Can an amateur choral group in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, pull off a new commission for the launch of a community town hall?
Friday, June 22
I’m watching rain pour out of the sky. Vats and vats of it. Even the children, well accustomed to the deluges that accompany life round here, are staring out of the window, transfixed. The river which runs through town is rising like the bath I’m running for them. On its bank perches the newly built town hall that we are 'launching' tomorrow, a word that gets more unfortunate every water-filled minute. In an hour or so the flood sirens will sound and the River Calder will burst its banks with devastating force over the town. Will the town hall survive? Will the show go on? Let me back track a little first….
Saturday, March 10
It all starts here, a group of local amateur singers gathered in someone’s front room (which also happens to be an ex-pub function room in a listed building). An impressive space for our first sing through of And So We Built, commissioned to celebrate the transformation of our neglected, unused council buildings into a gleaming municipal utopia that council and community can share.
Hmmm. At the moment the whole area is a mesh of scaffolding and strange building site vehicles that create no end of fascination for the under fours of the town (and their dads). We’re in Hebden Bridge, a small town in the foot of the Pennines in West Yorkshire, known for its independent shops - and mindset. Fittingly, we are one of the first towns in the country to take over the running of a town hall, via a Community Association formed for this purpose. Echoing the strong artistic and musical traditions of the community, the grand opening will include a new choral commission, written by Alison West, a local composer and conductor of The Hepton Singers, an a cappella chamber choir founded in 1973.
The assembled group is a mix of different local choirs with different musical traditions. Some of us read music, some don’t. Alison wanted to put together a bespoke group rather than make the gig exclusive to The Hepton Singers, meaning we’ve all chosen to be here. As she says, it’s also a good way of bridging the gap between different local choirs, which may occasionally view each other somewhat askance (you know how it is with choirs). It’s all pretty civilised at this stage, as we go round the room announcing our names (no warm-up games, thank goodness). A good vocal warm-up though – Alison’s speciality. I’m always amazed how the bizarre noises we make at this stage can help to produce a much better sound in the end.
We look a bit thin on basses and particularly tenors, the constant challenge in recruiting amateur (and professional) choirs. Not enough male tenors, although one of the section’s women could give most male tenors a run for their money. Can we recruit her for the Hepton Singers? goes the whisper around the sopranos. She used to sing with us but moved on, comes the answer. Worth a try.
There’s a frisson of excitement in the air and a sense of the unknown. We’ve had the music in advance and I’m curious about the words. Alison tells me later that when she was initially commissioned she looked at several poems to set, including work by Ted Hughes and other local poets, but nothing seemed right. In the end Community Association trustee and Hepton Singer Andrew Bibby penned something himself. He’s sung Alison’s compositions and had a feel for what she might like.
And So We Built is about the primal human need for shelter and how we have gone about making it through the ages – from 'wefting a lattice of willow and hazel' to 'learning the colours and rhythms of the stones', pushing through disappointment and failure and rebuilding over and over. The climax, “There is a hope in every building”, is both celebratory and poignant.
But we are a long way from the climax in this first rehearsal. Alison knows better than to be flummoxed by our first read-through, which manages to progress to bar five or so. Harmonies are complex; there’s no pre-empting the next chord and time signatures shift around freely. It’s fair to say the process of learning the notes will not be a quick one. I leave slightly nonplussed, not sure what to make of the work or our chances of pulling it off. Nice house though.
Saturday, April 28
Alison’s been away so there’s a long gap before our next rehearsal. During the interlude building work has continued apace, with men in hard hats reversing weird and wonderful machines along the narrow road that forms a vital part of our daily school run. Mechanically minded I am not, but the size of the sky scraper crane that has moved in, swooping way above our heads like something from an alien-invasion movie, impresses even me. The building is supposed to be finished next month. 'There’s no way it will be ready by May,' announces my six-year-old daughter, solemnly and, indeed, presciently.
Still, we can sing about it. Or perhaps that’s an overstatement; the rehearsal is more about note bashing than anything. It’s hard work, but on balance not as hard as managing the kids on a wet Saturday afternoon, which is what I’m avoiding. I count my blessings and sing on.
Saturday, May 12
It’s a toss-up as to which has further to go: the building of the town hall or the learning of our piece. Alison originally proposed three or four rehearsals, which will clearly not be enough. For me, this rehearsal is a low point. After two hours of struggle we manage to get through two pages of music, and even that not perfectly. Altos are having most problems, but we sops are not great either. It’s a slow piece to start with, and with every bar of triplets it’s dragging slower. Because it’s a new composition we have no idea how it will ultimately sound; there’s no YouTube to click on, only an MP3 done from Alison’s composition programme Sibelius, using synthesised voice sounds that make my toes curl. Must keep the faith…
Saturday, June 9
We are starting to sound like a choir. Alison decides to 'voice' us; a familiar process to those of us from the Heptons but unfamiliar to many of the others. This is all about where we are positioned within our section to create the best sound. Some voices blend well together; some don’t. I’m sure I’m not alone in having the experience of singing next to someone and finding it really hard work, despite the fact that we’re both decent singers. As ever, as we move round the choir singing Amazing Grace in groups of three, people are amazed to see that the seating plan really does affect 'how sweet the sound'.
Monday, June 11
It’s a vaguely summery evening and I’m standing on a street corner hearing the melodic strains of Hebden Bridge Junior Brass Band. Alison’s had a suggestion to use the brass for climactic moments and we’re waiting to be called on. This is Yorkshire; brass bands (pronounced with hard 'a's, please) are where it’s at so it seems appropriate. Personally I cry as soon as I hear a brass band – like someone’s switched on a tap – and don’t even get me started on a children’s band.
Let’s just say I don’t cry tonight. The kids stare and snigger and we smile back, all adult and awkward. Apparently it’s a tricky key for them to play in. Most of the time they’re half a bar behind us. And when they really get going you can’t hear us at all. Alison later describes the effect as 'anarchic', perhaps not the most appropriate sound for the inauguration of a town hall.
Meanwhile things are moving forward on the building front. An unlikely tourist attraction turned out to be the removal of the huge tower crane, now part of the Hebden skyline, by an even bigger crane that had to winch it over the top of the new building. Plain old diggers or tractors no longer cut it with the Hebden toddler brigade.
Monday, June 18
Take two: try a brass quartet instead. Only the more experienced young brass players are present for our next rehearsal, plus their conductor. It’s a lot better, though Alison does keep having to send them further and further away from us to get the right balance, which seems to result in the tempo being pulled back too. The players all wear disconcertingly wry facial expressions when not in embouchure. We feel a little insecure/old and wonder what they think of us.
Alison looks upbeat despite a few bum notes from us. We manage to sing the piece all the way through and for the first time it’s starting to take shape as a piece of music.
A few days later the town hall front is stripped of scaffolding and blinks pale, clean and tentative. 'Wow, it looks like a real building now!' exclaims my six year old, who has been adamant that it won’t be ready in time. It’s still not clear that it will be ready in time. Andrew, the librettist-cum-choir-member-cum-town-hall-project-manager who seems to be doing everything except lay the bricks, isn’t quite sure either. For the first time he’s looking a little frazzled.
Friday, June 22
Back to the day before the big event, where rain blasts biblically and I decide to have a final run-through of my part. Halfway through the tricky third verse a strange wailing starts to echo around me. It’s not unknown for my children to cry out in protest when I burst into song but this is in another league: piercing, swooping, doom laden. The flood siren. I reassure my daughters that if it flooded up our (1:4) hill it really would be the end of the world. My partner slams through the door, puddles collecting at his feet.
'The river’s about two feet below the Waterfront Hall,' he announces. The Waterfront Hall, a little closer to the water than it would like, is the only room finished in the new development and where we’ll be singing in the morning. Or not.
I head for the pub later (only for one, of course..) and my friend and I clutch each other as we push our way through deluging torrents of rain and see the river charge and swirl only just below the level of the bridge, sweeping bits of tree and other debris with it. There behind the bridge is the town hall terrace, all new and exposed and desperately vulnerable. Two hours later when we head for home the street next to the river has flooded over welly level. I pause on the bridge next to people with cameras and video recorders and try to see if the water has reached the town hall. Through the rain and blackness I can’t see it at all.
Saturday, June 23
Hebden Bridge has its 15 minutes of fame. I wake to my phone bleeping and various friends from around the country (and one in the USA) texting me to check I’m OK. The River Calder burst its banks dramatically overnight and camera crews are out in force. Homes are flooded, shops ruined, a school deluged, bridges collapsing, roads giving way. For two days we have the dubious honour of being the lead item on the BBC news.
Incredibly, the town hall opening ceremony is to go ahead. The basement has flooded but miraculously the water didn’t reach the gaping terrace of the Waterfront Hall. Later I hear it was only 18 inches away. It’s been a difficult decision to go ahead with so many people and small businesses in dire straits but the feeling is that this will show the strength of community spirit and provide a message of hope.
As we arrange ourselves in the hall and exchange stories about the night before workmen jostle around us, wiping away dust from skirting boards, tapping the odd nail into place. It’s smaller and lower-ceilinged than I expected but attractive with a seductive view out onto the still-belligerent river. Our dress code is bright colours and we’ve certainly outdone expectations on that front. We start to sing into an unknown acoustic, quickly to discover that it’s dry and deadens the sound, but that every word can be heard. The plan is to have a quick run through with the brass but there isn’t time. It’ll be a surprise for all of us.
One good thing – the altos are having trouble keeping pitch so the recorder player is shifted over to their side, rather than just behind my right ear. It’s a shame we have to use recorder but if the brass are to join us two thirds of the way through we have to be on pitch. In the rehearsal the piece gives me what it hasn’t done up to this point: goosebumps and a welling in the tear duct area. It’s something about triumph over adversity, the importance of human endeavour despite its limitations. This space we’re celebrating, and the long convoluted process of bringing it into being, does represent a triumph for our community. It’s something to be proud of, something to sing about.
Some of the invited guests haven’t been able to come but the vast majority have – including the Mayor of Saint-Pol-de-Ternoise, Hebden Bridge’s twin town in France. We have a good crowd of two hundred or so. I think it would have been a moving ceremony anyway – it’s got children singing, after all – but today, the (drizzly) calm after the storm, it’s especially so. There are speeches, of course, but also song, dance and poetry. Char March, our celebrated local poet, has made a last minute switch of poems to include Nesh, a vivid and very Yorkshire description of rain lashed moors.
We’re on last. Andrew’s words, which talk of the huge endeavour and setbacks involved in making a building, have already been overlayed with extra significance given the challenging process of this particular building project. But today, the morning after, they are uncannily apt.
'We built from need, against the rain,
The cold rain and wind which whipped us…'
Perhaps this helps us to tell the story, to give meaning to the words as we’ve so often been urged in rehearsals. It doesn’t require much flight of fancy:
'There was disappointment.
What we build fell down, blew down,
Was carried off by flood…'
The onus is on sopranos, the narrators, and we deliver it without faltering, barely looking at our music, and leading up to the climax, 'There is a hope in every building'. Enter the brass. It’s a surprisingly mellow sound, parked as they are some way behind us. They accompany us to the end, a suitably uplifting final cadence, and we all stay together rather nicely. Later I’m told that, ironically, the brass could have done with being a bit louder, but better this way than drowning us out.
I turn to see my daughters clapping madly; maybe they’ll be more tolerant towards my singing practice at home in future. We come down with generous quantities of canapés, slightly industrial-tasting fizzy wine and I leave a little blurry round the edges. It feels uplifting to have been a part of a community celebration, with the drama of the floods adding poignancy and, yes, a sense of grim Northern determination to just get on with it.
Only later do I see the full extent of what 'getting on with it' looks like for many people, witness the carnage on the town’s main street and the local school, hear about my friend wading through chest high water the night before and still failing to get home, the people who are temporarily homeless. There is controversy that the town hall launch still went ahead, local dignitaries celebrating while people and businesses around tried to pick up the pieces. But the achievement, creating a new shared space for the community, did, I think, deserve to be celebrated and I’m glad and grateful to have been a part of it. Despite rain, floods, recession, redundancy we do move forwards. As Andrew’s words say, 'There is a hope in every building, a gesture to the future that’s to come, a mark that’s there for others to find at some time hence'.
Weather permitting, of course.
Tara Guha is a freelance writer and mother of two small children in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Since leaving the classical record industry over a decade ago she now has time for musical escapades of her own.