Ward Swingle on The Swngle Singers
'The swingle singers began as a vocal exercise by a group of freelance session singers working in Paris in the early sixties. Most of our studio singing was limited to background vocals - oo's and ah's behind people like Charles Asnavour and Edith Piaf. Sometimes Michel Legrand, who was just beginning to make a name for himself, gave us some fine jazz vocal things to do. But Michel went off the Hollywood to compose film scores, and with the arrival of rock and pop music the vocal arrangements became boringly simple; we began looking around for meatier musical nourishment.I got out Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavichord" and we began reading through the preludes and fugues just to see if they were singable. We soon found, like many before us, that we were swinging Bach's music quite naturally. Since there were no words, we improvised a kind of scat singing a la Louis Armstrong, which we later reduced to simple doo's and boo's, dah's and bah's so as not to get in the way of Bach's counterpoint. We took advantage of two characteristics common to both jazz and baroque music: rhythm and improvisation. Jazz and baroque styles both require a good steady tempo, and most of the great baroque composers were organists who considered improvisation as part of their musical baggage - just as a jazz musician does today.
We continued rehearsing in our off time for most of that year (1962), then approached Philips about making a recording. We, and they, thought we might sell a few records to our families and friends. As a matter of fact, in France that's about what happened. Fortunately, when the recording came out in the States (in 1963), there were a few disk-jockeys who like it and who spread the word. It began climbing the charts, eventually making the top 10, then staying in the top 100 for almost a year and a half. That first recording, and the two that followed it, won Grammies for "Best Performance by a Chorus". The first "Bach's Greatest Hits" (Jazz Sébastian Bach in France), also won a Grammy for "Best New Artist". (The other albums were Going Baroque and Swinging Mozart or Anyone for Mozart in the US)For the most part, the early albums were well received. We got favourable comments from some of our idols: Glenn Gould, Ella Fitzgerald, Yehudi Menuhin and Dizzy Gillespie. Some music critics raved, some were reticent, and a few were downright hostile. One German critic accused us of casting a satanic influence on music in general, yet the London Times critic admired our "exceptional understanding of 18th-Century performing practices."In the spring of 1964 we got a call from Richard Adler, who organised the Soirees Musicales at the White House for the Kennedys. When Lyndon Johnson became President after Kennedy's assassination, he and Mrs Johnson resolved to continue the musical evenings. We were invited to sing at a State Dinner in the White House honouring the Israeli Foreign Minister Levi Eshkol. Until then we had made only one public appearance, a concert we organised ourselves at the Cite Universitaire in Paris. In spite of some jittery nerves, our short recital at the White House - which we shared with violinist Mischa Elman - went reasonably well.I remember being very impressed by Ladybird Johnson. Standing with her husband at the end of the evening while some 100 guests filed by to shake hands, she managed to say something personal to each one. Her husband had the disconcerting habit of winking each time he shook hands, almost as though there was a wired connection between his hand and eye muscles - a typical tic, perhaps, of a consummate politician. After the White House, we performed at New York's Madison Square Garden for Johnson's political campaign, though the French singers would have been had put to distinguish a Republican from a Democrat. Those were heady times: staying at Hiltons, being escorted in limousines, meeting famous people.
We worked hard to make the move from the sound studios to the concert hall. Since we hadn't used any re-recording, our eight singers could give a faithful reproduction of the LP's. Also, we soon found that we had stumbled on to a built-in international audience: Bach's music was known everywhere, and our doo-boo-doo scatting presented no language barrier for either the Japanese or the Argentineans. In concert we dressed in black, with gowns designed by Yves St-Laurent and tuxes by Pierre Balmain. With white lighting, mixed with a bit of rose to highlight skin tones, we sought to make a nice picture that wouldn't distract our listeners from using their ears. For good contact with the audience, we talked about the music, and shifted places occasionally to illustrate Bach's instrumentation. In my arrangements I stayed very close to Bach's own writing, just adding light bass and drums to underline the rhythm.
Swingle-singing is best described as the use of the voice as an instrument in a fusion of jazz and classical styles. In a sense, one leads to the other. Once the singer masters the skips and jumps of the instrumental writing, the jazz feeling follows instinctively, as does the scat-singing. In fact, until I began publishing my arrangements in printed form, I never wrote the scat syllables down. The singers could improvise better scat than I could write. Of course, Bach is the most swinging of all baroque composers: with his music you can shift easily from a baroque to a jazz style by simply altering the rhythmic inflections.The Swingle Singers might never have existed had it not been for two earlier French vocal groups. The great Blossom Dearie, who lived and worked in Paris in the 50s, formed an eight-voice group called the Blue Stars. Their recording of "Lullaby of Birdland" sold well in America. Four of the Blue Stars, including myself, later became Swingle Singers. Everyone who worked with Blossom got an education in jazz vocal style. The Blue Stars, by writing their own arrangements with mostly French lyrics, created an authentic French jazz vocal group sound. Nowadays their recordings are hard to come by, but Blossom herself has become an internationally celebrated jazz singer.
Mimi Perrin joined the Blue Stars after Blossom left the group to return to New York. Also a fine pianist and singer (with a diploma in English from the Sorbonne), Mimi began working in the studios in the late 50s. About that time a recording of a vocal group in the States set the jazz world on its heels: "Sing a song of Basie" by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross took some Count Basie big band arrangements, added their own lyrics, and reproduced the entire Basie sound with just their trio of voices by means of a prodigious use of over-dubbing and re-recording. It was a performance that made a huge step forward for all jazz vocal groups.During that same period a very young Quincy Jones was working for a recording company in Paris as producer and arranger. He had recorded, both in Paris and Stockholm, some lovely compositions and arrangements for big band. When the blue Stars disbanded, Mimi Perrin decided to form a group in the tradition of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross with the aim of vocally reproducing Quincy's music. She formed a group of six singers - including some ex-Blue Stars and future Swingle Singers - and called it the Double-Six, 'six' because there were six singers and 'double' to suggest the over-dubbing.
After some initial work with Quincy, the Double Six embarked on more than a year of rehearsals and recording sessions (at a studio in the home of Notre Dame organist Pierre Cochereau) done mostly at night because we were still earning our living during the day. We often had difficulty locating original scores. With Quincy's album there was no problem because he was in Paris and had the scores with him.But the second album was a mixed bag: we had to locate scores from many different sources. For example, we wanted very much to do the arrangement of "Fascinatin' Rhythm" that Bill Russo had written for the Stan Kenton band. We contacted the Kenton office and were given permission to record the piece, but were told that the original score had been lost. We then spent many hours lifting the arrangement note by note off the LP. This was before the advent of cassettes, so we were obliged to poke the needle down into the same groove again and again, trying to identify a note that the second tenor sax was playing in some soft but crunchy chord. It's a good way to get to know a score. The album of Quincy's music, and the three that followed it, were far ahead of their time. About a generation later a young French public found this treasure in its midst, and in France the Double Six albums became best sellers. The hard work, dedication and professional discipline of Mimi's gang made the formation of the Swingle Singers seem like a breeze.
With the Blue Stars, the Double Six and the Swingle Singers coming along one after the other, many people assumed that there was a school of jazz vocal groups in France. There wasn't, but there was a core of studio singers who wanted to go a bit further, who were willing to work in their free time, and who insisted on getting things right without worrying about quick financial reward.One of the several singers who were members of all three groups was Christiane Legrand. Christiane's father Raymond and uncle Jacques (Hélian) were well-known band leaders in the 40s and 50s; another famous family member is brother Michel. Christiane's voice is unique; it simply commands your attention. With her training in classical piano and feeling for jazz, she was an ideal lead singer for a group like the Swingle Singers. Her solo in the Largo from Bach's "F-Minor Harpsichord Concerto" really defines what the group is about.Jazz vocal groups have always used the voice as an instrument. Back in the 30s, the fabulous Mills Brothers had "Daddy" Mills vocalizing authentic string bass sounds while two of the brothers scatted instrumental riffs behind the third brother's swinging solos - all in a jazz-combo style that still sounds fresh today. Later on, the big band vocal groups were like a section of the orchestra, singing with the kind of tight voicing that one would expect from the brass. My favourite group of that era is the Pied Pipers, whose early line-up included both Jo Stafford and Frank Sinatra.
That kind of group singing requires a straight tone, accurate pitch, vocal flexibility and good mike technique. Beginning shortly after the war there was a chain of vocal groups, each with its own sound and personality, who developed and broadened this style of singing, keeping it alive in spite of the explosion of Rock and Pop music in the 50sand 60s. They were the Four Freshman, the Hi-lo's, Singers Unlimited, Manhattan Transfer, Take Six, Gold Company, New York Voices, The Real Group, Voices Iowa and many more. Pinnacles of instrumental singing were reached by Al Jarreau and Bobby McFerrin, whose vocal gymnastics defy belief. It's interesting to note, however that when pioneers like Jarreau and McFerrin appear, other singers eventually find a way to imitate at least some of the things they do, thus pushing the overall development a bit further.A good part of the next 10 years was spent touring with the Swingle Singers. Between tours we recorded 12 albums, moving chronologically from Bach and Handel to Telemann, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and some early 20th Century Spanish composers. In between, there was a Christmas album and one with the Modern Jazz Quartet. They were all done in our traditional jazz-classic mode: scatting to a light rhythmic background.For several years the rhythmic background was made up of Guy Pedersen on string bass and Daniel Humair on drums. Daniel had two special cymbals made: he called them his Mozart cymbals. They were very small, with frequencies that passed over those of the sopranos, permitting him to wail away at ease. Pierre Fatosme (Christiane's husband) was our sound engineer, record producer and manager. As engineer he performed miracles with three-track board, giving one track to the women, one to the men, one to the instruments, and then finding space somewhere for the solos. Guy and Daniel recorded live with the singers, patiently repeating take after take until we got it right. The retakes did give Daniel time to explore different colours, riffs and fills; he could then invent a much better drum part that I could ever write.
In 1969 we got a telephone call from the New York Philharmonic asking if we could do the premiere of a large work for orchestra and 8 voices written by Luciano Berio. It was called Sinfonia. There was some disagreement in the group about doing this work because we were booked for a well-paid tour in Sweden at the same time; the Philharmonic could only offer us basic expenses. It so happened that a few months earlier I had fallen in love with Berio's music when I heard Cathy Berberian sing Berio's "Circles" in a concert at the Louvre. I threatened to beat the singers over the head if we didn't grab the chance to perform this man's music. Fortunately, the Swedes let us shift dates, and we plunged into the preparation of a very difficult score. The premiere, conducted by Berio himself and recorded live by CBS, was a great success. Sinfonia has since become one of the most often-performed contemporary orchestral works of our time.
By 1984, when I retired from touring, we had performed the piece some two hundred times with most of the world's great orchestras - and the group has performed it quite regularly since. It's a staggeringly beautiful work, and a very important one in the history of 20th Century music. When performing Sinfonia the group is often booked for about a week, including orchestra rehearsals and three or four performances. It makes a pleasant change from regular touring. Flitting around the world might sound romantic, but when you're doing one-night stands, peering out the window of your hotel wondering what country you're in, it becomes a bit drab. You arrive in a town, check in at the hotel, go to the hall, do a rehearsal and sound-check, grab a bite to eat, perform, go to a reception, get back to the hotel, snatch a few hours sleep, then start the same routine the next day. It's not a honeymoon.In 1973, for reasons both personal and professional, plus a feeling of une certaine usure (as we used to say in Alabama), we decided to disband. During those ten years there were very few changes in personnel. In fact, four of the singers were in the group from the beginning to the end. It was probably time to stop, but I think the singers will agree when I say that we produced some fine performances, made some excellent recordings, and - in spite of the ups and downs of touring - had some great times together.'
'When I knew that the French singers were going to disband, I decided to see if I could start a group in England because I had always admired the English choral tradition, and so in the summer of 1973 the Swingle family crossed the Channel and settled into a lovely vicarage in East Sussex. I hoped to form a group that could expand the repertoire to include more classical and avant-garde music.I auditioned a vast number of singers - all classically trained - who impressed me not only by their singing, but by their musicianship, sight-reading ability and knowledge of different styles. For the auditions I had them sing a popular and a classical piece of their own choosing; one of my Bach arrangements (in which the scat syllables were not written down - they had to invent their own); a section of Berio's Sinfonia; some sight-reading material; and the 'finalists' did a mike test. Curiously enough, the singers I eventually chose were often those who did the Bach fugue the best. With that piece I could test several things at once: musical imagination (inventing the scat), vocal agility (important in mike singing) and the ability to make the fugue swing (without rhythmic backing).Once we had the eight singers, we began looking for a name. I had promised the French group I wouldn't use the name Swingle Singers for any group I might form in England. We first tried Swingle II, but dropped it a few years later because people were confusing II with the number eleven, and thought we were a rugby team. After that came the Swingles, then the New Swingle Singers and finally, with the kind consent of the French, we returned to the original, and best, name.In the early seventies there was a lot of labour unrest in England resulting in difficulties getting to London from East Sussex. Although we were only forty miles from St. Paul's, driving through the endless southern London suburbs took forever. The trains were often delayed, or didn't come at all. As a consequence, our recording sessions were often late starting, then hampered further by power cuts. Inevitably, just as we would finish a 'perfect' take of a difficult passage, the lights would dim and the tape machine would grind to a halt, trashing what we had just done.Despite the technical difficulties, we managed to record a collection of Renaissance madrigals, the first of several albums for CBS. In the madrigal arrangements I left the original vocal writing intact, but added the usual bass and drums, plus a synthesiser that imitated Renaissance instruments in a kind of jazzy ground-bass realisation. With a program made up of the madrigals and quite a bit of the French group's repertoire, we started giving a few concerts around England, gradually getting our act together.As we spent more and more time together, I found out how different the English singers are from the French. In France I would often scream and holler at a singer who wasn't getting the notes right. Sometimes there'd be a few tears, but then we'd kiss and make up. In England, you do not lose your cool. The first time I screamed at an English singer, faces went white and there was a stunned silence. I realized that I'd have to curb emotional outbursts if I was to get good results.In our recording sessions, it was evident early on that we would have problems with close-miked singing. Most of the singers had always sung full voice. I was asking them to scale down the vocal production and project the voice directly into the mike without taking anything away from its timbre and personality, i.e. its essence. When I listen to the "Madrigals" album today, I hear some rather wimpy sounds. In fact, it's my own fault. I had been working for so long with people who only sang on mikes, I had never had reason to analyze the technique.The French singers, who like myself were 'instrumentalists who sang', rarely used full voice. When imitating instruments, they focused more on pitch, blend and rhythm than on vocal production. In a sense, they let the voice produce itself. Where they were comfortable using a small voice, the English felt inhibited, letting their good natural sound become diluted. I didn't want the English group to sound like the French, but they did have to learn good mike technique. I hoped that the English singers' lovely classically-trained timbres would still be heard, even when scaled down, making sounds that would fit the madrigals and the other more classical repertoire I hoped to do with them later. This eventually happened, thanks to the good ears and musicality of the English singers.After the "Madrigals" we recorded hits from the 60's and 70's, other Baroque repertoire, some rags and early jazz pieces, a Christmas album and some Double Six-like big band recreations. But in my opinion there are two LP's that stand out. One is a collection of English and French part songs (not at all jazzed up) sung with close mikes (no longer a problem for the singers) in a clear and intimate choral style that brings the words nicely forward. The other is a duo of works written for the group by Luciano Berio: A-Ronne and 'Cries of London.' In A-Ronne Berio has written what he calls a documentary, using a poem of Eduardo Sanguinetti: the singers giggle, cry, shout, whisper and even occasionally sing. "Cries of London" evokes the sounds of vendors touting their wares on the streets of the East End.We've tried a few times to combine works of Berio with our traditional recital repertoire, but it doesn't really work. In the same program, an audience will accept arrangements of Bach, madrigals, folk songs and jazz standards, but is unwilling to extend its eclecticism to include Berio. People sometimes come to a Sinfonia performance expecting to hear something like our 'doo-boo-doo' Bach. They generally look for the nearest exit after the first movement. (Could they possibly have been expecting the Sinfonia from Bach's "Second Harpsichord Partita"?)The English group eventually had a touring schedule like that of the French. We had a rhythm section - bass, drums and keyboards - with a sound engineer using a complex sound system. After a while, I started writing more and more a cappella arrangements for reasons both practical and aesthetic. Moving twelve people and bulky sound equipment around on tour was very expensive. Besides, I like the idea of expanding the use of the voice as an instrument so that the singers could themselves become a self-contained vocal-instrumental ensemble. One of the first arrangements in that vein was of a Renaissance piece called "Pastime with good company": a vocal trio sings the words while the other singes form a little Renaissance band, imitating shaums, recorders and tabors.Once we had enough repertoire, we began doing all of our concerts a cappella. As an arranger I found it more challenging, as did the singers. We could now expand our instrumental imitations to include bass, drums, and keyboards - with the help of an ever-improving sound technology - and go into different periods and styles of music: folk songs, jazz standards, Renaissance pieces and original compositions. The early Bach pieces - which we continued programming because they were fun to do and the audience continued to expect them - proved quite easy to swing without the help of bass and drums.In 1981 we were asked to make a second recording of Berio's Sinfonia , this time under the direction of Pierre Boulez. We recorded it at the IRCAM in Paris, where the sound studio is four floors below street level. There was one incident I'll never forget. Boulez, after a gigantically dissonant orchestral passage in which everyone was playing fortissimo, stopped the orchestra and gently asked the 2nd bassoon player, "In the 9th bar of letter I, shouldn't that be an F-sharp?" Realising his mistake, the bassoon player just looked at Boulez in utter disbelief that he could have heard it. By 1984 I had toured with the group(s) for more than 20 years, written over 200 arrangements and compositions, recorded 24 albums and performed in more than 2000 concerts. It was time for a change. Still, I wanted very much for the group to carry on. We had a fine bunch of singers who were eager to do just that. I found a young singer named Jonathan Rathbone to replace me as second tenor, and made an agreement in which Olive Simpson (1st soprano) and Simon Grant (1st bass) would share responsibilities for the direction of the group. I would be 'Musical Advisor' and receive a commission on the group's fees in exchange for the use of the name.The most satisfying aspect of the whole Swingle Singers experience is the fact that it began as a labour of love. Even had it not been commercially successful, I think that the people who took part would still remember it as a special event in their lives. I like to believe that there was a nice conjuncture of time, place and people that made the original group happen.'
The year 2000 marked the 250th anniversary of the death of Bach and, to celebrate this, the swingle singers commissioned six composers to write Bach-inspired pieces to be performed throughout the world during that anniversary year. Each of these pieces were performed as part of a Bach-centred programme which included old and new arrangements of Bach instrumental music, pieces by his Baroque contemporaries and popular music inspired by Bach. Perhaps the best known of the composers involved in the project is Michael Nyman (b. 1944). He has been Britain's best-selling contemporary composer ever since his composition of the sound track to the film The Piano which has sold nearly three million copies. A fan of the swingle singers since his student days, Nyman's works embrace every style of music with inspiration coming from classics and pop, soap operas and fashion shows! Refusing to be pigeonholed, he writes Hollywood soundtracks alongside his operas and, in between composing concertos, has created music for video games. Other composers included Antony Pitts (b. 1969) who won the Radio Academy BT Award in 1996 for his original radiophonic techniques. Hugh Collins Rice (b. 1962) has won a number of composition prizes including the 1995 Composers' Guild / MCPS prize. Thomas Jennefelt (b. 1954) was born in Sweden, studied at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and is now president of the Society of Swedish composers. Moritz Eggert's (b. 1965) first compositions were for jazz and rock ensembles and he has since composed film and theatre music.Early in the year 2000, A swingle singers mixed media collaboration carried off the prestigious SACEM award for audiovisual musical productions. Jaap Drupsteen's video production of Berio's Sinfonia, conducted by Peter Eötvös and with the Dutch Philharmonic Radio orchestra, was first broadcast by nps television in February 1999. Willem van den Berg collaborated with the swingle singers' John Milner on sound. The video weaves visual fragments around Berio's glittering score. Verona, Italy saw the birth of an astounding new collaboration in August, 2000. The swingle singers shared a unique spectacle with the MOMIX dance company in the beautiful ancient surroundings of the Teatro Romano. Based in the USA and founded and directed by Moses Pendleton, MOMIX specialises in combining athletic gymnastic choreography with simple props and dazzling lighting effects. Each company performed works from their respective repertoires and MOMIX and the swingle singers combined their talents in five numbers as the audience was thrilled by the marriage of stunning visuals and lush sound. At the end of the run of five sold-out shows, both outfits promised each other that this was by no means the last time they would be working together.
Orchestra comprising just strings, extensive percussion and a double bass flute. The group also performed their a cappella show to a sell out audience at La Scala and earned themselves some new fans, judging by the email comments received! the swingle singers recorded a theme tune for a remake of the Television series Randall and Hopkirk starring Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. The theme tune is written and performed by the pop group PULP, with the swingle singers providing the vocal arrangements and backing.2001On 29th January the swingle singers gave a lunchtime concert at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, France. The programme included the premiere of 'Dejeuner sur l'Herbe' by Pascal Zavaro, commisioned by Le Chatelet and dedicated to the swingle singers and Joelle Astier. The concert was attended by the group's founder and musical adviser Ward Swingle, recorded for radio and television and was followed by a glittering reception organised by Intermedes-Concerts and the Theatre du Chatelet.The swingle singers toured the USA for five weeks in February/March. The group performed arrangements of The Ash Grove and I'll Be There for You (the theme from 'Friends') with local choral groups as part of their show. Towards the end of their trip, the swingle singers were the special guests at the ACDA (Association of the Choral Directors of America) conference in San Antonio, Texas, where they gave two performances and made many new friends.
Two years after their triumphant sell-out concerts, the swingle singers have announced a return to Festival Edinburgh this August with two concerts at St John's Princes Street, part of a world tour which this year has taken the popular a cappella group to Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, as well as Russia, the USA and the Far East.
The News you can find at the home page of The Swingle Singers –