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“The Observatory” by The Voice Project, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 8th May 2015

vpobs8515-3Line-up:
The Astronomy Choir Conducted by Sian Croose

Soloists:
Sianed Jones (soprano)
Sharon Durant (soprano alto)
Sian Croose (alto)
Greg Tassel (tenor)
Jonathan Baker (bass)

Instrumentalists:
BJ Cole (pedal steel guitar)
Joby Burgess (percussion)
Lewis Edney (trombone)
Stephen Saunders (trombone)
Adrian Lever (keyboards)

Music composed by:
Jonathan Baker
Orlando Gough
Karen Wimhurst

Venue:
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
University of East Anglia
Norwich
NR4 7TJ

Every once in a while, you come across a performance that simply leaves you completely spellbound, lost for words and wanting more. That was how the performance of “The Observatory” by Norwich-based open-access choir, The Voice Project, at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts as part of the annual Norfolk and Norwich Festival left me feeling. But before I heap every positive noun, verb and adjective I can find upon this truly excellent evening of contemporary modern music, a little bit of background about the project, it’s founders and what exactly it does.

As stated above, The Voice Project is an open-access choral project which offers members a chance to explore the many ways in which to creatively use the voice. It was conceived and brought into being back in 2008 by Sian Croose and Jonathan Baker. Since that time, The Voice Project has brought together literally hundreds of singers, publicly performing amazing new vocal works alongside workshops that aim to create, increase and build upon vocal confidence through the exploration of a whole range of uplifting and inspiring choral/vocal music.

Sian Croose has run choirs  and vocal groups for 25 years, singing on her own and with a cast of thousand as well as creating music projects in the  UK, Ireland and France and being a co-founder of The Voice Project.

Jon Baker is a founder member of alt-rock group, The Neutrinos, as well as being a singer, teacher and composer who has written extensively for TV, radio and theatre. He is also a co-founder of The Voice Project.

The Voice Project is enjoying something of a fast-developing and well-earned reputation for creating beautiful contemporary choral works that are designed to be performed in familiar places that they hope will (and I actually believe, do) inspire their audiences and performers (yes both) to walk through and see these places from a different perspective. As you might imagine, “The Observatory” has a space theme and it was felt that the open spaces, lighting conditions and modernist architectural lines of The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts would be the perfect place to give the performance form and inspiration.

So, to the concept of “The Observatory”. According to The Voice Project, it explores humanity’s relationship with space and the gradual attempts to understand and explore it, using the mediums of  poetry, science and music. Aspects such as weightlessness, distance, the unknown, infinity and astronomical geometry all act as parts of the puzzle to bring together this inspired and completely original work.

The three composers (Jonathan Baker, Orlando Gough and Karen Wimhurst) set texts from such sources as the metaphysics of George Herbert and the unbroadcast bulletins about Apollo 11, to name but a few, to a series of musical passages especially written for 150 plus choreographed voices and an ensemble of instruments including a full percussion set and pedal steel guitar.

The actual performance.

I can easily sum the whole thing up before I start. What I witnessed, nay, experienced, on this night was the glorious meeting of Star Trek with the love child of Ligeti and the Radiophonic Workshop. And yes, it was THAT good. Something I will no doubt say again during the course of this unashamed love-fest for The Voice Project.

vpobs8515-2As my partner was one of the 150-plus Astronomy Choir, I found myself as a member of the audience, supporting her by way of a change, instead of my usual place at the front, in the photo pit and/or lurking around the sides for the duration of the performance. And for this unique presentation, such a thing as “being at the front” was somewhat irrelevant because this was something of a promenade performance. I’ll explain. The audience gathered at a small shed-like construct some 100 metres away from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (SCVA), and dead on the dot of 9.00 p.m., a voice boomed out welcoming us to the evening and to follow the ushers to the various parts of the performance. We were then guided around seven separate areas of the SCVA whereupon we were able to enjoy that which The Voice Project had to offer. It’s a really cool and very immersive way of doing things, keeping the audience engaged and instilling that sense of “what next?” A major plus point in the originality stakes. So, we were led to one of the walkways that criss-cross the University of East Anglia’s brutalist structures, at the far edge of the SCVA, and we walked the twilight path towards the site of the first piece to be performed (called “As Dark As Light”), the choir were lined up alongside the outside of the SCVA, all holding small blue lights, which I took to be stars. When we reached the walkway, we could see the silhouettes of other choir members along the said walkway above us – standing like silent sentinels in the half-light. And then a light came up as the singing began and the performance took off.

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We moved to the rear of the SVCA where we found another smaller choir, soloists and a chromatic percussionist (mainly vibraphone) ready waiting for us, blue lights scattered across the  grass and members of the company dotted about, standing statue-still and holding blue lights. It was a fantastic effect. They performed “Donne the Spaceman”, beautifully contemporary and blending so many influences from the kitsch TV soundtracks of the 1960’s and 1970’s (for me it was the original “Star Trek” and “Planet of the Apes”) to the curious musique concrete oft heard in the science programs of the era.

vpobs8515-7From here we were led into the ultra-modernist surroundings of the SCVA itself, the exhibits covered in white cloth and the wonderfully ethereal tones of the pedal steel guitar, played with perfect beauty and restraint by BJ Cole, as we took our places ready for the next part of the performance. As I looked around, I could see already waiting for us, across a high-up walkway, down a spiral staircase (where I spotted my good lady in a white lab coat) and forming a kind of a semi-circle around us audience types, what I thought was the full Astronomy Choir, all of whom were stood statue-silent. But no, as the next part of the performance started, a distant choir down the far end of the SVCA started to sing, before they all began the utterly beautiful “The Lakes of the Moon, leading into gloriously contemporary spoken word/choral piece “The Unknown Knowns”, then the amazing “Orbit” before the final piece for this section, “We Are Listening”. These four pieces ranged from beautiful to surreal, from contemporary to experimental, from tonal to dissonant. How could this possibly be topped? I was about to find out.

As the last bars of “We Are Listening” were performed, we were ushered to the next performance area via a series of exhibits that are a part of the SCVA’s current display. What was completely surreal, freaky and totally brilliant was that individual members of the choir were stood at an exhibit each, staring at it whilst whispering unintelligibly. Inspired!!! I loved that effect and couldn’t hide an appreciative grin – this was proper performance art.

vpobs8515-1Through now into the middle section of the SCVA. Instrumentalists and soloists at the front (can’t really comment on that bit as I couldn’t see a thing, but no matter), and the choirs appearing on two balconies that flanked either side of this section. The next part was for me, the high-light of the evening. This was where I found my personal definition of sublime, a suite of music so incredibly intense and rich in form and texture that passing out may have been the only other option. Dramatic percussion, avant-garde brass, inspirational readings and then the Ligeti inspired section. If I never see another concert or arts performance again, I will always have that Ligeti section. György Ligeti was a Hungarian composer of contemporary classical music, described as one of the most important avant-garde composers of the mid-late 20th century, and seen as one of the most innovative and influential progressive figures of his time. Most  people will probably recognise his work from the Stanley Kubrik film adaptation of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, which includes excerpts from four of his pieces, these being “Atmosphères” (the StarGate sequence with portions heard in the Overture and Intermission), “Lux Aeterna” (the moon-bus scene en route to the TMA-1 monolith), “Requiem” (the “Kyriewas used when the monolith appears), and an electronically altered version of “Aventures” (in the cryptic final scenes). Looking at the title of the piece, “The Great Darkness”, I could see exactly what Orlando Gough, the composer of this section of “The Observatory”, was trying to achieve. I hope he was pleased with it because he achieved it. Drama gave way to the most thrillingly sublime micropolyphonic choral music I have ever heard.  A crescendoing cluster of human voices morphing and evolving over a what I really wanted to be an eternity, such was it’s power, presence and intensity, which took me the edge of a great unknown, a truly dark place that ebbed and flowed fear, wonder and yearning. Powerful stuff and worthy of a larger audience. Even the lack of visual stimulus at this point (lighting was, at best, minimal, however I understand this was down to no fault of the organisers, but a result of a number of venue-related issues, the old health and safety chestnut no doubt) could not detract in anyway from the enormity of the delicate wall of sound that surrounded us. My smile grew exponentially.

vpobs8515-6From here we were moved to the opposite end of the SCVA to where we came in. Awaiting us were the choirs, who had silently moved away during the last part of the Ligeti bit to take their places on the balcony and in front of the massive windows, the instrumentalists and the soloists. This penultimate piece was called “A Report” and gave the audience a wonderful blend of sounds from the near operatic tones of the soloists, to the intricate and highly skilled percussionist. Once again, they pulled back the volume and pace, leaving only the soloists singing as the choirs (armed with their blue starlights) moved out of the SCVA, with the audience in tow, for the final and beautiful ending, out on the lawns, and under the stars (something of a special nod to the weather for performing so brilliantly on this evening), lit by three large flaming candles and performing the most lovely reprise of “The Lakes of the Moon” before the singing stopped, the choirs with their little blue starlights, turned away from us and it was done.

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I don’t have enough words to commend this performance. I wanted to spend £20 on another ticket for the following evening, but they were sold out (I’m not above a bit of blagging my way in either – I’ll get back to you on that one!!!). All I can say is, if you see that The Voice Project are going to be performing, don’t waste any time thinking about it, don’t umm and ahh, don’t hesitate, delay or procrastinate. Just get a ticket and go.

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LInks:
THE VOICE PROJECT
SAINSBURY CENTRE FOR VISUAL ARTS
NORFOLK AND NORWICH FESTIVAL

Performance Images (courtesy of Neil Fellowes Photography):
The Voice Project – “The Observatory”