LGBTQ+ Composers Open Call - Mass for the Masses by Ellie Showering
In partnership with the LGBTQ+ Music Study Group, we are delighted to share 'Mass for the Masses', a new work by Ellie Showering.
Mass for the Masses is a response to the way the queer community, and other marginalised groups, have been sidelined by the Church for centuries. The piece itself is a celebration of identity and solidarity through a queer lens.
It was created earlier this year as part of a nationwide call for new sonic works celebrating queer histories, sounds and stories. Read more about the other works selected here and find out more about Ellie Showering here.
Mass for the Masses by Ellie Showering
Celebration of life redrafted, reshaped.
By design or by chance I am no mistake
The straight and narrow not our path to take
We are awake
We need no keeper at our gate
We are awake
Where piety is hate, take heart
Be still and know that we are love
Love, we are love, we are love
We are love, we are love, we are love, we are love,
We are love, we are love, we are love, we are love
We are lo-ve, we are lo-ve,
we are lo-ve, we are lo-ve
We are love
Performed by Aisha Ali, Helen Cockill, Natalie Farr, Ellie Showering, Verity Standen and Megan Vaughan-Thomas.
Q&A with Ellie and Heather Blair, Creative Project Leader, Sound and Music
Hi Ellie, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself? How did you start to create music and what are your inspirations and influences?
I am a Bristol based singer, performer and composer working primarily in theatre. I was musically active from a very young age, singing at school and in church. I started writing songs around age 9 but it wasn’t until I was at university, and I developed an interest in contemporary a-capella singing, that I started composing for voice and harmony singing. My biggest inspiration and influence has been Verity Standen, a composer and singer whom I met at Dartington College of Arts. We have been working and singing together for over 15 years now and it was her love of a-capella and voice that really got me hooked. Apart from Verity there are so many incredible composers, companies and performers who work/ed using incredible harmonies and intricate melodies: Meredith Monk, Helen Chadwick, Song of the Goat, Caroline Shaw, Benjamin Britten, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Ink Spots, Camille, Bjork, Janelle Monáe, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Fleetwood Mac, En Vogue, Laura Mvula, Mammas and Pappas, Queen, Destiny’s Child, Marika Hackman (to name but a few) – wherever the harmonies and delicious melodies are at, you will find me listening, absorbing, and learning.
We were incredibly compelled by your idea to compose ‘A Mass for the masses’ to comment on the way the Anglican Church has treated and oppressed queer people both historically and contemporaneously. Can you expand a little on what led you to want to explore this idea as part of this commission?
The Anglican Church has recently launched a collection of resources called Living in Love and Faith which aims to open up discussions around identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage from a Christian viewpoint. It has been neatly packaged as something that will provide hope and solace for members of the LGBTQIA+ community who wish to be involved with the church. While this is a step in the right direction I do not believe that it addresses the irrevocable harm that has been done to millions of queer people and the duty of care that has been blatantly ignored by people in pastoral roles and peers alike.
I grew up in the church and knew I was queer when I was 6 years old. I spent most nights as a teenager crying myself to sleep and praying not to be gay. I read and re-read books, bible passages, interpretations, bible notes – anything that might explain why I was queer or how I might reconcile that with my beliefs at the time. I knew what many members of the Church thought about people like me – that we were akin to murderers or that parents would rather have a child who was having pre-marital sex than one who was queer. There was a hierarchy to sin and we were, seemingly, the most sinful. But that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the root of the problem. The Church has been policing the bodies and minds of queer people, people of colour, people of low socio-economic status, women and female presenting people for centuries and no amount of resources is going to change that. The Church needs to address and engage with it’s past before we can all begin to heal.
Also, when I used to go to church the thing I loved most was the music – the melodies, harmonies, the acoustics. But music was also used by some to spiritually manipulate people – make them think they were experiencing the power of God when they were most likely experiencing the power of the music. I knew I wanted to play off of traditional choral styles, salvaging some of that lost beauty for myself, before jumping in to something more energetic and modern and finishing with a short section which has a slightly frantic feeling – a gentle nod towards the manipulation and mis-attribution of power to God rather than the people or their voices. I no longer believe in God and, like many, I am on a journey to unpack and undo the trauma that has be experienced. I wanted to make a piece which allowed us to sing together and celebrate ourselves and who we are, that could enable us to reclaim the celebration of our bodies and voices. We are love and no one should tell you otherwise.
I would like to thank the singers that made this recording possible: Aisha Ali, Helen Cockill, Natalie Farr, Verity Standen and Megan Vaughan-Thomas – a wonderful group of queer folk and allies who really made the piece come to life!
You were commissioned to make this work as part of a specific open call for LGBTQ+ composers and music-creators. Beyond this commission, what role has music played in your own expression of your sexuality and gender identity?
As a composer for theatre I am usually working to a brief with a tight turnaround for producing material (2-3 weeks on average). People tell me what they would like and I go away and write something that they will hopefully think fits the show! Like most entertainment, a lot of mainstream theatre is still rather heteronormative and often centred around cis, straight, white, non disabled, neuro-typical, people from nuclear families and who have traditional views on gender roles. I am aware that this is a broad statement and in no applies to ALL theatre – just a disproportionately high percentage. As a result, with the type of work that I do, I very rarely engage with my queerness directly in my writing (although I did once write some music for a version Hamlet where the role of Hamlet was gender flipped and had a queer love story at it’s centre – that was very cool).
That being said my sexuality and gender identity is always present and definitely has an influence on the lyrics I choose for songs and which parts I give people. I shy away from direct gendered references where I can – using I, we, you, us etc and I will give characters of all genders the opportunity to express emotion. But as openly queer as I am, my queerness remained a passenger of my creativity until I came out as non-binary 2 years ago and tried drag for the first time. Something about that experience unlocked a thirst for expressing all the parts of myself – even the sticky ones I was still working through. People were seeing all aspects of me and my queerness was being celebrated on stage! This encouraged me to apply for a variety of LGBTQIA+ call outs and to start engaging with the difficult feelings I have around using my creativity as a vehicle for my queerness. It has helped me celebrate myself. I see value and worth in my experience, my specific queer lens and the role that music and performance can play in healing and recovery for both listener and composer/performer. There is nothing quite like being seen and heard by others as you want to be seen and heard. It is pure liberation and has the power to help you see and listen to yourself in that way too.
When you’re not composing, you lead Q-Choir, a choir for queer people in Bristol. Can you tell us more about that? How important is it that LGBTQ+ people have solely queer spaces to sing and make noise together?
The Queer Space Bristol Q choir started as a way to get together and sing for fun with other queer people. The idea being that each gathering would be a stand alone session with no advanced learning or regular attendance required and that we would learn a new arrangement of a song by a queer artist or an original composition by me in each session. Q Choir had it’s first outing in 2020 and we were about to do some more when coronavirus hit. We did a little at home recording project during lockdown but have not been able to do any more in person sessions until now. QSB are launching a series of workshops for Autumn/Winter and a monthly Q Choir will be a part of that. I cannot wait!
I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for any oppressed or minority group to have its own space where they can just breathe and be themselves without having to constantly check, edit or adjust their behaviour. From a queer perspective there are many factors that could make a place like Q Choir a real place of freedom and solace. There aren’t that many solely queer spaces any more so this may be the first time in a while, or ever, that they have been in a room exclusively made up of LGBTQIA+ folks. There may be some people who have difficult relationship with their voices, maybe their voices do not reflect how they would like to sound or how they think they should sound. Or maybe they are getting used to their voice changing and sounding more like them, which may change how they sing or could be overwhelming. Our bodies, our voices and our stories have not always been ours to control, and for many they still aren’t, so having ownership and autonomy over our voices, how we use them and who we share them with can be very important and can bring up complex feelings and emotions that you don’t necessarily want to have to experience surrounded by people who may have no idea where you are coming from. And sometimes it’s the simple things like not having anyone question you when you tell them your name or pronouns, not being divided into parts based on your perceived gender, having a unified, shared experience with the people around you – just knowing that you can be completely yourself and let go.
What’s next for you?
I am currently looking into funding options for turning Mass for the Masses into a larger piece. It has really sparked something in me and I am looking forward to writing more music based around the same theme. I am working on a few different theatre projects in the South West and London, including a Christmas show in a cemetery! I will hopefully also be performing as Warren Smellis – Dick Cave’s sidekick – in the Nick Cave drag cover band ‘Dick Cave and the Sad Weeds’ in the coming months. Lots going on!
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to explore this, to write the piece and to share a little about myself!