Mirren’s early recollections

I first met Sheena at an early music workshop in West Linton, in April 1994. I’d been looking for a choir in Edinburgh where I could sing some early music, and when we got chatting at the workshop I told her this, and she said ‘I’ve just started a choir, and we do some early music’. I immediately remembered that her name had been among several which I’d jotted down from notices in the music library but had never got around to phoning. However, I was a bit nervous about just turning up to the first rehearsal, so Sheena suggested that I come along to hear the choir at its first performance, I think a week or two later, at the open mike night at the Tron. My memory of that night is dim. I think I sat at a separate table, with my back to the singers, watching over my shoulder! The only people I can recall being there are Sheena, Peter, Jenny, probably Teresa, and I think Françoise from the Netherlands. Anthony was probably there too, and there must have been a bass but I can’t think who. I remember them singing A l’entrade del temps clar and the Eriskay Love Lilt (whose harmonies sold the whole choir to me – though they were subsequently changed and I never liked the song quite so much after that!) but sadly have forgotten the third piece. Did it have clapping/drumming in it, or was that A l’entrade? I would have said with some certainty that it was the Southern French Shepherd’s Call, as I have the music for this in my first folder but know I never sang it – but if Sheena says it was never performed then she’s probably right.

At the first rehearsal I attended, we sang Nobilis, Humilis (Hymn to St Magnus), a Tallis piece and I think some other early ones – this first folder (I’ve got them arranged by years – don’t ask me why) also contains Talent m’est pris by John Horton, and the Kyrie which we performed this year. There’s also a lot of African and Gaelic music, including some of Peter’s early arrangements and compositions. Also some of Sheena’s settings of Soutar poems, notably Day is Düne, containing her famous mistranslation of the Scots word ‘pows’ [heads] as ‘cows’ (as in A’ the noddin’ pows are weary – which conjures up such a wonderful image that I always wished it did mean ‘cows’)! Not all of these pieces were performed – don’t recall ever inflicting O Sacrum Convivium on an unsuspecting public, for example! Some other, slightly later pieces from the repertoire which I liked were the round Miserere Nostri Domine (we once opened a concert in Rosslyn Chapel by singing this from the crypt and it was fab!), Up in the Morning EarlyA Song for EnglandSoi kunniaksi Luojan (another Finnish one), and a couple of my all-time favourites, the Pavane and Depairte, depairte. Less appealing were Gloria Ad Modum Tubae and Margot Labourez les Vignes (which went hilariously wrong in a concert in St John’s at the West End).

The first performance I took part in was at the Meadows Festival, on the first weekend in June, 1994. In addition to the personnel listed above, I remember Begoña from Santiago de Compostela, being there – I must have stood next to her as her face springs immediately to mind when I think of that day. On that occasion we sang Sumer is icumen in (optimistically, I felt, for Edinburgh in June!), She moved through the fair and some African songs: MonatengThuma MinaInzima LendlelaHamba Vangeli and Senzenina were early favourites.

After this came the North Fife Family Festival – don’t ask me where this was (other than North Fife, obviously). For this occasion we had to sing exclusively in Gaelic, and managed about eight or ten songs, even though our Gaelic in those days was even ropier than it is now! There was one incredibly long song with lots of words though, a Runrig number which Peter had arranged, which I simply refused to attempt to get my tongue round. It sits there in my folder now, silently chastising me with the knowledge that on the day, I just shut my mouth and sullenly refused to sing when it came to this piece. Peter hasn’t forgotten this either! I do remember lots of children running about, particularly Anthony’s little girl Kirsten, who was a little ginger bundle with a huge nappy-bum and incredibly cute. I also remember Nick the teacher, who gave me a lift home that day.

It must have been before this that the choir acquired its name and thence its Gaelic connections. When I joined, it was an anonymous group, but I remember discussions about a name happening pretty early on. Sheena was keen to call it ‘Caparison’, meaning ‘richly embroidered’. I liked this name as I felt it captured both the musical and the medieval aspects admirably. However, others had doubts (latterly shared by Sheena, I think) that this sounded too much like ‘Comparison’, and as such would seem a puzzling name for a choir. So Peter rose to the challenge to find a name which could never be misspelt or mispronounced and whose meaning was entirely transparent…..!!! [‘Caparison’, so my literary editor informs me, is in fact an embroidered covering for a horse. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary also says that by extension it can also mean a richly embroidered garment or outfit. Still think it was a good name, anyway!]

I’m not sure how I managed not to be in either of the early choir photos Sheena has described. It must just have been bad luck as I was definitely around at those times and remember (most) of the other people she mentions. My own earliest photo is of that carol-singing session at Waverley Station, Christmas 1994. The line-up is: me, Teresa, Kaye, Sheena, Anthony, Paul (joining in, looking over Anthony’s shoulder), Peter, Mike Spring, and Ian, a bass whom Sheena and I had also met in West Linton. Jenny was in the choir at the time but absent for the photo – or perhaps she took it. This was a feature of my photos for ages: she doesn’t actually appear in any of them until 1998 though she was around from the beginning – sorry, Jenny!

I must also mention, in my list of erstwhile singers, the talented and extremely nice Alison Hunter, who sang with us as ‘back-up soprano’ for at least two Christmases – and who in fact appears on the Dies Natalis CD. Sadly, due to having young twins and living out of town somewhere, she continually resisted our attempts to enlist her as a full-time member.

Other past members who appear in the photos or spring to mind are: Sarah, from America, who only came a few times but sang on a very early (and very terrible) demo tape which we recorded in Sheena’s tiny back room in late 94 or 95; Lucy Bateman’s boyfriend Jon who sang bass for a while; Anna Schwinger the German soprano; Lena Björk (no relation!) from Sweden; and another German woman, Andrea, who had a fabulous soprano voice and who was the first person to have the Irish Blessing sung to her – spontaneously and somewhat tearfully – at her last performance with us. This was at Linlithgow Palace in early summer 1996, when Julia saw us perform and was inspired to join.

Good to hear Gerald from New Zealand getting a mention, as he was a stalwart for ages. We had another New Zealander, Marnie, for a while. Oh and I think Isabel may have been Venezuelan but I could have that wrong. Shampa Ray also sang with us for quite a while (with a few breaks for health reasons), certainly throughout 1995. One of my clearest memories of her was of her placing a crib sheet on the floor (on the stage!) to sing Ae Fond Kiss at the Edinburgh Folk Festival in the spring of that year, where incredibly – and despite the patronising intro we received (‘They’ve been practising VERY hard!’) – we were actually the support act for Kate Rusby and Kathryn Roberts. Surely a claim to fame? Kate Rusby had been performing the previous night in Shetland, had travelled overnight on the ferry and was still seasick the next evening. I sympathised wholeheartedly!

I can also shed some light on exactly when the move from Sheena’s house to the Wexlers’ occurred. I remember John & Susan joining in early 1996 as I too sang in the 40-part motet thing and remember rehearsing it with them in Sheena’s back room, although the main rehearsals had overspilled into the front some time previously. Throughout that year there had been some annoyance to Sheena’s neighbours with our singing disturbing their Monday evenings.

In the summer of that year, I decided for a number of reasons to leave Rudsambee and join another choir for the Christmas season – this being in the days when we stopped singing in July, had about six weeks off and then started Christmas music – Frances take note! I couldn’t stay away, though. I rang Sheena about a week before Christmas and asked if Rudsambee was doing any carol-singing. As it happened there was just such a ‘gig’ the following night. By the end of that evening I had rejoined Rudsambee, following a riotous progress which began at Murrayfield Nursing Home with me joining in with carols I hadn’t rehearsed (fortunately, Christmas carols tend to be imprinted on my brain from childhood), and continued via a couple of office parties at hotels in Bruntsfield: the first lot sat po-faced while we sang at them and eventually gave us £30 to go away, but the second lot – who’d clearly made an earlier start at the pub that afternoon – loved us and kept yelling requests. I remember them being especially partial to the On Ilkley moor version of While Shepherds Watched. One of them even tried to book us for another party. How could I stay away?

Anyway, it was during the period of my absence (Aug-Dec 1996) that the move to Morningside took effect. I know this because the next event I attended after the carol-singing was Michael’s 50th birthday party. He’d written a choir poem (this was pre birthday books) in which he mentioned Rufus and Rosie, and I didn’t know who they were. I soon found out!!

The night at Murrayfield Nursing Home was also the occasion of my first meeting with Peter Hawkins, who must also have joined during that period. I could sit here all night and write a 1000-page novel if I were to try and recount all my amusing memories of concerts and associated japes and capers. Actually I wouldn’t mind writing a book about all this some day! There are two stories I feel the world particularly needs to hear, though: one follows below; the other (the infamous and utterly unique Livingston Compose-a-Tune Competition) deserves a fuller treatment at some future date. For now though, here in no particular order are a few other highlights to jog the memory – anyone please feel free to expand on these if they wish.

  1. Performing as the support act for a Gaelic drama group (twice, if I’m not mistaken) who did what I’m sure was a very interesting and worthy play about World War I. Sadly, only the odd place-name was comprehensible.
  2. Peter 2 and Paul having to go and ask a man with a loud electric lawnmower if he wouldn’t mind desisting while we recorded our CD in the church nearby!
  3. [Why the recording of the “Anything at all” cassette did not go as well as we had hoped.]
  4. [Observations on singing in competition.]
  5. Our ill-fated attempts to sing with instrumental accompaniment [Mirren cites two examples, but the Three Ravens moment has pride of place in most of our memories.]
  6. The occasion when we sang for the Franco-Scottish society – can’t remember where – and I had to do all the announcements in French (to be fair, it was my idea). I panicked so much I kept forgetting to sing.
  7. Singing carols at Wiston Lodge for three hours solid in front of a huge open fire which virtually roasted us to death and caused our lovely synthetic choir shirts to melt. Extremes of temperature seem to be a recurring theme!
  8. The fake Hogmanay broadcast on Radio Scotland. It was a very strange experience to record this on about 18th December and then hear ourselves ‘singing live’ as I stood in the street watching fireworks on the 31st. Especially when you consider that we’d had to do ‘the bells’ (party poppers, cheering, ‘Happy New Year!’ etc) twice as it didn’t record properly the first time. Authenticity be damned, eh?
  9. I may have dreamed this, but on one of the occasions when we sang at the Institut Français d’Ecosse in Edinburgh, did we do a song about a strawberry seller and actually distribute strawberries to the audience?? [Yes, Sheena confirms that we did.]
  10. Finally, one of my favourite stories. It doesn’t really count as an early memory but as most people didn’t witness this, I just felt I had to share it.

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