A professional perk of choral music is access to famous buildings after dark. When I joined the jury of New Music for St Paul's, a competition to write an Advent anthem, I had the extreme version of this privilege, entering the Cathedral just after the tourists had been kicked out, via a door so small in scale that it might have been the coal hatch in former times. Inside, comparing models of the present Cathedral with the one that burned down in 1666, it seemed as if this ‘new’ (Christopher Wren) building we all know is significantly smaller than its predecessor. Hearing three new shortlisted works sung by a vocal consort in the almost completely empty church, we were well-placed to experience its extraordinary reverberation time of 13.8 seconds. If you want to hear anything in this building, spoken or sung, sit right at the front as the regulars do.
The shortlisted music we heard performed (out of a healthy send-in of about 30 international works) was presented to us anonymously. So it was both a pleasant surprise and also made complete sense that the unanimously agreed winner was Edward Nesbit, a composer whose outside-the-box choral music I’ve enjoyed before. The winning work 'In To Plain Ways' is led by a strangely-leading almost folk-like melody (but incorporating much structural ornamentation) accompanied by a hypnotically repeating harmonic cell. The treble/soprano part looked a little daunting to me, so I was happy to hear St Pauls’ director of music Andrew Carwood saying that “there’s no reason why children couldn’t sing that”. Meeting Edward for the first time, I was encouraged to learn that he isn’t an ex-choirboy, singer or church organist (I am firmly in favour of these occupations, but it’s good to know that the field isn’t closed to newcomers). He is however a progressive composer, prepared to extend his experimental vision into the realm of choral music. I would strongly advise any of today’s host of young British composers to do the same, and take any opportunity to work with the extraordinary musicians working nowadays in our churches and cathedrals.