Too Many Cooks – an article on rehearsal by Simon Carrington, April 1986

The disadvantage of democracy in government, kitchen or concert hall is that everything takes twice as long to filter through the system and finally gain the necessary majority approval. The advantage of such a system has played a major part in the continued existence and overall success of a leaky but comparatively prosperous neo-democracy known as the King’s Singers.

The founder members amongst us have given 17 or so years of our lives to the gradual nurturing of an ideal, tried at school and university and tested on the concert platforms of the world. Had it not been for the steady maintenance of democratic principles over all those years, we would have long gone our separate ways.

All major decisions are taken by majority vote and this technique applies to everything from the acceptance of an engagement and fee to the choice of programme, the colour of a concert suit and – the subject of this short piece – the conduct of rehearsals.

The King’s Singers rehearse In Camera. Friendly promoters, duty done, who hover about looking useful are politely shown the door, along with wives, relatives, friends and well-wishers! Democracy seems to work best away from close public scrutiny. Egos can be unleashed, prejudices dusted off, grievances aired and ripples allowed to appear more readily on the surface of our tranquil bonhomie in the privacy of an empty hall.

The bones of a King’s Singers rehearsal, stripped of meat, are: not less than two hours on a concert day, beginning 5 hours before the performance. The rehearsal pattern, much refined, remains constant: a gentle warm-up on something familiar and a few internal criticisms of previous performances, not always agreed with but usually remembered when the relevant passage recurs, followed by an extended session of detailed work on new projects in hand.

At the time of writing – on a spring tour of Germany and Luxembourg – we are working on new material for next month: an EMI of children’s songs, a collection of Catalan folk song arrangements, an album of French music to include Carl Davis’s re-working of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals for the KS and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and some pieces by Britten for the Chelmsford Festival. Everything is to hand except John Rutter’s 8 minute version of Jack and the Beanstalk due tomorrow by Datapost to allow one rehearsal before the recording sessions in London. This is not a situation we are happy about. We sight-read well, but to put a distinctive KS stamp on the ‘interpretation’ – even of a nursery rhyme! – takes time, and for most of our material familiarity does not breed contempt.

We are also carrying a pile of music for the following month: 16 arrangements for a Beatles a cappella album for Japan, an anthology of French, German and Italian chansons by Orlandus Lassus for our first CD recording, a set of Lamentations by Ferrabosco, a difficult new work by Peter Maxwell Davies for first performance at his festival in the Orkneys and the outline of a jingle for Singapore Airlines! In addition we have just completed a difficult period ‘running in’ Bob Chilcott, our new tenor, who has been munching his way through a huge plateful of essential repertoire with the same enthusiasm he shows for a fillet steak.

To meet all these deadlines without a head cook to plan the daily menu and rally the staff requires considerable self-discipline on everyone’s part. A common bond of enthusiasm is essential. Tales of string quartets and other small ensembles travelling in different train compartments, cars and even planes, with members not exchanging a word with each other from one day to the next, abound in the music profession. For the KS to work under such conditions would be well nigh impossible. There have been three changes in membership over the seventeen years, and we now cover an age-span from 27-44, but serious disagreements are rare and the occasional tantrum is tolerated and allowed to subside gently.

Our musical ambitions are unremarkable though not always easy to achieve: to start and finish together, to sing in tune and in time, to produce a homogenous sound while trying to create as varied a palette of colour as possible to reflect the full emotional range of each piece and to communicate to our audience the enjoyment of singing, unaccompanied by instruments and unamplified by science.

To measure the right ingredients effectively from within the group requires much patience and careful analysis. Equal balance between the voices, a top priority, is often hard to gauge standing in a semi-circle. Some voices carry forward better than sideways, some have peculiarly resonant patches in their range, others certain notes which only carry well on certain vowels or are inaudible except from the seventeenth row! Endless daily testing and stirring the pot with aerials fully extended seems the only useful formula. The microphone, though essential in studio is a tiresome and time-consuming instrument on stage and exhibits an alarming tendency towards favouritism. Intonation remains the most volatile of all our ingredients; hours of careful rehearsal can bring great rewards with strings of rich, blended and thrilling harmonies one day and rows of sickly cacophonies the next confused by anything from a buzzing spotlight to the hum of the air-conditioning. We operate a loose system of tuning from the bass upwards with the upper voices trying to sit on the harmonies created from below. This is a great idea in principle but not always reliable in practice when the lower end is tired and the upper end convinced everything is going flat – not always an accurate diagnosis as can be revealed by a surreptitious blow on the pitch-pipe.

The bland smiling exterior of a self-satisfied democracy is a phenomenon recognised the world over and is a danger of which we are well aware, helped by occasional reminders from the newspaper critics! We have to be careful not to refine our ingredients so thoroughly that they disappear altogether through the sieve. A constant rereading of the texts, a real commitment to the meaning of even the most trite of songs and a dedicated communication of one’s own emotions to the audience from within the group all help to preserve the lumps. The antidote to a certain smooth slickness often criticised is more difficult to find for an ensemble which rates precision highly.

This year our star is in the ascendancy in Germany, with packed houses at the Berlin Philharmonie and the Hamburg Musikhalle last week. The audience of all ages had to digest a mixed diet of obscure motets from the French Renaissance, madrigals from all over Europe, an extended work by the American composer Ned Rorem based on extracts from the grizzly civil war diaries of Walt Whiman, songs for male voices by Janáček and a pot-pourri of numbers as a tribute to the famous German ‘vorgänger’ of the KS whose home was in Berlin in the 20’s and 30’s – the Comedian Harmonists.

Success in this medium, given efficient and inspired management, depends to a great extent on 6 cooks tasting their ingredients carefully every day and serving them up every night with relish. Complacency of the sort typified by certain hoteliers with a few stars from the AA would soon remove any rosettes from The King’s Singers’ entry in a musical Good Food Guide. Rehearsal in the auditorium of the Luxembourg Conservatory of Music begins in half an hour: time once more to decant the voice.

Simon Carrington. April 1986.


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