Matthew Swann, Artistic Director of Voices Now writes about the selection process for 2015.
Back when Voices Now was but a twinkle in our collective eyes before the first festival in 2011, part of the impetus for starting a new kind of movement for choirs was that it was such an exciting time for singing and choirs in the UK, but there wasn’t really a space which captured the spirit of what was happening.
There were TV shows featuring choirs, government backed singing programmes in schools, and all manner of national initiatives, competitions (a pet hate of everyone involved in Voices Now!), but we felt that the most exciting things were happening locally: people creating spaces where singers could come together in an environment that was exciting and relevant for them.
Voices Now captured that spirit in 2011 and 2013 with choirs ranging from Afro-Cuban choirs, Punk choirs, choirs for older people, choirs for people affected by homelessness, choirs for young people, not to mention more traditional groups ranging from barbershop to top classical groups. Similarly, the groups taking part had a fantastic range of motivations for singing, from some of the best groups in the world, to groups set up around a local pub with a simple and single aim of having fun.
Even with this background of diversity, there is always an air of trepidation when casting the net for choirs to take part in the next chapter of the Voices Now story. We hear anecdotal reports of exciting things happening in the UK’s choral scene, but there is always a nervousness that as economic hard times abound, funding for school singing dries up, and the choral media juggernaut moves in different ways, maybe things aren’t as rosy as there were in previous years?
No chance. Within days of sending out a call to arms Clare (Voices Now’s Creative Producer) and I were getting armfuls of responses from choirs the length and breadth of the UK wanting to take part. Considering that we are asking choirs to sign up for a fairly major commitment (creating a festival at the UK’s best rock and roll venue in less than four months is exciting, but equally daunting, we should know…) the response was even more amazing.
Choosing the participating choirs involved some of the hardest artistic decisions we have had to make, and we could have created another festival from those groups who we didn’t select. In the end, everyone who applied will have a chance to sing at the festival, and take part in what we think is the most exciting choral gathering in the UK, but the choirs who will be joining us on 31st January represent something incredible.
As the applications came through thick and fast, Clare sent me a one line email saying: “Choirs are amazing”. Three words that not only sum up Voices Now, and what we are trying to celebrate, but the incredible wealth of singing that happens in the UK every day and every week.
When those choirs who have been selected come together at the Roundhouse at the end of the month we will have groups ranging from gospel groups, to 300 strong community groups, a choir who specialise in Bulgarian music (why wouldn’t you?) and groups from Scotland and Northern Ireland. As well as this mind-boggling musical and social diversity, it’s great to see that choirs from a more traditional background – classical chamber groups, barbershop and choral societies – are embracing this new approach. Perhaps most exciting is the explosion of choirs encouraging men and boys to sing (answering the “we need men!” call to arms many choirs have been shouting for decades), and three choirs taking part represent this perfectly. Boyband are a 60-strong boys choir, all drawn from a single North London primary school, and Chaps Choir and the Magnificent AK-47s, two men’s choirs who exude more testosterone than the average stag night.
Choirs in the UK are continually and astonishingly more exciting and diverse than ever before, and on 31st January, 16 of them will start planning the next chapter in the Voices Now story. I can’t wait.