O Veni

clare mccaldinThe Church of England traditionally marks the beginning of Advent with a service on the eve of the season and this year at St Paul’s Knightsbridge we observed the date in a decidedly non-traditional way. Since the summer a group of us has been discussing the meanings of the O Antiphon texts and making creative decisions about how to express them in a combination of new music and dance. The process has been documented along the way in a series of short films and culminated in a performance in the church on Sunday night.


antiphon4For parishioners who had been expecting the usual readings and carols it might have come as something of a surprise, but the films and blogposts around the project have been designed to bring the congregation with us on the creative journey. For those who hadn’t seen any of the online materials, Father Alan Gyle gave two short meditations providing context and ideas for reflection. An openness to experience something a bit different is all that was requested of anyone in the pews last night and, from the responses shared with us afterwards, we succeeded in touching people and provoking thought.

Gaia Cicolani, Hubert Essakow & Clare McCaldinThe performance was also a remarkable example of what is possible in a short time. Composer Thomas Hyde had, necessarily, finished writing the score some weeks ago in order that it could be recorded in sketch form for the dancers to work with. Three chorus movements were, as is normal for professional church choirs, rehearsed on the day and fitted together with the dance at the general run-through before the performance. Half an hour of music is a substantial amount of time to fill with movement on just a week’s rehearsal. In the end, choreographer Hubert Essakow‘s decision to leave one of the choral movements un-danced proved a good instinct, as it briefly re-directed the focus to the relationship between the music and the space itself. The church’s High Victorian interior and generous acoustic were a sumptuous canvas on which the movement and music could meet.





Hubert Essakow, Tom Hyde, Clare McCaldinRecently we had our first creative “brainstorm” for the O Antiphons project at St Paul’s Knightsbridge. I’m reasonably good at staring reflectively into space (see left) but the business of capturing flashes of possible inspiration so as to examine them with a collective critical eye is fascinating.

Choreographer Hubert Essakow (far left) and composer Tom Hyde (centre) are old hands at making something ex nihilo; their respective roles demand that they make decisions in order to begin to create. But as a singer I am more accustomed to being an interpreter than a creator. Generally I am handed the finished product, at which point my creative process begins, which is to lift the song off the page and breathe life and individuality into it. One of the things composers learn early on is that they have to be able to release their creation to this process and trust that the performer will make something of it that is good, even if it is also different from what they had imagined or expected.

So being involved at the very beginning of this creating is already a challenge for me. How to talk about something that doesn’t exist yet? How to describe what qualities it might have, physically or musically? Are any of my ideas any good and do I feel brave enough to try to articulate them?

Tom Hyde and Clare McCaldinWe do at least have the texts to respond to (particularly attractive to me with my fondness for words) and they offer a useful starting point. As a group, the texts have a general theme, but individual texts are of different temperatures and contain images that may be concrete or abstract. The O from which the Antiphons take their name is a call, an address – O Wisdom, O Root of Jesse, O King of the Nations – and the O shape is both a graphic image with a rich symbology, and a sung/spoken vowel. Possibilities start to open up from those starting-points, before we even begin looking at the broader Advent themes of light out of darkness and anticipation. The history of ritual and the circle of the liturgical year offer still more possible points of contact for the creative team.

Tom Hyde, Hubert Essakow, Clare McCaldinWith so many ways in, the need for some early structural decisions is quickly apparent. Hubert could suddenly decide up to the last moment (budget permitting) that an extra dancer is required, but for Tom to get on and write much, he needs to know what he’s writing for. Our O Antiphons will contain sections for eight-part choir, organ and a couple of soloists. Different texts suggest themselves for different combinations. Questions of spoken vs sung text are relevent here too; in an operatic situation I feel strongly that to come out of singing into speech has to be properly justified but in a liturgical setting where we regularly toggle between the two, the transition feels much more natural, with and without accompanying harmony.

We’ve also decided to let the music lead a certain amount of the process but to elect one movement in which the dance will come first. The music will, therefore, be created in response to this. It’ll be interesting to discover what, if any, difference it makes to do it this way round.

Read more from me about the O Antiphons project or watch the video introduction on the St Paul’s Knightsbridge website.

Photo credits: James Bellorini



O my!

stpauls_dec2014There’s creativity in the air at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge. This is the church where I have sung on Sunday mornings for the past twelve years, as one of an eight-part professional choir. The church is rightly known for the high quality of its music-making and I think it’s fair to say we are a happy group who look forward to working together even when many other people in London are having the day off. The church is blessed with a thoughtful and engaged congregation – whose support extends well beyond the usual parish duties – and a Vicar, Alan Gyle, who has Big Plans for us all.

One of these plans is a project exploring the nature of creativity as it manifests in collaboration between different artistic disciplines. Taking the text of the Advent “O Antiphons” as a starting point, a group of us are generating a brand new work which brings together dance, composition and performance. Nothing particularly unusual so far, but the process is also designed to be as open as possible and so we are documenting it as we go along. Creativity is often seen as a mysterious process that takes place behind closed doors and the intention here is to shine some light on it for those who would not normally witness that process.

It takes a certain courage to let someone peer over your shoulder while you are trying to engage the creativity that you use professionally. Luckily, composer Tom Hyde (also one of the congregation) and choreographer Hubert Essakow are willing to allow the camera in and Liz Smith of entertainingtv is making a series of videos showing how the discussion, and then the piece itself, develops. I am representing the choir in the collaborative process and three professional dancers and the rest of the music team will join us when we start building the performance. We intend the congregation of St Paul’s to be involved too, and will be inviting them to observe and comment as we go along, as well as attending the premiere on 29th November which takes place at the Advent Carol Service.

The O Antiphons are beautiful texts, full of hope and anticipation at the coming of the Messiah. Surprisingly, perhaps, they haven’t often been set as a group. We intend that the St Paul’s settings should work both as individual anthems and as a whole, not least so that they have the possibility of an afterlife in future Advent programming.

We, too, are full of excitement and anticipation as we start the process.

I’ll let you know how we get on.

Watch an introduction from Father Alan Gyle.