On Tuesday 28th May 2019, Sandra Oberoi and her Harmony Chorus from Bangalore visited the Music Department of the University of York (UK) for an open-day. Below is a description of what proved to be an exciting and engaging event!
To start the day, the choir were introduced to the activities of the Music Department by Dr Áine Sheil – interim Head of Department. As I listened to Dr Sheil’s presentation I realised how diverse and vibrant York’s Music Department is. Dr Sheil described regular performances by the University’s Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Dr John Stringer, performances by the Gamelan ensemble, early music performances from the Renaissance and Baroque eras led by Professor Peter Seymour and Robert Hollingworth, electronic music performances by Ben Eyes and Dr Jez Wells, performances from around the world including Indian classical music performed by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan (also an honorary graduate of the University of York), and performances of compositions by members of staff such as Dr Thomas Simaku as well as undergraduate and postgraduate students.
In addition, Dr Sheil described the exciting academic research specialisms of the Department including music analysis by Professor Tim Howell, the political significance of jazz and popular music in South Africa by Dr Jonathan Eato, the MA piano pathway led by Dr Mark Hutchinson, and music technology by Dr Jez Wells. There is also an increasing focus in the Department on music education and health and well-being in diverse contexts through members of staff such as Dr Liz Haddon, community music projects that aim to foster connections with communities in and around York through Bruce Cole, and music psychology through Dr Hauke Egermann. As I looked around the room, it was clear how engaged and interested the choir were in hearing about the diverse ways in which music can be studied such that, when asked by Dr Sheil if they would like to study music, members of the choir responded with a resounding ‘yes!’.
The choir were then taken on a tour of the Department whilst Sandra Oberoi had a discussion with Dr Liz Haddon about music education, vocal training, and postgraduate research opportunities in the Department. Highlights of the tour included a visit to the gamelan room. York was the first music department in the UK to acquire a gamelan as a result of the interest of renowned ethnomusicologist Dr Neil Sorrell. Dr Sorrell also has strong links with India and studied sarangi with Pandit Ram Narayan with whom he co-authored the book Indian Music in Performance: a practical introduction (1980). Dr Sorrell is an influential figure in the study of Indian classical music and received the 1999 Hafiz Ali Khan Award, an international award presented by the Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan Memorial Trust, India, in recognition of contributions to Indian classical music.
Dr Sheil also noted the traditional Chinese instruments housed in the Music Department and the large community of Chinese students who regularly give performances of Chinese music, reflecting the Department’s diverse interests in musical traditions from around the world.
The tour then headed to the parts of the Department focused on music production and electronic music, soon to be enhanced by a new staff member whose research specialism explores the relationship between artificial intelligence and music. Ben Eyes – the Department’s music engineer and production specialist – showed the choir the Rymer Auditorium which houses high-tech speakers, projectors and recording equipment along with an acoustic suited to the performance of electronic music. As he spoke I recalled a live coding performance – the use of computer programmes to generate musical performances live – that worked very effectively in this space.
Ben Eyes then took the choir to the Department’s music studios where they were introduced to specialist equipment and the courses on offer for students interested in recording technology.
Following this came the highlight of the day for Music Department staff. Harmony Chorus performed in the wonderful setting of the Department’s Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall – a large space with a beautiful acoustic in which internationally renowned musicians such as the pianist Stephen Hough and the countertenor Robin Blaze have performed – the latter’s performance was broadcast for BBC Radio 3. Harmony Chorus treated the audience to an extraordinarily diverse programme that ranged from Western choral music to gospel, Bollywood and Indian folk music, performed from memory with an energy that engaged every member of the audience. What was really great was the sense of ensemble the choir exhibited. Not only were they beautifully in tune but they performed with such synchronicity that their voices seemed to blend into an organic whole.
After the performance, Dr Thomas Simaku – a composition lecturer – exclaimed ‘They are fabulous!’. Sandra Oberoi has done an exceptional job developing this choir. Having worked at Harmony Music School, I have been witness to the dedication and effort she has consistently put into music education and the fruits of her labour were clear to all.
Following lunch at the University of York’s Vanbrugh College, we returned to the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall for a lunchtime concert performed by undergraduate and postgraduate students. The choir were treated to the music of John Dowland amongst other Renaissance composers performed by singers accompanied by archlute, harpsichord, period violins, violas, cellos and percussion instruments – a fitting end to an extremely stimulating and diverse day.
This was a wonderful event that highlighted the importance of the transnational and transcultural exchange of music and ideas. If this open-day is anything to go by, there is potential for further exchange between UK universities and Indian-based musicians, ensembles and music schools. Such events resonate with the long history of musical encounters that have shaped and continue to shape Western and Indian musical traditions. The University of York’s Music Department looks forward to hosting more events of this nature and fostering collaborative projects with Indian musicians, ensembles and music schools.
If you are interested in following the activities of Harmony Chorus and Harmony Music School see https://harmonybangalore.com/.
If you are interested in studying Music at the University of York, contact Dr Áine Sheil at [email protected] or Dr Liz Haddon at [email protected] and explore the courses on offer and staff biographies at https://www.york.ac.uk/music/.
If you and your ensemble are interested in visiting the Music Department, don’t hesitate to get in touch!