The 2016-17 Fellowship's third assignment saw them working alongside one of the world's top vocal consorts on new music by British composer Owain Park.


At the start of November, we were thrilled to be invited to join Tenebrae in recording a new commission by Owain Park. The piece is written with the potential to be performed by one, two or three choirs, with sections for children’s chorus and another chamber choir, allowing Tenebrae plenty of opportunities to work with other ensembles during their subsequent touring. It was a real privilege to be invited to put down the ‘other’ chamber choir parts on record, knowing that this is going to be part of a much larger education scheme. We have had many conversations about what we can do in schools and workshops, but so far we have not had many chances to be part of a wider-ranging project.

Owain’s piece was a combination of six different poems, loosely themed around metaphors for death, or perhaps the passage of time, like a sort of sung-through 'Songs of Farewell'. At approximately thirteen minutes long, sections ranged from contrapuntal sea shanty to spellbinding homophony. It was somewhat strange to break it down for the recording, as the cumulative emotion of running the full work became a bit fragmented, but even so, there were some gorgeous sections that I never wanted to stop singing,  which was lucky considering that Nigel took us through nearly twenty takes of one particular eight bar section to get it just right!

The ‘other’ choir parts were not particularly challenging in terms of notes or rhythm (particularly compared to the rapid, compound meter, key-shifting fugato in Tenebrae’s parts) but nonetheless, the reasons for Tenebrae’s reputation and stunning catalogue of recordings soon became clear. Nigel was meticulous in looking for our every word to carry the same tone quality, focussing on each vowel, consonant and dipthong. As Elspeth mentions in Episode 2 of this blog, our last recording with James Rose had been unusual, with space and time to experiment, make mistakes and, unsurprisingly in the video recording, corpse just a little. Here we were back to more like 'choral normal'; a chilly church with industrial heaters glowing, coats and scarves on, having to maintain total focus while we waited for cars to rush through the swelling puddles around the church, before breathing straight into another meticulous take.

It was exhilarating to make choral music at this standard and under such pressure. Even though we have all been lucky enough to sing in university choirs and schemes such as the Genesis Sixteen, where no quarter is given on artistic detail and technical rigour, those rehearsals are often spread over a longer period of time. Here the end goal was in sight from the moment we began, rehearsing for three hours and then entering straight into a three hour recording session. There was no time to make a mistake, miss an entry or take one’s eyes off Nigel, and I think that we really enjoyed testing ourselves in that high-intensity environment.