Crackpot Culture (Gareth Malone)

[First featured in Noted, Autumn 2008]

Gareth Malone
BBC 2: The Choir: Boys Don’t Sing (22/02/08). Gareth Malone.

Since edited to become ‘Boys Don’t Sing’? Gareth Malone and UK Attitudes towards Music

It is so easy to deride someone’s music taste or involvement with music without realising the consequences. The last few years have seen choirmaster Gareth Malone working in schools and communities in England to try and reverse some of the powerful, almost discriminatory, stereotypes that have crept into modern culture.

Music can provide an intimate, private relationship with its listener, in addition to its social, public function. It has the capacity to help people learn other languages, to elevate, stimulate, heal, and have a positive impact upon lives.

Music, we are prepared to admit, is an echo of personality. Choosing what to listen to is one form of self-definition. It could potentially have a significant role to play in forming social bonds. But it can equally become a cause of pressure and inhibition.

Rigged by stereotypes, music is often a fast-track to ridicule. How many personal treasures lie on hidden CDs that must never be exposed? How many times have we pretended to love songs purely because they are ‘arbitrarily popular’, in order to benefit reputation? There is almost always some level of deception or silence regarding music taste which is designed to uphold a social credibility. The connection with age could be the most crucial of all.

Given our media revolution and digital age, music plays an ever greater role in the lives of young people. Music is the ideal medium to find place in the world, but how often does it take on a destructive rather than a constructive force? Although subject to stereotype, music has become a cultural format, feeding accusations that particular genres glamorize violent crime. Yet music itself is glamorized in other defeatist ways, playing to our predatory habits.

The volume of news turning music into a farce is stunning. 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. How can the two co-exist? As music becomes as much about madness over method, I grow ever prouder of my dear favourites, as I’m sure we all do.

Perhaps one eventually grows out of this great stigma surrounding tastes and preferences, but then does music have the same meaning if it has been ‘repressed’ for a number of years? Is the right way to deal with shame or inhibition to simply wait until we grow out of it? Perhaps not, would be the resounding cry of a man who has done so much, single-handedly, to revolutionise the way in which select groups of young people have approached music.

Gareth Malone and ‘The Choir’

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 an ordinary comprehensive school in Northolt, with little background of singing, Gareth’s ambition was to form a choir of 25 eager participants and take them to the World Choir Games in Xiamen, China, nine months later.

The new ‘Phoenix’ choir had only four weeks to produce a CD for their application, 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. He takes the challenge for the golden rewards, the epiphany moments, which his students are driven to believe will come.

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 were tearful reflecting upon how beautiful the experience was: not only a remarkable achievement, but a new-found community finding harmony on several levels. 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.

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

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 audience of the school proms at the Royal Albert Hall (left), before bringing his tutees rendition of Stand by Me to a close (right).

One year later, Gareth took on an even tougher challenge. He joined Lancaster School, Leicester, an all-boys school with a sporting heritage, with the ambition of forming a choir and taking it to the Royal Albert Hall. An alpha-male environment resounded around the school, and gender and gay stereotypes against singing and classical music were thrown around with abandon. The boys initially delighted in putting up a resolute 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 to break inhibition, Gareth was able to make an unlikely breakthrough. There were no barriers to entry, which encouraged boys with dyslexia and cancer to participate. This was about progression and confidence building as much as it was about quality, and the raw final performance, sparkling with endeavour, 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, popular Andy just blindly ignore the nerdish Brian?

‘The Choir’ brings different factions together in a phase of enlightenment. The most touching moments are wrapped in humour, subtlety, or human nature. There is no mistaking confidence for the brash, boisterous front. Love becomes a strength, celebrated in a context of singing.

When young choristers emerge several weeks into Gareth’s tenure at the sports school, finally less afraid to reveal their guarded secret pastimes, we realise just how inhibitive a school environment can be. The series finishes, delightfully, with their choral rendition of Pie Jesu.

Music, with the right figurehead, 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’, and one of my favourite artists, boys choir Libera. Under the direction of the excellent Robert Prizeman, Libera have amassed a huge following in Japan and America, and can even 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 cannot help but be a little surprised when a dazzling musical act, who recently sang at the US musical awards ceremony in front of George Bush, Robert de Niro, Diana Ross, and others, and also for the Pope at the Yankee Stadium, cannot fill a modestly sized London venue. It seems that Britain is just not interested in contemporary music which approaches the word ‘classical’. Yet, alongside a stunning rendition of Bach’s ‘Air’, their latest album includes arrangements of Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’ and Brian Wilson’s ‘Love and Mercy’. Composer and director Robert Prizeman has a stunning project in place. Even the album titles, from Luminosa, to Free, to New Dawn, encapsulate this very sense of liberty found through music.

In the context of thoughts listed here, watching Libera perform was illuminating even beyond the magic of their voices. A bunch of ordinary boys from south London are singing in Latin, with complex harmonies, and choreographic arrangements. It is incredible that boys as young as nine can take this on board and revel in their achievements. Even the witty presentations between songs were remarkable. This group of boys, who must miss a great deal of mainstream schooling, are confident, articulate, clearly very intelligent, and above all, happy in a group and within themselves. One suspects, and hopes, that all of the boys involved will go on to achieve great things.

After the performance, I was interviewed as part of a documentary. Was that because I represented the younger end of a considerably older audience? Outside the context of the concert hall, I am sure that is not the case. I have been a Libera fan for seven years; I would have been so as a young teenager, but equally, I would have been reluctant to admit it. The problem does not stop there though: who, even as a twenty-something-year-old, is prepared to enter or initiate a conversation about music and talk about their love of 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 between the soul and body, wondering when freedom will be found. Thank goodness for Gareth Malone and his miraculous talents.


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