The Voice Project started eight years, the brainchild of Sian Croose and Jon Baker. A choir made up of non professional Norwich singers, performing newly composed pieces of choral music in unusual settings. What’s not to love about all this? They’ve done spectacular works at City Hall, Norwich Cathedral, Holkham Hall and the Sainsbury Centre. What’s next? Why, a sleepover at The Assembly House for five nights for 40 members of the public, who will be sung to throughout the night as they drift in and out of sleep with additional visuals by Sal Pittmann, all as part of Norfolk & Norwich Festival of course. And natch, a tasty breakfast in the morning. No doubt another unique, innovative and much talked about experience created by The Voice Project. I spoke to Jon about how it all began and where the hell they’re getting 40 beds from.
Jonathan, how did the Voice Project start eight years ago?
It’s a collaboration between myself and Sian. We’d been working together for years doing vocal work for people all over the country. We wanted to set up an organisation that brought new music to people with no experience – newly commissioned works by eminent composers who hadn’t perhaps written for voice before, performed by people who didn’t necessarily think they could sing or read music or have any musical background at all. It was a challenge on both sides really. We wanted to work with text, ideas, themes and philosophy, things like birth, death, time, flight, astronomy, community, democracy and other big subjects, but to make them quite small and accessible. As we went on we wanted to do more in terms of placing the performances into more of a theatrical context and with more of a site specific concept. Basically what we like doing is animating big spaces with large scale newly written choral music with a theatrical edge.
How did you get involved with the Norfolk & Norwich Festival?
We’ve been involved with them for years and years – most years we do a big project with them, and then in the winter we do another big project as well.
I know it’s an open choir which means really anyone can join. What if someone just can’t sing in tune or time?
Some people come to the choir who haven’t sung for 30 or 40 years. It can be a problem but our choir practices are as much about teaching singing as learning a piece. We worth with rhythm and pitch, and I’ve found that there are genuinely very few people who can’t do it. The worst one is when people have been told they can’t sing by a parent or teacher and so they’ve assumed it. But they can do it, and it’s an amazing experience sometimes for someone to realise that they can sing after all.
How can the people of Norwich get involved with it?
We usually hold a taster session for each big project that we do so people can get an idea of whether or not they’d like to do it. There are about 150 people signed up to the choir but not everyone is in every project – it depends on whether you fancy it or not, there’s no pressure. It’s not a static choir – life sometimes gets in the way!
I’ve seen the Voice Project before and no lyric sheets are given to the choir – how easy is it to learn the words and parts?
We don’t expect anybody to be able to read music. Sian and I record all the separate parts between us, sometimes even slowed down so they’re very learnable. Then we put all the parts onto SoundCloud so you can just learn your section. You can also click onto the whole mix so you can hear what it should sound like with everyone signing together, so you can practice along with that. You can put it in the car, in the kitchen, go running to it, and you learn by osmosis really. Not having sheets of music or words at a performance makes it such a great experience for both the choir and the audience – there’s no barrier there that way.
The Arms of Sleep is a very exciting concept for NNF17 – how did you come up with the idea and how long has it taken to develop it from beginning to end?
I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, we just had to work out how to do it, and why. Well, we just thought it would be a really beautiful experience, wouldn’t it magical to do something like this. The NNF thought it was a great idea and so over the last couple of years we’ve been writing it and coming up with ideas and going on site visits. We went to see a sleep scientist at Sussex University and he got very excited about it and we talked about sleep cycles and what kinds of states people get into during the night. He’s been really helpful. We’re doing it for five nights here and then another few nights at the Brighton Festival next year.
Were you inspired at all by Max Richter’s performance at last year’s NNF and his concert in London where people slept overnight?
We came up with the idea completely independently although some people might think we just wanted to do the same sort of thing. I really like what he’s done, I really like the music – it’s clever and beautiful. He’s got a different intention to us, where he wants people to just drift into sleep but we don’t want to do it quite like that. We want to have another dimension in terms of what happens in the morning as well, so it’s a slightly different trajectory. It’s just so great that performances are coming out of traditional concert halls, that’s what we all want to do.
On a practical note, where are you getting 40 beds from for the event, and how will you deal with snorers? Also, what’s for breakfast?
We want people to be comfortable – we are providing the bedlinen but more than that we are constructing the actual beds ourselves. Snoring…not everyone knows that they snore do they! I’m thinking about how we could use it, take the snoring and build it into the sound design on the night through live sampling? Obviously we won’t make anyone self conscious or put a big arrow above anyone’s head to say “here’s the snorer!”. There will definitely be coffee and pastries, but we’re talking to The Assembly House as well who are really keen to do something nice for us.
How will your singers cope with singing all night, or perhaps in the middle of the night, especially as you are doing five nights on the trot?
We’ve broken the choir up into shifts and then those shifts are voluntary – people can sign up for the various components of the night. They’re really excited about it, and although some people may have not signed up to this particular project because it’s outside their comfort zone, others have said they can’t wait to be a part of it, so it all works out nicely.
Can you tell us a little about the music, which has been composed specially for this show?
It’s a really rich subject, sleep. For me it started word-wise from two places –a professor of literature who wrote an essay called In Praise of Sleep which led me to other literature by people like Keats. Before that I found a lovely poems called Coleridge called What If You Slept. We’re working with very theatrical composers that we have worked with before – Helen Chadwick who writes nearly always unaccompanied vocal music, and Orlando Gough who does lots of big stuff for places like The Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne. Jon Hopkins sends us music that he has already written which we use, little outtakes of things and bits and pieces. He’s done these really bizarre remixes called The Asleep Versions where he’s taken his own music and mixed it so it’s what you might hear if you were listening to it whilst asleep - you get these tiny little beautiful gems. We’ll also be using sound design using various different things.
Sal Pittmann from KlangHaus is doing films and visuals for The Arms Of Sleep. How did she get onboard?
I’m in KlangHaus too, so I’ve been working with her for 10 years. She’s got a really great eye and her choices in terms of imagery are really beautiful. She’s a trusted member of the team and has a great aesthetic – I know she’s going to just get it and understand it straight away.
I went to your show Beyond Stars at the Cathedral. You used the space so well – Norwich offers some great venues that you’ve played in like the Sainsbury Centre, City Hall, Holham Hall and the Undercroft – to what extent is your work site-specific or inspired by spaces available to you?
It can work in lots of different ways. For example when we were in City Hall we wanted to write a piece about democracy, and it felt a bit subversive just to be in the space and have a big choir and audience, it felt weird. I’ve always loved Norwich Cathedral as a building and how it sounds and how the light works. We did a piece a few years ago there called The Proportions Of A Temple and it was inspired by the architecture and meaning of the Cathedral. We even based some of the frequencies on the maths of the measurements of the building! So yeah the environment really makes a difference to what we do. We were approached by The Assembly House who were interested in us doing a thing there, so we looked at it and decided it would work well.
What have you personally got from being a part of The Voice Project, and why would you recommend we come to The Arms Of Sleep?
Norwich has got a fantastic bunch of people who are quite experimental and sometimes the things that are going on here are really really great. I think there’s something incredibly connecting about voices – as human beings we respond to voices very strongly. When you see a person who you can identify with, you can think “they’re not a trained singer or a professional, they’ve just chosen to be in this choir”. It’s not elitist, and that’s really where Sian and I are doing this – creating a way that everyone can participate in new art and I think that’s really important. For the audience it builds an understanding and rapport and gets rid of any ‘us and them’ concept. It’s just ‘us’.
The Arms of Sleep is the second part of this trilogy – have you already started working on the third part?
We’ve started thinking about it – the trilogy is about consciousness, having it, losing it, from an artistic point of view. So we’re thinking about what it is to wake up in the biggest metaphorical way, being fully alive and fully engaged., It should be unfolding over the next year or so.
The Arms Of Sleep is at The Assembly House 22nd – 26th May as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival. Tickets are £40, £30 concs, and the event runs from 21:30 – 8am. Find out more at nnfestival.org.ukm and more about The Voice Project at voiceproject.co.uk.