I’ve jumbled up the dates in the last two posts of this year (catching the subject-matter up to Christmas while I’m at it) with the specific intention of being able to write one entitled ‘Wrapping up’ tomorrow – and yes, there is an atrocious pun involved. That is how shallow my blog writing is.
Anyway, on with a post largely about Christmas music, before the advent of the new year entirely prevents anyone engaging with the subject.
Through December, I added to my usual busking repertoire a selection of what I thought were well-known carols, some done with mildly folky delivery and some fairly straight up but often with Willcocks (Carols for Choirs / Carols from King’s) descants to give me some variation for stretching them out beyond changing octaves and double-stopping some harmony. Occasionally, more so as the month went on, this got a really good response.
However, I have a terrible truth to reveal to you from experiment: Hardly anyone in this country under 60 actually knows more than one or two carols. The circle of recognition has probably shrunk to pretty much those people who go to church more than once or twice a year, barring ‘Silent Night’ – and probably ‘Away in a Manger’, but I find that such a dull production that I refuse to choose to play it. It was bad enough making myself do ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, where at least I only have significant issues with some of the lyrics, which I wasn’t using. This may be the other point; given how many people are uncertain if I’m playing something they know well which is always instrumental but rearranged (eg the Game of Thrones title music, which really only has one tune and one additional motif), I suspect a great many of those who are mainly casual listeners to music rarely recognise a song without the words. Maybe I should have sung carols regardless of past experience that I get more donations busking without vocals …
On to literally warmer territory. I played for two carol concert-type events, put on by churches, this year. Sunday 16th was an ambitious production, in a purpose-built auditorium (ironically hired from the Quakers, whose style of worship could hardly be more different to this), with an audio production company brought in, two full evenings’ rehearsal, a soundcheck and setup substantially longer than the event itself, and the resources to not only not charge for entry but take a closing donation for a local children’s arts access charity rather than costs. It was put on by a gospel-style (indeed, the resident gospel band and choir were the core of the event, with ‘session’ strings and horns, guest singers and highly effective dramatic monologues added and interspersed) charismatic church of sufficiently predominantly Nigerian-origin congregation for it to be a question of cultural identity not merely ethnic coincidence.
I emphasise the latter because the scope of the project, and the quality of the musicianship and the music produced, did not prevent there being a great deal of waiting around, for people to either arrive or stop talking, during rehearsals or the 6-hour tech setup process overrunning by nearly half an hour (leading to that much delay in starting the event itself). I watched the ill-concealed impatience of my classical / function-background desk partner with great sympathy, being only inoculated from the same by having done the same gig two years ago, and learned to distinguish cultural difference from unprofessionalism (not to say, to simply keep my mouth shut and focus on my job and my fee unless I’m in charge) by ill-advised snapping at the room in general to shut up when the musical director was trying to run a number – and getting predictably slapped down for it by, once again, the room in general.
The difference is highlighted by observing the cheery indifference (and indeed tendency to simply socialise and do their own thing) with which the ‘audience’ greeted the delay in starting, and the interruption near the end produced by the computerised master audio desk crashing – which cannot be blamed on ‘African time’ or suchlike. It merely takes a while for the average hypertensive self-employed young white Londoner to mould into that groove; and we do so at our peril, since the moment that job ends, we go back to having to live at what I might term Jubilee Line speed if we want to actually make any money. Suffice to say I brought a book and earplugs to soundcheck.
Saturday 22nd, my last paying gig before New Year’s Eve, was a very different event. Northolt Seventh Day Adventist Church had squeezed (without actually having to resort to standing room) into a smallish room in their local community centre. Donations were solicited towards hopefully securing a building of their own in 2019. There were congregational carols, a children’s item, a couple harmonising syrupy Christmas gospel arrangements over backing tracks, and a gaggle of disengaged-looking teenagers whose awkward shuffle up to the front (no stage and, bar the backing track duo, no amplification) gave no hint of the remarkably accomplished retro a cappella spirituals they delivered – my highlight of the evening. A small group of us classical musicians (one to a part strings and trumpet) had been brought in to do a handful of Handel movements from the Messiah and elsewhere, either instrumental or with solo singers from the church.
Besides the a cappella group, two things seem to me significant about this event (both, in their own way, have elements of sadness, but so it goes). The first partly concerns (having grown up with amateur, classical, musician parents and brother and as a very active player myself) ‘how the other half live’. These aren’t quite the terms she used, but I was startled by the de facto MC (well into middle age) stating she had never heard classical music live before and did not know if she would ever get to again. I mean, this is London in the 21st century! It feels like you can hardly trip over without landing on an orchestral concert or a lunchtime recital, though probably less so as far out in the suburbs as Northolt. And while even amateur orchestral concerts can be eyebrow-raisingly expensive, most lunchtime recitals are free or by donation, and you can still queue up and Prom for a fiver in about 4 months of the year.
Desire to reduce shuffling and changeover time (probably) meant the classical players were sat up the front the whole time, with other performers taking their place between us and the audience. This meant we were both present and exposed during the three congregational carols. At the earlier event, with a much more ‘performative’ atmosphere, there was no real question of deviating from the stated charts and roles – even while a gospel group and choir should no be expected to feel constrained by arrangers’ structures and repeats! Here, however, it was a much more all-in ‘flat-floor’ spirit, and, unlike most of my confrères (or rather consoeurs, I being the only male of the classical group), I wasn’t going to sit solemnly schtum while everyone else sang. Again, there is a case of what people know here – between Romanian, Spanish and Russian, that left only three of us likely to have grown up with the English carol canon and I must make an honourable exception for the double bassist who also got involved. But for me, ‘Joy to the World’ is incomplete without the male-voice echo phrases in the second half, and ‘Hark the Herald’ and ‘O Come’ are always better with the last-verse descants, even when draped over the normal harmonies – and I confess to being surprisedly smug I managed to memory-transpose the Hark descant down a tone. But surely it’s worth it for the joy of it and the smiles it brings to other people’s faces?
Maybe it’s down to genres after all. The purebreed classical player obeys the instructions more or less verbatim; I have enough literal and metaphorical ‘busker’ in me to want to join in (and usually succeed) whether it was prepared or not. Suffice to say a lot more people seemed to know ‘traditional’ carols when I was busking them in a carol concert than at Clapham Junction.