Logging on for E-vensong

Martin Cullingford
Thursday, October 28, 2010

On the one hand, the growing practise of broadcasting choral services on the internet feels like a quantum leap – an unlikely marriage of technology and tradition. On the other, it can look like a return to basics, a short-circuiting of the 20th-century recording phenomenon: cathedral and collegiate choirs were never designed to make edited records – they were designed to sing services.

Which renders the recent flurry of activity at New College Oxford particularly interesting. Weeks after launching its own CD label, this month the college’s chapel choir became the latest of its kind to begin web-casting choral services. ‘Concerts and recording are vital, but our work in the chapel is the nexus of what we do’, says Director of Music Edward Higginbottom. ‘We want to offer those who can’t get to the chapel the possibility of being with us. If you live in America, it’s a long way to come for Evensong.’

Following a pilot project and the installation of equipment in the summer – funded appropriately enough by the American Friends of New College – the process of recording every chapel service began at the start of this academic year. Once a week a service is loaded onto the college website where it’s available for on-request streaming. ‘We’ll choose the service that gives the best listening experience. At any given time we might have two or three up on our site,’ Higginbottom explains.

On offer is an unusually wide repertoire, a chance to hear the choir’s distinctive way of singing the psalms and plenty of contributions from the building’s equally idiosyncratic organ. The ‘chaptered’ appearance of the on-screen player means listeners can skip straight to chosen ‘tracks’ if they want to, which raises a question or two about the validity of the liturgy. ‘Well, if you come to a service here you can sleep your way through a lesson, can’t you?’ Higginbottom counters. ‘People will receive this as they receive it. There will be those who want to sit down and listen attentively – maybe even lighting a candle – and others who’ll just have it on in the background.’

If both musicians and listeners exercise a degree of selectivity at New College, the opposite is true at St Thomas’s Fifth Avenue in New York, the worldwide pioneers of service web-casting. Every choral service at St Thomas’s – five-per-week during term time – is broadcast live on the web and available for at least two weeks afterwards as one continuous, non-chaptered stream. As at New College, there’s a discreet infrastructure of recording equipment fixed in position. Such is the permanence of those dangling microphones at St Thomas’s that its choir has largely forgotten they’re there. That’s the intention – a technological refraction of the Anglican choral tradition’s emphasis on quality, no matter what the day or occasion. God is always listening, so what difference a few thousand extra mortals?

Such exposure can, however, be ruthless. While some of the services currently online at the St Thomas’s website project a choir with genuine character on magnificent form, the start of the new term hasn’t been easy. ‘Circumstances mean we’re working with a very young choir at the moment – effectively next year’s choir’, says Director of Music John Scott. ‘There have been some carve-ups and I see no reason why I shouldn’t be honest about that. We’re trying to present what we do in a liturgical context. Of course there are imperfections – this is worship, after all. If you tuned in a year ago it would have sounded much more secure and I hope in a year’s time it will also.’

Long-term listeners would recognise that, and St Thomas’s has many of them. A Sunday Eucharist service – statistically the most popular – can attract up to 3000 listeners in the two weeks after its initial broadcast, a core of whom are regulars. In 2009, St Thomas’s saw an approximate increase of 17 per cent in its webcast audience. Fascinatingly, it is services – Evensong and Eucharist – that deliver listeners, not the concerts and recitals that are offered in parallel and often include well-known names. ‘People don’t generally own recordings of the choral liturgies…which include an enormous range of music from many centuries’, says St Thomas’s verger David Daniel.

In a sense none of this is new. The longest continually running outside broadcast across the whole of the BBC is its weekly Choral Evensong programme, transmitted live every Wednesday afternoon usually from a cathedral, chapel or church somewhere in the UK. Broadcasting raises a choir’s profile, aids recruitment and gives a national voice to a foundation’s spiritual mission. Web-casting does the same. ‘The church views this very much as outreach, but it’s significant for the profile of the institution and the recruitment of choristers too,’ says John Scott. ‘We’ve found that people have sent us donations and pledged money as a result of hearing what we do.’

Both Scott and Higginbottom agree that web-casting is set to flourish. ‘A great global public is going to be spoilt for choice’, believes the latter, ‘on any given evening you might be able to go to one of 50 places for Evensong.’ Scott, formerly of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, has his eye on institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘I’d be very surprised if in ten years’ time most of the major choral foundations didn’t have this facility’, he asserts. If he’s right, it will be one of the biggest developments in ecclesiastical music for years.

Hear webcasts from St Thomas Church, New York and New College, Oxford

Who else webcasts their services?

St John’s College, Cambridge
This choir was the first in the UK to offer regular web-casts, aimed at bringing ‘the distinctive sound of the choir at home in its chapel to new audiences and old friends.’ The choir’s psalm-singing alone is worth a broadband subscription.

Merton College, Oxford
An opportunity to hear the UK’s youngest choral foundation finding its feet; the choir in is current form is only two years old, formed under the guidance of the Tallis Scholars’ Peter Philips. It’s not the finest singing on the web, but hearing the ensemble’s development in real-time is fascinating. 

National Cathedral, Washington
You get a full audio-visual weekly broadcast from National Cathedral, complete with produced title-sequences and multiple camera angles (including a loft-cam which captures the organist at work). It’s Eucharist, so definitively more liturgical than musical. 

Grace Cathedral, San Francisco 
Sound quality here isn’t what it is elsewhere – the microphones favour the spoken word over music – but the singing from the choir of men and boys is involving and vigorous. Sunday Eucharists and Thursday Evensongs appear weekly.

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