Voices NZ: A Resounding Choral Tradition

Article first appeared in the New Zealand Festival programme for The King’s Singers and Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir concerts 10-11 March 2018. By Gregory Camp.

Choral music has played a central role in the international success of Aotearoa New Zealand’s music. Since Professor Peter Godfrey and subsequently Dr Guy Jansen began building up our choirs a few decades ago, choral music has increasingly become one of New Zealand’s most important musical exports. Today, few could argue that one of the most central figures in choral music in this country is Dr Karen Grylls. In her roles as Artistic Director of Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir since its founding in 1998, Conductor of the New Zealand Youth Choir from 1989 to 2011, and staff member of the University of Auckland since 1985, Karen has been central not “only” as a conductor, but also as a teacher and as a supporter of new music. Many of the conductors of New Zealand’s most successful secondary school and community choirs are her former conducting students, and many alumni of the National Youth Choir have gone on to major international careers (The King’s Singers’ Christopher Bruerton, who is performing tonight, among them). Works she or her choirs commissioned from New Zealand composers such as Eve de Castro-Robinson, Leonie Holmes, Gillian Whitehead and David Hamilton have been performed all over the world.

Voices NZ was recognised as one of the world’s leading choirs right after its founding at the 1998 International Choral Competition in Tolosa, Spain. One hallmark of choirs at this level is that they have an identifiable sound, a sound that remains roughly the same in spite of individual singers coming and going. Usually this sound comes down to the conductor. What is the Karen Grylls sound? If we were to get technical, we could say it’s rooted in the English cathedral choir tradition (learned from Peter Godfrey) with superstrata of North American sound production and a Scandinavian aesthetic affinity, all built on a deeper foundation of Kiwi knowhow and daring-do. But no matter how it is described, it is a sound that is immediately recognisable. How is it that a non-singing figure in front of a choir can shape the sound in such an identifiable way? How can even different iterations of Voices NZ sound like the same choir over time? It starts with the ears, specifically with voice matching. To an outsider, the process of voice matching looks like some sort of arcane ritual. Singers might sing a short phrase, such as the opening of “God save the Queen”, over and over again as they are placed beside other singers in various combinations. “George and Jim clash; try putting George on the other side of Fred.” “No, Fred needs to be next to Sam.” “Well, try the Fred–Sam core between George and Jim.” “God save our…” “Yes, that’s it! The section came alive!” While most people wouldn’t immediately hear the difference, the trained ears of an excellent conductor know that such minute changes of placing can have major effects on the final sound of the choir, and experts like Karen Grylls and her team can imagine from hearing individuals how they will contribute to the full choral sound. You can bet that any choir with a gorgeously blended sound is the product of long voice matching sessions before the music has even been extensively rehearsed.

Once the choristers are sitting in the optimal position, it is time to work on the repertoire at hand. Vowel tuning lies at the centre of the process of bringing music from the score to the concert hall in a pleasing way. There is a scientific explanation for this: different vowels (of which English has about 24) all produce different overtones. If the whole choir is not singing the same vowel, the overtones clash with each other and can give the impression of being out of tune. Tuning a piano, with three strings for each note, takes quite a long time; imagine how much more work is involved in tuning 24 singers!

Another important feature of Voices NZ rehearsals that leads to the Grylls sound is storytelling. Never are sounds allowed to be merely beautiful; they also need to be invested with dramatic and narrative intent. Having a clear story in mind helps the singers to present something that goes beyond the score, and a lot of rehearsal time is given over to deciding on the story to be told in a particular piece. For example, rehearsing Bob Chilcott’s “We Are” for this performance included consideration of poet Maya Angelou’s history: to be able to tell this story effectively the choir needed to know where the text came from.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, teamwork is central to Karen’s approach. Karen relies upon trusted artistic advisors to help shape the sound, her rehearsals are not one-woman shows but rather offer a model of collaboration. Vocal coaches Catrin Johnsson and Robert Wiremu provide innumerable insights into everything from vowel production to storytelling, and CEO Arne Herrmann and Operations Manager Emma Billings ensure a smooth process. A successful choir can only really work with excellent skills both on the rostra and behind the scenes: all contribute to what an audience hears in a performance.

This ethos of teamwork extends to the choir members themselves. Most come with previous experience of working with Karen, either in the University of Auckland Chamber Choir, the National Youth Choir, or both. This leads to a shared approach to music-making and also a great deal of investment among the choir in the process of producing the best sounds possible. World-class choirs like Voices NZ work on the assumption that its members know how to read music at sight. When a full concert needs to be prepared with only two days of rehearsal, there is no time to waste on note-bashing. Especially difficult pieces or new ones without existing performance histories are sent to the choir in advance, but busy schedules all around mean that most members will not have had much time to learn the music beforehand. Mistakes can be made in rehearsal (they are a natural part of the learning process), but only once: a singer who cannot fix a mistake quickly is unlikely to be asked back. While speed is of the essence in rehearsal, years of patient musical study are required before a singer can get to that place. Technique lies at the heart of all successful musicmaking, and that goes for the conductor as well as the singers. Karen has a natural gift for visual communication, backed up by a desire to keep learning about the technical aspects of music. In this, she serves as a model for those who sing with her, emphasising that we should all strive to never stop learning and reminding us that we all (including the audience) have important roles to play in the creation of the music.

Good choirs do not happen by chance or by magic. They need a conductor’s guiding vision to transform a large group of individuals into the entity called a choir, they need new music to perform, they need a unified conception of sound, they need to be founded on good technique, and they need to successfully pass on their music to audiences of all types. We are lucky here in our long white cloud to have all of these traits embodied in the person of Karen Grylls.


Gregory Camp is a Lecturer in Musicology at the University of Auckland School of Music, where he also serves as Director of Postgraduate Studies and Artistic Director of the Wallace Opera Training Programme. He is also a member of Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir.


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