Crackpot Culture (Gareth Malone, The Choir, and Libera)

Choirmaster Gareth Malone has had his work cut out. He’s been working in schools and communities in England to try and change attitudes to singing.

Music can help people learn languages. It has the power to elevate, stimulate, heal, and positively impact lives.

It’s also an echo of personality. Choosing what to listen to is a form of self-definition. It can play a role in forming social bonds, just as it can cause pressure and inhibition to maintain those bonds.

Music is often a fast-track to ridicule. It is easy to deride someone’s taste or involvement with music. How many personal favourites must lie on hidden CDs that must never be exposed? How many times have we pretended to love songs purely because they are popular? Upholding social credibility is all-important.

Given our digital age, music plays an increasing role in the lives of young people. Yet it is glamorised in defeatist ways, playing to our predatory habits.

A newspaper interview with James Blunt revealed an all-too-familiar paradox: he is apparently the most hated man in British pop, and yet one of the most successful.

Perhaps we eventually grow out of the taste stigma once our adolescent concerns around integration begin to fade. But is the right way to deal with shame or inhibition to simply wait until we grow out of it?

No, would be the resounding cry of a man who has done much single-handedly to revolutionise the way in which groups of young people have approached music.

Gareth Malone and ‘The Choir’

Gareth Malone and Phoenix Choir in Xiamen, China
BBC: The Choir (2007). Gareth Malone and the Phoenix Choir at the World Choir Games in China.

Gareth Malone, a choirmaster for the London Symphony Orchestra, became a cult hero in 2007 with the broadcast of the documentary ‘The Choir’.

Having chosen a comprehensive school in Northolt with little background of singing, his ambition was to take a choir to the World Choir Games in Xiamen, China, in just nine months.

The new ‘Phoenix’ choir had only four weeks to produce an application CD, and a two month wait for the result caused a real dip in motivation. The struggle for commitment, discipline, and quality is felt and suffered by Gareth at every step.

Just in time, ‘Phoenix’ begin to gel, and with new bonds of trust and receptiveness, they begin to truly perform. After a respectable performance in Asia, students tearfully reflected on their achievement and new-found community.

Gareth waits for solitude before it strikes him too: ‘Phoenix’ would not go beyond the first round. It was never about miracles and bringing gold medals home – but the extraordinary, life-changing, bonding experience that music provides.

The Choir II, ‘Boys Don’t Sing’

BBC 2: The Choir: Boys Don’t Sing (22/02/08). Gareth Malone.
BBC 2: The Choir: ‘Boys Dont Sing’ (2008). Gareth Malone addresses the Royal Albert Hall.

One year later, Gareth took on an even tougher challenge. He joined the all-boys Lancaster School, Leicester, with the ambition of forming a choir and taking it to the Royal Albert Hall.

An alpha-male environment resounded, with gender and gay stereotypes against singing thrown around with abandon. The boys initially delighted in their defiance against the new, unwanted, musical culture.

Yet, with kind, firm persistence, belief in his ambition, and an ability to make a fool of himself, Gareth was able to make an unlikely breakthrough.

No barriers to entry encouraged boys with illness and learning difficulties to participate. This was about progression and confidence-building as much as it was about quality, and the raw final performance is a proud moment.

It is reminsicent of The Breakfast Club, when some of the group realise their own social stigmas. A painful silence meets contemplation: if the disonant four passed each other in the corridor, wouldn’t the athletic Andy just blindly ignore the nerdish Brian?

‘The Choir’ brings different groups together in a phase of enlightenment. The most touching moments are wrapped in humour, subtlety, or human nature. When young choristers emerge several weeks into Gareth’s tenure, finally less afraid to reveal their guarded secret, we realise just how inhibitive a school environment can be. The series finishes, delightfully, with their choral rendition of Pie Jesu.

With the right figurehead, music can unlock this means of expression, or the fear to express, which is otherwise bottled up with nowhere to go. Deborah Ross’ Independent review says it all: ‘it has to be as profoundly a moving piece of television as has ever been made’.

The Finished Article: Robert Prizeman and Libera

Stirred by Malone’s work, I went to a relatively rare UK performance by the ‘finished article’: boys choir Libera.

Under the direction of Robert Prizeman, Libera have amassed a huge following in Japan and America, and can be heard on soundtracks including Hannibal and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet.

As much as I often enjoy a certain exclusivity about the artists I follow, I find myself surprised that an act which has recently performed at the US musical awards and also for the Pope at Yankee Stadium cannot fill a modestly sized London venue.

Maybe Britain is just not interested in contemporary music which approaches the word ‘classical’. Alongside a stunning rendition of Bach’s ‘Air’, Libera’s latest album includes arrangements of Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’ and Brian Wilson’s ‘Love and Mercy’.

Watching Libera perform was illuminating even beyond the magic of voice. A bunch of boys from south London – some as young as nine – sing in Latin, with complex harmonies, choreographic arrangements, and witty transitions between songs.

Prizeman has a stunning project in place. Even the album titles, from Luminosa, to Free, to New Dawn, encapsulate this very sense of liberty.

After the performance, I was interviewed for a documentary, possibly because I was among the youngest of a considerably older audience. But how many closeted fans must they have? I’ve been a Libera fan for seven years; I would have been as a teenager, though I would never had admitted it. Which twenty-somethings, even, will own up to liking a boys’ choir?

There needs to be the opportunity to instil the confidence, and the freedom, to love the arts as we may. If not, there may be a part of our confidence that never develops as it might, or even a dialogue within ourselves, wondering when freedom will be found.

Thank goodness for Gareth Malone and an artistic awakening.

An early version of this was published in the University of Geneva’s Noted magazine, Autumn 2008.

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