Music for 'Virtual' Choir: Take me by the hand
Poem by Jeffrey Wainwright

I found this short, haunting poem in The Independent around ten years ago but couldn't find a way to think of the musical equivalent to its strange shape. It seems to be a simple A-B-A but the middle verse is like a hole, gaping through the dream world of the narrator into a chill, external reality.

When a chance came up to write the piece at last, for Southampton's Musical Alphabet series, I had to work fast, with only two weeks to the performance.

I invited friends and strangers into a recording studio to sing something they'd never seen before: a couple of minutes' familiarisation and we recorded deliberately rough, apprehensive takes. Given the pressure I created by this experimental approach, trying to keep uncertain spontaneity a characteristic of the finished sound, everyone was amazing.

My sincere thanks again to Rachel Boucher, Ignacio Brasa, Dan Clements, George Holloway, Emma Joy, Bereola Ogunleyi, Richard Patient, Luke Richardson, Lydia Rougon, Steve Troughton and Tom Wilson.

The singers were individually recorded, first singing each verse, then some simple accompaniment parts and finally speaking the poem. Each singer had a few minutes to practice the part then we went straight into recording.

With so little time - everyone was persuaded to take part midway through something else - the lack of preparedness made the singing sound extraordinarily innocent, open and sweet. The composition was then sculpted from these short, monodic stems.

I set myself two rules: to use no material except the voices themselves and to limit transformations to the sound such that they were still apparently singing - for the music to seem as though it were actually performed in the way heard, even though that were physically impossible.

I completely followed the first and well, if you can find the parts where I slightly broke the second, I take off my virtual hat to you.

The music that resulted combines sounds of the simple loveliness of certain chance-found voices with a highly organised, tightly packed, interplay between the rhythm, intonation and enunciation of the singers.

In setting the text of Jeffrey Wainwright's deceptively simple poem I was attempting to give voice to the weird sensation in my blood when I first read the words, to map the contours of something intangible, disembodied within the words.

The inspiration of early 17th century composer and choirmaster Thomas Weelkes has also left its mark here, in the alternations between imitative counterpoint and homophony, invention and memory, reassuring harmony and the quiet terror that accompanies disintegration, unravelling.

Jeffrey Wainwright: Browse Jeffrey Wainwright on Amazon
Take me someone by the hand
Lead me down the hill
Put me by the fire's side

The buses strain and skid on the cinders
We totter and slip upwards
My fingers, screwed tight,
Whiten at the tip

Take me someone by the hand
Lead me down the hill
Put me by the fire's side

My humble thanks to JW for allowing me to work with his lovely text for this song

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© Benjamin Mawson 2012