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A Day In The Life Of: A Conductor - David Temple

2 October 2014 | Natasha Sutton-Williams

"I hope in the course of my lifetime I’ll have helped create four or five pieces of music that will enter the public domain."

David Temple is the self-taught musical director and conductor of Crouch End Festival Chorus and Hertfordshire Chorus. With these choirs he’s headed performances at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, Glastonbury with Ray Davies of The Kinks, and performed with Noel Gallagher and Andrea Bocelli on tour. David and the choirs have recorded the soundtracks for Dr. Who and various blockbuster movies at Abbey Road Studios and Air Studios.

London Calling: What is your relationship to sound and why have you dedicated your life to the creation of it?

David Temple: One of the great privileges of being a conductor is that you get to use this huge mixing desk called an orchestra and a choir and you can play with it like a toy. You can actually create beauty out of chaos. The most exciting rehearsals for me are the ones where we start at the beginning of the evening and nobody has a clue what’s going on, and I have to pick the whole thing apart and reconstruct it. By the end of the evening it makes sense. That’s the ultimate satisfaction of my job. 

LC: What is so important about the human singing voice?

DT: It’s the most beautiful and sincere form of human expression.

LC: What’s the perfect choral sound?

DT: It’s something which moves you from normal human reactions, something which makes you sit up, something which makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The idea of lots of ordinary people (and I include myself) making the most extraordinary music is a miracle. If an alien came from outer space and you had to describe what a choir sounds like, you wouldn’t be able to. It’s a sound all of its own.

LC: What are the differences between conducting an orchestra and conducting a choir?

DT: Orchestras don’t like you to talk very much. They prefer to absorb your interpretation via your gestures. Choirs like the conductor to talk about the music, the ideas behind the music. Choirs take on gestures to a degree, but it’s much more to do with their human involvement. With orchestras it’s almost telepathic: you do a movement and they play their instrument as their response.

LC: When you’re discussing what you want from the choir, you use a lot of vivid imagery. Do you think of music in terms of imagery?

DT: Sometimes I have images of the musical piece itself, and they’re very strong. Other times I’ll just think up an image on the spot to try and get the sound I want, which may not have anything to do with the music at all; it’s just a tool. Occasionally it falls flat on the floor and doesn’t work; sometimes it works like a dream. I enjoy improvising because you have to be flexible, you don’t know what sound the choir is going to make until they make it, and if it’s not the sound you want, you have to find ways of changing it. My favourite way is to use imagery rather than describing technical stuff about the voice. I achieve everything I want without blinding people with science.

LC: How do you prepare a piece of choral music?

DT: Most choral pieces are based on a text. You have to look at that first, then look at the music the composer’s written to go with that text. I listen to as many different recordings of the music as I can, so that I don’t take on a particular conductor’s interpretation. Then I go through the process of marking up the score. I use coloured pencils so on every page I know exactly where the choir is, where the flute is, where the oboe is etc. I know each new orchestral entry. I mark in the choir’s breath marks and phrase marks. It’s like studying a map, then going in the car and remembering how it goes. You also have to learn the actual choreography of the music: the different beating patterns you’ve got to do, whether you’re in two or in four, all that technical stuff. I have to make sure I have very clear ideas about the music, on a superficial as well as a profound level. 

LC: Where’s the most unusual place the choir have performed?

DT: We sang at the opening of a bus shelter in Wood Green twenty years ago. But I hate conducting outdoors. The human voice needs a medium; it needs an acoustic. If you’re outdoors, it dies.

LC: You’ve been very active in commissioning new choral works by both established and emerging composers. Why is that important to you?

DT: It’s fun, it’s risky, it’s adventurous. It stretches the choir: it’s new music, new reading. And it’s great for extending the repertoire of the choral world. I have this hope that one day by commissioning something, I’ll uncover a work of genius. Somebody commissioned ‘The Rite of Spring’. Somebody commissioned ‘Peter Grimes’. I hope in the course of my lifetime I’ll have helped create four or five pieces of music that will enter the public domain.

Crouch End Festival Chorus will perform McCarthy’s ‘Malala’ and Tippett’s ‘A Child of Our Time’ at the Barbican on 28th October. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.

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