An awkward British-German collaboration

If you’re here for the music, read on. If you’re here for the ink, I promise it shows up eventually. Keep scrolling down and you’ll find a header.

Straight up: this isn’t about Brexit, which, although awkward, can hardly be considered a collaboration between, well… anybody and anybody else. Squillions of words have been written about Brexit. I’m not going to add to them beyond saying that the whole thing breaks my heart.

But let’s move onto the subject of the EU anthem: The Last Fifteen Minutes Of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. If you’re not intimately familiar with this piece of music I’d highly recommend this video here which shows the most prominent bits of the score as musical notation on the screen as they play. It might help you figure out what the hell I’m talking about.

People often say just “Beethoven’s 9th Symphony” to mean the singing bit, because they don’t realise that there’s about an hour of music before that which involves no singing and not very much joy. Or they (more accurately) call it Ode to Joy, but strictly speaking that’s the words, not the music. Beethoven set this piece to a poem of that title (An Die Freude), written by Friedrich Schiller forty years previously, in 1785. Frankly I’m impressed that anyone could read Schiller’s handwriting well enough to do anything with it.

Schiller_an_die_freude_manuskript_2
Original text of An Den Freude, showing Schiller’s (loosely called) handwriting.

The piece as a whole is Symphony no. 9 in D Minor. It’s a minor key thing. Much of it is actually pretty dark. The symphony works its way through human emotion and ultimately, joy triumphs over all, and Our Man Ludwig grits his teeth, does a gear shift into D major, and everyone goes away happy, except for Ludwig, who’s never happy. But he was deaf by the time he wrote this, so at least he didn’t have to listen to the cheerful. The fourth movement starts off with a big clashy dark kapow and then moves into some small fights between happy and sad music(1). The first time that the main theme (ie Joy Tune) comes in, it’s played sadly on cellos. It’s about as sad as you can make that tune. But our friendly baritone soloist comes in with this:

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!

Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen,

und freudenvollere.

Which is to say

Oh friends, not these sounds!

Let us instead strike up more pleasing

and more joyful ones!

Which is not in the original Schiller poem – it was an addition from Beethoven and is, frankly, a bit rich coming from a guy who’s just buffeted you with all his sad tunes for the last hour.

I’ve performed B9 probably more than any other piece. More than Carmina Burana, Mozart’s Requiem, Verdi’s Requiem (which SOMEHOW I’ve managed to do only once and I’m not sure how), Britten’s War Requiem, Faure’s Requiem(2) or any of those other choral staples. I can sing it all off by heart. We can all sing it off by heart. You gotta know what’s what, and you gotta prepare yourself for the consequences. If you’re within fifty miles of a chorister and accidentally do this:

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[caption: the lead up to the big choral entry that everyone knows, in musical notation]

Bitch you better be ready because there’s no escape from this:

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[Caption: the big choral entry that everyone knows, in musical notation.]

Can’t help it. It’s a reflex.

I started singing in my second week at university in 2000. I hadn’t really planned to join the choir, but I’d got through fresher’s week without making any friends, one of my housemates was going, and I thought “how hard can it be?” This was the big choir, the non-auditioning one (there was also a chamber choir). We jumped straight in with Faure’s Requiem, and I was hooked from the first rehearsal. All was not well in the land of this choir, however. The first term was a triumph, and then we began to haemorrhage singers. Our musical director was a lecturer who saw the way the wind was blowing and sodded off. Then we were taken over by an enthusiastic but naive PhD student, who got less enthusiastic and less naive with each week that went by. He decided that we should have a stab at B9.

The thing that our guy didn’t take into account is this. B9 is actually pretty hard. The melodies are simple enough. There aren’t any weird intervals. But there are a couple of things about B9 that make it unsuitable for novices.

  • It’s really fucking high and
  • Bits of it are confusing and challenging to keep track of and
  • It goes like a fucking train.

When I say that it goes like a train, I don’t mean the familiar refrain does. I mean other bits which smack you round the face and then leg it the first time you try to sing this thing do. And when I say that it’s really fucking high, I don’t just mean the soprano line. I mean ALL the parts go too high. The bass line is in a comfortable place for tenors. The tenor line is in a comfortable place for altos. The alto line is in a comfortable place for sopranos and the soprano line is in a comfortable place for echolocating bats. I’m not saying that we don’t have the range. We absolutely do. Ain’t no sop can’t get a top B. But among other composers it’s considered a little ungentlemanly to expect this kind of thing:

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[Caption: a soprano line that moves swiftly and goes up to a top B, in musical notation]

 

Or this:

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[caption: part of the soprano line in which our man Ludwig has us sing nothing but continuous top A for thirteen bars straight, in musical notation.]

Because in order to do that and sound good, you need to be secure in your range and you need confidence in your sound. Did I mention confidence in your sight singing ability? If you fail to count correctly in the fugue section, nobody is digging you out. There’s that old trick, when you get lost in a complex choral piece (and this happens more often in rehearsals than you’d think, even among experienced choral singers) of holding your score slightly too high so that nobody can see your mouth, fixing your eyes on it with apparent concentration, and then waiting for everyone else to turn the page because AHA NOW WE’RE AT THE TOP OF PAGE 39 AND THIS GIRL IS BACK IN THE ROOM. LOST? I WASN’T LOST.

This trick only works if you have people around you who know what they’re doing, however. My poor little university choir was woefully out of its depth from day one and I was no exception. I’d never sung in German before, and didn’t have the vocal dexterity, power or confidence to pull this kind of thing off. If you try to sing these lines without confidence, a vet comes along, assumes you are actually a dying weasel, and puts you out of your evident torment. There will be no half-arsing of B9. Joy or GTFO. More to the point: you need a certain level of technique to get those notes. If you’re not supporting them from the diaphragm and making space in the throat and around the soft palate, you’re going to lose your voice. Yes, it’s only 15 minutes of singing. Yes, it’s still enough to fuck up your voice if you don’t know what you’re doing. Let’s not forget: your MD probably had a good go at warming you up for this, but then you had to sit stock still for an hour, and that preparation is thoroughly gone by the time your bit starts.

By the time our MD realised his mistake, it was too late. He started to slouch into the rehearsal room, all hope gone from his eyes. In my first term in the choir, we’d had a star soprano – a former BBC Choir Girl of the Year (3) – and he wanted to know if I might persuade her to come back. I had to admit that it was unlikely, since we’d dated for two months, decided we couldn’t stand each other, and she’d probably left the choir specifically to get away from me. He didn’t have to say that he wished she’d got custody of the choir. We both knew it was true. In that moment, faced with his embarrassment, even I wished that she’d got custody of the choir.

We never did put B9 together, and by the last few rehearsals we’d shrunk down to the point that we wouldn’t have had the numbers to do it even if we’d been good. From somewhere or other, our MD had hired the four requisite soloists for the piece. We had a devastatingly embarrassing tutti rehearsal in which the university orchestra played beautifully, the soloists did their thing, and the choir crinkled up our faces and stared blankly at our scores while squeaking notes that we hoped were the right ones. The soloists did not even attempt to hold back their horror. Their lips said “Küsse gab sie uns und Reben, Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod,” but their eyes said “Rescue me from this charnel house and alert the authorities! Don’t leave me here!” By the end of that rehearsal, the MD finally admitted defeat, said that he’d take the choir out of the performance and have the soloists do the whole thing, and then presumably began to sleep at night once more.

During a break in that fateful rehearsal I tried to make conversation with the soprano soloist. She knew the other soloists so I asked how they’d met. Looking at me like I was shit on the pavement, she explained that they all had the same singing teacher.

“Oh?” I foolishly said. “I need a new singing teacher. Would you be able to put me in touch?”

The soprano said nothing. She was clearly insulted by the very idea that her singing teacher would deign to be in the same room as me. Without another word, she stalked off. In retrospect, I don’t blame her – this was the appropriate soprano soloist response. What else was she going to do? Be polite?

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[caption: Maria Callas laughs in soprano]

Anyway. That choir imploded after that and, more confident now that I might pass an audition, I moseyed on to the uni chamber choir. There another soprano recommended a singing teacher who turned out to be the person who’d been teaching the four soloists anyway.

I could tell many stories about this teacher, who was a bit of an oddball. But she was also a very good teacher. Within a few months she’d brought the standard of my singing up to the point where I was able to pass an audition for Brighton Festival Chorus. I’m pretty sure I fluked the audition; perhaps the fact that I was young and relatively new to singing encouraged the MD to see potential. I don’t know. Anyway, it was a hell of a step up from any choir I’d been in before, and the start of doing proper concerts, at prestigious venues, for people who’d paid money to be there despite not knowing any of the performers personally. BFC had the numbers, and the confidence, to do B9 properly. And by the time that B9 came around again, in the summer of 2003, I was also as ready as you can be for B9.

This B9 was on a choir tour to Metz. Choir tours are extremely fun: think going on a free holiday with 100 friends, doing the thing that you love most in the world. BFC were pretty generous with tours: I think we got subsistence money as well as our travel and accommodation. We rehearsed in the morning, we performed in the evening, and for the rest of the time everyone was free to sit around, go shopping, or have illicit affairs with other members of the choir. There was a lot of that going on. If you think “business trip” affairs are common, you have no idea how much bed-hopping goes on on a trip like this.(4) It was the summer of 2003, I had just finished my degree, broken up from a longer-term relationship (not choir girl – we continued to avoid each other) and the whole experience was joyful.

Metz is a lovely little town with a difficult past. It’s a historic garrison town right next to the border with Germany, and as such, whenever war broke out, the good folks of Metz had a difficult time of things. We were performing Schoenberg’s A Survivor From Warsaw and then B9. If the message of B9 is “oh shit everything is depressing, except… maybe… frickin JOY, people!” then you can start at an even lower level of misery by putting the Schoenberg in. It’s a very moving piece, but as you can probably imagine, it’s also grim.

I say “we” performed the Schoenberg but it was actually just the tenors and basses, which meant that we chicks (I don’t recall there being any male altos in BFC, although there certainly have been in other choirs I’ve been in) got to sod off for a fair bit of the rehearsal time. Schoenberg is complicated in a way that B9 isn’t, and you don’t want to over-rehearse B9 because as I’ve said, it’s a big, hard, throbbing sing, and it’ll destroy your throat if you don’t treat it with respect. Ahem.

I spent a lot of time walking around town, looking into shops, and finding other members of the choir sitting outside cafes. The beauty of it is that members of choir are everywhere, everyone is in a good mood, and it’s a great way to make new friends and cement existing friendships. In general, people get changed into concert dress a while before the concert. The end result was that the cafes were full of people who looked like they were dressed for a funeral, but were entirely too cheerful about it.

The other thing was getting stopped and asked for directions by French people. Maybe it’s something about my body language. I don’t know. Everywhere I go, I am the person who gets asked for directions (5). Unfortunately I have a pathologically bad sense of direction. I can’t even read a map. I am ludicrously grateful for the invention of smartphones that can speak verbal directions into my ears as I’m walking to a place. The Metz trip was before such things, however, and I couldn’t even remember my way back to my hotel (the only way I ever found it during this trip was to find someone from BFC to guide me). And although I do actually know some French (yes, yes, my alias on here is quite literally a goddamn French word), I freeze up instantly when I try to speak in a foreign language. I hate it but it happens. I can sing in French all day, but I choke if I have to try to speak it. The people of Metz don’t speak English; if they know a second language it’s German. So I’d be left flailing at a confused French person, who didn’t know that I had absolutely nothing to offer them in terms of directions.

We did, I think, four performances of B9 while we were in Metz, in two different venues. I have no idea how they managed to find that many people to come to the concerts because it’s not a big town, but B9 is always a crowd-pleaser. It was sweltering: about 32°C outside. The stage area is always hotter, not least because everyone gets squished in together. In many venues (I’m looking at you, Barbican) there aren’t individual seats in the choir stalls, just a long bench. However many singers there are is the number of people who are going to fit into the choir stalls, somehow. So we were squished. Some of the men had idiotically only brought one set of concert dress, and by the final concert they reeked. By rehearsals for the third performance, we were starting to get faint on the stage, and as a result, an unprecedented decision was made by the higher-ups: the men were allowed to perform without their black dinner jackets and the women were allowed to perform without pop socks.

You may be thinking: what the hell are pop socks? You have lived a blessed life if you don’t know. Pop socks are basically stockings/tights that are only knee-high. So you can look like you’re wearing tights when you’re not. This is every bit as pointless as it sounds.

But there is a war on. I’ve been in Brighton Festival Chorus, the London Symphony Chorus, and the London Philharmonic Choir at various times in the last fifteen years, and the Pop Sock Police were very much a force in all three choirs. Usually these are women of retirement age. They are concerned about concert dress at a level which makes them genuinely angry and probably keeps them up at night. Skirts and dresses must be as black as an abandoned mine shaft, and BELOW THE ANKLE. There will be no exceptions. I once saw a Pop Socks Police officer laying into a woman whose dress was too damn short. It was barely mid calf. What the hell was she doing? Did she have no sense of decorum? Did she not REALISE that she was going to bring the choir into disrepute with her slovenly standards? Oh please. None of that rubbish about how there wasn’t anything better in the shops. You see all these other women with floor length black-as-the-void dresses? They’ve managed.

What the woman was doing was being willfully and persistently 6’2”, in a way that was deeply inconsiderate towards all the other choir members around her.

The hems of trousers should sit on top of the feet at the front and almost touch the ground at the back. No part of the foot or ankle can be visible. Shoes must be black, smart, and NOT SANDALS (that last bit was added to the official BFC Concert Dress Rules after I wore shoes that were not sandals, but looked a teeny bit too much like sandals for the delicate sensibilities of the PSP). And most importantly of all, no skin can show between shoe and clothing. You may be thinking that, with floor-length dresses, you’re not showing a whole lot of leg. But to the PSP, there is no difference between showing one square millimetre of ankle in the process of walking to the choir stalls and streaking across the stage to dry hump John Eliot Gardiner. Either action will Bring The Choir Into Disrepute. Check this out.

choir018

[caption: end of concert photo with enormous number of performers.]

This photo isn’t from a B9 concert – this is from the 2004 Mahler 8 concert in Birmingham with Simon Rattle, when I was singing in the London Symphony Chorus. See that woman with the long blonde hair, standing directly above the timpanist, on the right end of her little row and slightly apart from the woman next to her? That’s me. I know it’s me because during the final rehearsal I came back from the break with a coffee, tripped up, and spilled it all over that timpanist. He was very nice about it. Excellent chap.

I’m showing you this photo to illustrate two things:

  • It does actually look pretty smart, this all-black thing and
  • You can’t fucking see the ankles of anybody in choir stalls.

The genuine concern of the PSP (I really do think it’s genuine) is that the choir’s reputation will be destroyed if, in the less than thirty seconds during which each chorister is walking from the entrance to the auditorium to their position in the choir stalls, any member of the audience becomes aware of evidence that they have skin anywhere on their bodies other than their head or hands. The PSP will state, quite sincerely, that this is a distraction to the audience, it makes us look slovenly, and it will put people off coming to see us in future concerts. So they go round before the concert with stacks of spare pop socks that they bought with their own money, and they stare at ankles, and they hand out pop socks in a passive aggressive manner to anyone who shows anything at all. I have always been very careful to have black ankle boots that overlap with soft black cotton leggings, because I cannot wear pop socks. They are a sensory nightmare that makes me feel as though my legs are on fire.

I can’t imagine what level of battle some brave soul had to go through to get them to agree that pop socks would be optional once the thermometer went over 30°C. Somehow the choir survived this outrage and as far as I’m aware nobody in the audience complained.

I’ve performed B9 so many times since then that they’ve all sort of blurred together, but the first two B9 experiences have really stuck in my mind. Finding a piece too difficult to manage the first time around, and then conquering it the second is a triumphant thing, although it did obviously help that I was surrounded by far more competent singers the second time. The tour to Metz was such a joyful experience in so many ways: the singing, the town, the new friends. Of course, Shit Got Real shortly after. I loved being at university and didn’t want to leave, but the downside of doing well is that they don’t let you stay. So I moved away from Brighton, back to London, and joined the London Symphony Chorus.

I can’t think of a more European experience than a British choir, singing a piece in German, by a German, that JUST HAPPENS to be the EU anthem, that celebrates the unity of humanity and the triumph of joy and resilience after dark times, in France, in a town that has been through some bad shit in both world wars and a whole bunch of other international bust-ups.

WHERE’S THE INK, CANTATRICE?

So onward to a European inky collaboration. Diamine, that British ink giant(6) are kinda slutty. You put up the funds, and they’ll make you an ink to your specifications. Even for a silly little facebook group with a bunch of opinionated bloggers in it. They’ve made a few inks that are exclusive to the German market, and they’ve been taunting me for a little while. So I ordered three of them recently and they are rather splendid. They’re all sheen beasts, and you all know, Cantatrice loves a sheen beast. I was interested to see what they come up with, because many sheeny inks are on the dry side. Krishna inks have some bonkers sheen, but their dryness does have a negative impact on the writing experience. I trust Diamine to do the stuff properly, and they have indeed done a splendid job.

If you don’t want to order from Germany, have no fear. There are lots of Diamine sheenbeasts that are available from the UK. Diamine has a gaquillion different kinds of ink, so they often hit similar notes. If you love Smoke on the Water, Diamine Christine (available from Pure Pens) is a good likeness. If you like Purple Rain, try Diamine Phillip, and for Communication Breakdown, try Diamine Christine. These last two are available from Cult Pens.

First up, as with all sheening inks, it comes down to more than just the ink. Sheening inks can look very different depending on what pen and paper you use. Pen nerd discussions are full of people poking sadly at she sheen beasts that weren’t, because they put them in a fine-nibbed, dry pen and wrote on a Pukka Pad (7). Ink can dry on paper in one of two ways (or rather on a spectrum between two extremes): either it becomes dry on the surface because it was quickly absorbed into the fibres of the paper (this tends to lead to feathering and is not much loved by pen nerds) or it can’t get into the paper so it sits on top of the paper and the water evaporates. This takes a lot longer, but it makes for clean, crisp letters, and it brings out shimmer and sheen. The paper most loved by pen nerds, such as Rhodia/Clairefontaine, Oxford and – at the extreme end of U NO ABSORB INK! – Tomoe River, has coating on top which makes the paper smooth for nibs to glide on, and also non-absorbent.

So let’s say that you have a red ink that sheens green. How does this work? The bits of the ink that dry quickly will be red. The bits that take longer to dry will begin to transform as the water evaporates. It’s like if you put salt water onto a non-absorbent surface and leave it out in the sun. The water evaporates, the salt crystallises and you’re left with a crust of salt when all the water is gone. Where this red ink is given time to do so, it’ll crystallise and go green. You’ll get the best effects from a wet splash of ink that you leave to dry slowly. I’ve put one one of these on each of the pages that follows, so you can see the full effect. Unfortunately, although those splashes are often the pictures that the ink manufacturers use to sell their products, they aren’t usually how people use fountain pen inks. So you can end up poking at flat, lifeless colours when you actually write words. If you want sheen, grab some coated paper, grab the biggest, wettest (flexiest!) nib you can, and lay down a serious amount of ink. Then put it out of the way of your cat (I am apparently unable to do this) and leave it a good long while to dry.

This does obviously mean that if you want to make very quick notes in a meeting, and flip from one page to the next in a notebook, sheening inks are probably not the way to do this. Either you’ll get no sheen, or you’ll get a big soggy illegible mess.

These three inks have been named Smoke on the Water, Communication Breakdown, and Purple Rain. I know what you’re thinking: but Cantatrice always writes out song lyrics! How will she find anything to match these inks with? Well, I gotta say that it was a challenge. No, that’s not it. I gotta say that I’m not massively into any of these three songs. But I did think it would be nice to bring the words of Ode to Joy to your attention, because they’re rather lovely. And also because I’ve blasted them out in German many times with only a vague idea of what they actually mean. So this is what they actually mean.

First up: smoke on the water. I FREAKING LOVE THIS. I’m a sucker for a good rich teal ink. I’ve mentioned here that Diamine Teal is my favourite ink EVAR, and that actually has a little bit of a cheeky reddish sheen to it on the right paper. But this is Diamine Teal with the sheen cranked up to 11 and I AM HERE FOR THAT. It flows beautifully, there no dryness issues and the sheen shows up with ordinary writing. You don’t need to hire a nellyphant to blast a sheet of Tomoe River with the ink in order to get the sheen. (This is in Monty the Mont Blanc 342G, on Tomoe River. I trust Diamine not to fuck with Monty, which is saying something.)

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Next up: Purple Rain. It’s a very dark purple, this. The kind of purple that might pass for black if you use a wet pen. The sheen is gold. It’s not quite as in your face as the smoke in the water sheen, but it’s very noticeable. This looks like (and quite possibly is) the formula for another Diamine commission: the Cult Pens Deep Dark Purple. Except that, as with Smoke on the Water, the very modest sheen in the original is ramped up. Still quite goth, deep enough to be Srs Bsns, lovely and rich. You could use this for formal correspondence, and then have someone going WTF IS THIS INK ALSO SHINY GOLD? Everyone at your local council will go and get their eyes tested. (This is in my Pilot Custom Heritage 912 with Tomoe River.)

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Finally: Communication Breakdown, which seems like a depressingly pertinent name just now. This goes on a gorgeous blood red and gets a little bit pinkier as it dries, and it has green sheen for days. As with the other two, if you use a wet pen and decent paper, you should find the sheen comes out in ordinary writing. As you can see with the Purple Rain and Communication Breakdown pages, not even I, the Pen Queen of Kent, can leave these inks long enough to dry – and I did give them several hours. As you can also see, Purple Rain got stomped on by my cat. The Communication Breakdown page fell on the floor some time after I thought it was dry, and we now have some smudging. OH WELL. KEEPING IT REAL OVER HERE, FRIENDS. SO REAL.

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(1) Yeah, Ludwig liked to have that kind of fight. His Symphony No. 5 (aka Beethoven’s da-da-da-dummmmm) is basically just a big punch up between C minor and C major. They both fight dirty.

(2) I’ve never really registered until now just how much of my life has been spent tunefully entreating God not to throw people into Hell.

(3) Yeah, that’s a thing, apparently. It involves a lot of looking wistful and walking around in a meadow singing that the Lord is your shepherd. Or so I’m told.

(4) Yes, I did have my own indiscretion on this trip (newly single, after all). No I’m not going to tell you about it.

(5) Working on a university campus, this gets frustrating. During fresher’s week, I’d get stopped by new students and asked for directions. I’d say: “The Frigenwank Building? Yes, of course. It’s… well you sort of go along there and… you know, I’m really bad at verbal directions. I’ll just walk you over there, since it’s not too far.” We’d get to the Frigenwank Building, that student would thank me, and I’d be just about to walk to my office and start a day’s work, when I’d be stopped by another student who saw me help the first one and now thought I was some kind of Student First Day Ambassador. “The Professor Suckmeov building? Yes, of course. It’s… well you sort of go along there and… you know, I’m really bad at verbal directions. I’ll just walk you there, since it’s not too far.” I could easily lose two hours of the working day this way.

(6) I say giant. It’s all relative. They’re a big name in the world of fountain pen ink, but the world of fountain pen ink is arguably not the biggest world.

(7) Yeah, sorry. Should have added a content warning for pukka pads.

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