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Writing for The King’s Singers: Toby Hession

 

Toby Hession (b. 1997) is a Music student at Cambridge University and a budding young composer. In 2015 he won our A Carol for Christmas competition. We then commissioned him to write a new work for us to celebrate our 50th anniversary, coming up next season. The result was his piece Master of Music, which we have recorded for our GOLD anniversary album. We asked Toby to write about the experience of writing for the group and about his experiences of The King’s Singers from an early age, and here is what he wrote:

 

Amongst a list of composers commissioned by the King’s Singers over the past fifty years appear such names as Sir James MacMillan, Sir John Tavener, Toru Takemitsu and György Ligeti. To be added to such a distinguished and exclusive list at the mere age of twenty is a huge honour – yet it is also slightly daunting! Of course, this is not just any commission. My compositional mindset was definitely affected by the fact that this particular work is to be performed in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the King’s Singers. In composing any anniversary work, I felt I should move beyond just a contemplation of sound. I wanted to examine what ‘the King’s Singers’ really meant to me, and the ways in which their work has had an impact on my own musical life.

This may sound like quite a vague contemplation – indeed, how does one go about conveying these thoughts through the music? I don’t know that this was necessarily the point to begin with – but the opportunity to compose music for such an outstanding ensemble does not come around often (especially at my age), and I did not want to leave any avenue unexplored.

My own experience of the King’s Singers really began around the age of thirteen, during my first year at Chetham’s School of Music. Moving far away from home was difficult to begin with, and I remember much of my first term being tinged with home-sickness and worry (whilst still enjoying my musical studies!). I can’t remember exactly when I stumbled across the videos of their Christmas carol arrangements on YouTube, but I remember that they always brought a smile to my face (and still do) – especially the use of Kazoos on one occasion… And so, in one respect, the King’s Singers have come to represent a kind of comfort or solace for me.

Not long after this, a friend insisted (very excitedly) that I watch another King’s Singers performance online. This turned out to be Paul Drayton’s Masterpiece – the vocal tour-de-force that attempts to convey five-hundred years of musical history in just a few minutes, by means of a series of exceptionally well-crafted pastiche movements. I found this particular performance captivating, especially as a composer interested as much in the imitation of old styles as in the exploration of new ones. On reflection, I think it was the treatment of sound here that attracted me most. Composers, critics and audiences so often talk of “the King’s Singers sound” – and although everybody thinks they know what this means, they should be in a quandary were they ever asked actually to explain it! In Masterpiece, I felt that the sound of the ensemble was somewhat cast aside, since the focus was on harnessing the ensemble to create the “Beethoven sound”, or the “Cage sound”. Few of the featured composers would ever have composed for such an arrangement, but this goes bizarrely unnoticed.

And indeed, this flexibility of sound and style was one of the most fascinating assets of the ensemble to me. As a group, the King’s Singers are as at home performing Renaissance motets as they are close-harmony arrangements of the Great American Songbook. For me, a piece that was to celebrate fifty years of musical excellence would somehow have to draw on this.

As it happens, I did not have the opportunity to hear the group live until five years later, during my first term at Clare College, Cambridge (I popped into King’s, just next door to hear a lunchtime recital they gave). I wonder whether it is just happenstance that the King’s Singers have come to mark new beginnings for me. Regardless, I remember being captivated by their purity of sound, and their intimacy of their group dynamic – a facet that cannot always be conveyed on recordings. There is something about the energy of the group, and the tightness of ensemble, that makes them captivating (perhaps this is part of what defines that ‘King’s Singers sound’…). The King’s Singers were also responsible for facilitating a huge step forward in my compositional career – in December 2015, I was fortunate enough to win the SATB category of their ‘A Carol for Christmas’ composition competition with my setting of Videntes Stellam. Not only did this enable me to have one of my works performed to a packed-out King’s College Chapel, but it also provided me with an opportunity to have the piece published by Edition Peters. I’m delighted to have been able to continue this partnership, and now have a growing number of pieces published through them. Such opportunities are invaluable for young composers, and I’m incredibly grateful to all those who have allowed this to happen.

Yet, despite all of this musing, I was mostly pre-occupied with the challenges of actually writing for this ensemble. Having settled on a text (Henry van Dyke’s Master of Music), I quickly discovered the two biggest challenges of writing for a six-part male a cappella group. Firstly: range. I had written for choirs that included countertenors before (and of course, male alto voices must be treated differently to females with regards to balance and timbre…), but never for a group wherein the countertenor range was the upper limit. I had to conceive a sound-world in which I had a slightly compressed compass situated lower in tessitura than the traditional SATB formation. The second challenge: breathing. Most choirs have at least two singers on each part – meaning that on particularly long musical lines, breathing can be staggered. With the King’s Singers, I had to treat each part as I would a wind instrument, allowing them opportunity to breathe where necessary without interrupting the musical flow. Combined, these two ‘issues’ meant that I had to take extra care in my voicing of chords. I could only have a maximum of six pitches simultaneously, and only if each individual line had breath for it.

The text – a poem that reflects on the transcendental nature of music, and its tendency to vanish as quickly as it is perceived – has an unsettling meter of sixteen syllables per line (with a persistent compound feel). It carries a wonderful rhythmic energy, however, which I have tried to preserve faithfully in my setting of it. In the end, I decided to ensure I retained my own music voice throughout the piece. I toyed with the idea of creating a collage of my favourite King’s Singers ‘sounds’, but decided to allow these ideas to influence my sound in a more subtle way. There are nods towards Renaissance counterpoint in places, alongside passages of jazz-infused harmony, with hints at many other styles, genres and eras in between. I often conceive and construct my music vertically – that is to say in terms of its harmony first and foremost – and so the prevailing texture is homophonic. The music is heard in six parts for almost the entire duration, drawing on the group energy and single-unit aspect of the sound. Having the opportunity to work with the group on this work and to be a part of the recording process was both rewarding and insightful. The piece sounded almost exactly as I had imagined (if not better!) – which was surprising, considering my lack of familiarity with the ensemble. I look forward very much to (hopefully…!) working with the group again soon.

 
 
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