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Celestial Sirens

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Celestial sirens choir

University of Southampton

The Celestial Sirens is an amateur choir based in southern England that has been performing since 2002. The choir was initiated by researcher Laurie Stras and Deborah Roberts. The pair also co-direct the professional ensemble Musica Secreta. Celestial Sirens, both on its own and with Musica Secreta, provide a living lab in which to experiment with repertoire that has not been performed or heard for centuries, helping to bring the fruits of Laurie Stras’s research into sixteenth-century female musicians, to the wider public through concerts and recordings. The project has a number of key aims, including deepening the understanding of how women-only groups can perform polyphony, widening access to and participation in performances of early music, and fostering wellbeing and self-esteem through social singing in a committed and intellectually engaged ensemble.

Outcomes are measured through methods appropriate to the individual project. For example, success in the research stage is demonstrated through the identification of appropriate ways to perform the works under consideration: some work easily, some work with adaptation, some do not work at all. The success of live performances is determined through audience feedback, informally through applause and oral communication, and formally collected by venues and/or promoters through their own mechanisms; direct feedback from promoters, including return invitations; ticket sales; and reviews. The success of recordings can be demonstrated through sales and reviews: for instance, our 2009 disc, Sacred Hearts, Secret Music has sold nearly 6000 physical copies, over ten times the average for a classical recording, and was very favourably reviewed on three continents. Together, we have shown academics, musicians, and the public that women did and still can perform works by Renaissance composers that have, up to now, been regarded as the preserve of male-voice cathedral choirs, or at best mixed-voice ensembles.

The choir is voluntary, and has become self-sustaining in terms of membership. Its constitution fluctuates for any given concert as amateurs are not always available, but there is a core of members who have been with the choir for at least five years, some for over a decade. Members come from many different backgrounds (currently we have teachers, a biochemist, a quantity surveyor, a midwife, a solicitor, a programmer, a publisher) and ages (from 20s to 60s), and inevitably we lose members from time to time due to relocation or retirement. Choir members help with concert publicity – one member designs the posters, all help with distributing them – and the choir has its own Facebook, SoundCloud and YouTube pages.

For a more in-depth look at this case study, click on the headings below.

  • Target audience
    • There are three constituencies addressed by the Celestial Sirens project: the amateur musicians who take part, the professional musicians who benefit from the activities through access to new editions of music and new options for performance practice, and the audiences who attend the performances.

  • Working with volunteers
    • The choir provide a living lab to experiment with music that Prof Laurie Stras has uncovered through hours of archival research. Often the notations she uncovers are incomplete and need further musical interpretation and testing. Whilst this could be achieved theoretically or with music editing software, working with real musicians provides opportunities to develop and refine the music in way that that would not otherwise be possible. As Prof Laurie Stras notes:

      “Until you actually have voices in front of you, you don't really know how it works…”

      The choir bring enthusiasm and passion to the project. They help with organising performances, marketing and managing online media. Research is shared with them as new discoveries are made and this has become an integral part of the project. Over the years they have become a community, and developed ways of meeting up and rehearsing that include the time to get to know each other socially. The choir have also developed a wide range of skills, most notably becoming leaders in their field in performing the music.

      Choir members come from many different backgrounds and ages. Inevitably there is a small turnover of members from time to time due to relocation or changing life circumstances. New members are always welcome, coming through recommendation rather than advertising. There is no limit to numbers, but standards for entry are high: An auditionee will come for a trial concert and directors alongside other choir members will assess the blend, accuracy, and understanding.

  • Public performances
    • The research is interwoven into the public performances in a number of ways. For example, Prof Laurie Stras may tell a story about the background and context to the music. Sometimes the choir perform in habits, or performances are linked with the daily lives of nuns in the 16th century, giving the audience a sense of the rhythm of life.
  • Partnerships, publicity and marketing
    • The project has been put forward for a wide range of awards as a way of gaining wider publicity and recognition including Best Arts and Media Project 2007 (Society for the Study of Early Modern Women) and Choir of the Year 2012. Sacred Hearts, Secret Music was awarded Editor's Choice in Gramophone (November 2009). The track record and reputation of the choir help to open up access to new venues and performance spaces. In the early days of the project Prof Laurie Stras drew on her experiences working with professional ensembles to develop these networks. This previous experience has also helped to negotiate the record deals, rights, and gain the support needed to help promote the project and navigate the complexities of the industry.

  • Evaluation
    • The project drew together a variety of data to inform its evaluation. Record sales were used to better understand reach and economic impact. Prof Laurie Stras collected qualitative data from volunteers in relation the benefits of being involved with the project. Many of the venues where performances take place are publicly funded, and therefore they collect data systematically. Venues and promoters were contacted to provide feedback and data collected from audiences. Working closely with other people on the project enabled self-reflection and iterative development of the project.

  • Key to making it work
    • The project relies on the investment of time, a passion for the topic and the social connections that have been developed over time. A great deal of trust is built up over time between the researcher and the choir and it is a truly collaborative effort, this in turn helps people take ownership of all the work that is required to book events, publicise them and practice for performances.

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