It seems very bad form (although ubiquitous on YouTube) for singers to photograph the conductor in mid-performance, but that’s what James Weeks told us to do when performing his partsong during a fantastic session at King’s Place. The photos had to be on the beat (revealing how widely camera phones differ in their shutter speeds) and reinforced by tongue clicks. It could only be COMA – the London branch of the Festival happening simultaneously in all the UK’s biggest cities at the weekend.
James was giving a workshop wittily titled "Diaphenia Redux: the Partsong Reborn!" He has been assembling a COMA Partsong Book, from which we (including lifetime non-singers like me) sightread the haunting, delicate "paper wings" by Sylvia Lim. With ‘open score’ notation (ie any part can be populated by anyone) a free choice of pitches and graphic time notation, it’s emblematic of COMA’s ‘just walk in’ approach. You can have the pleasures of ensemble singing without worrying, as happens in ‘proper’ madrigal singing, that you don’t have a tenor and you’ve somehow landed a tone or so lower than where you should be, and where are you anyway. It’s all so simple, and yet so cleverly invented.
In a morning conference session I was fortunate to join a discussion group led by Barbara Eifler of Making Music, a national organisation that champions amateur musicians, especially orchestras. It was a reality check to hear Barbara say that generally these were ‘self-financing, risk-averse’ groups who would, on the whole, prefer to perform the classics. Which made me wonder anew; who are the people who crowded into COMA’s weekend event (seemingly from many parts of the world) fearlessly stepping up to the avant-garde at every opportunity? How did they come to be like that, and how soon can I meet them all again? As a final example of this phenomenon, I joined the distinguished singer Jane Manning in her workshop to find that the large audience was ready and willing to take part in a sing-along performance of King Harald’s Saga, a work by me, known for its sheer impossibility. Keep taking the tablets, COMA folks!