Jonathan Baker: The Voice Project

by | Jan 9, 2023 | Featured, Interview

After two years on hold due to lockdown’s The Voice Project’s ‘lost’ project will finally take to the stage in January & February. ‘The Distance Between Us’ was created during lockdown 2020 as choral diary of the winter months when we were unable to meet in person and of course the choir was unable to come together to sing. co-directors Sian Croose and Jonathan Baker decided to create a film version. At Richmond International Film Festival in Virginia USA the resultant 40 minute feature went on to win Best Experimental Music Short in 2022.

I had a chat with Jonathan Baker to find out more:

HC: You set up The Voice Project as an open access community choir, where anyone can join, what was the inspiration for it and how long has it been going?

JB: We set it up in 2008, me and my colleague Sian, we wanted to make available to the general public the experience that people have when they sing music, particularly music that has been specifically written for them. We thought this doesn’t have to be just for elites, or trained people, this can be for everybody because we believe that everyone can sing, and everyone can sing well.

HC: Everyone can sing? Mmmmm, you haven’t heard me!

JB: Ha, well yes… I’ve spend my life teaching people how to sing well and it is available to anybody. It’s about belief really, we just don’t think we can do it, we think we’re rubbish or that singing is for someone else, but it’s not it is for everybody. Back in the day, many years ago, everybody did it: they sung at work, people went to church and sung, people were singing in their family homes. Singing has fallen off the agenda a little bit and we’re trying to bring it back.

HC: I can imagine people can find it daunting being part of a choir as they think it’s a different level of singing experience

JB: Yes, it is a bit daunting and it takes quite a lot of effort, it takes a little bit of hard work but it is really rewarding. Going through the whole rehearsal process and if you’ve never done anything like this before it’s a whole new world. But people find it does some extraordinary things for their sense of fun and their sense of confidence. One thing I really notice when people come in for a choir practice the sound in the room when they are chatting as they are pleased to see each other is quite muted by the end everyone is in a good mood. It definitely does a thing.

HC: What exactly is your role at The Voice Project?

JB: My role as co-director is to train the choir, to take the rehearsals, to write some of the music… a lot of stuff, we’re multi-tasking all the time as we’re a small company.

HC: ‘The Distance Between Us’ project started during lockdown, what were the challenges to organise and conduct, as I assume it was all online. Tell me a little about it

JB: It was scary, we originally thought this might be something to work on. We made a film in the first bit of lockdown called ‘Arc of the Sky’ then lockdowns kept happening so what we did we made this project especially for the choir and we knew it was going to be a film from the outset, it was never designed to be a live project.

To make the film we had to get people to send in snippets of their own recordings they had made on their phones and then we had to stich it all together like a giant audio quilt. We did the same with the video, we got people to take film of themselves and we directed them quite a lot. We took film of the zoom screens and all that kind of stuff. Then the film came out and it got picked up by a Film Festival in the US and it won a prize!

HC: How did that make you feel?

JC: It was great and really nice. In fact, two members of the choir did it, because it was an online choir people were joining in from all over the world and we had a couple in Richmond, Virginia and they went to pick up the prize on the red carpet.

HC: What are the challenges when you are doing it online, particularly the sound quality?

JB: Yeah, it’s a good point. You can’t synchronise a choir so you can’t have people singing all at the same time, we have to put them on mute so they can sing but they are singing on their own – we give them a track to sing along to but that’s all they can hear, they can hear the track and themselves, it’s not for everybody. They sent in their recordings if they wanted to and we put them together, that was the only thing we had.  It doesn’t replace the live rehearsal in any way but it is all we had at the time and I think it helped people through their isolation, it made people feel they were doing something.

HC: Was it easy to recruit the singers?

JB: We have a core of singers that we always have but people were interested to get involved and have something to do. Have something that gave them a glimmer of hope during a miserable time for some.

We got loads of people, we operate in Norfolk and Suffolk but also down in Sussex, we run a choir in Brighton, we had all those people but we had people from all over the place as they only needed an internet connection to get involved.

HC: Are all the songs in The Distance Between Us original?

JB: Yeah, they are. My colleague Sian wrote some of it, I wrote a lot of it and Orlando Gough who is a composer based in Brighton, who is an amazing composer he wrote for it too. We use professional instrumentalists, professional soloists and we had a professional tech team with the film, I edited the audio but we had video makers for the film.

HC: How do you get inspired to write these songs?

JB: Yeah that’s a good point. We get the subject matter, the theme and them we look for poetry, which may have been specially written for us or we chose poetry and we get permission from the person that wrote it and then the process begins setting it to music. It is the theme that is really important for me anyway, especially for me when I am writing, it’s what I am thinking about, that’s what I am feeling and I am trying to express it on the page so other people can sing it, and I’m trying to think about the impact it will have on the eventual audience and whether or not it fits into what we’ve already got.

HC: The live theatre show which is coming out where you are all coming together, how is everyone feeling about it?

JB: We are all excited, we did a choir practice last night and there is a real sense of excitement in the room. Sian and I will be going down to Brighton to teach the choir down there. People are really keen and what is great, increasingly people from our Norwich choir are going down to Brighton and vice versa and making friends which is really nice.

HC: So are you enjoying the rehearsal process?

JB: It’s great, yeas they are making a really good sound at the moment.

HC: What can we expect from the live shows?

JB: One thing we never do is stand on a stage and sing! We tend to use the room, St Andrews Hall in Norwich, in an interesting way. We stage it in an interesting way, we light it in an interesting way, there will be some processional stuff there will be some movement within the space, we will use the space in an unusual way. It really helps the audience, it’s really nice, they are not just sitting there watching something on stage but there is something else going on. It’s not exactly choreographed but it is staged.

HC: What are the key elements for you to make this production really work?

JB: Enough rehearsal time. It’s always the thing, enough rehearsal time, enough time in the space we are going to use that’s really important so we know exactly how to plot the choir and how to move the singers around, that’s always crucial. Then getting the technical elements like the lighting and the sound and the instrumentalist, they always arrive at the last minute as they are pros and have busy lives. All the elements and bringing it all together and not getting stressed is the main thing.

HC: Is there anything in the show you are particularly excited about?

JB: Yeah I’m excited to hear what it sounds like in the space. It’s really nice being a performer, when you know there is something special coming up within a show but the audience doesn’t know that, you can watch the audience go ‘oh, wow’ when they really get hold of it. It’s a really pleasurable thing to watch that’s what I am looking forward to.

HC: What is it about choirs as an art form that particularly appeals to you?

JB: When I was a kid I was a Cathedral chorister – I was nine when I started doing it and just got absolutely hooked. It made me feel something in a particular way and I didn’t know what that feeling was but it’s a musical connection, I didn’t understand what was going on but I knew I loved it. Much more than I loved school. The sound of the human voice is extraordinary and such an expressive instrument, if you sing with people it’s a very bonding, its very emotional. I literally think if more people in the world sang then the world would be a better place. But I am biased.

HC: What’s been the most exciting part of the whole project?

JB: It always happens with a project, when you spend a few weeks trying to get things together in the rehearsal and it’s scratchy, not that good, it’s out of tune, it’s timid, unconfident then all of a sudden it gels and it comes together and it’s like ‘Yes, that’s it’ and then everyone in the room can feel that excitement. For me that’s the best bit.

HC: What has been the biggest surprise?

JB: There hasn’t been any big surprises yet, but I think there probably will be, they always crop up. Hopefully they are pleasant surprises rather than unpleasant ones. One thing I’ve really felt, because of the music going back into that world of the film that we made, the film was in lockdown, and now we’re not thank goodness, but there are elements where you think ‘oh I remember that dark cold night in December when we recorded that’, it all feels like a different world now. It leads you back there and it makes you grateful that we’re not there now.

HC: What has been the most challenging part of the whole project?

JB: To tell you the truth, it can be the drive down to Brighton. Sian and I drive down and it can be quite exhausting, we can’t use the trains at the moment as they are a little bit all over the place. Getting down the M25 is challenging, the rest of it really isn’t challenging as people are really cooperative and they know how to work. We bring our soloists and our instrumentalist from all over the country and getting everyone together can be a challenge.

HC: What should the audience members be listening for during the performance?

JB: Hopefully they will be able to hear the words, that can sometimes be a challenge with choirs as to whether the audience can really hear the words, but we will be printing the words in the programme. One thing which will be nice is that certain things will repeat within the show so they will become familiar. There is one thing that is really nice, if the audience members are friends and family members of those of the choir, they also get to hear it being performed live after they have been getting to know some of the songs through the audio files.

HC: What do you hope will be remembered about this production?

JB: Oh I hope it is really memorable, I hope people remember the atmosphere, if we can create an atmosphere of feeling in the room – that’s what I want people to take away with them, a feeling of togetherness, teamwork and common purpose. If you can do something together as a choir, and as the audience actually, you are bonded in that moment as you are experiencing the same thing. Hopefully people will take that away with them

HC: After the shows in January/February, what is the next thing for you?

JB: Then we start more work…we have so many plans on a variety of things, we will be doing workshops, jazz workshops, learning to read music for singers workshop, open voices where people can drop in and come along to courses, start to learn a little about their own voice, hopefully attract some new people. It’s just an ongoing thing. We are doing performances and working on a project ready for the summer.

Listings for The Distance Between Us

Details and tickets.

Author

  • Hayley Clapperton

    Hayley is a business co-owner working too many hours so it's a good job she's passionate about it. Hayley's down time is music, music and music of all types and she enjoys going to gigs, listening to new bands and breathing in the energy it creates.

    View all posts