Saturday 19 March 2016

Singing is great for you, and doesn't hurt anybody - Will Todd talks about his new ensemble, and his new work for the Bach Choir's outreach programme

Will Todd
Will Todd
The composer and pianist Will Todd is perhaps best known for his Mass in Blue, but he is also the composer classic choral music recorded by Tenebrae, and of the popular family opera Alice's Adventures in Wonderland which was written for Opera Holland Park and has been a perennial favourite on the Yucca Lawn since it premiered in 2013. I recently met up with Will to find out more about how he came to combine a love of jazz with classic choral music, and to hear more about his new project for the Bach Choir's outreach programme, as well as his own new vocal ensemble Reverb. Conversation with Will is always a lively affair and in the event our encounter ranged widely from Will's composition technique, the economics of choral music, and the problems of creating opera

Will Todd Reverb
Will Todd Reverb
This year Will launches his own vocal group Will Todd Reverb. They have a debut performance in March and will then be going into the studio to record a disc of Will's music, both new and old items. Will started the group because 'the time felt right', he has been thinking about it for some time. But there is a practical side too, Will has the need to make demo recordings and such.

Originally he planned to have 16 voices, but at a National Youth Choir event he heard the eight choir Fellows singing together and was struck how wonderful an octet could be. So the group will start as an octet, with Will taking the practical view that it can always be scaled up. Their first performance will be a private event in March which is designed to encourage possible sponsors and supporters. Repertoire will include items from Will's successful disc with Tenebrae, conducted by Nigel Short.

But he also plans to write music for the group, and with eight soloists he can write quite complex textures. And having just two singers per part means that there are fewer blending problems than in a larger group. As a former singer (Will was a boy treble), it is clear that he takes a very practical view of writing for voices. He comments that it requires humility from a singer to match their tone to others to achieve  good blend. This leads to a discussion on vibrato, and Will comments that he has a very in and out relationship with vibrato, but it can lead to sumptuous textures if well supported.

Will Todd - Mass in Blue -- Signum Records
The album which Will and Reverb are recording for Signum Records will just be voices and piano (and some unaccompanied pieces), returning to what Will describes as his roots. When he composes he uses the piano, playing and singing and feels that this texture is an essential part of his compositional make-up. He sees this combination as having an honest feel, 'a guy who sits down at the piano and some singers'. The choir's title Will Todd Reverb is a pun on the idea of them reverberating Will's ideas.

Will grew up playing the piano, starting at the age of two but he was completely untaught and didn't have a lesson until he was 12. He learned by trial and error, listening to his sister (who did have lessons), and attempting to read music (with varying degrees of success) and as a result he has what he describes as a highly idiosyncratic technique. Whilst he composes at the piano, he points out that he also gets ideas when walking along particularly with regard to the texture and shape of pieces.

Economics clearly comes into the way Will is setting up Reverb, and he is clearly a thoughtful and pragmatic musician. He asks who the market for choral music is? A rhetorical question, but an important one as Will makes most of his money from choral music yet a lot less people buy it than they did in the past. With teenage children himself, Will knows that young people just don't expect to pay for their music. The revenue from CD's is a fraction of what is was when the medium first came out. Will talks about recordings having to be loss leaders, and adds that this is why old rock acts are back on the road. Whilst people might not pay for recordings, they are willing to pay for tickets to gigs. So you have to be light on your feet.

In Will's case it tends to be the big choral society pieces which are still sold, such as Will's very popular Mass in Blue or small pieces, but as every composer knows you just cannot tell what will be popular. He quotes the case of his carol My Lord has Come. It was originally written for Carols for Choirs 5, he wrote it in a few minutes and it has since taken off. So for Will the only solution is to try and get the piece right for you. Every piece he writes, he asks 'does it work for me?' With a composer there is also the question of style, Will points out that successful pop producer will keep producing hits in the same style. The same can happen for a composer if you get a sound going that works for you.

Elena Sharkova conducts the 2015 Middle School/Jr. High Girls Honor Choir in the premiere performance of Will Todd's Gloria in Excelsis at the 2015 ACDA National Convention.

As a boy chorister in Durham, Will sang music by John Rutter, and pieces from 'Carols for Choir One', but he points out that the commercial world is now completely different. It is now far harder for musicians to make money from their work (his teenage son once commented 'what's the point of copyright'). Will worries that the time is not far off when the only people who can produce art are the independently wealthy.

Will is of an age that, though his mother's family were all working class, a belief in education and a system which supported it enabled the next generation to take advantage of this. He points out that it seems no co-incidence that many of the major playwrights from the 1950's and 1960's were working class. Something which seems harder to imagine in the present climate. Will finds that, as an artist, it is hard to express these tension, and that people who pay for art in the modern world are not as interested.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Opera Holland Park - 2014,  photo credit Alex Brenner
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Opera Holland Park - 2014,  photo credit Alex Brenner
At this point, our conversation takes a lurch into an idea for an opera and we end up discussing the problems of creating opera. Will feels that opera is all in the libretto, if you don't have this right then it won't work. For his family opera Alices Adventures in Wonderland (see my review of the 2015 revival) Will wanted young people to be engaged and so changed the plot of book so that the opera had a strong narrative with a specific goal.

Opera is a complex business, Will comments that you can create a beautiful scene for eight minutes and make it go wrong in ten seconds. Will sees the key to this as being the relationship between composer and librettist, you need to be thick skinned in collaborations whether it be a libretto or a marriage, it can't just be a big love-in. The playwright David Simpatico, with whom Will wrote his opera The Screams of Kitty Genovese was someone with whom Will got on well. And so on their second project, Will found he could be more direct and get more done.

Bach Choir Outreach - David Hill rehearses with the children for 'The World in Folk Song' featuring folk songs from around the world
Bach Choir Outreach - David Hill rehearses with the children for
'The World in Folk Song' featuring folk songs from around the world
Photo Bach Choir
Another big project which Will has coming up is a new piece for the Bach Choir. This is being written for a choir of 200 children, and Will comments that this could be a recipe for disaster. The work is being written for the Bach Choir's outreach scheme. Will clearly admires the scheme, it isn't something which is hived off, but involves members of the choir giving time to do it themselves. At any time around 20 members of the choir are doing outreach with ten schools. Will describes them as well chosen schools, with a mix of children aimed towards a poorer demographic.

Will received the commission a year ago, having been present last summer at St John's Smith Square when 200 children and 40 to 50 Bach Choir members performed Alan Bullard's cantata Mr Lear and was tabled to write this year's piece. Will has written a lot of pieces for outreach schemes, and some worked well and some were rubbish. Whether the piece worked, Will felt, was a lot to do with the organisation rather than the quality of the material and this particularly involves projects which attempt something which is impossible to achieve. For Will the trick is to get a piece where the outreach singers have an exciting and prominent role, but on that they can do successfully.

For Will's new project, he and the choir decided that the new piece would use the both the outreach singers and the whole Bach Choir, as well as the Young Singers (run by the Tri-borough Music Hub in partnership with The Bach Choir). In order to get the best piece possible, Will suggested Michael Rosen (the Children's Laureate from 2007 to 2009) as an ideal candidate for the text as the work is aimed at the 9-10 age group, the age group which studies Michael's poems at school.

Lights, Stories, Noise, Dreams, Love, Noodles
Will wanted the work to be about London, but this can be rather limiting. He came up with the name Lights, Stories, Noise, Dreams, Love, Noodles (in fact an acrostic), but by September this was all he had. At a meeting with Michael Rosen they went through Michael's poems and selected ones which fitted into the six categories based on the words in the title. None of the poems would work for Will as they studied, and Michael told him he could just change what he wanted though Will wasn't really sure that Michael meant.

Will has a technique he uses when trying to get to grips with text, he puts lots of important words on a paper in a word cloud. So he selected words and half-phrases from Michael's poems and put them onto six big pieces of paper, one for each category. He created some songs from the cross-fertilised poems, but others felt incomplete. He then had to present the results to Michael Rosen (Will describe it a horrible, presenting to collaborators). Michael is a very prolific writer, Will describes him as like a jazz musician but with words, so Michael created lyrics from the fragments and with a third session both the songs and lyrics were finished.

Both were excited, feeling they had created some interesting songs with music and lyrics which would appeal to the children. The adult singers will appear in all the songs with a variety of complex and interesting textures including gospel-like singing, jazz-scat singing and even has the Bach choir as 70's session singers. In all the songs there are sections for the children to sing, either choruses or simple repeated phrases. There was a try-out for the piece with the Bach Choir, and Will at the piano; thankfully they liked it. Will comments that his music should always be well written for choirs; well written, and sensible but fun, energetic and soulful which is why the Mass in Blue is popular. The complete work is due to be performed at the Methodist Central Hall on June 17, and the accompaniment will be Will himself at the piano, bass, plus drum kit and percussion.

The work is not so much about London as about city life. One of the Michael Rosen poems is about people coming to London from everywhere, which was written about his family which is Jewish but can apply to all. The works are nice to sing as adults but they make sense to children, which Will describes as the gift of a children's author. Will remembers, as a young treble, the excitement of taking part in a massed choir  event in Durham Cathedral, the thrill to be part of a bit choir. And he is hoping that this is what the young singers will experience in a wonderful choir making a wonderful sound. Singing is great for you, and doesn't hurt anybody.

Full details for the premiere of Will Todd's London: Lights, Stories, Noise, Dreams, Love and Noodles from the Bach Choir website.

Recordings of Will Todd's music
Lux et Veritas - music for peace and reflection - Tenebrae, Nigel Short
The Call of Wisdom - Tenebrae, English Chamber Orchesta, Nigel Short
Mass in Blue - Vasari Singers, Jeremy Backhouse
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Fllur Wyn, Opera Holland Park, Matthew Waldren

Elsewhere on this blog:

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