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Papagena - Hush!
We seem to be enjoying something of a Golden Age for small vocal ensembles, with a large number of one-to-a-part groups making their mark in a variety of genres from early music to contemporary a cappella arrangements. Many of those basking in the limelight are either mixed or all-male groups, so it's refreshing to see a new release from all-female vocal quintet Papagena bucking the trend and showcasing a very different sound.
Their album Hush! features a programme that's astonishingly wide-ranging in the times, places and indeed vocal ranges it explores; nothing seems off-limits to them. I spoke to some of the ensemble's members about the various ingredients that have gone into Hush! and what makes their group so unique.
One noticeable thing about the repertoire on this album is its wide geographical range – from the Caucasus to the Balkans, Eastern Europe and beyond. How did you encounter this enormous variety of songs to incorporate into the programme?
It is definitely challenging to find repertoire which is appropriate for a consort of five adult (as opposed to children’s) female voices, particularly given our wide vocal ranges and individual timbres; whereas a large pool of central European music stretching back across several centuries exists for male and mixed voice ensembles, there is simply no comparable body of published work for the female voice, though of course research into convent music is gradually revealing new possibilities. It is one of reasons why we look far and wide, across to different cultures and genres to find material which we want to sing. It is also why we commission and arrange so many pieces ourselves, because we see it as part of our mission to build the available repertoire for adult female groups.
When we search for music we will often pursue the thread of an idea or theme of text and then simply follow where that leads us, regardless of musical style or genre or the work’s mood. We are more than happy to embrace the quirky and humorous, as well as the serious. We may find a classical piece, or equally a pop or folk piece which moves or intrigues us and which we feel we can re-imagine in a way which suits our voices. A really important consideration is whether or not we can empathise with the text and deliver it with integrity. Thanks to the internet, these searches have led us right across the world and in musical directions which have delighted and surprised us. Our inspiration often comes from listening to other women from different cultures, singing traditional working songs and folk ballads and legends, or from other more established female voice groups overseas directed by women singer-songwriters (such as Tone Krohn or Winnie Brückner) generating interesting material from the perspective of really understanding the female voice.
With unfamiliar geography comes unfamiliar language; in addition to Latin and Italian you tackle Russian, Slavonic, Georgian, Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, Ladino and Yiddish! How much of a challenge was it to get used to the sounds of so many different languages?
We don’t set out deliberately to tackle so many languages, but it is the inevitable result of having such a wide net in terms of repertoire! We focus initially on communicating what the piece means, and then as the rehearsal process progresses, finesse the pronunciation of individual words by seeking help from native speakers. Singers are generally extremely curious about exploring colours and textures, and to some extent what we are doing is a natural extension of our professional choral experience of encountering many different languages, but probably most choirs don’t attempt quite so many languages in one hit!
There’s a lot of natural imagery here – green branches, vineyards, poplars, willows, roses… Do you think there’s some underlying link connecting that vivid natural world to the childhood connotations of the simple word “hush” that you’ve built much of this album around?
There are definitely imagery threads which connect several of the pieces, but I think the reasons have less to do with childhood connotations and more to do with our attraction towards texts dealing with eternally revolving cycles of birth, death, motherhood, love and loss. Throughout all ages poets have been inspired to draw parallels between these universal themes and nature, so it is no accident that such imagery crops up frequently, regardless of era or genre of music.
We do seem to be particularly drawn towards Mary, especially in terms of her motherhood and her experience of such joy, yet devastating pain. Her identity as a birth-giver is frequently alluded to using blossoming, flowering imagery, but her quiet tenderness and sorrowful acceptance of grief is also something which we wanted to explore in Hush!
On the disc there are a number of pairings which highlight conscious links or harsh juxtapositions of imagery drawn from nature: the crown of rose thorns featured in Tchaikovsky’s Legend is deliberately contrasted with a Romanian folk legend’s description of Mary weaving a thornless crown for her son from willow branches (Sub O Salcie); Kassia’s description of St Simeon as ‘good fruit born from good root’ in Ek Rizis is contrasted with Hildegard of Bingen’s text describing Mary as the greenest of branches (O Viridissima Virga). We love pursuing these thematic textual threads, however tenuous, and so often they lead us to discovering repertoire which we would not have otherwise encountered.
While Caitlin Moran’s feminist If consciously pushes back against the tone of Kipling’s male-oriented original, the Bulgarian folksong Kakwa Moma is more traditionalist, with the besotted protagonist begging their mother to go and “get” their crush’s hand in marriage. Do you find some songs’ subject-matter makes it harder to identify with them on a personal level than others?
When learning a new piece, we are very keen to explore it to find new angles and approaches that will inform the way we sing it to live audiences. Nothing is off the table and we generally find that at least one member of Papagena can identify on a personal level with every piece we tackle – sometimes one of us will find a piece powerfully moving and another will find the same piece does not have any effect.
One of the things we find most interesting through the process of exploring a new piece is that sometimes we feel that we have an instant understanding of it and perform it for ages in a certain way, only suddenly to uncover a different interpretation for it which completely transforms the way we sing it. This isn’t to say our first version is wrong, but it certainly keeps pieces alive within our repertoire.
Language barriers can influence these performance changes. We were initially informed that the Bulgarian folk song, Kakwa Moma, was all about a young girl exclaiming to her mother “wow, mother, look at those girls!” We loved it for the music’s cheerful drive, but by the time we put it down on the album we had managed to get hold of a more accurate translation, only to discover the real, and nowadays somewhat unfashionable meaning and tone of the words. In the end we decided that the musical arguments for including Kakwa outweighed the text disadvantages; one has to accept that using texts and folk melodies from bygone eras and cultural traditions might occasionally come with risks attached! Sigh No More Ladies (Jetse Bremer) was a piece we instantly took to, being quirky, and we initially over-indulged the loud, languishing sighs in the lower parts. Then, just before we took it to the Edinburgh Fringe we were in rehearsals when our soprano Abbi Temple delved further into the meaning of the words and we realised we had all been approaching them from too ‘woeful’ a perspective. Instantly the piece became a lot more 'sassy', fun and connected to the original context of the text.
Audiences also have the power to influence the way we identify with a piece and often when reflecting on a concert, we realise somebody was in tears when we sang something we all consider quite jovial, or someone else might have laughed out loud at a particular line that we never thought funny. In a way, we draw on the audience’s personal views through the way they react to our music making it a continual voyage of discovery for us and giving us the ideas to keep the pieces fresh.
You’ve got some very distinctive voices in your ensemble, particularly at least one powerful low alto who underpins several of the pieces. How tailored were these arrangements to the specific individuals who make up Papagena?
Very much so. As we know the voices within the group intimately we often create a piece or arrangement that complements each singer’s individual voice, so much so that the staves on our music begin with our names rather than the descriptors ‘soprano’ or ‘alto’. Despite being able to blend with each other, our five voices are very different; although we are all classically trained, some have more opera experience, others have a straighter choral tone and others have a more folky inflection. We use that individuality to our advantage, swopping the parts around so that the most appropriate voice is matched to the precise character and quality of line.
To add to this variety we enjoy mixing up the textures, so the disc features trios and quartets as well as the full ensemble, and solo lines are constantly swopped around between the different voices. Another factor which keeps the soundworld varied is that we enjoy exploring wide registers, both high and low. Both of our altos can sing very low, which is a sound perhaps less commonly heard in central European repertoire from the classical period onwards, dominated as it is by an ‘SATB’ approach to harmony, but which is more common in different overseas folk and popular singing. Perhaps it’s a sound which has been culturally ‘forgotten’ in this country, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that nuns in Italian convents of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries may have sung extraordinarily low lines, so it’s fun to resurrect and explore the full potential of the lower female voice.
Another thing to add about the sound is that we don’t try to caricature the sound of other cultures or genres as we don’t think that would ring true. So for example in the Georgian piece (Shen khar venakhi) we don’t try to re-create a Georgian vocal sound, just as in the Guns N’ Roses song Sweet Child O’Mine we don’t attempt to mimic the original. It’s important that we sound like ourselves and don’t pretend to be something which we’re not.
Perhaps the most obvious question… where did the idea first come from to build an album around the various ways the word 'hush' can be used? Do you think there’s more unexplored potential (maybe enough for a second volume…) in this idea?
In the first instance we simply asked each singer to list their five favourite pieces from our concert repertoire. The responses were of course diverse, but when we looked more closely at the choices, we realised that most pieces related to ideas of quiet, peace, consolation or mild admonition. One of the works chosen was Changeling’s Lullaby which has a repeated refrain “Hush awhile”. The text of the lullaby is complex, moving through different moods of impatience, sadness, nostalgia and consolation. It struck us that the simple word “Hush!” could encompass so many slants of interpretation and therefore would be open ended enough to embrace our very broad spectrum of work. There is no doubt that we could go on delving musically into this concept forever, but there are so many other avenues we are currently exploring, so we will probably carry on moving forwards rather than keep spinning the same idea.
Finally, it might be worth saying that the exclamation mark is important, as it colours the word with a little bit of ‘attitude’ and we wanted to avoid any perception that this disc might be purely devoted to lullabies!