LEGATO is a organisation which exists to strengthen the communication and cooperation between the gay and lesbian choruses in Europe. Fresh from their annual meeting, which was held in Munich, tenor Hsien reflects on the bonds which have brought so many European LGBT choirs – old and new – together. On the expedition of life it pays to stop now and then, and take stock of the forks and bends which have come before, so you know how you got to where you are, and perhaps what route to take in the future. As I sat for an enforced two hours of nothingness on the plane from Munich to London, I can’t help wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t joined the Pink Singers: would I even be aware of the wider community of LGBT choirs across Europe and the world? After this Legato meeting in Munich (7-9 Oct), I am incredibly thankful for the path my choral life has taken. Legato, a slightly clunky acronym for “LEsbians and GAys singing TOgether”, is the umbrella organisation of Europe’s LGBT choirs, and a group the Pink Singers has been involved with since its inception. Legato helps to oversee “Various Voices” – affectionately abbreviated to “VV” – the four-yearly gathering of European LGBT choirs which the Pinkies have participated in virtually every iteration of, even back when it was originally called the European Lesbian & Gay Festival of Song. In fact, we have hosted this choral jamboree ourselves on a couple of occasions, our first being the fifth festival in the late 80s. Titled “Singing the Blues Away”, a deliberate dig at the Conservative party of the day, it took place at the height of Section 28, Thatcher’s pernicious anti-gay law. When the choirs of Legato saw that we needed their support to draw attention to that horrible piece of legislation, they awarded us the festival in 1989, helping us to put it on and standing with us in defiance against it. Section 28 was eventually consigned to the dustbin of history, but the Pink Singers will never forget the solidarity our European family showed us then. United we stand. The intervening decades have seen the winning of several victories for equality, so while there remains a lot to be done, the struggles we face locally do not seem as insurmountable as they used to. It is only natural that as a choral body, our emphasis has moved from responding to challenges, to enjoying our shared tradition of music making. Anyone who has ever been to a VV will be aware of the simple delights of participating in a weekend of singing with fellow choristers from across Europe.
Although VVs only happen every four years, in between festivals delegates from our choirs meet at the annual Legato general meetings. This year’s was an opportunity to view our backdrop for VV Munich 2018: the magnificent Gasteig. I can think of no better venue to celebrate LGBT choral singing that in this complex of four outstanding theatres, seating an audience nearly 4,000, surrounded by multiple shared spaces. The latter is actually much more important that it sounds because VVs are as much about socialising as they are about performance, and the communal spaces are essential to facilitate that.
If VVs are principally opportunities to renew old friendships and make new ones, however, then the general meetings are concentrated versions thereof, and there were many new friends to be made this time round. In the last few years there has been an explosion of newly-formed LGBT choirs in Southern and Eastern Europe, and at this meeting they were present in force. Joining us in the north and west were representatives from Komos from Bologna, Roma Rainbow Choir from Rome, Checcoro from Milan, Coro Canone Inverso from Padua, the Mallorca Gay Men’s Chorus, Chór Voces Gaudiae from Warsaw, and the majority of the choir from Odessa, Qwerty Queer. In fact, among the many highlights of the BaVarious Voices concert, presented by the immensely talented Munich choirs on the Saturday night, was watching Qwerty Queer’s guest performance on stage. For me, hearing their song “Vertigo” sung in Russian, wrists bound in red ribbons which were symbolically thrown off, was not only a novel musical experience (I’m not sure we have ever heard Slavic songs at our festivals) it was a timely reminder that the support the Pink Singers once received is now needed in new places.
In a Europe, and a UK – which seems fixated on difference and is increasingly ready to put up barriers between us – it is perhaps time to stop and ask ourselves as both a choir and as a community who we are and how we got here, and perhaps then we can decide where and to whom the road runs from here on out. I hope it heads east and south towards our extended family there. This weekend in Munich reassured me of that. United we stand.
Wanna hear how ‘Wicked’ our 33rd birthday party was, how much ‘hairspray’ was used, & how many Pinkies got ‘Footloose’ and fancy free on the dance floor? Spot the theme yet? Soprano Michelle gives us the low down on our 33rd birthday party shenanigans… Happy Birthday to Us, Happy Birthday to Us! In true Pinkies style we celebrated the choirs 33rd birthday by going FOOTLOOSE and ON THE TOWN for a LITTLE NIGHT OF MUSIC and CABARET at Claphams’ Two Brewers. Us GUYS AND DOLLS were dressed up to the NINEs in our ‘musical theatre’ themed costumes in honor of our next Broadway inspired Concert – ONE NIGHT ONLY. This is my 4th Pinkies birthday party and I never fail to be utterly amazed by the effort everyone puts in to the event. From MY FAIR LADY Rachel catering us with cake (complete with ‘green icing flowing down’ – a prize if you can spot that reference!) – to DREAM’GIRL Jezza ordering the fizz and decorating the venue to perfection. There are too many people to mention that make these celebrations the highlights of the Pinkies’ calendars. Our traditional Open Mic session was was hosted by the suave Master of Ceremonies Paul with his naughty banter, cheeky smile and slick hair shining from his HAIRSPRAY. (You have to remember the singing doesn’t stop after our small group gigs, concerts and weekly rehearsals. What excuse is better than celebrating our third-and-a-bit decade as London’s community choir. It wouldn’t be a Pinkie event without a sing song – or two, or three…). Kicking off the show was our Saz singing a little ditty (she’s a FUNNY GIRL). Next up, those DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRALS – small group old favourites the Baberfellas – and new kids on the block the ‘Raundrettes’ entertained us with some close harmony campery. All followed by some amazing and show stopping numbers from resident Tenor Divas – What a THRILLER of a night! The final act of the evening was our very own ACORN ANTIQUE Alto leader Jeremey and Artistic Director David who embodied good old ‘Barry and Freda’ for a final Hurrah! paying homage to our late and great Victoria Wood. [We all agree will now begin a petition to insist we replace the National Anthem with ‘Let’s Do it – The ballad of Barry and Freda’ so watch this space!] There was however a very important absence from proceedings. THE MUSIC MAN himself, our Musical Director Murray Hipkin was busy tickling the ivories for another particular Diva at the Coliseum. However he did film a little video including The ENO Cast singing us Happy Birthday which was truly amazing and managed to race south of the river to catch the grand finale of the evening in full concert dress – TOP HAT missing but definitely the tails! The SOUND OF MUSIC completely took over us. In our KINKY BOOTS and with moves like FOSSE we danced the night away until we MERRILY WE ROLL(ED) ALONG home. We had such a WICKED evening. We do hope you will be able to join us on the 4th of June for ONE NIGHT ONLY at Cadogan Hall where WE WILL ROCK YOU.
Tenor Hsien sat down with Paul Selous and Rob Kielty, who were in the Pink Singers in the late nineties and early noughties, to find out what it was like to be Pinkies at the turn of the millennium.
Hsien (HC):Hi Paul and Rob, thanks for joining me. When did you join the Pink Singers and how did that happen? Paul (PS): I joined the Pink Singers in 1997, from 1997 to 2003. I was working for a lesbian and gay radio station with a temporary licence in London called Freedom FM and I went to an Amsterdam lesbian and gay radio station to see whether we could do a matching up or co-ordination together, and I saw this CD on the producer’s desk and I asked “What’s that?” He said, “That’s from Various Voices”, and I said, “What’s that?” “Well, it’s a lesbian and gay choir festival.” “That’s interesting…” It was about 1996, so I actually went to Various Voices in 1997 in Munich just as an audience member. I loved it so much I thought, “Well, I’m going to join the Pinkies.” I used to sing at school, but life took over and I hadn’t done it since then. I knew how choral music worked, but I couldn’t sight read and still can’t sight read. I was a bit nervous at the first rehearsal which was at the Drill Hall. There were probably about forty people in the choir, slightly more men, with a third women, just before they were awarded a national lottery grant to get more women involved. Rob (RK): I joined in 1999, the balance was slipping the other way at that stage. There were more women than men. It really seemed to be the more typical mixed choir balance where you have lots of women and it is quite difficult to find men. It helped that the Drill Hall was a lesbian bar one day in the week, so the women knew it well. Our rehearsals were on Sundays, 2 to 5pm. PS: I really liked the Drill Hall as a rehearsal venue. I liked the vegetarian café in there. I know that some people were not quite so keen on it. RK: I have happy memories of pizzas and dodgy pastries! I moved down from the Midlands and a friend of mine from university wanted to come along and join the choir and she asked whether I’d come along to support her. The interesting thing is that she came, stayed for a couple of rehearsals and then went off to join the [Diversity] chamber choir, but I stayed behind. I enjoyed the opportunity to get out and meet people from different places, and I did really enjoy the repertoire. We were preparing for a concert at the time, in Deptford I think it was, which was my first concert, and a lot of the songs we sang went on to the first CD, although I don’t think that was the intention at the time. It was just great to get involved with something with a performance in it because it was a lot of fun. We’d sing two concerts a year, and performances in-between for people who asked really. We didn’t do much in the way of paid concerts I don’t think but we did things which we thought were worthwhile events. We did a concert for a women’s refuge on the City Road. The events did not have to be gay-specific, but we always did Pride which still continues. PS: We sang on the big stage as the backing group for a boyband called A1. We did ‘Take On Me’ on the big stage in front of tens of thousands of people. The song was top of the charts at the time we were on stage. RK: They were pretty big at the time, I guess they’d be the equivalent of Olly Murs or one of the manufactured boybands nowadays. PS: When I started there were 3 musical directors: Mladen did most of the stuff, Kim – who I think was also with Diversity Choir – did the jazz stuff like ‘Java Jive’ and ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’, and Michael Derrick did show tunes, things like ‘If We Hold On Together’. We performed in Dublin after I joined. We performed at what was normally a lesbian night, it was the first time they let men in, and Michael was both the pianist and the musical director. We had to stand on benches lined up by the walls. It was because we had invited Gloria to sing with us at the Royal Academy of Music, and they invited us back. They said, “We’ve not got a performance space, but you can come to the lesbian bar.” RK: Michael did a lot of arrangement and he did most of the arrangement for our concerts. PS: After a couple of years Mladen became the main MD. We used to go abroad once a year but Mladen didn’t have a passport, and couldn’t travel with us for performances. It wasn’t certain that he was going to be able to stay in London, which is why it took a while for him to take over the choir. HC:Were there any particular songs which stood out for you? RK: Oh yes, ‘The Spirit Song’. At the time we had a non-religious policy but we had a music teacher who came up with this song; it was a primary school song which she had written for the kids to sing and she wanted us to perform it. The choir was an inclusive choir and we like to encourage people to contribute; the problem is when nobody else is contributing and somebody does, you kinda have to do it. It was a spiritual song and it was just really singy-songy. There was a huge controversy about it and we actually put it to a vote, and half the choir chose to sing it and half the choir chose to sit it out. It was a bit difficult at the time because we were doing a Christmas concert and we had some Christmas songs and some people felt very uncomfortable as well about singing Christmas-themed music. PS: I have a tape of the choir singing ‘The 12 days of Christmas’ with slightly racier lyrics. I remember singing ‘Ave Verum [Corpus]’ where we just used the word “Ah” and not the text. RK: For some people it was a big bone of contention at the time – it was part of the constitution. I think it has been removed now, which is good because it opens up a range of music. Some people felt very strongly about it: gay and lesbian people have a long history of persecution by religious people, especially Christian people, and there was that kind of feeling that we can’t engage in this kind of thing, and moving away from it and shunning it. PS: We performed a week after the Admiral Duncan was bombed, and we performed in the church in Soho, and we were actually asked to sing some hymns, and I think there was controversy about that. We were sort of half tricked into it: we thought we’d be singing non-religious songs to commemorate the people who lost their lives, but then we were pushed, asked, persuaded to do the hymns as well. There was unease that we were asked to do that. RK: We didn’t really have a set of songs for these kinds of events. We’d tend to rotate things round. If in doubt we’d sing ‘Hand in Hand’ which was a Pinkies’ theme song. But there is nothing wrong with that. While we might take the Mickey out of it, it was one of those things which gave the group an identity, and any time anybody left the choir, we’d sing it, which was a really lovely thing to do. PS: I remember performing in Paris, and Andy Quan left the choir, and we stood outside in a circle and sang the song. It was the theme tune we used to say good-bye. HC: What did you enjoy about being in the Pinkies? RK: Everyone hung out together. One of the great things about the choir was that while you sat in separate sections during rehearsal, afterwards you got to chat and made some good friends. Last night’s a good example, after 10 years we’re still good friends. PS: The social element was really important, perhaps the most important part about being a Pinkie. There was one particular pub a block or two away which we used to go to a lot. We used to go to First Out sometimes as well, and then after that some of us would go have a meal. We’d socialize outside of rehearsals as well. I remember a picture of me dressed up as James Bond at a James Bond themed party. RK: That was my New Year’s Day party on the millennium! PS: And I remember a Halloween party at Annie and Lynne’s place. RK: People did another things as well. There were a lot of people who played badminton together. HC: Apart from singing, what else did you do when you were in the Pinkies? PS: I was international co-ordinator so I arranged the trip to Various Voices in Berlin. My bedroom in the hotel was filled with the Pink Singer [sewing machine] T-shirts! Berlin Various Voices was very good. We sang outside which we really enjoyed, and it was the week that the FA Cup was on, so we had a lot of supporters making some noise. It was really enjoyable and we also sang at a special night called “The Queens” with three other choirs: a choir from Brussels who sang 12 Icelandic folk songs, Mannenkoorts, and Vox Rosa, which is the choir I am now with. With Vox Rosa I’ve done Various Voices Paris, London and Dublin. Joining a choir [in the Hague] was a way of making new friends, much like the Pinkies and London I think. RK: I was on the committee for quite a few years but I was co-choir of the Pink Singers with Marc Gachon-Dyer for 12 months. I was chair when we went out to [the GALA North American LGBT choral festival in] San Jose which was great. To be in the choir at that time was fantastic. I still remember coming down the stairs dancing to ‘Cabaret’ and the stairs were very steep, and we were very far apart from each other. I remember singing my line and thinking, “That’s it!” It was also around this time that we had the difficult Christmas concert, and there were some interpersonal difficulties within the choir at the same time. Having to be in the middle and peace-keep was kinda hard. That’s part of the fun of being part of a community organization, you are going to have people come into conflict with each other and you are going to have strong opinions and you are going to have people storm out. By the end of my 12 months I was happy to hand things over. Marc would have given up a long time ago! That was 2000. I think I handed over to Lynne, but then I stepped down to a lesser role, remained in the committee and took on merchandising. HC: Why do you think people joined the Pink Singers then? RK: The choir was a meeting space, the music was a reason to meet. It is always a mixed bag, for some it will be a safe space, for some it will be about the music and high quality music. And again it is finding the things that fits the most people. One of the wonderful things about the choir is that we would sometime take on some challenging pieces like the Gershwin medley and the opera choruses. Of the concerts that I performed with the Pinkies, that was by far the standout concert. PS: It is about finding that happy medium – a choir can change in its characteristics, in what it wants to do, and find its level over time. RK: I think one of the things that I’ve learnt is that you let it evolve. You don’t push it, you guide it maybe, a little bit, but you don’t push it because pushing doesn’t work.
We celebrated our 32nd birthday this year, with a fun, colour-block themed party and a cake with enough e-numbers in it to ensure we’ll still be buzzing in time for our concert on 11th July! In fact, tickets for the concert are now ON SALE! Can a song shape the world? Join us as we explore the link between music and history, showcasing a variety of musical styles in St John’s Smith Square – one of London’s most atmospheric and beautiful venues. With music at the heart of change, the show will highlight many significant moments in history, through the suffragette movement to the HIV/AIDS crisis; from Monteverdi’s early opera to record-breaking chart toppers. The show will also feature the wonderful Hinsegin kórinn – Reykjavík Queer Choir – in their debut London performance. Click here to book!
As part of #LGBTHistoryMonth, tenor Hsien explains why choral infidelity is ok and reflects on what he sees as the common threads running through LGBT choirs: music, community and Pride (with a capital P)…
I have a confession to make. I am having an affair. And it is okay.
In 2001 I met my first love, the Pink Singers. I was new to the London scene, the Pinkies offered me wine (lots of it), song and companionship. I will always remember our first visit to the pub, our first time on stage, our first late night house party, our first holiday together; but time ticked on and the itch for something different grew, and so I sought an experience with another choir.
My new mistress, the Barberfellas, gives me a different kind of choral satisfaction – in the form of barbershop and close harmony acapella – and now where once I prudishly thought one choir was enough for anyone, I’m surprised as anyone to say that I’m actually okay with playing away.
To me, at their heart all LGBT choirs are about three things: one, the music which brings us together in the first place; two, the community and friendships which develop around singing with each other week in and week out; and three, Pride with a capital ‘P’ and the desire to express it publicly.
The Pink Singers’ exhibition ‘Singing the Changes’ makes it quite clear that the early choir was about giving the LGBT movement a voice, and Pride was arguably its focus at its inception in 1983. 11 years later, according to the documentary ‘A Vocal Minority’ (mentioned in last week’s blog post) there were at least two additional LGBT choirs in the capital: Diversity Choir and Vocal Minority. Reading between the lines, these newer choirs aimed to differentiate themselves in terms of repertoire and musical ambition. Clearly, one choir was not enough to scratch every itch.
Fast forward to 2015 and in the UK we are almost spoiled for choice. London now has eight, and the UK and Ireland as a whole have over 40 LGBT choirs. That trinity of music, community and Pride still connects them all, but each choir is shaped by the desires of its members and the environment in which it operates, meaning that all kinds of musical tastes, performance styles and choral identities are catered to.
In Norwich, for example, the wonderful Sing With Pride choir sings music which, like the choir itself, is relaxed, accessible and focuses on LGBT issues. Their ‘Out 140’ songs, a series of tweets about LGBT life in and around East Anglia set to music, has been a success both locally and nationally. In Manchester the open-access Manchester Lesbian and Gay Chorus has an innovative programme which helps LGBT asylum seekers find a social outlet, and recently mounted a high-profile campaign against homophobia on its city’s trams. In London, the Fourth Choir aims to bring LGBT choral performance to the world of semi-professional music. This challenges people’s prejudices in a different way, and necessitates a degree of selectivity not found in other choirs.
Every LGBT choir may seem superficially very different, but they all form part of that greater story of the growing complexity in the relationship between music, community and Pride with time, geography and changing social mores. This is where I imagine the Pink Singers is a present – a choir which is proud of its contemporary LGBT identity, but which tries to perform music which is moving rather than didactic.
My first love and I will always share something special, but I think what I am truly in love with is LGBT choirs in general. I am in love with meeting other people who are like me, in love with singing and hearing voices blend in harmony, and so proud of what we can do together. I am having an affair. And it is totally okay.