The Swingle Singers in Romania

I don’t remember exactly when I’ve first heard The Swingle Singers but it was a long time ago. In a time when choral music did not said anything to me and all that “pa ba dam pa ba dam pa ba da baaa / pa ba dam pa ba dam pa ba daaa…” was hurting my stuffed MC Hammer and Depeche Mode ears. Translateing Mozart’s 40th Symphony from instruments to voices is quite difficult. And that’s what The Swingle Singers have been doing since 1962.

The group formed in Paris back in the 60’s and was founded by Ward Swingle. Alongside other members who formed an equal voice group (two sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two basses, although they all have great voice ambitus finding hard to believe the difference from a soprano and an alto or a bass from a tenor) they were soon to make history.

I’ve learned that back in the days they were only background vocalists for artists like Edith Piaf. Then they’ve started more seriously by adopting jazz into their singing. So I guess the spark of genious that came one day to Ward Swingle was the moment when he started messing around with Bach’s Well-Temperated Klavier.
This led to an album that won some Grammy Awards in 1963 called Bachs Greatest Hits. They were considered to be the best choral performance and best new artist. And that was way back in the 60’s. I wasn’t even planned 🙂

I guess about four or six years ago I was working in a Music Library for Commercial purposes. So, all day long I was supposed to listen to the cd’s, to learn all kinds of music and to be able to choose the perfect soundtrack for the right tv commercial. Anyway, it was there that I had remembered the group. And when you have the maturity to listen this kind of music (choral music, that is) you begin to realize how difficult it is.

Well, think about it. When we all see an orchestra singing Mozart or Bach, you can clearly see there’s a struggle going on on the stage. All players are waveing rapidly their fiddlesticks over the chords, the conductor’s hair is in all ways, etc… To many notes on that bloddy page and you also have to finish it in a few minutes. Now, imagine that done by humane voices…

Ward Swingle remained the mentor to the now based London group. Of course members have changed over the years. Don’t think for a moment that the same arrangement is still singing today. People change, the ideea still lives and works. More than that, the group has now covered all kinds of music aspects. From classical music to jazz, pop, opera and even beatboxing.

And after all these years they have finally came to perform in Romania during the International Festival “George Enescu”. I said to myself that an ocasion like this cannot be missed. Tracking your favourite bands singing calendar over the year, is quite expensive. So you have to take advantage when they are concerting in your own back yard.

Now, the group is formed of the following members: Joanna Goldsmith (soprano) so pretty with her incredible voice without annoying you like opera singers can, but still powerful when needed; Sara Brimer (soprano) you can listen her for hours without getting bored; Clare Wheeler (alto) my favourite voice from the group, gived me the shivers down my spine (is she really an alto?); Lucy Bailey (alto) so cute and pleasent in looks and voice; Richard Eteson and Christopher Jay (tenors) blend in so perfectly that you really have to concentrate in order to find out which is singing what; Kevin Fox (baritone/vocal percussion) the man behind the drums, some unbelievable snares, hats and toms sends percussion instruments market into a serious crises; Tobias Hug (bass/percussion) again another set of perfect drums and a very deep bass voice completes the group.

First contact I had with the band was at the Palace Hall during their first performance with “Sinfonia for eight voices and orchestra” by Luciano Berio. Unfortunately, not to many people attended this concert, maybe just because Beethoven doesn’t rime with Berio and they did not knew each other. But those who came, did it for the Swingle Singers and also to experience something new.

Luciano Berio composed this piece with the Swingle Singers in his mind and was commissioned by the New York Philarmonic. It’s premiere was on October 10, 1968 with the Swingle Singers and Berio conducting the orchestra. It is true, is a difficult piece to sing and you might get bored or you can easily find it very interesting. For me it was like a crazy journey through a crazy world. The music combined with the parts where the voices speak or whispers really makes you imagine your own movie in your mind.

Well, I found a clip of them performing during the Enescu Festival at the Palace Hall, on the YouTube. It’s one of the songs performed also at the concert that took two days after. You can see it below:
So the big day arrived and off my work to the Small Palace Hall. Crowdy outside to my surprise. You know, choral music and vocal ensembles are still something that don’t trigger to much attention from the romanian public. I don’t know why, maybe because they think that the only way you can sing is in the opera. Only if everyone would know that actually here you can hear the best singers in the world. Worked voices stretched to perfection.

O lot of my friends from different choirs were there trying to squeeze in and after the concert we were wondering if it were of any use to sing anymore after hearing the Swingle Singers.

But I was also interested in following something else while listening to them. As you may already know, this year I went with my girlfriend to the Cadogan Hall in London to hear the King’s Singers. You can check out the post right here. I don’t know why but I wanted to compare them, to see who is better.

Well, the thing is you can not do that. It’s a totally different thing. I mean, even if some of the songs are in both repertoires from the King’s and the Swingles, there are two different groups. The way they perform the music is different. The King’s are more on the Bel Canto approach, not to mention is only a male based group, when the Swingles are more on the show, amplified voices and vocal percussion effects are blended in to make the same songs be heard in a different way.

With that off my mind I started enjoying the concert. At the end we all wanted more so they’ve returned several times on the stage. There were people who never experienced a concert like this before and they were amazed with what you can do with your voice. We are used to hear opera and sometimes choir parts from different classical compositions and don’t pay to much attention to that, or we know what to expect. But in that night the public witnessed a new kind of music. Some of your favourite songs from Beatles or Sting arranged only for voices (including all the instrumentation) or maybe some classics like Bach or Mozart, all of these were in the Swingle Singers repertoire from that night.

And I tell you, there are some songs that can really make your day. You find yourself unable to hold your tears, not believeing how beautiful some people sing. Sometimes they sing better than the original artist. But that’s just my opinion. Anyway, one of the songs that really moved me was that from Bjork called Unravel. Is the best song I’ve ever heard from them and since that concert I’m listening almost everyday while going to work. Joanna sings this very beautifuly making you closing your eyes, and then Lucy continues I guess, ending up at the part when Kevin is “singing” the synth part waveing his hand perfecting the sound. I’m trying to explain how this sounds but I think is better to hear it yourself on the below performance alongside beatbox artist Roxorloops:

Later on Kevin and Tobi made a demonstration of the vocal percussion skills. Someone in the concert hall didn’t believe that all of that was live and just vocal. Furthermore they’ve gaved us the first lessons in the art of beatboxing. That was a funny moment. Playing with the crowd will always guarantee you a real success. The public likes it when it’s taking part in the show.

We will talk about BeatBox in another article because it’s a very interesting domain, until then I will ask you to watch this guy to make yourself an ideea of this vocal percussion thing:

Other great moments were the song dedication for basses from Tobi, and also “Both Sides Now” sanged by Lucy which is another great song from their latest album “Ferris Wheels”. Aaah, all songs were great, could not say I was bored at any moment.

All my congrats to the sound man from the mixer, because when you sing amplified you really have to have a very good sound engineer. A lot of concerts turns to catastrophe just because the sound engineer doesn’t knobs the right way. And then people blame the artist, that he doesn’t have a powerful voice or anyway. But in this case the sound was great, from perfect moments of piano to parts of forte without distortion. That made me ask Richard what type of microphone they use. But in the end is not all about microphones or mixers. You really have to get your hands on a good guy and they did it.

Overall, my sugestion is to experience this music and I’m more than sure that you will start listening from now on. And you can start that by going to their website and listen to some free samples right there: The Swingle Singers.

In order to get rid of us from the concert hall, they’ve ended their concert with Blackbird, a song that I’ve first heard it at the King’s Singers and is one of my favourites of all time. Great interpretation and made me realize that I will want more in the future. And that means stalking them at concerts accross Europe. And you know what, is not the end of the world to put some money away, take a few days off and go to a concert in another country.

People gathered at the end to buy their cd’s and get autographs. And what still fascinates me is that artist of such value like them are such good people. They are not full of themselves and are very friendly indeed, making you feel like you know them for a lifetime.

Autographs were signed for everyone and cd’s were bought at the end of the night.

Me and my girlfriend taking a picture with them at the Palace Hall after the Berio concerts. It was an incredible experience and don’t regret a moment choosing to go to their concerts. Hope to see them in the near future again and We thank them for coming to Romania. I hope people will start to show a greater interest in vocal music so that these types of events will happen more oftenly. Thanks again guys and best of luck!

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