We are delighted to have issued three new choral pieces this summer by the multi-talented composer, conductor and singer Ben Parry. I have known Ben for well over 20 years, and have very happy memories of singing with him in several professional choral groups, but it has always struck me that he must be one of those rare few people who has at least 32 hours a day available to him. How else can he possibly have achieved as much as he has? Of course, the truth is that Ben has an enviable array of skills, a very sharp mind and, just as crucially, he works incredibly hard.
The variety of Ben’s personal musical experiences can be discerned in his choral writing. As a recent Gramophone review of the Choir of Royal Holloway’s excellent CD of his music noted, ‘Singers revel in the wide, arching phrases and word-painting Parry offers them’ – this is Ben the singer. ‘Text is king in Parry’s sensitive, pastel-coloured settings’ – Ben the conductor. ‘Ben Parry knows better than almost anyone what works for young voices, what they enjoy singing and how to get the best out of them’ – Ben, the composer of pieces that are brilliantly calculated to engage with young singers.
Ben has kindly agreed to answer some questions designed to reflect these different aspects of his musical experiences.
Do you have any early memories of when you first started to sing in a choir or a group, and of what you made of the experience?
My dad was, for over 45 years, organist and choirmaster at St Margaret’s Church in Ipswich. I am the youngest of four children and we all sang in the choir. Even from the age of four – still too young to sing in the choir – I would sit next to dad on the organ stool. My earliest memory is of the choir singing Stanford’s wonderful setting of the Magnificat in C. Dad played the first two chords on full organ (C major followed by G with an suspended 13th) and I turned to him and said ‘daddy, what lovely music!’ – my fate was sealed! We were so lucky at that time to have five or six local families whose children all came and sang in the choir – it was the most wonderful musical community – and we all went to the local primary school, or to Northgate Grammar School, where my dad was head of music. I still remember being introduced to pieces like Blessed be the God and Father by Wesley and Ave Verum Corpus by Byrd, and I remember enjoying singing Maurice Greene’s Thou visitest the earth at Harvest time.
What options were open to you as a youngster to sing, either in school or locally?
We had a very supportive head teacher at the local C of E primary school who was a good singer himself (his son Mark, also an excellent tenor, is currently the Dean of Ely Cathedral) and he would direct the school choir in the end-of-term concerts. One highlight of these concerts was performing the great ‘pop cantatas’ like Michael Hurd’s Jonah Man Jazz or Herbert Chappell’s Daniel Jazz. Our favourite was the brilliant Captain Noah and his Floating Zoo with music by Joseph Horovitz. My loyalties were often divided between singing and playing the violin – I was a member of the county youth orchestra, and we sometimes performed choral and orchestral works with the local youth choir. I moved to Ipswich School when I was 12, which had a burgeoning chapel choir – here I also learnt to play the organ and accompanied the choir in regular evening services.
Was there any inkling or early ambition at this stage that singing might become such an important and major part of your life? And were there any people who especially inspired you along your vocal journey?
I’ve already mentioned dad, who was such a great inspiration to me. He encouraged me to attend RSCM choral courses when I was still a treble, and it was here that I fell in love with church music and the great cathedrals we sang in. When I was still quite young he bought me an LP, ‘Anthems from King’s’, which I played so many times I knew where all the scratches were. I knew all the pieces by heart (even though I’d never seen the actual scores) and revelled in those classic performances of Parry’s I was glad, Naylor’s Vox dicentis and Balfour Gardiner’s Evening Hymn conducted by the late, great David Willcocks. Years later as an undergraduate in the Choir of of King’s College Cambridge, I’d not only sing there, but end up working as Assistant Director of Music conducting the choir on many occasions – particularly in Stephen Cleobury’s final two years when ill-health prevented him from working with the choir. Stephen was a great influence on me too, and I was lucky to know him as a teacher, colleague and friend for so long.
The Conductor / Director
Did you always harbour an ambition to be a choral director, or did your work in this field evolve from your singing background?
I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly ambitious, but I have experienced good fortune in my career as well as ensuring everything I do is done with enthusiasm and dedication. Becoming a conductor/director definitely evolved from my singing experiences, and I learned so much about effective direction from the many conductors I’ve sung and played for (both good and not so good …). It’s certainly a great advantage to have progressed to conducting as a singer and instrumentalist, so I am informed of how things work from the performer’s point of view. I have always felt that my work as a conductor should be collaborative – more a facilitator than director – and I am very aware that, even though I’ve been working as a professional musician for over 30 years, I should still leave space to learn and adapt.
Do you have any striking memories from your first work directing, or from an early outing?
My first experience of conducting came when I was leader of the Suffolk Youth Orchestra. We were on a residential course in Matlock, about to start the evening rehearsal (Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony) and the conductor hadn’t appeared. So my friends encouraged me to conduct the start of the rehearsal. I remember walking on to the podium with not much idea of what to do! But that first experience lives with me – being in control of the sound which was coming back at me from the players. In my final year at school, I toured round some English cathedrals with an ad hoc choir called Cantores Novi. The conductor Robert Gower arranged for the choir to sing a piece I’d written, a setting of the hymn text ‘My song is love unknown’. I remember directing the choir at evensong in Wells Cathedral one dark March evening – magical. At university I had more chances to conduct and direct, although most of my time was taken up with singing, either in King’s or in musicals and cabaret (I’m not sure I remember doing much academic work!).
Based on the wide range of music that you have been involved in, is it generally scarier to be a singer or a director?
That’s a great question. I don’t sing that much nowadays, although I did in a recording session just last week and realised what hard work it is! As a conductor I need to be in charge of a whole room of people, sometimes upwards of 80 or 90, so I need to be completely prepared and confident in my abilities to ‘read the room’ and manage the environment and energy. As a singer I feel more like a component of the whole experience, so the responsibilities are, to an extent, a little less.
To rephrase an earlier question, when did you begin to compose music? And are there any early works, hidden away at the bottom of a drawer or preserved on an old floppy disc, that might be ready to see the light of day again?
There’s a pile of manuscript paper in my office at home which I haven’t looked at in many years, but I do remember setting some of my dad’s limericks to music when I was about nine or ten. Of course in those days (quite a long time ago now) everything was written with pencil on paper, so many early attempts are now long gone. I wrote some pieces at school – most memorably a horn sonata for my friend Nick Wilson, and the incidental music to our sixth-form production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (which includes some lovely songs like ‘O mistress mine’ and ‘Come away death’) – and some early choral pieces were ‘My song is love unknown’ and Christe redemptor which have had the occasional outing since.
You are quite often writing music to order, either in terms of composing for specific choral groups or, for studio work, according to very strict requirements often relating to duration. Are those demands constraining, or can they sometimes be helpful?
I absolutely love writing ‘to order’! The more parameters that are given to me, the happier I am. I’m not the sort of composer who writes on a whim – I much prefer to be given guidelines to which I can write. I almost always work linearly, starting at the beginning and working through to the conclusion. This still allows opportunity to review and refine. As a choral composer, I’m not the sort of writer who comes up with a tune first – I am always inspired by the words I am setting. The music production work is very different, where a theme or ‘hook’ is required. I have my phone with me, which is full of short recordings of me singing or playing some of these hooks so I don’t forget them!
We love all the pieces that have just been released and we are sure they will have a great appeal for all choirs – from where I sit (generally the back row of the tenors!), it looks to me as though the lines are beautifully treated and have a lovely flow in all the voice parts. But has your work with the National Youth Choir given you a special joy in writing for younger voices? Science Song is brilliantly conceived as a fun song that effortlessly and, almost unknowingly for the singers, allows a variety of skills to be rehearsed and developed that will serve the performers very well in the future.
It’s so important as a composer to write singable (or playable) lines. My 11 years working with National Youth Choir has certainly been a wonderful training space. The trick with young choirs is to ensure that their enjoyment of everything they sing lies at the heart of what they do. Science Song was really fun to work on – I was pleased with the way the song develops structurally, not least the transition from unison (with a canon), two part and three part. I also enjoy the working on the simplicity in a setting like Early One Morning, avoiding the use of any divided parts but at the same time not resorting to simple chordal textures. Singers of any age enjoy being challenged, whether they know it or not!