Rendez-vous avec Les Swingle Ladies
by Helen Kuzina, Moscow (spring 2011)
When I found out that the Swingle Singers, hosts of London A Cappella Festival were performing in Cité de la Musique I jumped on the plane and came to fabulous Paris! This time they performed the Sinfonia by Luciano Berio. Before the concert I met Jo (Eteson), Clare (Wheeler) and Lucy (Bailey) asked some questions.
Here in Paris you are singing Sinfonia by Luciano Berio. What does this piece mean to you?
Jo: It’s very exciting for us to perform Berio’s Sinfonia because this piece was written originally for the Swingle Singers in the sixties. We feel really honoured to perform it as it has such a history. And this is the one thing in our repertoire which stays the same and which we perform several times a year.
Clare: It’s an amazing piece and it is a nice change to perform it after a cappella music.
You are singing in different styles, do you use a different vocal technique for the music you perform?
Clare: None of us use only one school of singing. It depends on the style of music we perform, so we use different techniques. Sometimes we use the more natural way or the more pop way of singing. It depends on the music.
How do you warm-up? Do you warm-up separate or together?
Jo: A combination. We all have different ways to prepare our voices for the show. Sometimes we like getting together and warming up with some vocal exercises that someone brings to the group and we all want to try. For example we sing some Loop Songs by Bertrand Gröger (modern choral études for all SATB groups published by Schott Music and recorded by the Swingle Singers.)
What do you do to keep your voices in a good shape?
Clare: I think it’s very important to warm-up. Also, I find Swingle singing a very healthy way of singing. I feel that the more Swingle singing I’m doing – the less work I have to do to keep my vocal chords in a good form.
You are always singing lot of different music and you need to learn music very fast. How is the process of studying new pieces going?
Clare: Very well!
Jo: At the moment we are doing a lot of contemporary music and we have done a project by Fabrice Bollon, a French conductor and composer. He wrote a piece for us called “Elements”. Contemporary music is slightly different to a cappella music and it needs a different kind of preparation. We tend to learn it on our own for longer before we get together.
Clare: Usually it depends on how difficult the music is. The audience for an a cappella show is different from the audience for contemporary music, which tends to be much more difficult. It’s more difficult to hear and more difficult to learn. We spend more time on learning contemporary music to make sure that every single note is right.
Lucy: We are all trained in different styles and have our own musical tastes. For instance, I come from quite a choral background, but also have a passion for pop music.
Clare: I studied both classical and jazz music at the same college as Jo (Guildhall School of Music and Drama). I studied violin, jazz singing and composition. I’ve done a lot of jazz singing also.
Jo: I started off with a choral background at school where a lot of us really loved singing. We sang in A cappella groups, Barbershop groups, Madrigal groups etc And then I joined a choir, The Ionian Singers who at the time only sang contemporary music which was really good training! Later I met Lucy and CJ in the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and we’ve been friends since then.
It’s always interesting to know something about your private life! You have to travel so much. Do your family members support you?
Lucy: Yes, but it can be difficult when we are apart for a long time. None of us have children, but it’s still hard.
Clare: We definitely need all our friends and families to be very understanding. It does tend to happen gradually that your friend groups change to the people that really care about you. They don’t mind that you are away for a long time.
Jo: I’m lucky because my husband worked in the group for 10 years, so he understands the situation and is extremely supportive. You have to invest in your family and friends but occasionally it can be very difficult to balance work and your personal life.
What are your hobbies?
Lucy: Jo and I love to shop together. I just bought an amazing pair of cowboy boots and I’m so exited because I love them!!! I have never seen anything more beautiful in my life!!!
Clare: I really love going to gigs and hearing new music.
Jo: I love movies – going to the cinema is one of my favorite things to do!
Do you have your own project in your spare time?
Lucy: It can be quite difficult to find the time to do other projects.
Clare: I was doing my own music before I joined the group. I already had some projects going, but now the only way I can do it is on my summer holiday. I went to Denver this summer to work with a composer there called Tyler Gilmore, and we wrote some music together and recorded it. That album should be finished and ready soon!
Jo: I’ve done a couple of movie soundtracks which is really fun. A couple of years ago I recorded stuff for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe soundtrack. Recently it was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows parts 1 and 2.
It’s the second time you have organized the London A Cappella Festival. What is the purpose behind that?
Clare: The purpose of the London A Cappella Festival is quite similar to the other festivals. We want to give people a chance to get together and hear really amazing vocal groups. Last year it was The Real Group, Witloof Bay from Belgium as well as amazing newcomers The Boxettes from london.
How do you hold your traditions? What does it mean to you?
Clare: This is the reason why we are all here making music together. We hold the tradition of the Swingle Singers very dear. In the sixties the reason why the group, I think, caught peoples imaginations, was that they were pioneers in a cappella. And this is part of this reason; I think the way that we would see the tradition of the Swingle Singers is to try to always be at the forefront of a cappella music. It always has been the priority of the group and it’s definitely important for the group now.
How do the innovations of technology and the group’s evolution influence the Swingle Singers?
Clare: I think it happens organically. When new people join the group they come with their own experiences and they bring new ideas. Sometimes I am envious of groups that have been together a long time with no or few member changes. They have the chance to invest and develop so much together. We try to build this as much as we can, but I also really value that we have fresh ideas coming from outside.
Let’s speak about your new video of Libertango! What was the idea to make it?
Jo: We watched some videos of other vocal groups and they are all fantastic. Recently we saw an old Swingle music video of Badinerie from 1963-64. It’s in black and white and Christiane Legrand is walking through a shopping mall singing. But we wanted to do something cinematic, something with a story line and something dramatic. We worked with a fantastic company called “Film Creatives” and they were absolutely amazing! It was a fantastic experience and we would love to work with them again!
You are an example for many vocal groups. What would you like to wish young a cappella groups? What does a group need to do to be successful?
Lucy: Find something different to market yourself with, something that only you can do or that you can do the best. Take advice from other groups and make friends with other a cappella groups because it’s a wonderful community and it’s really great to be able to learn from what other people can do on stage. So be really open to changes and learning music!
Clare: I really agree with that and I just say as well: don’t be afraid to branch out and try something new. Don’t feel you have to follow the crowd to be successful – find your own niche!
Jo: Try something you really love doing. If you are not really excited about what your group is doing then something may be wrong. You have to really love what you do!
I met Helen Kuzina on a trip to Moscow and soon realized that Helen probably is one of the greatest Swingle Singers in the world. She seems to have traveled to a dozen countries to see the group perform and has also written a paper about the Swingle Singers during her studies of music in Moscow. Hope to hear more from you, Helena.