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Ariel's Corner
Music, dance

Finding harmony: An interview with the King's Singers after their concert at Auditorium Saint-Pierre des Cuisines in Toulouse (14th October 2021)

Interview
Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud

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Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud: What are your respective musical backgrounds? What kind of musical training did each of you have in the first place?

  • 1 See the following review of the album by WRTI journalist Debra Lew Harder (26th May 2020): https:// (...)

King's Singers: All1 of our musical backgrounds are quite different from each other, but they also share some basic things. Firstly, we all sang as children. For some of us, this was very serious, in church or cathedral choirs; for others this singing was in local community choirs or school choirs. But we all share the story of falling in love with singing when we were children. Later in life, all six of us made singing and music a real focus during our time at university. Not all of us studied it (for example Johnny studied Classics and Eddie studied Geography) but we all got involved with choirs, solo singing, opera, and a cappella music during that formative time in our lives.

Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud: When was the group formed? Were there any particular circumstances that brought you all together?

King's Singers: The group was originally formed 54 years ago, by six friends who had studied and sung together at King’s College, in Cambridge University (hence the name!). This origin in friendship means that the idea of fun, and equality, is baked into the institution, alongside musical excellence. Since the original six singers, there have been 22 more of us, with one singer taking over from another at the point of retirement, and then learning the trade from the other existing members who ‘bridge the gap’. The audition process is essentially done by a ‘head-hunting’ process to find people with the very specific skills we need, and then several rounds of friendly but demanding auditions.

Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud: Why and when did you decide to blend popular or modern music – such as U2 or other, modern or extra-European, pieces – with more usual classical standards?

King's Singers: This decision was made very early on in our history. One thing that marked the group as different from other classical choral ensembles was the willingness to experiment with different styles – be that pop song, folk singing, or jazz standards, as well as contemporary classical music and traditional choral repertoire. We have never forgotten that this variety as a key part of our concerts and a key part of our success. For audiences at a concert, this mixture brings variety and contrast; for the wider public, the lighter repertoire provides an accessible route into choirs and choral craft through familiarity with the songs; and for the six of us, it gives us the constant challenge to stay musically and vocally flexible, adapting to the styles of different genres.

Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud: Are there any countries that you tour more often than others? Also, are there any specific differences that you may have noted between people's responses and expectations in different countries?

King's Singers: Great question! Yes there are some countries where we are particularly popular, and we tend to go to these places more than others. It might surprise people to know that the UK, where we all live, is one of the countries we tour less. The busiest countries for us are the USA and Canada, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and (increasingly) China and Japan. In terms of musical tastes, the countries do fall into stereotypes slightly, with German audiences loving classical music sung in beautiful church acoustics. In the USA, the concerts are sometimes a bit ‘lighter’, with a more informal presentation style from us, and a stronger focus on the pop and folk a cappella arrangements.

Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud: What attracted you to a cappella singing? There is, of course, a well-anchored tradition of this practice in England, but there are so many technical requirements involved in it that it is always extremely impressive. How do you manage to get the balance right between the different voices so as to reach, for instance, "close harmony”?

King's Singers: It is technically challenging, and part of the reason for this is that you have to listen very carefully at the same time as singing. For the whole group to sound like one voice, or perhaps one instrument, it needs everyone to be listening to the sounds around them and making small adjustments so that they play their role in the ‘sound’. But as you point out, there are also songs where one voice needs to be prominent, maybe because of a solo part. In these instances, we ‘balance down’, meaning that rather than the soloist singing louder, the rest of us sing softer, so that the audience can clearly hear the words of the solo. Within a single piece, there can be lots of different textures (solo and accompaniment/full block sound/polyphony) and we work hard to adjust our sound to make this balance work.

Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud: Apart from acoustic matters, do you pay any specific attention to each venue? Does it have any impact on your way of singing and perhaps on your approach to the set of your performance?

King's Singers: Yes. Each venue has its own atmosphere. Acoustics play a big part in what we choose to sing, and how we sing it, but also the audience reactions, the architecture, even the local area surrounding the venue, can all play a part in indicating what sort of performance we give.

Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud: How do you usually choose the different pieces of music that are to be part of the set?

King's Singers: Each season (summer-to-summer year) we design a set of programmes, with different titles, themes, atmospheres, and our managers offer these out to venues, who pick their favourite. Within these programmes, we always try to offer variety - like we mentioned earlier - so that different styles are represented. But then we pick pieces which fit the theme, title, concept of the programme. In each programme we also leave room at the end for a selection of songs which we choose on the night, in the venue. This leaves us room to adapt to an audience energy, to an acoustical challenge, even to how the six of our voices are feeling. And at each concert, one of us is put in charge of choosing this final group of songs.

Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud: What are the latest pieces that you incorporated into your programme? Considering the title you chose, Finding Harmony, what are the main connections between these pieces and what you could define as the spirit, or urgency, of the time?

King's Singers: The spirit of this programme is as important now as it was when we first performed it, in early 2020. The idea of Finding Harmony is that music has a unique power to bring people together, to unite and to comfort. In times of difficulty throughout history, communities have found songs which speak louder than words, and so this programme collects together folksongs, anthems, pop songs and spiritual songs which have been part of important historical moments. These include the Protestant Reformation in Europe, the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, the fall of apartheid in South Africa and more. The programme is as much about these remarkable stories as it is about the music, and in the present situation with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the humanitarian crisis it is sparking, the idea of music as a source of hope and solidarity is poignant and important.

Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud: The programme note for your Toulouse concert at Saint-Pierre des Cuisines mentions such contemporary issues as feminism or the 2017 Manchester attacks. How do you, as artists, reflect on these particular issues and on any form of power that art, and more specifically music, may have on people or society at large?

King's Singers: In creating this programme (and its album), we were careful not to present the idea of ‘Finding Harmony’ as a historical phenomenon. In some of the biggest events and changes in modern society, music can still play its part. Of course, choral music is not going to prevent terror attacks, nor is it going to solve the injustices of sexism; but through music people can express things which words do not manage on their own. Through singing together, people can create community and solidarity which is hard to find just through words. And through music, people not directly affected by these challenges can express meaningful support, understanding and empathy. That is what we are trying to do, and to capture, through the music we have chosen.

Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud: Apart from the lockdown itself, has the Covid pandemy changed in any way your approach to music and singing?

King's Singers: It has made us more grateful for it. Before March 2020, we would see a busy diary of concerts coming up, and moan about how busy and tired we would be. Now, we see this and we remember to be thankful for how lucky we are. So many arts organisations did not survive the pandemic – being honest, at some points we were not sure our group would survive it – so the fact that we are back on the road, in beautiful churches, concert halls, and schools, is cause for celebration. So gratitude is one way we’ve changed. Also, we now travel with hand sanitiser in our suitcases!

1Link to The King's Singers' website: https://www.kingssingers.com/​

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Notes

1 See the following review of the album by WRTI journalist Debra Lew Harder (26th May 2020): https://www.wrti.org/wrti-spotlight/2020-05-26/classical-album-of-the-week-finding-harmony-around-the-world-with-the-kings-singers (accessed 7th March 2022).

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References

Electronic reference

Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud, Finding harmony: An interview with the King's Singers after their concert at Auditorium Saint-Pierre des Cuisines in Toulouse (14th October 2021)”Miranda [Online], 25 | 2022, Online since 25 April 2022, connection on 30 June 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/46479; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/miranda.46479

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About the author

Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud

Professeur
Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès

nathalie.vincent-arnaud@univ-tlse2.fr

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