Blake Morgan: In the Right Place at the Right Time

[block background=“#e5e5e5″]Česká verze tohoto rozhovoru je k dispozici v Harmonii 5/2023.[/block]

“The most sensitive musical instrument is the human soul. The next is the human voice.” This quote from Arvo Pärt was chosen for the cover of one of the most recent VOCES8 albums, aptly called After Silence. Expressing the inexpressible through human voices seems to be the mission of this vocal ensemble and one of its members, Blake Morgan, who kindly revealed to us what his life is like, working internally as a singer and externally as a composer.

When I was still with Cantus, we toured a programme and album called Song of a Czech, which was full of works by Antonín Dvořák and Leoš Janáček; and in college I also performed Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared – that was one of the pieces that really attracted me to Czech music when I heard Ian Bostridge’s recording of it. VOCES8 hasn’t performed much Czech music unfortunately, but I’ll do my best to get some of it in our programme in the coming years. The language is amazing – I remember working so hard at it. While in Cantus we had Czech language coaches come in and there’s that one consonant cluster – it’s something like ppprrrzzz – that’s so difficult!

I had a good friend at university who coached me through all this music when I was working on the Diary of One Who Disappeared, and she was Czech. Sometimes you just get these lucky experiences like that – you have the opportunity to work with someone with this incredible background who happens to be at your school as a student.

The Czech national anthem’s called Where My Home Is. Where do you consider yourself to be at home, Blake? I’m sort of used to simply opening my suitcase and calling that place home. I have a place in Michigan where my parents still live and where I’m at right now. It’s a proper writing retreat and yes, this is probably the place I feel most at home, here in Michigan where I grew up.

But then I have what some would refer to as a “crash pad” up in Edinburgh which I use also for writing retreats. It’s super restorative and an inspiring place to be. And then I stay with a friend down in London whenever we’re rehearsing there. So I have these three hubs I travel between, but we do 120 concerts a year with VOCES8 – it’s almost seven or eight months in total travelling – so there’s not much time to have that traditional sense of “feeling at home”.

We really admire all the work you do and just wonder how you can perform with such excellence when you are so often on the road. How do you manage to produce such exquisite performances with VOCES8 when travelling so much? Well, we know each other really, really well. We see each other more than we see our families – that includes significant others, parents, children. We know each other on such a human, intimate level that when somebody’s having a bad day, I think we immediately fill in the gaps and make sure that person isn’t being overstressed in a certain way. But there certainly are pinch-points during our season, like the fourth week of a big tour, for instance. In fact, we just completed a four-week-long US tour, and it’s a little bit easier to aggravate someone when you’ve been on the road for a month than it is on the first day. So yeah, you just have to stay very conscientious and be empathetic in those scenarios, I think.

But we try to take as much time as possible off from work and we’re taking a week now, which is essentially for the jet lag period. But of course I’m just staying in the US. We just really try to build moments into the schedule for restoration time and relaxation. You have to make that a priority to stay healthy and inspired.

And how do you actually decide what you’re going to perform at various places or on various tours? Do you have some core pieces which you always perform to make yourselves feel at home? There are staples of the repertoire that we do in most concerts. For most music consumers, it probably makes most sense to generalise our programming into two clumps: we have a sacred programme and then a varied, mixed programme, and pieces will rotate a lot in those two offerings. In the States, which is probably one of the best coordinated touring situations we have, the group actually performs around four or five programmes across the tour, and all of them are kind of different, but you’ll see a lot of pieces that are doubled, you know, throughout the programmes.

We have something like 150 to 200 pieces of music, varying each year. Sometimes a presenter would like to have a special piece in the programme, so we put it in for that one time, and if we like it, it might stay in the programme and we’ll consider touring it for years to come. If it doesn’t fit the group as well, then it’s just that one-off. But you know, included in those 150 to 200 pieces, we might be doing Handel’s Messiah or Fauré’s Requiem and that counts as one piece, so it’s a lot of music. And thank goodness we’ve upgraded to iPads now instead of carrying around all that sheet music with us. I’ve been in the group for seven years but Barney, who founded the group 18 years ago, and Andrea, who’s been in the group for 15 years, remember the days when they were hauling around huge backpacks of music. I can’t even imagine how much it would weigh — especially big, thick scores if you’re doing a master work.

VOCES8, foto Andy Staples

What made you decide to cross the pond to London and take up with VOCES8 in the end? Before my time in VOCES8, I was lucky enough to have a few separate seasons performing and travelling the world as a member of both American super-groups, Chanticleer and Cantus, and it was actually on one of those tours that I met VOCES8. It must have been 2014–2015 – certainly before the group had ascended to the heights that they are now at with social media hits, Spotify plays, and Hollywood features. I saw there was a British group on tour in the same city that I was going to be performing in, so I reached out to them and said something like, “Would you guys want to meet for a drink or can I get you tickets to our concert?” And they said “We actually have a concert on the same night, literally at the exact same time, on different sides of the city.” I think it’s always fun to meet touring musicians from a different country. And as a 23-year-old American, I was also thinking, “Wow, maybe I’ll get to hear some cool British accents!”

So I drove all the way across the city to say hello and meet them at a little pub. I’m really glad that I did because from there I think Barney looked me up on social media afterwards – I guess there were whispers of a secret tenor spot becoming available in VOCES8, and so I got a call a few days later saying, “Would you be interested in this?” And so they flew me out to London. I sang with the group for the first time there, and I think it was almost an audition for both parties because it’s difficult to ask someone to move their life to the other side of the world. It was a big step for me, you know, but I went away from that experience thinking “this is an incredible, very special sound”, and so I decided to jump across the pond. And it’s been seven years since that point.

I know you’ve been asked this question before, but people would like to know, I’m sure. So how do you make that sound? There are so many tiny factors I think, but probably two main, bigger points. One is attention to blend and a sort of selflessness – genuinely sacrificing yourself to the whole of the ensemble and to the group sound as a unit – and we work really hard to create an environment where that is mentally, sonically, and vocally possible. VOCES8 has existed for 18 years, but I feel the “signature sound” of the group that listeners have come to expect and love actually started when we began recording with the Decca Classics label a decade ago. And their idea was to feature these huge, famous choral pieces that were conceived for much larger choirs with all those beautiful, sparkly close seconds – I’m talking about Eric Whitacre, Morten Lauridsen, Ola Gjeilo, and other composers who became champions of that sound world – but they wanted us to do it with just eight singers. So you don’t have the same kind of “chorus-effect” blend you do with 10 singers in a section when you have just one on a part.

So it creates an entirely different aesthetic, and the way that we achieved that was by miking ourselves a lot closer than most ensembles would – if you’re looking to get geeky on the numbers there then Barney is the person to talk to since he often sets up all the tech equipment and is our in-house audio engineer – but generally I think we tend to mic at 2.5 metres or three metres when we’re making an album whereas most choral groups tend to be miked around 6 metres. So we’re essentially splitting that range in half, and so what that does is it creates a sound that’s extremely intimate – very, very close – but you also hear all the blemishes. And so the trick for the ensemble during those early Decca albums was just to sing on the precipice of phonation – as quietly as one can – in a way that no sane person would ever attempt in a concert setting. But for microphones, that is a magical sound. You get that almost breathy, whispered, human warmth, you know, the kind of noise that you’d make when you’re singing a baby to sleep. So I think that became the hallmark – that very special sound of the group. And we try to do that a few times in every concert. We actually take the noise level down to an unbelievably soft dynamic that makes the audience lean in and wonder, “Are they really singing that quietly? What’s going on?” So I think that’s definitely part-one of the VOCES8 trademark sound.

And the other thing I’d say is intonation. We work extremely hard on that too. In fact, I’d say maybe 60–70 % of our rehearsal is thinking about intonation, chord balance, and harmonic axis, because ultimately that’s what the audience perceives: harmony. We work in a system called “just intonation” whenever we’re aligning triads or basic chordal extensions in our classical repertoire, and then for some of the jazz pieces, we’ll move to “equal temperament”, so we’re pretty well versed at flipping back and forth between those two systems. I think during our concerts, hearing chords built and tuned within the framework of the harmonic series really does actually go a long way for the listeners in the audience, however subtle the shift – it sounds very human, very organic… like something we intrinsically understand from listening to the natural sounds of the universe our whole lives. It feels like it’s programmed into us.

You also said that you rehearse without bashing the piano and then this way of rehearsing must be really difficult without any support of any instrument, mustn’t it? You know, it’s funny that you say that. We’ve been trying to implement piano more often into rehearsals, especially because of the 20th and 21st century music we sing mostly being built entirely from the temperament of that instrument. You can tell that many composers have sat down at the piano while they’ve written their pieces – and I definitely fall into this category as well, I don’t think there’s any shame in it. You sit down and sort of stumble around a bit and find sonorities that either you’ve loved for a long time or that are new, but you build it from that equal tempered scale. So we’ve been trying to bring the piano back into rehearsal, which is difficult because we mostly rehearse on the road. Typically, we’re in the concert venues before each concert, preparing the music that comes up in a month’s time, and if there’s not a piano on the stage, well, you know, we’re using our iPad keyboards.

Have you ever heard about this concept called “audiation?” Audiation is akin to reading in your head when you’re reading a book. Most of us have the ability to look at this page of words and read it in our head. I’m a big believer that musicians should be able to look at a page of music and hear it, lift it off the page with their mind, but I think especially as vocalists, as vocal ensembles, it’s all that we have – there’s no pitched instrument. You have to hear the harmony, you have to hear the next chord, you have to hear how your line relates to every other part. There are certainly ways to develop that skill, but we spend hours rehearsing and utilising it as an ensemble.

We sometimes do exercises that can help. For instance, if there’s a difficult chord coming up, we’ll sing the passage up until the chord, and then we stop. Everyone in the group will visualise – will “audiate” that sound in their head, and then we’ll sing the chord. It gives your mind a second to place it and figure out exactly what that moment will sound like before you end up singing it. But it’s a really advanced skill that is so very crucial for a cappella singing. And I think it’s sort of dying out, actually. You see it less and less with musicians from my generation because we’re so tethered to digital audio workstations — like Pro Tools and Logic and GarageBand – or notation software like Sibelius and Finale which have really advanced playback systems. With these devices we can just immediately press a button to get the feedback rather than allow our brains to hear it, to imagine it, to create it in our heads.

That’s interesting. It’s sort of a creative approach to the hearing of music, something one would consider to be the foundation of the whole process of music making. Right. My fear for singers who want to make a career in music and the teachers who encourage them is that we’re building up so many musicians around the world that have amazing voices and who can vocalise beautifully, but they have no applicable skill that carries over to an instrument. And whether it’s a guitar, piano, violin, djembe – whatever it is – I think it’s so helpful to have at least some command over an instrument. That’s another way to translate your craft to a group of people. On the flip side, for many instrumentalists who grew up with quite a bit of fear towards using their voice, like me, sometimes they lack the ability to truly internalise the music in their body. There’s nothing more natural than using your voice.

As a multi-instrumentalist, Blake often accompanies choral groups during VOCES8 Summer School at Milton Abbey in Dorset, foto Andrew Wilkinson

This is closely connected with education. What system of music education do you have in the States and how does it work over there in education compared to the UK? Most of my colleagues grew up in the church music tradition; they were choir boys or choir girls – “trebles” as they’re called in the U.K. My relationship with singing began tentatively – behind a guitar or a drum set in my high school rock bands. I was primarily an instrumentalist. I played the French horn, percussion, violin, piano, guitar, and was in all the classical ensembles – orchestra, wind ensemble, pit-band for musicals – but I didn’t find my way firmly into classical vocal music until nearly halfway through college. I entered as a jazz studies major. So I didn’t come through that same classical system as a vocalist.

One of my degrees is in music education, and I remember sitting through methods classes as an undergraduate where we were given these general guidelines relating complexity of music to the ages of our future students – the scaffolding for what each grade level is capable of achieving musically. So for instance, we were taught milestones like, at age 10, students can learn music in two-part harmony, by age 12, their teacher can expand it to three-part, and by age 14 they can begin diving into four-part music etc. And the people that I sing in VOCES8 with – their upbringing just defies those studies entirely. You know, they were singing Byrd and Tallis and Gibbons – some of the most complicated polyphonic masterworks – at age 7 or 8. I was learning to read Harry Potter at that age; they were learning to read these really complicated pieces of polyphony at that age. I’ve found that Brits tend to be unfairly good at linear interval singing; those trained as child-choristers simply aren’t going to miss very many notes in the score. But I feel like Americans may have a slight leg up when it comes to internalising harmonic structures… We love our homophony in the States.

Perhaps the US is in a marginally better place than the UK or Europe when it comes to music education, but it’s still not where it should be. And you know, there are tons of cuts to music. The first thing to get cut is the arts. One thing that’s a tremendous aim for the VOCES8 Foundation – and we are very passionate about it – is bringing music back to the curriculum.

You and VOCES8 Foundation seem to be very active in terms of educational outreach. How does it work and how can you manage to organise all this? We really believe that every person should be able to find their unique voice. And so we think about the joy and benefits that come through singing and we care very much about bringing that into fruition. We have various different educational leaders all over the world. In fact, we have a non-profit organisation in the US, a charity in the UK, which is where the foundation was set up, and we also now have a foundation in France. That means we’re able to employ leaders in those communities and ensure they’re teaching music at a high level, but also sometimes they are focusing on the beginning levels for students that have never used their voice, getting them to make sounds for the first time. Perhaps it’s doing rhythmic body percussion and sort of grunting along, getting them to eventually start figuring out that, “Oh, this voice box thing makes sound and I can pitch it and make high sounds and low sounds too.” But it’s an incredible thing to see kids discovering that for the first time. And then we, as VOCES8, come in as an ensemble towards the end of that process. We’ll show up and do a concert with the students, covering the things they’ve been working on, and give them a final performance, just to wrap everything up. Of course we’re the flagship ensemble of the VOCES8 Foundation, but we also have Apollo5 as our sister group and they have a similar educational model as well.

Whenever we’re on tour, we often do very simplified workshops; Paul Smith wrote a book called The VOCES8 Method, built upon various studies in music education and experiences working with musicians all over the world. Paul and my predecessors in VOCES8 collected all this information by doing workshops in communities and learning things about what translates best to adults and youngsters and musicians and amateurs, professionals, all in the same room – how can you get them making music together, as quick as possible and make sure that everyone is challenged and invigorated in that experience. The VOCES8 method effectively breaks down different ways you can get any group of people to participate in making music at any time.

The method is also geared to aid teachers – who maybe have no musical background or training – walk into a classroom and actually teach musical concepts. It’s funny – when we do these “V8 Method” exercises in workshops, I often see loads of professional musicians who seem unable to do multiple clapping rhythms at the same time with others, while children, who have only just heard the patterns, typically get it immediately. I suppose adults who have already formulated all those deep-rooted musical connections in their brain find it difficult to undo them or employ them in a new way.

VOCES8 in Vilnius, Lithuania, 2021, foto Mantas Gudzinevičius

I think every person still has things to learn, to grow up in or to progress in. When you reach such high levels of professionalism, in arranging, composing, singing, is there still any way to develop your skills? Is there still something to learn for you? And how do you find your inspiration? I completely agree with you. I think that it’s a never-ending journey. And if it did end, I mean, where’s the fun in that? I feel it’s a lifetime adventure, music, and you never stop improving. Every single day I’m finding new things that interest me – different sounds I’ve yet to collect. I’ve always thought of myself almost like a little bit of a harmony collector, you know, since an early age, I’d always listen to and rewind colourful chords and try to figure them out on the piano and wonder what about that makes me feel a certain way. What about it gives me a sensory reaction?

And I’m still like that. This expands further as soon as you break out of the equal-tempered, 12 tone aesthetic, then you hear sounds like Jacob Collier for instance. I’m not sure if you listen to him, but he’s using these colours that are between the notes we know on the piano. And for me, I think, “Wow, I’ve never even thought about this kind of flavour before” and so I have to figure out why it works so well. That’s just one example, but I definitely hope I never stop exploring and improving and learning because once that ends then it feels like the party’s over.

I just love stumbling into things. “Happy accidents,” as Bob Ross says. You can figure out and methodise your musical mannerisms or follow a rigid structure that might work for bringing art into the world – that may be 90 % of the thing you’ve created, but it’s the extra 10 % that makes it electric and unique, surprising and somehow simultaneously the thing that holds it together. You can’t really force that as a creator, and the moment it falls into your lap and you’re there dusting it off rather than having to mathematically shape some kind of structure… It’s a really special and sacred experience.

But don’t you sometimes have that feeling, like – where did that come from? My favourite moments of creativity are when it just really does feel like it’s a gift, dropped from whatever divine being that may live above us, and suddenly it’s here and I’m just a vessel, just colouring, filling in the details rather than forcing something new into existence.

Whatever higher power you may or may not believe in, I think there’s an interesting connection to the divine, which you can’t really manufacture. You can’t force it to happen. Sure, you can sit down and go through theoretical exercises to compose or arrange, but in the end, there’s just a creative spark that sets off a fire of ideas and you can’t plan for that. You have to be in the right place at the right time and I sometimes also think that as composers or artists in general, we become far too addicted and obsessed with that mystery; everything has to be put on hold once you’ve secured that connection and you’re speaking to something above you. That channel’s opened and it’s as if everything has to stop around you. We can get so temperamental about it! But it really is quite a gift – it’s a very special thing to be able to tap into that energy. And it’s not just a composing thing – it’s singers, painters, dancers, anybody who has a connection to art, I think, has that channel.

And when you’re arranging something, how do you choose what you’re going to arrange, or is it commissioned work? For me these days, it’s often commissioned material. I think we’ve actually found this as a group too – when you approach an arranger and ask for a general style rather than a piece, that’s when you usually get the best results, and that’s my favourite way to work as well. If you ask someone for an arrangement of a particular song, as a musician you already have the ability to craft most of the arrangement in your head, you’ve already developed some sort of idea of what that might sound like. My favourite types of arrangers throughout history have been the ones that entirely “reimagine” the melody – J. S. Bach, Gene Puerling, Moses Hogan, Benjamin Britten, Naomi Crellin, Gil Evans, and even Josquin des Prez (with his ornate redecorating of pre-existing cantus firmi) to name a few. However, if the arranger has put his own spin on your favourite tune or even reconstructed it, chances are it will be at odds with that version you had begun to create in your head. So I always feel it’s better to pick a genre rather than a particular song – that way the commissioner only has happy surprises!

You’ve mentioned Benjamin Britten as one of your heroes as a composer and arranger. Yeah, Britten’s definitely up there. He is a huge influence from an arranger perspective; I love to find this intersection between arranging and composing with my own arrangements – I think of them about 80 % composed, 20 % original material. Benjamin Britten wrote a bunch of arrangements like this; he’s so prolific! The Hymn to Saint Cecilia is the centrepiece for a few of our programs. And I was always really attracted to his War Requiem in college, that’s just such a moving piece of music and it was even moving for me before I understood the context of it, which I think says something when the music itself is just powerful, you know.

Performance in Graz, Austria, 2019, foto Peter Purgar

Are there moments where you can forget yourself and just hear the music coming out of the group and enjoy it? For sure. I’ll just be honest and say that probably for all of us, they happen pretty rarely, but we definitely have them; I think when you do get that hit, it’s enough to make up for all the moments you spend working like crazy to achieve the details. Perhaps it’s rare, but these moments give you so much life and energy when you do have them, and remind you that it’s all worth it.

One cool thing is that we are very lucky to have a centre in London right next to Saint Paul’s Cathedral. It’s called the VOCES8 Centre, but it’s formally known as Saint Anne and Saint Agnes Church. It was actually a practice project for Christopher Wren, who built St. Paul’s, and that’s where we’ve recorded all of our recent albums and most of the videos you might see on YouTube. It’s very lofty and so it has this tremendous and very deep acoustic. We have been very lucky to have these microphones and cameras around at all times, so whenever we rehearse there, we’re able to listen back immediately and can have instant feedback. It’s both terrifying and amazing because you go back into the control room and can hear both the blemishes and beautiful intricacies, blaring through the speakers, almost larger than life. I definitely have those moments of surrealness in that room as we listen back, and I’m not then thinking about the performance aspects.

What are your latest projects? What are you working on at the moment? And what have been your most loved projects, those you really enjoyed the most? Well, first of all, I always love writing for VOCES8; it’s incredible to be within the ensemble singing, while simultaneously shepherding the pieces that I’ve conceived for the group. But I’ve also had some really huge, mountaintop experiences in the last year or so – recently I’ve been writing for The Manhattan Transfer’s new recording project, which really is such an honour. It’s their 50th anniversary album – they’ve been around for 50 years – and the vocals on the opening track Agua were arranged by me, and Vince Mendoza did the orchestration. The album was nominated for a Grammy this year, which was a huge honour as well.

I’m writing a few charts for the group Take 6 right now also. There’s a matter of being subjective, but I still don’t know any groups around today that have created the discography that they have… And they can still sing so amazingly! I’ve done two arrangements for them; for the first one they just gave me a style – something with sweeping, grand choral textures – so I did an arrangement of The Water is Wide. The second I’ve done specifically for an album project they have coming up, but I don’t want to give too much away!

They’re complete pioneers of the genre. I think they redefined what it meant to be a vocal group, just like The Manhattan Transfer as well. As a vocal jazz fan, it’s incredible for me to think back on the songs in the late 70s and early 80s and realise that this group was hitting the tops of the charts! In the UK The Manhattan Transfer even had a number 1 hit with Chanson d’ Amour. It was absolutely huge. And it’s crazy to me that this ensemble that was singing vocalese – singing bebop licks – and it was hitting the charts. So, so cool. When is that gonna happen again?

I also did a big series on the music of Black composers and arrangers during the pandemic. I grew up loving spirituals, but unfortunately I didn’t know very much composed material. My friend Marques L. A. Garrett, who is an expert on this repertoire, calls it non-idiomatic music – classical music, basically – that was written by Black composers over the past 500 years. Every single day, for an entire month, I featured a new composer on social media. It was really more of a learning process for me, but I thought I’d put it out there on the internet to share with others as well. I found some incredible things; there are some composers in that series that I just wish I had known about growing up. One of them is Undine Smith Moore. She did this gorgeous arrangement of We Shall Walk through the Valley of Peace, which is a new favourite of mine. There are so many amazing composers that many people had no idea even existed, because they haven’t been part of the curriculum.  In the United States, there are these colleges, HBCUs (historically Black colleges or universities), that have a wealth of this information and everyone there knows about and performs these composers; they have libraries full of this music. The problem is, it’s incredibly difficult to find the scores anywhere else in the country. It’s all very, very interesting.

In terms of most loved projects, recently I’ve loved experimenting with and exploring the rhythmic unevenness in Renaissance music and also some Baroque as well. I didn’t know anything about Renaissance, choral polyphony when I was a kid. My parents listened to a little bit of classical music but it was just “the greats”. There’s this concept of “inégalités”, the idea that even what is written on the page can always expand – you can’t really write everything down.

It’s very similar to the concept of swing in that way, which is why I was so drawn to inégalités initially. There are just so many other musical idiosyncrasies that you can’t convert into music notation. It could be that there are certain notes that don’t fit exactly into the equal tempered scale; you find that a lot in different cultures and it just doesn’t fit into Western notation systems. There are different styles that you just can’t notate, which is so rad. I love it that you have to use your ears and your soul.

Another flavour of ancient music I’ve enjoyed diving into further since moving to the UK – (although this one IS notatable) is the false relation. The first time I ever sang a false relation I was actually in Chanticleer, believe it or not. I was 24 or 25, and I think it was O salutaris hostia by William Byrd which is literally a feast of false relations – and I just couldn’t believe it. I was in mind-melting euphoria. You know, a false relation is basically a chromatic contradiction – like a minor third clashing boldly with a major third or the minor seventh vs major seventh grind of an English Cadence. But composers from the Renaissance were able to write this in a theoretically sound, almost too casual, way. It’s this sonority we’re told never to write in our college counterpoint classes, and yet here this composer is, doing it again and again, chaining the dissonances together!

I’m a jazz nerd, so for me, that sounds almost exactly like a sharp ninth chord. I remember standing there in Kanbar Performing Arts Center in one of my first rehearsals with Chanticleer, singing this music that was written 500 years ago and thinking “How come I never knew about this?” It’s incredible music. This is the kind of thing the Brits have in their body, and it’s just a normalised type of sound – that English cadence that every naughty chorister sneaks in as a joke at the end of the anthem for a laugh.

So looking into their singing culture as an outsider, it seems these sorts of musical gestures are just deeply intuitive for my colleagues who grew up in that tradition, whereas for me it feels totally unnatural to be leaping to these dissonant intervals. It’s so funny and fascinating though to uncover sounds like these, as new textures, later in life.

VOCES8 Recording session, 2022, foto VOCES8 Studios

So do you think you bring a bit of your American or chordal approach to the group into VOCES8, a slightly less linear approach? I think you could say that – it’s a nice exchange of ideas. We’re definitely operating on a heightened level of musicality, and these kinds of skills become the “secret sauce” stuff – thinking about the phrasing, the harmonic axis, the inégalités, the rubato, the swing and the ratio of it. Or working on text delivery – how long consonants might be, whether to cut them off quickly or elongate, and where to pitch the voiced ones. These are the kinds of techniques we obsess over in VOCES8 and certainly one of the things that falls into that category is chord balance and intonation – thinking about harmony. Before I joined, I knew the group was talking about it anyways, but now that they have someone in the group that’s an absolute geek for it, we spend a lot of time working on a chordal level. Especially since many of our pieces are homophonic – chord based – and so it’s the harmony that’s king and you have to make sure the audience perceives it in a certain way.

And what do you think about the state of vocal ensembles at the moment? It must have been tough during the COVID period, but they seem to be thriving at the moment. There’s a number of groups in the UK who seem to be doing very well, I Fagiolini, for example. Yeah, I Fagiolini are incredible. We work pretty closely with Robert Hollingworth and he’s considered to be one of the experts, one of the leading academics of the early music genre, and so he comes and advises us quite a bit. He’s good friends with the ensemble and Barnaby in particular – the director of the group – so when we have questions like “Should this triple be equal to the duple here?” He always just gives the wittiest answers to all that stuff.

As a group, we work so hard at achieving blend and it’s funny because in reviews and newspapers critics will sometimes say “You know the concert was machine perfect, but where was the humanity?” Or sometimes we’ll receive feedback like, “We want to hear more guts – more raw passion!” I think when we go back into the VOCES8 Centre and work to achieve that, we always look to I Fagiolini for that expressiveness. They’re still so extremely clean, but they get that solo quality in the individual voices. The ensemble is often able to sing one-on-a-part just like we do but it’s also very colourful – they get the balance just right.

In VOCES8, we tend to be like a pendulum going back and forth on these efforts – extremely clean (which can sometimes feel like it’s devoid of all humanity) to messy, but very expression driven – “heart on your sleeves” type of passion. We are always working to find the balance, and that also is a never-ending journey.

Anyways, your question: I think professional vocal groups are actually in an exciting place right now. A lot of these ensembles have essentially “upskilled” and evolved. Whether they’ve developed their own studio or have created a relationship with an external studio, or now have employed their friends to generate new video and audio content for them – many music organisations have fostered these connections. As VOCES8, we’re able not only to hear the feedback immediately when we’ve recorded something, but we can also easily create promotional material for the Internet, which is essential right now. The King’s Singers are doing that brilliantly, and The Swingles have a ton of new videos up there. Chanticleer also have a beautiful video series they’re building as well. It’s an exciting time for listeners at home especially – the international audiences, who have never been able to see these groups live.

I must say that for us it was one of the things that sort of kept us going with a positive spirit during the COVID period.  We could watch those videos, take part in workshops, we could watch the concerts. And you’ve got this Live from London coming up again. Yep, there’s another one coming out very soon for Easter so we’ll be filming that shortly. We’ll be doing a new summer series as well.

You’re off to Scandinavia next week, is that right? Yeah, it’s been three or four years since we’ve been to Sweden and Denmark so we’re looking forward to that tour and we’re singing with this amazing barbershop quartet, the Ringmasters – I’ve been a massive fan since I stumbled upon their videos back in college. I’m really excited about it and of course a little bit nervous as well because they’re just unbelievable singers – they won the International Barbershop Quartet competition about 11 years ago. They have this thrilling Bells of Notre Dame medley that they do, where Jakob, the tenor in the group, holds a high A for ages – it’s called a “barbershop post”, where you stay on a note for what often feels like an unfathomably long time, and he holds it for almost 40 seconds or something! Barbershop to me is like the Olympic athletics of the vocal world. It’s such a show of muscular strength and prowess, with high-risk techniques that always make the crowd go crazy. You don’t get to hear that sort of singing live everyday of your life. We’re supposed to do my arrangement of Finlandia with them as well, which will be a blast to put together.

And do you bring back some sort of musical mementos from your travels or some souvenirs? Do you pick up some of the local colour and music from your travels? Yeah, it tends to be more like an aural pickup rather than a physical instrumental pickup because I don’t have very much space. I would love to bring back some of those interesting local instruments and other musical trinkets people sometimes hand us after concerts, but I have to say “I don’t have a place for this.” In fact, we almost always travel with very particular airlines where we have status, because each of our suitcases is always overweight – we know we can get the baggage allowances waived. It’s a great advantage, though sometimes it can cause odd routing problems on tour. For instance, a potential ninety-minute flight needed instead to be a 12-hour travel day in the States because we had to go with one particular airline that could fit all our bags.

Teaching at Montclair State University, 2023, foto Aubrey Johnson

This is a rather banal question, I’m sure, but I’d like to ask you what happens when someone in the group has a cold. We get asked this all the time actually. It happens. People get sick, and basically all we can do is to figure out how much voice that person can actually use. Sometimes you don’t have the high range or the low range or something and so you have to work around that. Every once in a while someone will get laryngitis so it becomes a “stand there and lip-sync” situation, or we’ll take them off stage for a few of the numbers. But we have this interesting problem where we have a number in our name, and so if you don’t all walk on stage, people begin to make jokes about “Oh, VOCES7 tonight!” So we try and make sure that we always go on stage at some point in the concert with eight singers.

And what about when you have a personnel change in the group? How do you manage that? Every two or three years someone will want to move on to different experiences, whether they want to start a family or maybe have a different musical project they want to take on full time. The way it tends to work is we have an audition period which lasts about six months. And so we’ll put up an application for that job and get around 500 submissions. We have a team that goes through and listens to all 500 of them and narrows it down to a good hundred maybe. Then we’ll ask those people to come to live auditions, and those are international – so you know we’ll go on tours and build in different hubs for those auditions around the world; sometimes we’ll plug the auditionees into the group for that setting, but often it’s just listening to them singing a few arias and getting a good understanding of what their voice is capable of. We’ll narrow it down to about five singers from that point and invite them to a live audition in London. There’ll be various industry professionals there, someone from Decca Classics, our record producer, previous members of the group, the amazing soprano Emma Kirkby sometimes comes, especially if it’s a soprano position – and so we develop a panel of both our friends, family, and heroes of the profession… And then we sing with the candidates. We essentially perform a four or five-piece mini-programme with each of these candidates, and then we deliberate, ask the panel for their advice, and make a choice. It’s a very long process.

Do you make that decision based purely on the qualities of the voice or on those of the person too? This final audition segment is entirely based around vocal and musical qualities, but you just touched on something very important – the entire process is essentially also a big personal audition as well. And this is the one drawback of the audition – we really don’t get enough time to hang out with that person. You know, for a group where you’re going to be spending seven or eight months of your year together – you become family – how do you audition someone for that unique fold? How do you interview someone? It’s so tricky.

You were talking about the tour in America, and I could see a few videos on your Facebook page with huge audiences. With music teachers, students of music or others. How do you do the workshops? Also how do you get in contact with the people there? I’ll answer the middle question first regarding our educational workshops. So, we have different agencies in each country we operate in. One of those, called Opus 3 Artists, is in the United States. Sometimes they’ll reach out to universities and say VOCES8 is going to be here in your city. But what often happens is teachers, administrators, or even students will get in touch with us and say “I see you’re in Philadelphia. Could we book you for a residency or workshop here at our school?”

We’re set up as a charitable foundation, what’s known as a non-profit here in the States. But we’ll often have some allocated funding so we’re able to actually donate that time from the group. And so people will get in touch with us and we’re able sometimes to just say, “Sure, we’ll stop by and do that”. Now we’re setting up these hubs with our donors in various cities across the US and the goal of that is just to solidly establish an educational presence in that city.

What is the ‘hub’ exactly? How does that work? Does it serve the community’s music? Yeah, that’s exactly our aim with them. So I would say it’s probably fifty-fifty performance related and education related. To do that, it takes tapping into the philanthropy side of things and asking people to donate, making it possible for us to come to these cities and lead workshops – not just in the privileged universities and churches, but also in underserved places that may not have the budget to bring in groups like VOCES8 to work with their students.

So it’s definitely a big charitable aim for us to be able to continue that kind of work in these kinds of communities, and we have to create resources for that. We have a hub in Philadelphia now, one in Detroit, one in San Francisco, Albuquerque, Houston, and we’re developing others – places around the world that we try to visit with either VOCES8 or Apollo 5 at least once a year to spend four or five days in residency, running workshops.

Your first question was based on different types of workshops we might do. Sometimes a workshop will entail focusing primarily on simple clapping patterns – getting a room of people that have never been together in their lives making music for the first time as one. Other times it’s a very high-level session centred around advanced choral techniques, and we’ll be at a big university, like Cambridge or Eastman for instance. So we’ll have to shift our model to reflect the more academic side of what we do. As an example, I present a lot of really geeky lectures on intonation, and some on composing and arranging. But I think the thing that interests fellow choral enthusiasts the most is really the “ensembleship” workshop we often present – and it’s that 5 % once again, where we talk about the secret sauce of the group, thinking hard about fine tuning the ensemble itself as an instrument. We call that musical trait “ensembleship” – perhaps it’s a term unique to VOCES8 but I think covering those advanced techniques is always really interesting for the students.

VOCES8 in Riga, Latvia, 2022, foto Roberts Blaubuks

Is it unique to VOCES8 that you are doing all this educational work or is it something that other groups do as well? I didn’t realise that you put so much time and energy into it. Yes, it’s quite a bit of our work. Certainly other groups do it, but I’ve never been in an ensemble that does it as much as VOCES8.

You’ve also got a new project, asking for compositions for the group. Yes, our baritone, Chris Moore is spearheading that competition – we’ve invited composers from all over the world to send in pieces specifically tailored towards the ensemble, it has to be a cappella and of course there are other specifications as well. Alongside that exciting news, we’ve also just launched a new digital series called VOCES8 Publishing. It seems with the way the publishing world is working, digital sales and digital promotion are really coming to the forefront. So rather than relying on a publishing house to print out real physical copies of sheet music, handing them to people and selling them, composers can now create and run an entire business from their computer. So in a way, we’re jumping on that bandwagon; we’ll have this digital publishing series, and the winning piece will be published under that.

Again, it’s great that these things are easily available to people all over the world. It really is. That approach is certainly part of our mission and brand. When I first joined, I remember talking to various people about our videos and them saying, “Those are nice and it’s great to post on social media and all, but it’s not going to put butts in seats!” In 2016 we recorded this video of the Nimrod variations by Elgar, rearranged for voices with the text “Lux Aeterna”, and it went viral overnight with over one million views. The next day we woke up to thousands of notifications and messages and I think that was the moment we realised, “Ok, this IS gonna put butts in seats”. We’ve since developed our Live from London concert series, which is the biggest thing we’ve done in terms of video projects. But over the course of the last seven or eight years we’ve really put a lot of our eggs in that video-making-basket, and we’ve found it does go a long way.

You must come out to the Czech Republic more often. Well yes, we’d love to. I mean, it’s a country with such a rich musical tradition. You know, I’m a big craft beer nerd as well, and it was so funny because when I was over there last, I went into this really high-rated craft beer bar and I asked the bartender to pour me their signature style and he just went for it and poured a pilsner with this huge head on it. And that’s such a ‘no-no’ everywhere else in the world. I was completely appalled the moment he handed me this huge glass of foam. I’m sure the expression on my face was really funny. Later on I learned that this is a very special, traditional serving style for beer in the Czech Republic called “mlíko”. Anyway, back to music.

I really like this CD After Silence. Thank you. After Silence is a great album. I think we’re all really proud of that one. We have two different labels. We work under Decca Classics and we also have our own record label, VOCES8 Records. In fact, I meant to say this earlier, but the most exciting project coming up for me is that I’m doing an EP – a short album of some of my arrangements and compositions with the group. We’re just embarking on recording that now. It’ll be some new charts that nobody’s ever heard, and also some old classics that have been around for a while. We’ll finish recording in the fall and release will probably be in the winter or the spring. It takes a long time to do these recordings in the little windows between tours.

We haven’t spoken much about the upper Michigan area and the music you composed about it and your childhood: The Houghton-Hancock Hum-Alongs. I wrote that record when I was about 19 and I was (and still am) really inspired by that part of the world. I tend to be very drawn to nature and that seems to fuel my creative process quite a bit. In fact, I do most of my writing either here in Michigan or up in Scotland. For me, the Upper Peninsula, which is an area of remote beauty in Michigan, has a way of life that is different from anywhere else I’ve ever travelled to. It’s very slow-paced. People don’t lock their doors, they leave their cars running when they go to the shop and things like that. Actually I’ve met quite a few Czech people that live in that part of the world as well.

Blake in Outer Hebrides, Scotland

What about your other interests like folk and your own Esto persona? I have two sort of side projects, Esto and then this other project called Goodnight, Mr Max. That’s me and my best friend Graham Liddell and we actually have a new album coming out soon. I learned to sing with him when we were in rock bands back in high school. He’s now a poet, author and journalist making his living in Amman, Jordan, so there is an Arabic and Persian influence on this upcoming album that we’re working on. But I’d say that my side projects – that folk thing – I think of as a different, non-academic, musical pursuit. It’s almost entirely stumbling upon things. It’s just finding sounds, mashing them together, not thinking theoretically about whether or not they work, and that’s always a blast. Did I answer your question on the magic of harmony thing?

I think so but if there’s anything you’d like to add about the magic of harmony to close things off, then feel free. I would have loved to steal the words from what you said earlier, actually, but there’s just something so beautiful about people using their most vulnerable human instrument to make music together. I think that is magic. I’ve always been drawn to harmony since I was a child, multi-tracking myself on a little tape recorder that my mom bought me. Like I said, I sort of consider myself a collector of chords and I remember hearing certain sonorities that actually provoked an emotional reaction. For instance, a Minor 11 always reminds me of a sunset – it immediately evokes that image in my head. And there’s another level that’s added when you put real voices on that chord, rather than just playing on the piano – you add the beautiful spectrum of human error and expression. Singers aren’t tethered to the 12 notes on the piano, so when you give it to a living, breathing unit of people, there’s just that special amount of wiggle room there that allows it to be natural and organic. And it’s really one of the most spellbinding things in the world – to hear the most human instrument soaring into the heavens with others on these really extended, colourful chords. I think it’s magic indeed. So you said it, it’s an expression from the soul. I love that.

That’s just what it feels like and you realise it when you lose it. I never thought it could happen that we would have to stay at home and they would stop us from singing together. I know. It’s truly the most human element of expression. There’s something almost primal about it – it’s imprinted in our DNA. We’re meant to make noise with this thing in our throats, you know? Yeah, it was so bizarre and disheartening when singing was cancelled for almost an entire year. We were very, very fortunate to be able to work through that period because we were under the ten people limit in the UK.

We actually got asked to do some really cool projects. I don’t know if you saw The Last Duel, which is a Ridley Scott film with Adam Driver and Brad Pitt, but we wound up recording the soundtrack for that as they couldn’t book the usual session singers at Abbey Road since that involved too many people. I suppose they knew that we were still able to work and so we got a call from Hollywood saying, “Hey, could you guys record this soundtrack?” It’s crazy. But also the Stay at Home Choir was a huge silver lining during that period as well. And I’m really happy to hear that you guys participated in that. It was so inspiring when that final video came together – you know, listening to my parents and friends, and thousands of singers from around the world – some of whom had never even sung in a choir before – lending their voices to a little piece of music I’d arranged while hunched over a dusty old piano. And when it was released in February, with that big reveal… I was almost moved to tears watching that.

Yeah, it was very touching, very moving. Absolutely, but it doesn’t necessarily replace being in a room with people and responding to each other’s human instruments. There’s nothing like it, is there?

You know, with the boom of video chats and video meetings during the pandemic, I really began to miss the interaction of having old-fashioned phone calls. Nowadays, we’ve evolved to this state of always having (and maybe even expecting) face to face conversation – we use technology like Zoom or FaceTime. But there’s something beautiful and romantic about visualising the other person on the other line. They might just be sitting in bed but you sort of imagine them with a suit and tie, you know, sitting there at their office with their cup of coffee. So funny to me. The voice was all you had and all you needed.

It goes back to that audiation concept we talked about earlier with music. I think we need to find more ways to imagine things, because that’s the gateway to creativity, and the moment you stop imagining you’ve lost it – you’ve lost contact with that divine energy. For me phone calls were one of those moments in the day where you’d tap into that superpower and imagine the other person – and your brain does all of that for you, it creates everything, doesn’t it? It’s an incredible ability. Having said all that, I really enjoyed seeing your faces and talking to you like this.

It was a pleasure for us too, indeed. Thank you very much for your time.

[block background=“#e5e5e5″]An internationally acclaimed singer and composer from Michigan, Blake Morgan is a multi-talented musician, playing several instruments, recording and composing in many different genres, and performing with a mastery of vocal flexibility. His career spans the worlds of early music, oratorio, opera, musical theatre, jazz, and contemporary music. Blake’s voice is particularly at home in the early music setting, and he has earned attention for his clarion tone and silky voice.

A gifted classical tenor, Blake has sung professionally all over the world as a soloist and also with several Grammy-award-winning ensembles, such as Chanticleer and Conspirare, including Minneapolis-based, men’s group Cantus.

In the popular music realm, Blake is also sought after as a jazz vocalist; highlights of past seasons include collaborations with jazz musician Jacob Collier, famed singer-songwriter Paul Simon, and Indian Carnatic star Sid Sriram, as well as soundtrack features on the Netflix hit-series The Crown and Ridley Scott’s blockbuster film The Last Duel. Blake was featured in Downbeat Magazine’s Student Music Awards as the Best Vocal Jazz Soloist of 2013.

Blake’s compositions and arrangements have been performed by ensembles ranging from high school and university choirs to full-time professional groups such as Cantus, The King’s Singers, Take 6, The Manhattan Transfer and many others. A lover of folk tunes, Blake also composes original music for his folk/chamber-pop projects Goodnight Mr. Max and Esto.

Blake currently tours and records with the chart-topping chamber octet VOCES8, based in London. Singing an extensive repertoire both a cappella or in collaborations with leading orchestras, conductors and soloists, the British vocal ensemble VOCES8 inspires people worldwide with their ongoing recordings, albums, videos, live broadcasts, and admirable educational programmes, supported by their renowned VOCES8 Foundation.

As a Decca Classics artist, the ensemble has released acclaimed recordings that have all reached the top of the classical charts. The group runs an annual programme of workshops and masterclasses at their centre at St. Anne and St. Agnes Church in London, awards annual choral scholarships in the UK and the USA, and has also established a Young Composers competition, performing, publishing and recording the works of emerging choral composers.[/block]

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