★★★  Inter Act  ★★★
with
David Ogden
David Ogden
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1
Emma:
Conducting is a fairly all-consuming activity - realistically, a mixed blessing at times! Which aspects do you enjoy the most? And is this the job you always saw yourself doing?
David:
At school I conducted a band. Then at university, I first conducted Bristol University Wind Band, which I formed. Additionally, I conducted the University Chamber Choir and University Chamber Orchestra. Having conducted for so long, the aspects I like are mixing the social, the pastoral, the physical, the mental, the organizational and the creative. It's a wider and more organic activity than a single vocal or instrumental route.
Emma:
I love that very aspect too. And I would say that (I may be a bit biased) generally, people who are involved in several aspects of music-making get more out of life...I would even venture to say that it taps into every part of your life.
David:
Yes - and because there's a balance, hopefully you don't get too weighed down in one aspect.

Alongside the obvious responsibilities of facilitating excellent music from and for people at an assigned moment, creative programming is a particular joy. I often think you should not just perform music because it is there. Sacred music is partially steered by church seasons, secular programmes by themes, natural seasons, etc.. For example, for the London 2012 Olympics, we did a programme associated with different parts of London. When the Olympics were in Rio, I chose lots of Latin American music etc.. In May 2023, we had a Euorovision Song Contest, with voting at the end...and included Australia, as they were in Eurovision too.

Also, there are other artistic links - I often use a Bristol calligrapher who takes sections of text that we are singing and builds designs around them. They are normally displayed at the concerts and/or form part of the programmes. A wider aspect is the incorporation of drama...a major piece scheduled for January 2024 is to mark the opening of the Bristol Beacon. It is by Jonathan Dove, called ‘Odyssey’, about the journey of an asylum seeker. I commissioned it about 2017 and it's very much a music drama.

Review of ‘Odyssey’ in ‘The Guardian’
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Emma:
How many choirs do you run currently? Can you give a rough picture of your busy phases in a choral 'term'?
Emma and David
David:
Seven I think...actually 10. Oh - there's another. Probably 11 currently.

These include City of Bristol Choir, Exultate Singers, choirs at Westbury-on-Trym Parish Church, Celestia - a small professional choir, worksplace choirs at Airbus and Arval and I'm head of Bristol Choral Centre directing the Bristol Youth Choirs. With the latter, we've got 120 in that - from 8-18, upper and lower voices and different groups.

With the youth groups that embrace juniors from varied backgrounds, one main target is proficiency of singing, in order that they get a good choral experience. Because that is what it's about.

My schedule is as I want it now - for example, I don't have choir on Monday evenings, Sunday is at church, Saturdays free, apart from workshops...I do have regular rehearsals but it's less manic.
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Emma:
I think your sense of choral blend is stunning. Balance in choirs is such a key to unlocking the preferences of their directors - are you aware of how you maintain such a balanced mix of voices? Or is it instinctive whilst you audition your choristers (adult or junior)?
David:
There are a lot of singers in Bristol. I pick intelligent singers. I need singers who can listen, who have humility, who are humble and sensitive. It's about the ability to look at something and understand what's meant. People who can explore changes fluently. People with flexible brains, from all kinds of backgrounds, who can get on musically as well as socially.
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Emma:
Are all your choirs auditioned or do you have any schemes that are more ‘open policy’ and directed at less experienced singers, in order that they can improve their musicianship?
David:
All the choirs are auditioned, except the workplace ones. I prefer to get to know the person before they're in the choir. If I don't have a suitable space for a singer, I'll suggest other ideas for them. The fit needs to be right for the best musical outcome for everyone.

The junior choirs are very inclusive.
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Emma:
How do you write your music? Does a text inspire you, or a musical idea trigger first? Or do you write in different ways?
David:
I normally write to a deadline and that is always a good thing. Sometimes, I'll be writing two simultaneously. If I need to write a Christmas piece, for example, I'll look for a text and go from there. At Clifton, I wrote a lot of music and I do the same for Westbury-on-Trym. Also I have done lots of recent books for the RSCM.

But a day to just write would be a luxury - with children, the taxi-driver is needed before the composer!
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Emma:
What are your thoughts on faith music in the world now? Do think it has resonance and meaning?
David:
Let's face it, faith is quite a complicated concept. Everyone has different thoughts, reads different papers and books...and so how they approach their sense of the divine or any kind of faith is going to be different.
Emma and David
People can use music in order to help them find a way in or explore understanding what their faith might be. The right music for the right occasion, the right atmosphere, the right venue...they can all help.
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Emma:
Do you have favourite periods of music or works, or is that too large an answer?!
David:
I have spent a long time doing contemporary music - I find it quite immediate and it speaks to people in lots of different genres. Also jazz and things like that. I've commissioned a few pieces from James Macmillan and Roxanna Panufnik, for example.

I also like lots of Romantic music- Elgar, Finzi, Rachmaninov; also Vaughan Williams, Howells, and also Vittoria, Palestrini and Gabrieli, Guami...

We've done lots of concerts with Her Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts.
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Emma:
How did you use your time in 2020?
David:
When you're a freelancer, it's quite hard to have a break - a kind of enforced sabbatical. So that aspect was good. It was intensely frustrating in some ways to have remote vocal sessions but it meant that I could do lots of work - people would send in recordings and my wife and I would mix them together. That was pretty much every week.
Emma:
There were ups and downs for everyone.
David:
Ups and downs.

As well as walks and a little more time, some positives were that I edited a couple of books for the Royal Schools of Church Music; and with the Youth Choir, we developed a system where we had 120 of them on Zoom, in 10 different breakout rooms.
Emma:
Wow.
David:
And we had an article in The Guardian about how we'd done that. Parents also got to hear their child more than when they just drop them off - and singing in those households developed.
Emma:
Yes, I wrote more than I have in years, at that time, and that has continued - so there were strange positives.
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Emma:
What encouragement would you give to singers who may have lost their nerve about singing, during that strange time?
David:
I think joining a choir is good, manageable - a great start. In choosing, perhaps match the demands of any choir to your robustness at the time. Weigh up the pressure of the schedule and the difficulty of the music against where your head is. If you've lost nerve, maybe start back with a slightly easier choral demand than you may have done, for a while. Don't put too much pressure on yourself, obviously, because the voice is the first thing that recognizes stress.
Emma:
Absolutely. The fellowship of being in something is crucial. Get back into doing something, then perhaps see how your concentration and nerve build up.
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Emma:
Do you sing yourself for fun at all?
David:
Not really.

I do the singing exercise with the choir, but not really - I don't have time, sorry.
Emma and David
Emma:
Don't apologize for that!
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Emma:
Have you had any significant moments in life which have musically inspired you?
David:
Yes - I've been inspired mostly by the energy and enthusiasm from concerts - from the audience, the feedback, how people are affected. When I was at Clifton Cathedral, I was impressed by how many different pieces of music affected different people.

One very special memory is when the Cabot Circus Shopping Centre was being built. I was part of a funded project which centred on collecting songs from the workers, who came from 53 different countries.

So I went with my hard hat and yellow jacket; I went up to the builders and asked them to sing me a song from their country. There were people from all sorts of coutries as well as the UK - Africa, Eastern Europe - some of them had been teachers or performers. One Indian guy was actually a singer.

We recorded these songs and then I arranged them for the City of Bristol Choir and we sang them back to the workers. All the choir had hard hats on, standing in the shell of the House of Fraser store and the whole concert was then broadcast around the building site, which was massive.

One of the songs was from a Hungarian lady, who had worked in the canteen; she didn't know anybody and she sang me a lullaby which she sang to her child. She was trying to earn money to send back home...and then we sang it back to her - very simple.

It showed the power of music, if you like, to cross those kinds of continents.
Emma and David
It's so easy to get bogged down in the complicatedness of life. Particularly in programming, simplicity is powerful, alongside elements of light and shade.
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Emma:
In your free time (if you have any) what do you do, to switch off from your busy schedule?
David:
I've been learning Italian for four years.
Emma:
Molto bene!
David:
Ma molto difficile!

I now learn through Parlando Italiano, with a Sicilian man who lives in Seville - previously at the Folk House, then online in 2020. My grand plan is to be an Italian tour guide - hopefully a way to work and get a holiday!
Emma:
....so you're not going to stop working completely, right? That's never going to happen, David, is it, really?
David:
No, but eating nice food and taking an American orchestra round Venice, for example...that seems good.
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Emma:
If you had a magic wand for (1) the world and (2) the world of music, what would wish for?
David:
The demise of music in schools has been a real detriment to society. People are talking about mental health non-stop and they can't see that people's mental health would be improved by music.

I went to state schools all the way through - we did have a lot of music in the school. Now that is quite rare. Teachers who are teaching now won't go into teaching music because they themselves have been denied it.

So if I had a magic wand, I'd make music and the arts core subjects - they are relevant and important.

In one way it is good for our Youth Choir, because lots of children come to it because they don't have music in their school. Even in some of the really big primary schools, there's very little music provision.
Emma:
I know. Straight after university - when I started doing peri work as well as expanding my private practice - I was visiting a whole range of schools, state schools, and it was way before the Gareth Malone days. And I was asked to go into some of these and initiate some sort of choral activity or whatever. And the range of provision even then was very, very variable, going from nothing at all to quite motivated departments, where you had a good musician in charge of it and a school that wanted to help them. But if you just happened to be in the wrong school, then there wasn't. And that was shocking to me. And it's got worse. Yeah, I agree. It's worse now.
David:
I think the problem is that if you don't go to a public school... I mean, that's where there is lots of music provision and they're very lucky. So you'll get choirs in the future which will be full of people who've been to public school. And so they'll be very one-dimensional.
Emma:
Or, I would say, some really good authorities, even with, I think it's Reading, the Berkshire Youth Choir, they've had such a great name for years, and they have a culture of the authority promoting choral and dramatic activity with youth for decades. And that's wonderful. But that's really quite rare in this country.

Just like I was saying to Manvinder about church choirs, the perception is that there's Westminster Abbey down the road in every single part of the country. And no, there isn't. So there's such a lot of work to do and there's such a lot of potential - because everyone's got a voice and everyone's got something, and a niche they can find for that voice, as well. But we don't seem to do that.

So that's your magic wand request. Anything else?
David:
That’s one...and I think the other thing is much more of a wish, and it's partly to do with the media... is that there is such a pigeon-holing of different music, you know, with pop music and then there's folk music and there's classical music and ‘da da da’ etc.. And particularly as you don't get that, for example, in so many European countries. There's much more of a crossover. There's much more of a blend of styles... you know, you go to a concert, whether it's a pop concert or a classical concert..

To give an interesting example, there's a woman who sings in the City Of Bristol Choir and she's very intelligent, a singer and engineer. She came to an Exultate Singers’ concert and that was the first classical concert she'd ever been to. I mean, she's must be about 26, 27. She was singing with us one weekend in Liverpool Cathedral and, when someone asked her, it transpired that she hadn't sung in a church service before. You know, it's amazing how segregated we are.
Emma:
And it makes people fearful, doesn't it, to try stuff. I think they think ‘it's not for me’. It's not a thing. But how great that she's doing it.
Emma and David
David:
Yeah, yeah. But I was quite gobsmacked because, when I offered some free tickets for her and for a friend, she said that her friend had been to lots of concerts but never to a classical concert before. I then thought, we have to get more audiences.

It's fine to have all these choirs, there are choirs coming out of your ears! I mean, we must have 100 choirs in Bristol - every day, it seems that someone sets up a new choir. There must be more than 100. If I've got 10, there must be more than 100! Anyway, we have to create the audience as well. We have to create the listeners.
Emma:
But that's a culture, and that's a bugbear of mine as well. Actually, this is going back quite a long time...the culture of appreciation and listening, in terms of finding value from someone else's input, is not a thing that I think any subject really teaches any more - apart perhaps from when people are in plays and they have to wait for someone's lines, learn lines and do movement around them; so without telling them, they learned that skill, they learned to wait and to listen. But no subject other than that does it. And you're right. As a result, people are incapable of watching and listening and being the receiver, somehow.
David:
Yeah. And I think, when my kids were at school, we had listening time or whatever. So they would play something on a record and they would listen. I remember when we had assemblies with the kids and they would play music as the kids were coming in.
Emma:
Yeah.
David:
You know, quite loud pop music or loud whatever it was - and then tell the kids to be quiet. Which is OK, but it's just background noise. That's it, you know... and everywhere you go, background noise. And so you're not encouraged to listen to it.
Emma:
No, that's very true. Interesting. Any more wishes with your wand?
David:
I think that's enough. That's probably enough.
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Emma:
Any advice for the next generation of composers?
David:
Throughout the ages, a composer has always been a ‘responder’...yes, Bach, for example, had to write things...

I think composers should respond to performers' needs.

Also, I think, perhaps, that younger composers sometimes neglect text...My advice to that generation is to understand that things build over time. Just keep doing your thing and putting your music out there.
Emma:
Yes - the trend I see in students is that they have fabulous skills in marketing and promotion but a little over-expectation in the speed of returns.
David:
Material of lower or higher level still needs skills to create it.
Emma:
And both have audiences. All music has an audience somewhere.
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Emma:
Anything else you'd like to add?
David:
I made a plan to invest in the people around me and I've been surrounded with good people - if you show commitment to those people, then they will show it to you. That's really important, I think, because if people are going to give you their loyalty, you have to create the environment for that loyalty and build it up - it doesn't just come.
Emma:
That's two-way and I'm sure they appreciate completely that you've taken that attitude.
I am so pleased to have been able to share this optimistic interview and am indebted to David for generously giving of his time, so that we could put it together.

You can find more information about David's work here:

David's web site

on Wikipedia

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24th. March, 2024