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18 December 2009

On the road with Tony Backhouse

Tony Backhouse with the Café of the Gate of Salvation choir at the Hemispheres Olympic Arts Festival (2000) Image: Tony Backhouse with the Café of the Gate of Salvation choir at the Hemispheres Olympic Arts Festival (2000)  

Composer and conductor Tony Backhouse has spent much of the latter half of 2009 on the road, running workshops and leading a group of singers and choir directors from Australia and New Zealand on a gospel tour of churches, choir rehearsals and quartet programs in Memphis, Chicago and New York. In this interview, he explains his approach to workshops and tells us about some of the places they have taken him to.

AH: You've been running workshops for years - would you be able to describe a typical situation with a community choir - the starting point, what happens over the workshop and where do you end up

TB: I've been running workshops for the public since about 1987, and have worked a lot with community choirs. (Several choirs have, I believe, grown out of my public workshops.) Established choirs generally invite me to run a session, or a weekend, with them, to learn gospel and/or pop and/or African gospel, or they might commission me to write new arrangements and teach them. And part of teaching those kinds of songs is teaching the performance style, the movement, the attitude, ways to make the song more alive.

Typically I start by teaching a short piece, a traditional gospel song that takes an instant to learn by ear. Once everyone has the notes and words in their heads, I then work on the rhythm - the underlying groove, physical movement - and dynamics: points of emphasis; what are you trying to say in the song. And then have the group sing the piece as if in performance, using various devices familiar to gospel choirs: introducing parts one by one, repetition, and so on. Because we often only have a short time together, this quickly establishes how we are at communicating together - the choir gets to know my style, I get to know theirs.

Over the course of the workshop, we learn more songs, mostly aurally. The material I work with, by and large, has developed in a tradition that encourages maximum participation, so it tends to have a formulaic and episodic structure, shorter texts and more repetition than, say, Palestrina - so I may hand out scores for reference after we've learned the song. Some choirs or workshops, however, want more complex material, in which case I'll hand out the scores earlier - but usually only after we've learned a section of the song, so we've already built up a relationship with it via the ears and heart. I will almost always find some time in the workshop for a short session on group improvisation. At the end of a public workshop, we sing through all the material, and sometimes this can be an informal concert for the singers' family and friends.

AH: You mentioned some choirs have actually started as a result of these workshops - which ones?

TB: Well, at least the Honeybees in Sydney, which started about 1996, and Heaven Bent in Auckland which started around the same time.

AH: Do you often go back to work with the same choirs?

TB: There are a few choirs with which I've had a long-term relationship. I left the Café of the Gate of Salvation in 2007, but they invite me back whenever I'm in Sydney to teach something new or to perform with them. The Honeybees also has me in from time to time. In Auckland I've coached and performed with Heaven Bent and Jubilation over the last 12 years, and in Christchurch I work with Global Voices at least once a year.

AH: Where have you been running workshops most recently? Are there some choirs that you have developed a special relationship through this activity?

TB: Most recently I've run weekend workshops in Cairns, Brisbane, Warrnambool, the Mana Retreat Centre in NZ, and week-long workshops in Central Australia and Samoa. In Central Australia, I led the Desert Choir, a group of 15 singers from all over Australia and New Zealand, who walked through the Western McDonnell Ranges, singing in acoustically lovely gorges and around the campfire. It culminated in a free concert in the Hermannsburg church (another acoustically gorgeous spot) for the locals and tourists.

In Samoa, 35 palagi (from Australia, NZ and Switzerland) and I all stayed in a village-style resort at Saleapaga village and learned Samoan hymns and gospel songs from me, and traditional songs from the local music minister, Tapu Legalo. We sang with the local church choir in the service, sang at the beach fiafia and performed in Apia for the Deputy Prime Minister. I've developed a good relationship with Tapu and his son Paie, and the Reverend Uaiea, and I'm learning how to communicate with the local choir. Tragically, Saleapaga has been destroyed by the recent tsunami, and is only just beginning to be '...I asked the tenors and basses to sing together. Talk about loud, the resulting volume just about made my ears bleed.'rebuilt. Everything was swept away, and I lost one of my friends there. It's unlikely to be practical to do the same thing there again for a year or two.

When I went to Samoa the previous year, the high point for me was working with the church choir. Tapu asked me to teach the choir a song at a special rehearsal after church on our last Sunday there. A few days before, he had helped me with some Samoan words for a tune I'd written that I imagined sounded sort of Pacific 'Fa'afetai i le Atua', and had heard us, the palagi, sing this song on our last night as a group at Faofao. So I felt honoured and bemused when he asked me to teach it to the choir. About 30-strong, the choir was rich in basses and tenors, but had fewer altos and less sopranos. My wife Marianne and other Australians who had stayed on to holiday at Faofao helped me out by singing in the sections with the choir.

I started by teaching the first four bars of the tenor part - a shy and tentative noise returned to me from the pews. We did it again, and again the response was barely audible, but they seemed to have it, so I moved on to the bass part. Again, a tentative response, but it sounded ok, so I asked the tenors and basses to sing together. Talk about loud, the resulting volume just about made my ears bleed. Astonishing. After that everything was up to 11, rich and strong. I loved it, and felt honoured and privileged that they liked the song.

AH: Does gospel repertory work particularly well for workshops - if so, why do you think that is?

TB: The traditional gospel repertory works well with any choir, but it's very encouraging for the less-experienced singer. Firstly, there aren't too many notes to bash, and they tend to be in a conservative musical language. Secondly, there aren't too many words to remember. Thirdly, it's rhythmic and joyful. Fourthly, there are no bits of paper. So, almost from the start, the singer can focus on the feeling, the colour and movement, the tone and dynamics and the overall picture of the song. The singer has more opportunity to listen than if they were focusing on a score and worrying about the page-turn or imminent weird interval. Also, in the hands of a skillful director, a song that has only four lines (and two of them repeated) can turn into a rich and dramatic experience.

Most community gospel choirs you'll hear in Australia are composed of singers who have had not a lot of training or experience. So part of the challenge, for any community choir leader, is to create a consistent and versatile blend from singers from varying vocal cultures: alleged non-singers, as well as those with backgrounds in rock, country, classical, jazz, folk - name your genre - plus different nationalities. The gospel choir tone is an untrained (in the classical sense), vernacular tone, but tends to eliminate tonal differences by using a fair amount of twang. So each singer has some freedom to maintain their natural tone. Other types of a cappella group no doubt attract a different type of singer - you don't join a jazz chorus, early music ensemble or a madrigal group unless you have a certain type of voice and some chops.

AH: Is the element of improvisation in gospel something that most people can learn easily - or is it the difficult bit?

TB: Actually, there's not as much improvisation in gospel as you'd think. To my mind, practitioners in the African American sacred music tradition approach a piece in either of two ways, which I will call 'performance' or 'congregational'. In practice, these two approaches can overlap.

The performance approach is like that of the Western music concert tradition: the piece is rehearsed, conducted, structured. In performance there are three likely areas for improvisation: the soloists may improvise (but many don't go beyond a few formulaic interpolations - once they have their song down, soloists will sing it the same way for years), in a quartet, each voice can vary their part within parameters set by their relationship to the other voices, and, in a choir, the director is the one who can improvise, altering the shape of the song by changing dynamics, by repetition of certain elements (verses, choruses, vamps, chain vamps) or breaking a piece down to constituent elements (SATB separately).

In a congregation, in church, or a worship situation, where there is no audience and where 'I tend to incorporate some group improvisation in my workshops to encourage singers to listen more, to try something new, to interact with each other in a new way.'the event is not a performance as such, songs or prayers are sung in unison but loosely, with each singer interpreting or embellishing the tune as they feel (variant heterophony), or songs are sung in harmony, with room for individual interpretation or comment (interjections: 'thank you Lord' and so on). Then there is 'free worship' in Pentecostal churches, where everyone expresses themselves aloud simultaneously.

So, on with the question. I tend to incorporate some group improvisation in my workshops to encourage singers to listen more, to try something new, to interact with each other in a new way. My approach is loosely based on the 'free worship' model, so everyone is singing together and (more importantly) listening. Some people initially find it impossible, but will later find themselves taking a chance. It's not difficult to learn to come up with a simple one-word response, just difficult for some to overcome their inhibitions and preconceptions. People have a stereotyped view of 'gospel' and assume, because they don't naturally sound like Aretha, that what they sing can't be appropriate or authentic, or of interest. Once they see it as having a conversation with the rest of the group (as opposed to thinking they suddenly have to channel Aretha or Bobby McFerrin), people quickly get used to it. In performance, that kind of group improvisation rarely happens unless it's a group that's been working together for a long time.

AH: Is musical literacy important? Working with community choirs, you would encounter lots of people who don't read music - how do you overcome this?

TB: I tend to teach aurally in workshops, but it depends on the difficulty of the material. I'm not teaching any Messiaen. If I can't remember what happens next, I figure others will sooner or later be in the same boat, so that's when I hand out the paper. Ha! But with the choirs I've directed, I've often handed out the paper because the songs I've written or arranged are slightly more involved than the workshop material. Not everyone there could read music, but the section head were often skilful sightreaders and could guide others while I'm working with another section.

Working with non-readers has never been a problem. I don't ever remember a non-reader saying, 'Oh I wish I could read music', but sometimes the musically literate in the room will start begging me for a score because that's what they're used to. Or the opposite, sometimes the musically literate will rejoice in the freedom from having to look at the score.

AH: Are there advantages in not being able to 'read'?

TB: I think people retain parts better if they've learned them by ear. My choirs never perform with scores, and I ask them to put them away as soon as we've learned the song. I've never seen a Black gospel choir with bits of paper.

AH: How would you describe the state of a cappella choral traditions in Australia today - are people generally comfortable and used to singing without accompaniment? Are these traditions alive and well? Is there something that needs special attention?

TB: Compared to 1986, when I started the Café of the Gate of Salvation, the a cappella choral scene is flourishing. Back then there was only one community choir, Mesana Salata, that I knew of in Sydney - but then I don't get out much - and I started my choir because I couldn't see any other options. Now there are a cappella choirs everywhere, but it's not a purist 'a cappella scene', rather a community singing scene - the instrumentation, or lack thereof, is incidental, in that many a cappella choirs are happy to include instrumental accompaniment from time to time.

People feel more comfortable singing, and there seems to be a common repertoire, or at least certain songs that turn up at certain times that every choir arranges and makes their own - like the old spiritual 'Down to the river to play', South African songs like 'Senzenina' or 'Sinje je je', or Hunters and Collectors' 'Throw your arms around me'. There are large gospel choirs like Melbourne Mass Gospel Choir, eccentric franchises like the Spooky Men's Chorale, and repertories that range from Bulgarian to Bacharach, and there is, I think, a feeling that whatever the genre, you can turn it into a choral piece.

AH: You've introduced gospel repertory to many white, Australian singers, and you are also composing in this style yourself. Is there anything in gospel that remains inaccessible for white performers, or people that are not Christians?

TB: Growing up white in culturally diverse, relativistic yet often uptight Anglo-Australia or New Zealand, one has a lot of potential models - you can go C&W, rock, jazz, early music, folkloric, opera, whatever. My neighbour sings differently to me. We don't share a common singing culture. What you have in the Black gospel tradition is a 'Black gospel is a genre that is less an art form than a way of life, rooted in faith, colour and history'unified culture, as you do in any traditional culture (I'm thinking also of Samoan and other Pacific Island cultures): one grows up amongst people who all do the same things the same way and sing the same songs. Why do they sing so loud in Tonga? Because they don't have an experience of singing any other way. If you grow up with people singing wholeheartedly in full voice all around you, and you never see anyone mumbling into their hymn book half a beat behind the organ, singing wholeheartedly in full voice is going to be your model. So it is in the African American church world, which still tends to be separate from white America - you get a culturally agreed vocal tone, attitude, phrasing, etc.

Black gospel is a genre that is less an art form than a way of life, rooted in faith, colour and history, and where church performers share qualities of commitment and passion that is virtually impossible for outsiders to reproduce. Technically, it's about subtleties of rhythm and nuances of pitch. Black singers and congregations will microtonally sharpen or flatten certain intervals in ways that can elude me.

AH: Your relationship with gospel goes back a long way, you studied gospel and blues in the US before you went on to found the Cafe of the Gate of Salvation choir - which has now been in existence for more than 20 years. Have you ever been criticised for crossing cultural borders or appropriating material from other cultures? If you have, what have you replied?

TB: When the Café of the Gate of Salvation started, we were now and again reviled by those who were offended by religion, who saw us as upholding a corrupt and irrelevant tradition, and also by the opposite camp - Christians who thought we should be saving souls. And the odd white folklorist would object to us white folk ripping off Black folk yet again. However I've had dealings with and made friends with a good many Black gospel singers and music ministers over the years, and they all wholeheartedly encourage and support other peoples singing their music. They want to share the music they love with the world, and love the fact that choirs all over the world, from Sweden to Spain to Samoa, sing negro spirituals and gospel songs. Anyway, why should an accident of birth preclude me from singing the music I love? Does anyone ever knock Dame Kiri for doing all that opera?

AH: Tell me about your current work - whom are you working with, what kind of music are you composing, arranging and playing? With whom do you sing yourself?

TB: Currently I'm travelling a lot, running workshops in various exotic locations, I've just been to Canada and led a group of singers and choir directors from Australia and New Zealand on an American tour. This was a gospel tour, where we visited (and sang at) Black churches, choir rehearsals and quartet programs in Memphis, Chicago and New York. Then time in Nashville and New Orleans doing some research - and tracking down friends in New Orleans I hadn't seen since Hurricane Katrina. After that, I ran workshops in Paris, and ran several workshops in the UK. Then a week in Fiji with another group of palagi, singing gospel and Fijian songs, and interacting with the locals.

When I'm not on the road, I do a lot of commissioned arrangements for community choirs (pop songs, gospel songs), but I'm back playing the guitar and am rehearsing and recording with various chums (including my wife Marianne) in New Zealand - doing a lot of my songs, and, as always, infiltrating unsuspecting tunes with indulgent vocal harmonies. I also have a vocal improvisation quartet that tries to meet every week. And I still love to sing old gospel quartet songs with my chums back in Sydney, the Heavenly Lights.

I'm still trying to write funky choral pieces, I have a couple I'm working on for the Café of the Gate of Salvation - and I'm still trying to create the missing link between Ockeghem and James Brown.

AH: I've heard rumours about a forthcoming book about directing a choir - when are we going to be able to read it?

TB: Friends and colleagues have suggested I write a book on how I work with choirs, and I've finally got it together. It's called Freeing the song - an approach to vocal group directing and will be published (by my publishing wing, École de Fromage) in 2010. It will include chapters on creating successful rehearsals and performances, warm-ups, improvisation, communication, running a group and more.

Further links

Tony Backhouse - AMC profile
Tony Backhouse - homepage
Café of the Gate of Salvation - choir homepage
Honeybees - choir homepage

Subjects discussed by this article:

Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, and editor of Resonate magazine.


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