New kids on the block

Cape Town choir takes a multisensory approach to create an immersive musical experience.

There’s a relatively young but extremely precocious kid on the choral block in Cape Town and it’s making bold forays into territories that have been hitherto largely avoided by older choirs. Known as VOX (the Latin word for “voice”) and led by 30-year-old singer-scientist-cum-choir-director John Woodland, the group has committed itself to “taking choral music out of the traditional, conservative concert hall and into the world”.

“After singing in, and directing, the University of Cape Town choir for some years, I joined the St George’s Singers under Dr Barry Smith,” recalls Woodland. “When Barry decided to retire after leading this Cape Town musical institution for 50 years, he asked me if I would be interested in taking his place.”

Woodland thought it might be better to start a new group that built on Smith’s legacy but that “would allow its members to go off in their own directions. If people wanted to stay on the bus, they were more than welcome. The same applied if they wanted to hop off…”

About half, he says, elected to stay. VOX was formed in 2015 with Dr Smith agreeing to remain as the group’s patron.

“This is, in many respects, a passion project for me. There’s a lot of music I want to explore and I’ve been very lucky in having a lot of friends and colleagues who wanted to join me on this new musical journey.”

VOX wanted to ensure that it “wasn’t just another choir in Cape Town, and so decided to adopt a multisensory approach; adding light and visuals to our performances to make them more immersive musical experiences”. Having said that, Woodland adds that while they didn’t want to become a musical variety show, they did want to represent all the major musical styles.

One of the choir’s main aims is to inform its audiences while entertaining them.

An illustration of this (as well as an indication of the unconventional direction in which VOX is seeking to move) was a recent “pairing” of wine and choir music at the Klein Constantia wine estate. “It’s easy to envisage similarity or overlap between various musical styles and different wine cultivars,” maintains Woodland.

VOX Trust The Silences

Wine critics and connoisseurs often talk about “the complex notes” or even “lingering memories” of varietals and the same, he believes, can be said of the individual compositions or bodies of work of composers.

“A complex red blend might call to mind a polyphonic piece of music where you have four or five competing lines, and we all know those glorious moments when the music dies away and seeps into the walls that might be compared with the aftertaste of a glass of wine.”

Another popular VOX innovation has been its annual, self-explanatory “In the Dark” performance at the Youngblood artist hub in central Cape Town, “which is a uni- rather than multisensory experience. There are no distractions and you are forced to give yourself over totally to music.

“It’s just as challenging to the performer as it is to the listener: one can ‘get away’ with quite a lot of things when there is a strong visual element to the performance. In the dark, you are very exposed.”

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