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Celestial Sirens – what happened next?

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Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter CD Cover

Celestial Sirens was an NCCPE Engage Competition award winner in 2014, winning the Individual-led Projects category. Laurie Stras, Professor of Music at the University of Southampton, gives an update on the exciting progress her project has made.

The second week of June 2014 was a bit a whirlwind for me, because I had two wonderful bits of news: winning the Individual-led category of the Engage Awards, and receiving confirmation of my promotion to Professor.  I’d like to think the two things are part of the same story, as the work we did to make Southampton an early adopter of the Manifesto for Public Engagement certainly made it possible for me to argue for the value of public engagement as part of what research-active staff can consider core activities of their jobs.

I feel extremely lucky that I can engage in my two passions – music and history – as part of my job.  I also love that I am able to use my research as a reason to spend time with other people – in fact, they are indispensable to the process. I’ve been calling my fabulous choir Celestial Sirens my “lab rats” for ages (they know, and they think it’s funny!).  They, and my professional ensemble Musica Secreta, have enabled me to work practically with the music of the sixteenth century, helping me understand how nuns’ choirs might have sounded in the Renaissance.  They have followed me faithfully, some for nearly fifteen years, often wearing “habits” (well, abayas and hijab that make them look like Renaissance nuns), through muddy festival fields and in freezing churches, bringing this astonishing music to audiences – who end up pretty astonished themselves.

Mysterious motets, and a new recording project

I would never say that I went into the competition for the money – in fact the £1,000 prize was almost a complete surprise, but the funds were crucial to what came next for the choir and me.  I had been wanting for some time to record again with the choir, and I also knew exactly the repertoire it should be, but it was an ambitious project that needed a lot of preparation and rehearsal time – and that, of course, costs money.

The big idea was to record a book of motets, published anonymously in 1543, that I believe was at least partially composed by Suor Leonora d’Este, a princess nun, the daughter of Lucrezia Borgia and Duke Alfonso I of Ferrara.  We’d been singing some of these works already – I started transcribing them as far back as 2009.  In fact, the video played at the 2014 Engage Awards ceremony featured one of the pieces. But there were twenty-three pieces in the book, and most of them were, well, odd – subtly different to the Renaissance repertoire we were used to. Many of them needed a lot of preparation and thought before they could be performed, and even once they were in relatively good shape, singing them was a whole new ball game, even for very experienced singers. 

Step by step  

I decided that we needed some serious R&D time, so we used the prize money as part-matched funding towards an Arts Council England application, which we were awarded in May 2015.  The grant bought me time with our professional singers, two of whom are experienced editors, to work through the pieces and wrestle with their idiosyncrasies.  We chose to do this over two concentrated periods, at rehearsal facilities where we could also stay, living together like a nuns’ community.  We then brought the prepared scores to rehearse with Celestial Sirens, and held workshops with the female members of the Brighton Festival Youth Choir – this all culminated in a concert at the Brighton Early Music Festival in October 2015.Musica Secreta

Expanding the funding base

Immediately after the concert, we launched a crowdfunding campaign to help us towards the recording costs: over the six weeks, we managed to raise £4150, which was brilliant, considering it was also the Christmas season!  On the back of this, we were also able to apply for a grant from the Ambache Charitable Trust, which funds projects promoting music by female composers.  This, along with our previous CD sales and a bit more private funding, allowed us to go ahead and schedule the recording for August 2016. And to make it all complete, the project was taken up by Obsidian Records, a label that specialises in Renaissance music – and is run by a woman (we like this).

Recording at a convent

In the third week of August, Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens – twenty-eight musicians in all – met up at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, a Church of England seminary and home to the Cuddesdon Sisters.  Over the week, we spent our days recording in the nuns’ extraordinary worship space, the Bishop Edward King chapel, and our evenings relaxing in the mid-summer warmth. We took our meals with the sisters, and had plenty of time for contemplation and companionship.  Some of the Sirens were women who had sung with us in years past, but had found it difficult to commit recently – so there were many happy reunions!  The choir ranged in age from 18 to over-65s, just as a convent choir would have done. Everything about the week was magical, from the friendship to the amazing, reverberant sound of the chapel, the astonishing music, and the glorious singing. We made a short film that I hope captures some of the wonderful atmosphere.

Spreading the word, and more success

In November, I was honoured to go to Vancouver to accept the recording’s first award (even before release!): the 2016 Noah Greenberg Award from the American Musicological Society, which is given as grant-in-aid to outstanding projects bringing together performers and musicologists.  It is a fantastic accolade for my singers, and – even better – it meant I could pay the professionals, too!  Good news seems to have travelled, and I was invited to be the guest for Composer of the Week on Radio 3, talking with presenter Donald Macleod over five programmes about my research (March 2017).  The new CD is the central feature of the episode coinciding with International Women’s Day, 8 March – Suor Leonora is, after all, the newest Renaissance female composer on the block!

The benefits of the project

We’re hoping that this exposure will lead to more opportunities to perform and record with the ensemble and the choir. But one of the most important outcomes of the project has been what it’s meant to those who have taken part. I mounted a quick survey for my participants after the recording, and I was bowled over by the responses:

  • “This has been such a worthwhile project - not just for the academic research, but for the music to be actually heard for the first time in so many years.  It is unique, and deserves a wider platform.  It has touched my life and will do the same for many.”
  • “I hope that it will broaden their horizons by introducing them to a long forgotten history of women's music.”
  • “The music is incredibly moving. It has a power which captivates all who listen to it. How incredible to discover this new music by a female composer, questioning a lot about the music at the time. It's all very exciting!”
  • “Singing with such strong women has allowed me to feel part of a community which has in turn allowed me to start to accept myself. It's such a special group in which every new member is equally as lovely as the ones who have been involved for years and so it's a safe environment where you can experiment with your voice and know you won't be negatively judged. Such a wonderful feeling.”

...and a special thanks to the NCCPE

I am certain that the support and encouragement that I received from the NCCPE, particularly from Paul Manners and Sophie Duncan, gave me the confidence I needed to allow myself the time for public engagement.  While I wondered about the justice of winning the “Individual-led” category when everything I do involves so many fabulous women who give me so much, my research team is not embedded in my institution – so I needed all the help I could get from the wider academic community.  Thanks to everyone at the NCCPE for cheering me on!  And here’s to the future with my lovely singing “nuns”!

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