VOCES8‘s upcoming show in Freiburg, the “Capital of the Black Forest” (and place of Acappellazone‘s/Vocal Blog‘s headquarters) gave me the opportunity to interview Paul Smith, the mastermind behind one of the UK’s most active vocal groups. If you live in Germany, Switzerland or France, don’t miss the opportunity to see this British vocal music gem live on Saturday, 27th of June, 20:00h at the beautiful, new Humboldtsaal. Click here for tickets and now: Enjoy the read!
You have been involved in workshops and educational programs in schools. What is it that you specifically like about working with kids?
Ever since we started VOCES8 in 2005, education and workshops have been important to us. We believe it is our job to use our skills to try to inspire and energise the next generation of musicians and creative people. We have now worked with more than 250,000 students and opened the Gresham Centre – our own centre for vocal music, education and outreach in the City of London, so I think you can tell it’s something we think is very important!
Recently, your book “The VOCES8 Method” has been released. What is that method basically about?
In many of the schools we work in, there are problems with teachers not having much musical training, a lack of time for music and no money to spend on music. The VOCES8 Method is designed to answer these challenges with simple, fun musical ways to wake up the brain, body and voice, and to do it in a way that links music with numeracy, literacy and linguistics. We are very excited that it is now being used in more than 1000 schools in 9 different countries, and have been translated into French and German.
Your repertoire covers different genres of music (sacred choir music, spirituals, madrigals, jazz standards, classic pop songs). Do you as a group prefer any particular genre?
I think every member of the group would give a different answer! We love singing a wide variety of repertoire, and taking the audience on a real musical journey. Whatever music we sing, we find a way to connect emotionally with it. We are so lucky to sing songs that have survived and flourished for centuries – that tends to give it a real stamp of quality I think.
How would you describe the recent development of the European a cappella scene?
It’s vibrant right now! The whole world seems to be going through an a cappella explosion over the last few years, and we are very happy to be a part of it!
Being a member of a vocal group myself, I have experienced that some masterclasses can be truly inspiring and outstanding in terms of the learning effects. What were the most helpful masterclasses or coachings you have attended, as a group or individually?
We were all lucky growing up to be able to study with some of the best choral musicians in the world. I think the best masterclasses or coaching happens when the person giving the session doesn’t try to teach a subject, but to encourage learning from the people in the room. The way we learn is always going to be flexible, and the best learning happens when the teacher or coach adapts to the people that are learning. We always try to remember that people come first!
Just being curious: what is your next CD going to be like? Is there a name to it, already?
A very good question! We have a new album coming out soon with the French baroque orchestra, Les Inventions, of music by Marcello. We have also just been recording some music by our composer in residence for next year, Ola Gjeilo, and we are now making plans (still top secret!) for our next album with Decca. Life is always exciting!
time flies and it’s been already two weeks since Germany’s most prestigious vocal music festival “Festival für Vokalmusik Leipzig – A CAPPELLA” concluded with a fantastic final concert at Leipzigs Gewandhaus. I was invited to see the opening concert by festival founders amarcord as well as VOCES8‘s Leipzig premiere with a completely secular programme and the annual family concert featuring Austrian quartet Lalá. Some might remember my audacious plan to run my first full marathon on that particular Sunday. Well, it never happened, as I caught a bad cold which kept me from running the 42.2 kms, but allowed me to join the singers at the wonderful festival lounge on Saturday night, drowning my frustration with dark beer and Pelmeni.
The 10-day festival is a marathon for its organisers and the members of amarcord, too. They attend every single concert and probably needed a little holiday after the event. I must say, that I have been to quite a few international festivals recently, but Leipzig really impressed me. This festival stretches over 10 days with 11 concerts – which means that only very few a cappella addicts can be present during the whole festival. Still the event creates a strong community feeling, based on the long-term dedication of the five amarcord members and an outstanding hospitality. A wonderful pub called “The Telegraph” becomes the official festival lounge and so there is a meeting point for artists, fans, organisers, the whole Leipzig A Cappella festival family.
This little post is also a big, big thank you to Friederike Frieler and Wolfram Lattke, who invited me to come to Leipzig and see what they have created here. One particular masterpiece is the programme book, which offers the festival traveler detailled information and inspiration via interviews with all artists featured in concerts. I’m very happy to announce that from now on, these interviews will be posted bi-weekly on Vocal Blog – to make these wonderful portraits of the following groups available to the worldwide(web) public: VOCES8 (UK), Lalá (AUT), Heinavanker (EST), Nordic Voices (NOR), Kraja (SWE), Cap Pela (ESP), John Potter & Ambrose Field (UK), Audiofeels (POL), Cadence (CAN) and amarcord (GER).
Let’s start with an interview with VOCES8′s Paul Smith. Before you read the Q&A with Paul, who is the business director and baritone of the London-based octet, enjoy the little video teaser below. It features a mysterious bottle of gin from the Black Forest presented by amarcord’s Wolfram Lattke and expertly tested by VOCES8′s soprano Andrea Haines.
(Interview no. 1 from Leipzig A Cappella programme brochure, courtesy of www.a-cappella-festival.de)
Firstly, please introduce us to your group: How and when did the group form?
We’re VOCES8, an 8 part vocal ensemble from Britain. We started off just as a group of friends who loved singing together and, after winning awards in Italy and Spain in 2005 and 2006, we decided to turn professional. Since 2007 we have been singing about 100 concerts a year all over the world, and also leading a big education programme in the UK, USA and in France. We sing music from a wide selection of genres – and we know how lucky we are to have a job doing something that we all love!
There are a lot of influential, professional vocal groups in Great Britain (some have already been our guests, too). Which influence did groups such as The King’s Singers, Hilliard Ensemble, The Swingle Singers etc. have on you?
In the UK, there is a great heritage of vocal music, and we were certainly influenced by all of these groups as we grew up – in particular the King’s Singers. We are good friends with the King’s Singers and the Swingle Singers. In creating our VOCES8 concept, we try to take inspiration from other top groups, but also create something which is new and unique. We think we perform our music with our own style and we try to build a connection with the audience that you would only find in a VOCES8 performance.
What do you consider as trademarks and typical qualities of British vocal groups?
In VOCES8, we try to create a very British sound, and wherever we go in the world, people always think we come across as being very British! As well as the sound world that we create, I think this also has something to do with our style of presentation and our own British sense of humour! When singing jazz and pop music, I think this sense of humour is very important.
Your concert in Leipzig will mainly feature songs from your album “Aces High” – jazz, swing and film music. Why did you decide to make an album with this style of music and what do you like about these songs (the most)?
Whenever we think about making an album, we want to sing music that everyone in the group loves. A central theme to the Aces High album is our James Bong medley – again, very British. We’ve paired this theme with some of our favourite jazz and swing tunes, and I think this makes for a classic a cappella album. There’s a real sense of a storyboard unfolding as you listen to the album, and we created the whole concept to flow from beginning to end – there is even a story to accompany the album in the CD notes! We are lucky to have a brilliant arranger called Jim Clements, and he wrote all of the arrangements on the album and even flew to California with us to record the album. For me, this is my personal favourite VOCES8 album, and we were thrilled when it was nominated for ‘Best Jazz Album’ at the 2011 CARA Awards in America.
Your latest release is a Christmas album, simply called “Christmas”. Please tell us something about this album and its meaning to you.
Christmas is a very special time for everyone, and with our Christmas album, we’ve tapped more into our classical choral heritage. It’s a beautiful disc of acoustic a cappella which we recorded in Cambridge this year, and as well as some well known Christmas carols, there are a number of classical pieces which members of VOCES8 have grown up singing, but which may be a little less well known to some listeners. There are two beautiful songs by a British composer living in Germany, Graham Lack, and I’m also a big fan of Nesciens Mater and the Magnificat Quinti Toni by Praetorius.
Although you’re quite young yourself, with “Voces Cantabiles Music” you quickly got involved in boosting musical activities and musical exchange especially with and between young people. How do you bring the music home to the youth and what are your goals with “Voces Cantabiles Music”?
At the festival lounge: Wolfram Lattke, Gereon Behrendt, Chris Wardle, Paul Smith (from left to right)
Voces Cantabiles Music is the name of our wide foundation, and our goals in VOCES8 are to inspire the next generation of young people through music. When we founded the group, I always wanted to place education at the heart of what we do, along with our concert performances. We now work with over 25,000 young people every year in long running programmes that inspire students to be creative, develop their musical abilities and learn how to work together in teams. Making music is such a wonderful way to learn, and all of the members in VOCES8 were lucky to have amazing opportunities and scholarships as we grew up. We love working and singing with young people, and want to give young people opportunities to fall in love with singing, and to explore how they can achieve their goals by working hard and dedicating themselves to whatever passions they have.
The members of VOCES8 all enjoyed a many-sided musical education in choirs, college, musical productions etc. Is Great Britain (still) a fertile ground for young singers or is the support of projects like “Voces Cantabiles Music” needed in most areas?
I think there are still many good places to study music in the UK, but, as with every country we have ever visited, there are also many students who don’t have opportunities – either because of the education system, because of social situations or because young people aren’t aware of opportunities around them. We find that there are always more projects we would like to be doing, but, with just a small team of singers, we do everything we can to help people. We have started a second a cappella group called Apollo5 to help with this aim. We want to share our ideas with as many people as possible.
What do you associate with Leipzig? What do you expect from the city and the Festival of Vocal Music A CAPPELLA?
Presenting the main festival sponsor
We were thrilled to record the Motets of JS Bach in 2010, and this is certainly something we associate with Leipzig! One of my personal highlights in VOCES8 was singing the Motets from memory (in VOCES8, we sing most of our music from memory!) to a German audience at a Bach Festival. There is such a strong heritage of outstanding music in Germany, and we are looking forward to spending more time in Germany in 2012 than we have in our previous years as a group. I hope that the people of Leipzig will embrace the a cappella festival, and we are certainly looking forward to coming to the beautiful city of Leipzig, sharing our music with people who love a cappella and enjoying meeting lots of people and spending time getting to make new friends.
Is there some kind of ritual before going on stage, which is indispensable for your ensemble?
Every night before we go on stage we stand in our ‘circle of love’! This happens after our personal warm up and just before we go on stage. Each member of VOCES8 is able to make one point to the whole group for the concert that is about to happen, and we take the moment to focus our minds and prepare as a team for the stage. It’s a little ritual we have now done in about 500 concerts together!
When your ensemble prepares a characteristic British meal together, what will there be as food and drinks? Could you perhaps tell us the recipe?
Let them eat cake, Andrea...
As we spend so much time on tour, we eat a lot of meals together, and we are about to spend 2 month in the USA on tour, so we will be trying not to eat too many hamburgers! Lots of members of VOCES8 like to cook, and Andrea (one of our sopranos) often brings delicious cakes to our rehearsals.
For drinks and a meal though, I think many of us would start with a very nice gin and tonic and some appetisers. I like to cook a traditional roast dinner – a lovely roast chicken is delicious. The key is to stuff the chicken with juicy lemon and lots of garlic, to use a generous quantity of herbs and seasoning, and to roast potatoes and vegetables. Roasted leeks, parsnips, carrots, sweet potatoes and lots of roasted garlic! Then, make sure the potatoes are beautifully crunchy, but soft on the inside. For the gravy, use the juice from the meat (with chicken – properly cooked through) as a base and also mix in the scrapings from the roasted vegetable dish to get lots of extra flavour! Wash this down with a wine of your choice (I would choose a nice glass of Chablis for this dish!). Follow this up with a sticky toffee pudding for dessert, and then with cheese and port to finish. In VOCES8, we love a very tasty meal together!!
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If you’ve read my blog post about amarcord and their Festival für Vokalmusik Leipzig, you might be a bit envious of me, when I tell you that I’m going to spend 3 full days at one of the finest vocal music events in Germany and Europe. Tomorrow, 6:52am, a train is going to take me to Bach’s hometown and I’m looking forward to seeing two world-class, classical vocal ensembles performing live: amarcord (Friday, 20th of April), who traditionally have the privilege of opening the festival and VOCES8 (Saturday, 21st of April). For all of those who think “Why is it always that guy that gets invited to fantastic events like that?” I want to add, that on Sunday, 10am, I’m becoming a member of the festival team by running my first full marathon in Leipzig. Still jealous – well, if you want to join me, just do it: I will certainly find tickets for those concerts for everybody who will do the 42.2km Vocal Jog XXL with me ;-)
The Leipzig festival isn’t the right event for envious persons anyway: As it lasts 10 days and includes 10 concerts, only a very few people will be able to attend all the events. That’s why I thought it would be interesting to give you an impression of the variety and fantastic quality of the artists coming to the festival from 20th to 29th of April by the festival calendar and a collection of selected YouTube links. Please note, that some of the links I chose have nothing to do with the programme the groups will do in Leipzig. If you want to learn more about the festival programme, check out the festival’s website for more details. And of course the sound quality – as with 99% of all YouTube videos – has only little to do with how wonderful all of these groups sound live.
So if you have time and want to see some of the best vocal groups in the world as well as one of the most beautiful East German cities, check your calendar, book your trip and get your ticket to Leipzig. If you happen to be there this weekend let me know: I won’t drink too many beers in expectation of the upcoming Vocal Jog, but I surely need supporters to cheer me on. But for now, enjoy the YouTube preview of Festival für Vokalmusik Leipzig!
ensemble amarcord (GER), April 20th, 20:00, Gewandhaus Leipzig
VOCES8 (UK), April 21st, 20:00h, Theater-Fabrik Sachsen
LALÁ (AUT), April 22nd, 16:00h, Alte Handelsbörse
Heinavanker (EST), April 22nd, 20:00 Uhr, Thomaskirche
Nordic Voices (NOR), April 23rd, 20:00h Evangelisch-reformierte Kirche
(no video available – so they really want to be listened to by you live!)
Kraja (SWE), April 24th, 20:00h, Gewandhaus Leipzig
Cap Pela (ESP), April 25th, 20:00h, Theater-Fabrik Sachsen
John Potter & Ambrose Field (UK), April 26th, 20:00h, Peterskirche
Audiofeels (POL), April 27th, 20:00h, Werk II, Halle D
Cadence (CAN), April 28th, 20:00h, Schaubühne Lindenfels
Closing Concert, April 29th, 19:00h, Gewandhaus Leipzig
(too good to be captured on video – go and get your tickets now!)
This is the 13th edition of this amazing festival, which for all the people who work to make this happen (Thank you Friederike Frieler, Georg Manthey, Tobias Rosenthal and all those who I haven’t met yet) and for a first-time marathon man is a very lucky number. See you in Leipzig!
When I told my friends and family that I planned to stay at a monastery for three days, I got various reactions. Some worried about the state of my relationship, others nodded knowingly assuming that I needed a break from the business grindstone. I had to assure everybody that neither was the case. However, after 15 days of Zelt-Musik-Festival including a fantastic first “Freiburg A Cappella Night”, it was great to get away for a weekend.
And what a weekend it was! The monastery I went to is situated in the middle of nowhere. It consists of wonderful old buildings. It has a gorgeous courtyard with nice acoustics. And for more than 30 years this courtyard has been the venue for the “Klosterkonzerte Maulbronn”, a concert series mainly featuring top classical chamber ensembles. However, this year Jürgen Budday, one of Germany’s leading experts in choral music, presented a small “Vocal Summit”. Starting with Irish-Latvian-US vocal trio White Raven last Thursday, the mini-festival inside the festival presented four more top-notch vocal groups: VOCES8 (UK), Nordic Voices (NOR), The Real Group (SWE) and The King’s Singers.
As Maulbronn is only 90 minutes drive from my hometown Freiburg, I decided to stay in this town (well, village) from Friday night to Monday morning. And that’s how an almost perfect two-and-a-half-days vocal music vacation looks like:
Friday: due to super-heavy traffic and an outdated GPS just made it in time for the VOCES8 show, arrival 6 minutes to 8pm. Really enjoyed one of the “most mixed” programmes in the history of a cappella: Gibbons, Byrd, Peggy Lee, Bach, Bond, Monteverdi, Bernstein…and back. Not exactly for purists, daring indeed. Late night dinner with the band and composer/arranger Graham Lack. Most spectacular visits: Dolf Rabus, director of Kammerchorwettbewerb Marktoberdorf who drove 3.5 hours to see VOCES8 and Christian Weiherer, organist and promoter with Memminger Meisterkonzerte, who even drove back a similar distance right after the concert.
Saturday: When I got up, VOCES8 were already on the road. With their band van. From Maulbronn to Hardelot, France. Which is only 750kms drive, a distance not really worth mentioning if you look at the frantic tour schedule of these guys. While they were crossing France I went for a two-hours mountain bike ride and returned just in time to film the arrival of The Real Group. They were coming from Bensheim, the place they sang the day before. So this night, there was a sound system in the courtyard and Jan Apelholm started working on the sound sitting under
"Cocktails for Two"
an old tree, almost invisible from stage. This fortunately had no effect on his ears, so the sound was fantastic…as was the whole show of the “Swedish vocal music phenomenon”. My personal favourites: “Prime Time Blues” (Anders Edenroth just writes the catchiest hooks ever!) and the second encore, Peder Karlsson‘s “Gota” (Faroer Islands meet Suebian monastery, goosebumps all over…). No time for a proper hangout this time either: The flight back to Stockholm was at 9am, which meant The Real Taxi had to leave at 6am…who wrote this itinerary?
Sunday: Rain. Greyness. More rain. Well, a perfect day for doing a bit of paperwork. So I started to work – inspired by the touring groups – on the ultimate booking and tour management system. When my head started to spin, I decided to get some fresh air by going for Vocal Jog No. 2. As in Aarhus, this was a solo project, I’m beginning to wonder when I’ll find the first volunteer to join me running at a cappella events. The King’s Singers arrived, so did (to my happy surprise!) their business manager Claire Long and so did 800 happy ticket owners. Happy,
The King's Singers - sold out!
because they got hold of a ticket for the sold out concert and (very) happy, because miraculously, after a day of constant rainfall, the sky had turned blue. Which was in some way a pity as the promoter gave every listener a raincoat coloured in PINK. I guess the King’s Singers would have had to wear sunglasses to keep themselves from laughing their butts off, had it rained. The concert itself was entitled “Aufforderung zum Tanz” (“Invitation to Dance”) and confirmed the status of complete vocal mastery, the group is known and admired for. Perfect intonation, sophisticated arrangements, a trifle (or two) of British humour and unbelievably good German singing – these are only a few of the things to mention. If you want to hear classically trained singers close to perfection, go see the King’s Singers. And the concert ended early enough to see the second half plus extra time of the women’s world cup final. That’s what I call a perfect weekend.
Next stop for Vocal Blog on tour: vokal.total, Europe’s first and foremost vocal music competition. I’m going to go there with my a cappella nieces The Boxettes. My official nickname by these young ladies: Uncle Flo. Girls, you make me feel so young. See you in Austria!
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Monday: Got back from opening a choral festival and performing with 5 choirs from Spain and the Canary Islands at 1:30am! A fantastic couple of days that had included a full concert recorded for Spanish National Radio, and set in beautiful Pamplona. All the choirs were competing for prizes, and we were there to sing a couple of concerts for them – it was great to spend time with so many passionate singers.
Arrive for an a cappella festival day in Brighton with about 230 singers from 8 different choral groups at 9:30am – really in need of a few cups of coffee! Different members of VOCES8 work all day with different groups, and we also rehearse a couple of joint numbers. The evening concert is hosted by VOCES8, and we sing a couple of numbers, but we really enjoy listening to the great performances put together by all of the different vocal groups – with student ages ranging from 6 to 18. The packed out concert venue rises as one to applaud the hundreds of young singers.
We head home to try and get some sleep despite the adrenaline that’s still pumping through our bodies.
Tuesday: The group is off to Cardiff University for a composition masterclass with the Phd students and an evening concert. A hundred miles into the journey, the VOCES Mobile breaks down! Quick calls, roadside assistance, hire cars and we still make it for the start of the session – just. We spend a few hours working with the students on their contemporary compositions, talking about how we as singers and performers would approach their music, and then we prepare to give a concert. It’s Andrea’s old university, so a very special day for her. A great reception from the students, and we enjoy drinks with some of the faculty staff and students after the concert.
Wednesday: Up to Bedford today for workshops with 12 vocal groups in the county. VOCES8 members are spread far and wide as we help students and vocal groups prepare for the ‘B Festival’ which takes place at the end of April. Top prize for the competing groups this year is free recording studio time, so all of the 300 or so performers are getting very excited and working really hard for the big day. And, to make the B Festival even better, we’re going to be joined this year by our good friend, and world class beatboxer, RoxorLoops, as well as one of the newest, hottest groups on the a cappella scene, Apollo 5 (www.apollo5.co). It’s going to be quite a night!
Thursday: Into Hackney in London for another end of project performance day with 8 choirs from schools in the borough. About 250 students join us for the afternoon, rehearsing songs with their VOCES8 mentors and then spending some time practicing as a massed choir. The concert is a great success, but
VOCES8 don’t stay for any post concert drinks tonight, as we have to be up at 3:30am to go to….
Friday: Nigeria. Oh my god! We head out to Lagos via Amsterdam. It turns out that one of the people who has booked us is a senior director for KLM.
Great flight. We arrive, are met by US Embassy staff and a security team and driven straight to a champagne reception hosted by the MD of Heineken in Nigeria. It’s amazing to see the group perk up at the sight of the champagne after 13 hours of travelling…
VOCES8 in Lagos, Nigeria 2011
Saturday: We spend the morning working with some students to prepare them for their evening performance with us, before heading to the US Consulate General’s residency to prepare for the evening performance. Hours of sound testing for the outdoor event in 33 degree heat leaves us with a tan! The event is sponsored by Moët & Chandon and Heineken, so it’s bound to be a good night! 400 guests arrive in black tie and, along with all of us, make it through many levels of security checks. The event is so stylish – a stunningly beautiful setting on the waterfront and a night to remember.
Everyone at the event seems to enjoy a cappella music (and a few were rather new to it!)… and James Bond tunes in particular go down well. Fireworks finish the night (accompanied by the Star Wars theme!) and, as if it couldn’t get any better, I win VIP tickets to the Nigerian Cup Final! I don’t think I can make it…
Sunday: Up early (for an a cappella group) and we’re all smiles, as we get driven straight to the Lagos Boat Club, loaded onto the Shell and Heineken speed boats and, in minutes, we’re loving the feel of the wind in our hair as we pass through the amazing harbour, the numerous abandoned tankers and out towards the beach paradise beyond. After the week we’ve had, it seems like the perfect place to unwind for a few hours. We spend the day sipping yet more champagne and enjoying time with our new friends from Lagos. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve performed in Spain, across the UK and in Nigeria, and worked with over 40 vocal groups – and more than 1000 singers – along the way.
And that’s why we love the world of a cappella!
VOCES8 on The Great Wall of China
I’m pretty sure that many of my readers also experience amazing things while being on tour, on stage, backstage and elsewhere in #acappelland. Let us know about it and become a Vocal Blog guest blogger. Feel free to send me your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org – really looking forward to your stories!