating day at London South Bank University’s Weeks Centre Choir Symposium on Friday 30th January 2015. The Symposium’s full title, ‘Singing from the Same Hymn Sheet? The Role of Choirs and Collective Belonging?’ hardly does justice to diversity of the speakers and ideas presented throughout the day.

The Symposium’s aim was to explore “the embodied, affective experience of group singing and how these spaces can be used to create social and political connections, perform gendered roles and evoke a shared purpose beyond the congregation”. The Symposium was divided into 3 broad theoretical sections; Religion, Community Activism and Gender. David Gilbert and I presented our paper, ‘Music, singing and creativity in suburban faith communities’ in the first section of the Symposium. David opened our presentation by detailing the key themes and objectives of the Making Suburban Faith project, highlighting the collaborative, artistic and practice based nature of the project.

Following on from David, I spoke specifically about Making Suburban Faith’s first project visit to some of the potential case study sites, and my initial impressions of three of the faith spaces we visited on the day. I began with a Pentecostal Church and told of my surprise at discovering the incredible spatial dynamics of the building, with renovation being undertaken over the years to transform it from a former theatre and cinema to the large worship space it is today. I think I managed to convey to the audience somehow that this was certainly a site and space to behold! I suggested that the diversity that is to be found within the Pentecostal congregation reveals not only the multi-faceted nature of suburbs but also the diverse and exciting nature of the sacred music itself that is produced on these sites.

Next I spoke about our experience at a local Hindu Temple and played a sound recording of the holy men’s singing taken during a traditional Hindu ritual. I presented to the audience an idea that I had formed that had been inspired by this ritual, namely the ‘choir of the one’, meaning singing to and for others as a form of embodied group meditation.

Lastly I touched upon the importance of the physical acoustics of sacred space in the production of sound. I spoke of the interesting insight from one Anglican priest of about how intoning on one note was not always necessarily due to taste, but in fact due to the acoustics of traditional cathedrals. I later discovered from another presenter that there was indeed a perceived ‘perfect’ note for perfect cathedral acoustic resonance, and that this was a #D sharp! To conclude I reiterated David’s opening remarks about the collaborative and creative nature of the Making Suburban Faith project and at my excitement at being given the opportunity to share my early experiences with knowledgeable and friendly colleagues.

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Thankfully, we received much positive and encouraging feedback regarding our presentation and my confidence at presenting ideas has definitely developed through this great experience. So despite being a little nervous about my first conference presentation, I am pleased to say I think it went rather well! So I am very appreciative to Dr Emily Falconer for accepting our paper and presentation of a project in its very early stages and to David for his encouragement and support.

The conference itself provided for me much food for thought and connections to other academics working within the interconnected fields of music, faith, embodiment and affect. The first section of the Symposium which focussed upon Religion and singing provoked many interesting thoughts and ideas on how faith and music supports and sometimes opposes one another. We saw this with Ambrose Hogan’s presentation, ‘Continuity and Change in Catholic practice: Dominican Chant, the collective in song, oral traditions and scholarly reconstructions’ which spoke upon liturgy and the song pleas to a ‘transcendent feminine’. Following on from his presentation an interesting discussion took place between Ambrose and Rev Professor June Boyce-Tillman who touched upon the ways in which the liturgical pursuit of the transcendent or ‘divine feminine’ at times simultaneously espoused a denial of the priesthood of the human woman. Ambrose concluded his presentation with the idea that the pursuit of the feminine also included his (male) pursuit of the feminine in real form, meaning the inclusion of the female into real religious practice. Thus from the very beginning of the conference, the gendered nature of faith practice was talked through and examined.

Rev Professor Tillman provided a very central and impactful presentation of her own entitled; ‘Choral improvisation and community creation- Giving difference a dignity.’ Rev Professor Tillman referenced Emmanuel Levinas’ concept that one must allow the Other a distinct identity if the Other is to ever truly embody full societal existence. For me the central question of Rev Professor Tillman’s presentation was; “How do we truly embrace diversity?” I felt Rev Professor Tillman’s presentation of her ‘Space for Peace’ programme provided an excellent and practical answer to this question, a project which I hope to collaborate with in the future. ‘Space for Peace’ is an interfaith event where choirs of different faith groups converge to sing to celebrate their faiths as well as others. Interestingly, the event does not have a programme, but a ‘map’ for participants to use so they are able to move in and between the different faith spaces within the larger space of Winchester Cathedral. I believe this helps bring about an improvisatory and spontaneous nature to the event which I will try to use for future inspiration for my own PhD research pieces.

The ‘Community Activism’ section of the Symposium opened with Dr Rebecca Bramall’s presentation ‘Sing while you work: the ‘rise of the choir’ in austerity’. Dr Bramall’s paper raised interesting political questions about the ways in which the seeming commercialization of choirs through programmes such as the BBC’s ‘Sing While You Work’, highlight the austerity politics of the workplace and the rise of the concept of employee ‘well being’. It was interesting to think of the ways in which choirs had been used to offset the rising levels of stress in the workplace since the 2008 financial crisis.

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Dr Gavin Brown’s paper, ‘Rousing Solidarity: the practices of choral singing in British anti-apartheid protests’ proved to be a fascinating political history of the anti apartheid non-stop picket movement that took place outside London’s South African embassy between 1986-1990. Dr Brown explained how collective singing helped alleviate “boredom” at times experienced by campaigners camped out on the picket. DDdespite the sometime popular imagination of radical street politics as always “thrilling”, political opposition is at times something as stationary as sitting in a tent night after night in freezing London temperatures. Dr Brown showed that the repetitive group singing of protest songs, sometimes in unknown Africa Zulu languages, lifted the collective spirits of the protesters in these times. Choral singing helped mobilise the picketers for an impending assault on the picket camp from the police or South African representatives. I learned from this paper that at times the perfect creative expression of human solidarity can be heard through song.

Dr Eiluned Pearce’s presentation, ‘Singing Together: Uncovering evolved mechanisms for community cohesion’ focussed on the biological and evolutionary explanations of community song and asked two important questions; “How do humans create and maintain social networks?” and “Is singing special?” In what Dr Pearce terms the “Ice Breaker Effect”, singing is indeed particularly special as her research showed that singing appears to genuinely bond people after just an hour of singing together, even if they have not previously met each other. Thus Dr Pearce’s research raised another interesting question, “Does there need to be an end goal to create bonds with outsiders..?” There is no doubt that many people immediately feel a closer bond to someone they have sung with, thus singing could be said to provide a fast route to community cohesion.

Shilpa Shah presented a beautiful, intimate and moving portrait of the development of her female choir group, ‘My Heart Sings’, for her presentation entitled, “Women’s Choirs: race, feminism and intersectionality.” Shilpa recounted her personal journey and motivation for starting a women’s choir and through this spoke of “cultural assimilation as a survival strategy”, a phrase I felt we all could understand. Shilpa spoke of the literal importance for her, and others in similar positions finding their own voices in a chorus of hope and cultural unity. I found that Shilpa’s talk resonated deeply for me especially when she touched upon finding a place in society where one feels comfortable to be themselves and the support and encouragement one can receive when bonding and working with others. Touching and poignant are some of the positive words I would use to describe this incredibly thought provoking piece by Shilpa, who was also joined towards the end by other members of her ‘My Heart Sings’ female choir group.

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The Symposium was beautifully closed with an impromptu and fun conference sing- along led by Dominic Stichbury of ‘Chaps Choir’. I must say this was the first time I have sung collectively in a while…and it was such a joyous experience to be a part of! Altogether the Choir Symposium was a fantastic and thought provoking day of which I feel very happy I was a part of.

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I would like to thank once again Dr Emily Falconer for organising the event and all the supportive colleagues who offered to me words of encouragement and fresh interesting insights for my PhD research. Such a wonderful day!!

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