Coronavirus Music

The City Recital Hall has re-commenced its series of lectures entitled “This Sounds like Science” and one entitled “Coronavirus Music” sounded too topical to miss.

It started with an unlikely premise.  The drummer from an indie-rock group, turned molecular biologist, merging his two interests by creating music from the RNA sequence of the Covid-19 SARS virus.


I only wish I could describe the process called “sonification” with some degree of confidence.  It was something about mapping subsets of the RNA sequence onto musical notes through a set of algorithms.  You try out different mapping techniques and different algorithms until you find a combination yielding sounds pleasing to the ear (whose ear?) and then jam them with a few friends with guitars, a keyboard and a Moog synthesizer.

And the result of all his labours?

Someone once said that if you cannot find anything good to say about something, you should just say nothing.

A number of audience members gave the music an extremely enthusiastic reception, which made me think that perhaps I am missing a gene; the gene necessary to appreciate phrenetic (and, no doubt, very skillful) drumming supported by loads of electronic noise from players whose appearance is soulless and cerebral.  Perhaps readers may like to judge for themselves by looking at some of the lecturer’s music videos on his YouTube Channel:  Mark Temple – YouTube. These give some idea how the musical ideas are derived from the RNA sequence, but do not do justice to the final performance.

However, not all was lost, as my expedition to the City had two purposes.  The other was a huge success: locating a rare second-hand copy of a now out-of-print Australian book for a friend in the UK at a superb shop with extremely helpful staff and a very welcome coffee-shop on site.

Every cloud does indeed have a silver lining.


The Sounds of Singing Together

Isn’t it just wonderful to be singing together again!

Last Thursday brought the Choir together for the first time in just over a year, in a different hall and different layout from pre-Covid, with extra precautions and admin arrangements. But, most importantly, we were back singing together.

Carlos led us through a number of vocal exercises and songs, encouraging us as always to make the most of the words and the music.  A very satisfying evening.

Most of the incidental sights and sounds were familiar to the memory.  Friendly faces; the chatter of voices before we started; the shuffling of music as we found the next song; occasional clearing of the throat, and so-on.  But one sound I had forgotten was that of the opening of packets – new packets, of course – of Fisherman’s Friends, by those choristers whose vocal chords, rusty through fifty four weeks of reduced use, needed some encouragement and lubrication.

It has always puzzled me how a product called Fisherman’s Friend comes to be used by choristers.  I found out when I got home.  Once I had recounted to Anne the details of a wonderful evening’s singing, she said, “Have you heard about Doreen Lofthouse?”  “No, why?” I replied, racking my brain to find some connection.  Anne had picked up from a UK news feed that the said Doreen Lofthouse had just died at the ripe old age of 91, and that she was the person responsible for turning a humble remedy for fisherman’s respiratory ills into a universally favourite throat lozenge, which has become a friend to many more people than fishermen, particularly to choristers.

Her story is heart-warming.  She married the great grandson of the lozenges’ inventor at a time when Fisherman’s Friend was known only locally around the fishing town of Fleetwood, near the famous seaside town of Blackpool, with both the fishing fleet and the town in decline. Extending the range of flavours and actively marketing on a national and subsequently global scale, she was instrumental in securing the long term viability of the business, and hence restoring the town’s civic pride. The lozenges, redesigned by Doreen in 1963 in the shape of a button on her favourite dress, are now made in a disused fish processing factory in Fleetwood which employs many descendants of the original fishermen.  She was modest about her role in the success of the business and become a generous benefactor to many local civic, medical and educational causes.

To read more of Doreen Loftouse’s story, click here.

As Doreen’s life ended, so the Manly Warringah Choir has sprung back to life. We all look forward with eager anticipation over the coming months to rehearsals and concerts of inspiring music, aided, of course, by the famous Fisherman’s Friend.

Stay at Home Choir: Alone in a Crowd

Naomi Roseth writes about joining the Stay at Home Choir.

Prompted by the pandemic, two young London-based musicians started a new venture: ‘Stay at Home Choir’. Judy introduced me to their current project: Karl Jenkins’ ‘The Armed Man’ and I, along with five other MWC members registered, as did some seven thousand people from 70 countries. We are doing only five movements: Sanctus, Hymn before Action, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and God shall wipe away all Tears. As I write we are rehearsing the Benedictus. At the end of August the whole project will come together in some sort of a virtual concert. I can’t imagine how that many voices can be put together coherently but I am both glad and curious to be one of these voices.

To begin with I thought I faced two challenges: mastering the technology and learning  the music. The technology was relatively easy. Perhaps made so because I read and heard Richard’s description of how his Cantiamo choir has managed theirs. The music still remains a challenge.

Each week we get the sound track for one of the movements. On my screen I see on the right Sir Karl Jenkins conducting the ’World Peace Orchestra’ in a past Berlin concert and on the left the score and I can switch from a whole choir version to my voice – soprano. I listen to it through my earphones and video record myself on my iPad. For each movement we can join a rehearsal led by one of the organisers – one for the sopranos/altos and another for the tenors/bases. There are also webinars with Sir Karl and two soloists talking about the piece in general and the particular movement we are rehearsing. We have a two-week period to rehearse, video record ourselves, then upload the product and send it off before rehearsing the next movement.

Am I glad to do it? I guess I am. It is good to rehearse, to learn some breathing and posture techniques, to sing, to work towards defined end and to try and improve my contribution. I am also grateful for the opportunity to watch and listen to Sir Karl Jenkins – such a highly renowned contemporary composer. I am awestruck by the technology that enables us to interact with thousands of people all over the world. And I am impressed by the efficient organisation of this mammoth project and the enthusiasm of the organisers.

But I can’t really say that I enjoy the singing. For several reasons: I am so dissatisfied with my voice. After weeks of no practice, it is flat and scratchy. Many home-rehearsals bring about an improvement but then comes the time that I have to send my recording and start practising the next movement and I just have to send off something that is far from satisfactory for me. I tell myself that my voice will merge with thousands others, who probably won’t be much better than mine. All the same, I worry about the long-term impact of this long drawn singing hiatus.

I also find the home rehearsals a weird experience. I watch and hear the tutor but on my screen I see lots of other women, their lips are moving and I can’t hear a thing. The tutor gets us to sing a couple of bars, and then she says “Excellent, well done” even though she heard not a thing. All a bit artificial and isolated.   In a way it makes me miss our MWC rehearsals even more than I do any way.

So in summary – I am pleased I rose to the technical challenge. Musically, I am sure that the YouTube rendition of The Armed Man with the London Symphony Orchestra would be a more pleasing experience. But all the same, I am glad to be involved in this project. Better to sing in isolation then not at all and good to know that people from so many countries have come together to sing in this Mass for Peace.

On the whole a very strange experience:  I am singing with thousands of other people but  I am still all alone behind my computer.

Singing while you wash

What and when have you been singing recently?  Without MWC rehearsals, most of my music making has been to accompany the ritual anti-Covid 19 hand-wash several times each day – singing the recommended Happy Birthday to you, twice through, not forgetting to add on the three cheers, all of which can indeed be made to last the requisite twenty seconds.

That’s not a very edifying piece to sing so frequently, and I must confess that I soon tired of it.  But what would be a suitable substitute?  Well, there is a section of my favourite oratorio, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontuis, where Gerontius sings the Creed,  which is decidedly more interesting and powerful, and the first phrase lasts just about twenty seconds.  It worked well to start with.  But, whatever the singer thinks, others in the house indicated that, sung so often, this piece could also become tiresome – and I would not want to give Elgar’s work that reputation.

So what else might there be?  An obvious choice is the choral theme from the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  That lasts just over twenty seconds and went down well with the enforced listeners.  It even works well without the words, just sung to “lah”.

But even that could pall.  The next thought was the gorgeous cor anglais melody from the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, written while he was living in the USA.   Some commentators believe that the melody reflected Dvorak’s longing for his home country, Czechoslovakia; one even creating some matching lines starting “Going home”.  That was a prompt for some revised lyrics reflecting our current situation.
Staying home, staying home,
Now we’re staying home.
Staying home, staying home,
Not allowed to roam.
Go out for necessities, scripts and groceries.
Otherwise, stay inside, be content to hide
Staying home, staying home,
Now we’re staying home.
Staying home, staying home.
Not allowed to roam.

After a few weeks of distancing and isolation, I found that I was getting not a little frustrated.  A new song was needed for hand-washing to give vent to that frustration.  What transpired is a reworking of O sole mio, with apologies to its Neapolitan composer and to Elvis Presley.
It’s now or never!  For we must fight
Coronovirus with all our might!
We’ll distance and wash as well,
This pesky virus can go to……..
And even with the final word omitted, it still lasts for twenty seconds!

Ah well.  The restrictions are gradually being lifted.  Maybe one day it will be appropriate to sing Dvorak again, but with different words:
Going out, going out……….

Roll on the day!


In times of adversity……….

Roger Pratt has discovered a recently recorded video of a “virtual” performance of The Chorus of Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco.   Click here to watch it.

He writes:  “It’s especially moving knowing the current situation in Italy. You probably saw the article in the SMH on Monday, describing how in Lombardy they’re bringing in army trucks to cart away the dead bodies to the countryside to burn them.

“Also the choice of ‘Va pensiero’ is so apt – it became a virtual anthem for Italy during its struggle against the Austro-Hungarian empire during the Risorgimento in the 1850s. In the same way that it gave hope to the Hebrew Slaves, it still inspires the Italians in these dark times.”

Maybe we will find a way in which we at MWC can virtually sing together over the next few weeks.  You never know!