‘Let’s make a joyful noise!’

Deborah Husbands reviews two events from the Southbank Centre's 'Changing Minds' festival.

Sam Chaplin, famed director of The Choir With No Name, has a passion for using the power of music and song as pathways to recovery for people with a history of mental health issues. For the last three years, he has worked with London hostels, recruiting people with homelessness to form vibrant, eclectic choirs. In the spacious setting of the Clore Ballroom at London’s Southbank Centre, and using only a grand piano and pianist (to keep us in tune), a makeshift stage and song sheets, Sam’s ‘States of Singing’ set out to transform the large audience that had gathered into a mass choir complete with sopranos, altos, and tenors.

The ‘choir’ transitioned from Thomas Ravenscroft’s ‘Ah, Poor Bird, Take Thy Flight’, a mournful ode in a minor key to a tuneful ‘mash-up’ of Lennon-McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’ complete with sustained notation, canon and a developing appreciation for musical syntax. But none of this could have been achieved without a physical and vocal workout beforehand to flex both muscle and larynx in a co-ordinated fashion in preparation for an extended rehearsal. We were also asked to take stock of our mood before and after the ‘intervention’.

For the more musically-aware, there was always going to be some discomfort at seeing lyrics on paper with no notation in sight and plenty of ‘doo-doo-doos’. Instead, we were encouraged to be fully present in the moment and activity, setting aside our preconceptions and expectations. By the end of the session, we were calling for our own encore with rapturous applause following a harmonious rendition of ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, a song popularised by Johnny Nash in the 1970s.

Singing induces a state of freedom; and group singing, corporate freedom. Sam’s core message to his audience is that each of us is a unique musical instrument comprised of a power source (lungs), sound source (vocal chords) and resonating cavity (one’s whole being).

By the end of the session and judging by the sounds of laughter, smiling faces and conversations bouncing between friends and strangers alike, we had all experienced this ‘state of freedom’. I can’t claim to be able to sing as well as Johnny Nash, but I can see clearly now that there are benefits to mood and wellbeing from these kinds of musical interventions.

Later that day, I was at the Royal Festival Hall to find out what woodpeckers have in common with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor. According to a collaboration between Ed Cooke and Nicholas Collon, Principal Conductor for the dynamic Aurora Orchestra – everything. And, as the audience took their seats on the platform centre-stage with the orchestra, we were about to find out.

Ed Cooke, Grand Master of Memory, put the audience through a rigorous experience of music memorisation using chunking, imagery, mnemonics and a version of Craik and Lockhart’s method of loci. Musicians memorise huge amounts of notation but, on performance, are usually aided by sheet music on stands. But, for this performance, 33 musicians had to learn and perform Mozart’s entire 40th symphony from memory (see also their performance at the BBC Proms). This time, thanks to Ed’s imaginative techniques, the audience was fully engaged using a combination of memorised key phrases to follow an imagery-laden score during the full performance.

Ed, who is the co-founder of Memrise (a language learning platform) trained himself in memory recall almost as a competitive sport, learning 2,300 binary numbers in a quest to beat the Germans at this skill—and he almost did! He drew the analogy between learning a musical score and binary numbers, demonstrating to the audience his ability to recall – forwards and backwards – a long series of numbers and letters generated at random by a young member of the audience. Chunking is essential to this process: make things ‘bite-sized’, assign imagery and create a backstory for those chunks.

The process was ably demonstrated when Ed got the audience to learn a word list using association. It was amazing to hear the audience-constructed story that followed using a series of connections that included such disparate items as a purse, pizza, a dog, a wolf, a fisherman and Arsène Wenger. He followed with examples of musical connections: for example, a purse = Purcell, a dog = Bach, a fisherman…wait for it…Beethoven, with the emphasis on ‘bait’.  

We were now armed with creative tools for memorisation. The opportunity soon came to try out this technique by combining our knowledge of key phrases in the symphony with imagery, showing the power of the human mind for making association through visual representations, structure, spatiality and rhythm.

Nicholas broke down sonata form in Mozart’s symphony, which also applies to a huge range of classical music and is key to understanding the structural architecture for organising music: (1) exposition – introducing the protagonists (woodpeckers); (2) development; (3) recapitulation, and (4) coda. Mozart, it appears, used a similar methodology to thriller writers, focusing on the central character (the woodpecker, played by violins and violas) who spirals out of control, leading to an aggressive exchange (sword-fighting woodpeckers, played by bassists and cellos) with lots of contrasting layers in-between (romantic woodpeckers, played by flutes and clarinets). Subtle merging of these sections lead to extended transitions and eventually, the coda (concluding passage). To execute this form, the musician uses ‘muscle’ memory that comes from being so well-practiced that performance almost seems to bypass memory.

Briefly, the orchestra left the stage, re-grouped and re-entered to perform the whole symphony while standing and without a piece of sheet music in sight, ably conducted by Nicholas. For the encore, the musicians dispersed among the audience, playing a section of the symphony from various parts of the tiered platform. The thrill of experiencing one of the oboists playing right next to me was, indeed, pure theatre.

The aim of the performance was to demonstrate to the audience how to appreciate symphonic music in richer detail, and in more memorable ways. But there was an added bonus: we left, I am sure, with a much greater appreciation for the power of a woodpecker!

- Reviewed by Deborah Husbands, a Lecturer at the University of Westminster. Both events were part of Changing Minds: A Weekend Festival about Mental Health and the Arts, with talks, debates, music, performances and free events. 

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