Queer choral music in the UK today

In partnership with the LGBTQ+ Music Study Group, we invited writers, researchers and thinkers to pitch us editorial on queer music, sounds and the people who make it. The final of these - by Michael Betteridge - is published today.

In 1978 San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus – the first choir with an LGBTQ+ signifier in its name - had only just formed when openly gay politician Harvey Milk was assassinated. Weeks later Tad Dunlap, a founding member of the choir, set a speech of Milk’s to music. His ‘I Understood’ is widely acknowledged to be the first ever gay-specific choral work. The following years saw not only the formation of numerous LGBTQ+, predominantly gay, choirs across the USA, but a significant dedication to the commissioning of new work. Across the 1980s composers such as William Balcolm, John Corigilano, Gian Carlo Menotti, Libby Larsen, and Ned Rorem created new work for many of these newly formed male voice/low voice ensembles. Some of these new works explored themes such as climate change (for example Paul Patterson’s The End), however, given the impact of the HIV pandemic on many of these communities some composers turned to explore this in their music: David Conte’s Invocation and Dance (1986) - adapted from Walt Whitman’s ‘When Lilacs Last at the Dooryard Bloom’d’ - is thought to be the first choral work to explore the virus and how it affected the LGBTQ+ community

Despite living in polarised times, queer choral music is thriving in the UK. In recent years there has been a wider range of work with queer themes emerging from some of the country’s most respected ensembles. Derri Joseph Lewis’ ‘Softly’ – written as part of a fellowship with National Youth Choirs of Great Britain – is a distillation of his experiences of coming out to himself: gently overlapping hums and pianissimo pitched material is punctuated by breath sounds and gasps in an intimate sonic representation of what is a pivotal and often complex time in many LGBTQ+ people’s lives. In Alex Groves’ Stream and Pool, performed by EXAUDI earlier this year, he takes a text by ‘Michael Field’ the pseudonym for lovers Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper who used the false name to pen love letters to one another. In the work Groves uses “lots of watery and natural images as a reflection on the turbulent reality of any relationship. It starts out with abstracted natural elements, gradually growing in detail into a big ocean of sound, before ending in an intimate love song”.

However, whilst seeing LGBTQ+ experiences and stories being brought to life by a range of established professional ensembles is long overdue, it is worth remembering that they are standing on the shoulders of giants. It is the grassroots work of LGBTQ+ led ensembles, professional and for leisure time singers, that have paved the way – both in terms of musical output and visibility of LGBTQ+ people – for those professional ‘non-LGBTQ+’ ensembles. Whilst San Francisco birthed the queer choral movement, London quickly followed in 1983 with the Pink Singers – a mixed voice LGBTQ+ choir – becoming Europe’s first LGBTQ+ choir. Yet, despite a few commissions here and there (for example Earth, Wind and Choir by Richard Thomas was composed for The Pink Singers’ 30th anniversary in 2013) UK LGBTQ+ choirs did not follow the same trajectory as their US siblings in terms of commissioning new work.

This has started to change in recent years. Formed in 2013, London’s The Fourth Choir – an LGBTQ+ choir for advanced singers – places new music at the core of their programming. They have commissioned work from composers such as Alexander Campkin, Stuart Beatch and Clare Wheeler. Some, but not of all of this work, explores LGBTQ+ themes, for example Beatch’s setting of Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ in which a repetition of ‘I am’ is transformed into an empowered phrase: ‘I am enough’. Elsewhere Trans Voice – the UK’s first professional trans choir – also works with new music, but rather than commissioning, the choir co-creates and devise words and music collaboratively and organically as an ensemble through rehearsals. The results are a stunning mix of commanding spoken word, beds of crunchy choral chords, and punchy anthemic melodies.

Many of these grassroots choir were formed for both community building (ie finding your people) and music making. And whilst organisations like The Fourth Choir and Trans Voices do that so successfully for both performers and their wider community (other artists, audiences, etc), many other LGBTQ+ choirs across the UK are entirely open access and unauditioned. Whilst this, of course, provides excellent opportunity to build communities and allow people to engage in music, singing, and culture, in a different way, a different set of creative challenges arise when creating new work in these settings.

Open access/non-auditioning choirs such as South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus (SWGMC) and my own low-voiced LGBTQ+ choir The Sunday Boys follow the traditional model of commissioning, working closely with music creators to develop bespoke work for their singers. Some of these works tackle and explore themes pertinent to their members and community, for example Gareth Churchill’s Grinding for SWGMC humorously explores the strange world of gay dating apps, or Philip Venables’ CAKE (Ubi Caritas) for The Sunday Boys which juxtaposes the words of a Christian baker – who refused to make a cake for a female same sex couple’s wedding – against the hate speech that the wife and wife to be received via social media. Also, for The Sunday Boys, composers such as Anna Appleby and Dominie Hooper have created overtly LGBTQ+ work: Appleby’s 1967 at the Red House (with writer Rachel Mann) explores an imagined conversation between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears on the day the 1967 Sexual Offences Act was announced, whilst Hooper’s Robin, why do you sing? is a queer Christmas carol reflecting on what home may mean to LGBTQ+ people at that, often challenging, time of year. My ‘the sunday boys’ with text by Andrew McMillan is an ode to singing (and The Sunday Boys choir itself) celebrating the bodily experience of singing as queer people. Each one of these works utilises open access low voices in a different and unique way: Appleby’s bold piano accompaniment cleverly supports the shifting harmonies of her vocal writing, whilst Hooper embraces the full range of the ensemble juxtaposing effervescent falsetto with resonant bass voices in widely spaced chords.

Not all of our commissioned work is so direct. Appleby’s Dust is a work that asks us to reflect on our connection to the natural world. Whilst on the surface its queerness may not be apparent, many of our members - as one of their favourite pieces - identify so deeply with it: the connection to the earth and being grounded in one’s body being something important to many. However, from a musical perspective, Appleby’s vocal lines beautifully unfolding from one note revealing close, scrunchy harmony sonically represents a sense of togetherness, of belonging, of being close to one another. One challenge for artists we commission is for them to create work that speaks to our members, embraces our sound and capabilities as an open access group, but also allows the artist to explore their queer identity and musical desires. Dust may not immediately read as queer but for those singers who have brought the piece to life it has a queer immediacy and sensibility that is hard to put into words.

Ellie Showering’s flourishing Queer Space Bristol began its life, as so many of these choirs do, as bunch of queer friends wanting to make music together. And whilst Showering’s rehearsals may seem like any other open-access community choir there are lots of subtle, but important aspects of the way they set up their rehearsal space. For example anyone in the choir can sing any voice part in whatever octaves fits for them, acknowledging that if people are transitioning their voice might be changing from workshop to workshop or they simply might want to experiment with different vocal ranges. Equally Queer Choir runs in an occasional workshop set-up rather than weekly rehearsals, allowing for participants and singers to have flexibility about their engagement.

Perhaps most importantly, Showering ensures that the songs the group sing avoid gender binaries:

“I predominantly work in theatre and in the theatre world a lot of things are highly gendered. So, if you have a love song and there’s a romance going on, everything is very “I love him” or “I love her”, and one of the things that I actively aim to do now when writing music is try and take the gender out of it. I’m always trying to make sure that the music that I write - unless it's specifically has to be - is free from that kind of language. And that instantly just removes one further barrier. It's not a huge barrier for everyone, but it can distract from the joy that you are having in, in singing with other people. Stealth gender removal!”

Regardless of the great work that is being undertaken to promote a wider range of LGBTQ+ voices and lived experiences in the choral world, choirs – and many of the practices and expectations that go along with them – are not entirely comfortable or safe spaces for all LGBTQ+ voices, even choirs exclusively or predominantly for these communities. Even if some members of the LGBTQ+ community do feel safe and/or welcome in these more generalised LGBTQ+ choral spaces, it is a broad community with different experiences, and is not always the best space to truly ‘find your people’.

During the pandemic Mike Pony – director of Manchester’s Submerge Festival – commissioned Belgian artist Gærald to co-create new work with trans, non-binary, and queer young participants as part of their Hot Bodies Choir project:

“What struck me most about our online project was that many of our trans and non-binary participants shared stories of feeling unwelcome in LGBTQ+ choirs due to the changing natures of their voices. By offering a space that not only welcomed but actively celebrated unpredictable and changing voices the Manchester Hot Bodies Choir created a truly inclusive, warm, and joyful space.”

The changing trans voice is being explored by many exciting British music creators at present. For example, Scottish composer Rylan Gleave is exploring the instrumental qualities of his late breaking trans-masc voice in much of his evocative vocal writing. Yet, open access spaces in which trans and non-binary people can explore the sonic possibilities of their voices beyond the traditional cisgender perspective are probably too few. Co-creative settings, in which the hierarchies of ‘the artist’ and ‘the participant’ are blurred, add further opportunity to not just explore the capabilities of the voice, but also share experiences and create music from a range of outlooks. Pony explains it from their perspective when working with Hot Bodies and Gærald:

“Deliberate questioning and dismantling of hierarchies and the preferencing of truly collaborative processes ultimately created exciting new music that wasn’t bound by the usual rules.”

These breaking down of hierarchies are seen in other new queer vocal ensembles. Jenny Moore’s F*choir has a manifesto that not only celebrates singing together as a feminist practice but believes that all queer voices should be heard. The results are energised, powerful, and refreshing musical interventions that challenge traditional notions of choral singing.

The future of queer choral music in the UK is bright and becoming increasingly varied. From traditional notated commissions to co-created work for changing voices, there is a wide range of choral music – and practices – that not only allow for a stimulating range of new repertoire, but also celebrates the huge diversity of LGBTQ+ experiences. My hope as a music creator and choral conductor moving forward is that the wider ‘non-LGBTQ+’ sector can learn from artists who are challenging preconceived ways of working in order to embrace a wider range of experiences. Not only does that support our sector to be truly inclusive, but also unleash the creative potential of our community.  Mike Pony sums this up beautifully and succinctly:

“When you rebuild processes from a desire for parity, magic can happen!”

Described as ‘inventive’ (The Financial Times) and ‘bold’ and ‘colourful’ (The Times) Michael Betteridge is a composer with an eclectic output creating work that challenges and inspires audiences and performers alike. Predominantly working with voice in its many forms he has created work for the likes of Alþýðuóperan (Folk Opera Iceland), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Cheltenham Music Festival, Den Jyske Opera, London Symphony Orchestra, Nicola Benedetti, Opera North, Psappha, and Welsh National Opera. His music has also featured on BBC Radio 3 and 4. He is artistic director of Manchester’s open access low voiced LGBTQ+ choir The Sunday Boys.