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Forget concert halls, the Clerks are singing in a sewage works

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  • A Cappella News
    THE TIMES: The most damning word in the modern workplace is “inappropriate”. It s the euphemism used to cover everything from sexually harassing the
    Message 1 of 1 , May 27, 2008
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      THE TIMES:

      The most damning word in the modern workplace is “inappropriate”. It's
      the euphemism used to cover everything from sexually harassing the
      managing director's pet gerbil to running off with the proceeds of the
      Derby sweepstake.

      But in the arts, inappropriate is good! The incongruity that jolts us
      into looking at the world in a different way is one of the most potent
      weapons in the cultural armoury.

      And there can be little dispute as to the most incongruous thing to
      hit the musical world this summer. The Clerks are an excellent singing
      group, specialising in medieval and Renaissance anthems. Their
      director, Edward Wickham, has put together an intriguing tour of music
      from the 15th and 16th centuries marking the transition from life to
      death. It includes Dufay's sublime Ave regina coelorum, which he wrote
      to be performed around his own deathbed, and various other wonderful
      laments from an age when death tended to come so unexpectedly that it
      was wise always to be prepared for it.

      So far, however, so expected. One of the great glories of the British
      musical scene is the plethora of stunning choirs - The Sixteen, the
      Tallis Scholars, the Monteverdi Choir - touring this sort of
      repertoire. But it's where the Clerks are performing over the next two
      weekends that makes their project so eye-catching. Rather than going
      to cathedrals, they have chosen four venues where the acoustics are
      just as reverberant, but the ambience very different. A coalmine. A
      swimming pool. A sewage pumping station. And a waterworks.

      All, however, are architectural glories - and from their own era,
      which is Victorian. The coalmine, where the music will be sung more
      than 400ft underground, is Caphouse Colliery in Wakefield, which
      stopped producing coal in 1985 and is now the National Coal Mining
      Museum. The swimming pool is the lavish Victoria Baths in Manchester,
      replete with stained glass and terracotta decorations, which is
      getting a £3 million facelift after winning the public vote in the
      BBC's Restoration series.

      Sir Joseph Bazalgette's magnificent Crossness Pumping Station in
      Bexley, Kent, is the sewage pumping station being used, though
      concert-goers will be relieved to hear that its mighty engines haven't
      pumped any sewage for 50 years. And the final venue is the equally
      imposing Engine House at Kempton Waterworks in Hanworth, West London -
      which, in its heyday, used to supply thirsty Londoners with 86 million
      gallons of drinking water each day.

      What fascinates me is the symbolism of the event. As Pevsner gasped
      when he first saw Bazalgette's sewage works, these huge Victorian
      edifices were the “cathedrals” of their day. They may be dead, in that
      they no longer play any part in our industrial life - what remains of
      it. But they are now rightly celebrated as the engineering marvels of
      their age. In that sense, they have been reborn. Where better, then,
      to hear music that so beautifully celebrates what its composers
      believed to be the rebirth of the soul?

      So, it turns out, the project isn't really incongruous at all.


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