Post written by: Erin Walcon
On Friday 29 March, I joined a joyful swarm other local people at The Lucky 7 Club in Paignton to honour the ‘leaving day’ of Brexit. (We didn’t leave the EU that night, of course – those shenanigans continue to unfold.)
We had all assembled for a very special event – the final performance of the Choral Engineers: a community choir like no other. The Choral Engineers were started 4 years ago by Hugh Nankivell and Steve Sowden, and their experimental antics have entertained, perplexed, excited and inspired us in Torbay ever since.
But all good things must come to an end eventually, and the 29th of March (Brexit leave day) seemed a fitting ending point, as the choir’s most recent project has been a non-partisan Triptych about Brexit.
(Listen here to a podcast where Hugh and Steve talk about their second Brexit piece Dancing on Eggshells. Really, do it – it’s a lovely listen and you’ll be glad you did.)
Glad Friday was the final of their 3 performances following the treacherous winding route of the Brexit journey. As usual, the choir were joined by players from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, as well as some other gob-stoppingly good musicians assembled by Hugh and Steve (sometimes called HandS) to play out this final ritual.
In their own words, Hugh and Steve said, ‘For reasons personal, political, artistic, economic and moral – HandS withdrew their artistic stewardship of the Choral Engineers at 11pm on Friday 29th March. The choir was presented with a transition agreement to help smooth the path ahead, as they move into a future of collective responsibility, democratic accountability and creative autonomy.’
There is an difficult truth about community-engaged arts practice – that there are many models of projects which run short-term, and then rapidly evaporate again, as soon as the funding ends. And I spend much of my professional life wondering about the complex ethics of this. I’ve managed to come to a sort-of peace in my mind with the idea that short-term projects can have integrity as long as they can signpost participants to longer-term opportunities which are sticky, reliable, consistent and immediate.
The four-year life of this choir is a rare exception to this rule. Their complex and beautiful ending ritual enacted on Friday night is another rareity.
Watching the Choral Engineers in their final foray into the harmonic wilds of musical experimentation on Friday night, I was struck by a few things:
A) This is a project which breathes integrity at a whole different level.
B) This is a project which has lasted long beyond its original funding, or even beyond any follow-on funding, largely through goodwill and a sense of loyalty and commitment to the people, to the idea, and to the possibilities of what they could make.
C) This is art. This is a community choir pushing the boundaries of what ‘community arts’ can look and sound like.
D) This is a community.
This last one struck me as I found myself swaying along, singing boisterously to the last song of the evening, along with everyone else at the Lucky 7 Club. The lyrics we were all joining in a rousing and joyful chorus were ”Every breath takes us closer to death. No matter what we do…’
Again, not your usual community choir.
We’d been there for nearly 3 hours and no one wanted it to end.
The performance took place in two parts: the first titled Glad and the second half titled Friday.
Glad was new material – the choir playfully exploring their impending ‘transition’ as they prepared to transform into Dragonflies and depart this world into the ether. Of course, every time the word ‘transition’ was mentioned, we all chuckled ruefully, as the double-meaning of the Brexit transition looming gave it layers of possible meaning. The songs were interspersed with documentary-style film clips created by Steve Sowden – interviews with choir members which explored their opinions on Oliver Heaviside, angels, communicating with the afterlife, and their thoughts on their upcoming transformation. At the end of Glad, all members of the Choral Engineers took flight as Dragonflies, and their metamorphosis from Choral Engineer into another creature was complete.
After the the interval where we were invited to purchase merchandise from the choir’s various antics, we all sat down again to sing along to the Choral Engineer’s ‘greatest hits’ during the Friday section of the evening, finishing it all off with a rousing chorus of ‘Every Breath Takes Us Closer to Death’.
I left the evening and walked home through the (relatively quiet) streets of Paignton town, thinking about community.
I moved to Torbay in 2008, so I’ve been here over 10 years now. In that time, Torbay’s cultural and artistic scene has undergone a transformation of its own.
I’ve never been a member of the Choral Engineers (more of a super-fan kind of groupie) and yet I feel part of a community which has been carved and created by their presence.
Watching them transform into Dragonflies at the end of their Choral Engineer journey, crying unashamedly at various points in the evening, I felt part of a buzzy and ambitious cultural scene. This is due in no small part to the tireless work of Sarah and Mark Bell and Lisa and Willy Briggs, who have created The Lucky 7 Club: a warm, inclusive, risk-friendly space which welcomes artistic invention. Torbay badly needed this venue, and it is buzzing. Their ambition and vision is creating a culture change in how people perceive Paignton… in the quality of acts which are touring to Paignton. I am deeply grateful for their energy and vision and skill in making it happen in spite of the odds. They are game-changers and we are lucky to have them.
There is still so much work that needs doing here. Walking home through the darkened streets of Paignton on Friday evening, I was powerfully reminded of this – of the levels of complex socio-economic deprivation which surround us here, in the lack of provision or support structures for local people who live right at the edges, in terms of their income, in terms of their mental health, in terms of substance abuse or neglect or hope.
And yes, of course, every breath takes us closer to death, no matter what we do.
And yes, of course, our time here is short.
And of course endings are a real part of it all. All things must end. Whether they be anarchic community choirs, or our own lives, or a beautiful song on its final chorus.
I guess I feel grateful that I get to spend my short and precious time working here, alongside these wild and wonderful people, the ones who run projects for longer than anyone thought they would or should or could and the ones who start up unlikely quirky venues in impossible secret locations and make them thrive.
I want to continue to throw my lot and energy into the unlikely artistic experimentation that takes place in the quiet darkness of Paignton – and may the dragonfly souls of the Choral Engineers flutter over and around us for a long time to come.
All good things come to an end and give birth and space to new things – and I’m excited to see what artistic inventions will grow and emerge from the rich soil of this work… and I feel privileged to be part of this community of experimenters, continuers, ritual-makers and starters of unexpected things.
Thank you all.