In Close Harmony


The excellent Burntwood School choir once again performed some of my music at a high-profile venue, this time in a concert shared with the Vasari Singers, an elegant amateur chamber choir. The Vasaris boldly opened the programme with the Allegri Miserere. It was the first live music I’d heard since the car/knife attack at Westminster the previous day, and was unexpectedly moving as a moment of reflection after what had happened yards up from where we were seated, in Smith Square.

Burntwood School sang my setting of ‘i carry your heart with me’ by E E Cummings. I recalled the first rehearsal of theirs I attended a year or two ago. I told them that this music (for upper voices in close harmony) had been influenced by the work of women R&B singers from the 1960s, and that they should try to sound more like Diana Ross And The Supremes. Of course, they looked completely blank at this information, even when their teacher, Debbie Lammin, launched into an impromptu evocation of Aretha Franklin. We reflected that of this music happened way before they were born – it would be the equivalent, when I was a 1960s schoolgirl, of having some old lady come in and talk about 1930s bandleaders.

Except that R&B is still a lasting inspiration to many people, and I believe, forever worth hearing. So I was really glad to catch up, on DVD, with a recent Oscar documentary winner about the lives of the women who sang in the backing groups during that era of music – titled Twenty Feet from Stardom. It explains how these session singers knew their harmony from singing gospel music; much time and arrangers' money was saved since they could improvise their backing tracks with such dynamism. As the title implies, these very skilled artists were absolutely crucial to the most successful music of several decades, but received little public recognition. One woman who performed with and became close to Mick Jagger now works as a college Spanish teacher. Another, Lisa Fischer, an incredibly gifted and cultured vocalist, issued a successful solo album but just couldn’t find the space in her life to follow it up; and anyway decided that she didn’t really feel at home as a ‘star’. At the end of the film I felt I had seen a very cogent statement about what happens to women who work in the musical profession.

Pictured - from Burntwood School's RIBA award-winning campus

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer

© Judith Weir, 2020