Vocal chords

Sixteen choirs met at London’s Roundhouse in March. Nick Smurthwaite voices his opinion on the forthcoming Channel 4 film based on the event

One of this year’s most ambitious cultural happenings, Because I Sing, at London’s Roundhouse in March, was produced by Artangel Media and filmed for Channel 4. It consisted of 16 choirs, all based in London, representing an extraordinary cross-section of race, culture and creed.

They included the Shout Choir, the London Jewish Male Choir, the Congolese Christian Choir, the Ngati Ranana Maori Choir (who’d have thought there were that many Maoris in London?), the Swiss Church Music School for Children, the Gwalia Welsh Choir, the Kingdom Gospel Choir of Tooting and the London Gay Men’s Chorus.

The choirs provided, as one of the organisers pointed out, a microcosm of London itself. The task of pulling all these disparate elements together was undertaken, in the live event, by director Alain Platel, musical director Orlando Gough and in the Channel 4 film, by director Sophie Fiennes. Gough also composed the musical refrain Because I Sing, performed by his choir The Shout.

Where Fiennes had an advantage over the live event was in being able to give the choirs a context, to suggest the life of the city going on around them. So we had, for instance, the Lea Valley Women’s Institute Choir, stout-hearted ladies in sensible shoes, rehearsing in someone’s spacious north London lounge; some fiercely focused girls from South Hampstead High School being put through their paces by their perfection-seeking choirleader, while a game of netball took place outside; and some bored kids kicking a ball around a corridor in a Tooting hall, while their mums and dads exercised their lungs on a full-throated gospel stomper with the Kingdom Choir.

The diversity of aspiration, the passionate exultation and the sheer peculiarity of facial expression are all gifts to the observant director/ camera operator/ editor. The editor John Dinwoodie clearly had great fun cross-cutting the often-chaotic rehearsals with the comparatively polished performance at the Roundhouse.

While I could understand why Fiennes included the Welsh Choir’s impromptu rendering of a protest song while sitting around in the bar after a rehearsal, I couldn’t see the point of interjecting newsreel footage of the May Day riots with a performance by the Gay Men’s Chorus, especially as the riots happened a month after the Roundhouse shows.

The staging and filming of the event itself was clearly an operation requiring military skills of organisation and execution. There were no seats in the massive, cathedral-like Roundhouse space. Punters, performers and promoters were herded around, Top of the Pops-style, for two hours by a team of red-sweatered officials whose job it was to ensure that nobody got hurt by the huge, moveable staircases and camera gantries.

Platel has never made any secret of the fact that he likes his projects to be unpredictable and unmanageable, albeit to the point of anarchy. As one critic puts it, “In classic Roundhouse style, it was all a touch chaotic, but how could you resist the sheer ecumenical glory of such a project?”

What I found slightly disappointing about Because I Sing is that, given the vocal volume on hand, it seldom managed to raise the hairs on the back of your neck the way that great choral events should and invariably do.

You’re left with the impression that this was a good idea, certainly worth doing, that didn’t quite live up to its high expectations.

Because I Sing will be broadcast on Channel 4 at 7.30pm on 9 June

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