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European Youth Choir Festival

“The audience should bathe in a cloud of sound”

“The audience should bathe in a cloud of sound”
The director of the European Youth Choir Festival, Kathrin Renggli, and the Basel composer Balz Aliesch.
Photo: Giorgio Tebaldi
Interview by Giorgio Tebaldi
From 17 to 21 May 2023, the European Youth Choir Festival will take place in Basel. On the opening day, around 1,000 young people from 13 countries are taking part in a live performance of the soundtrack to the short film “Circuit” by director Delia Hess. In an interview, composer Balz Aliesch and festival director Kathrin Renggli told us about the creation process as well as the challenges regarding composition and performance.

The animated film “Circuit” by Delia Hess dates back to 2018. How did the idea for a new tone setting come about?

Kathrin Renggli: In the beginning, there was the idea that we open the festival in the St. Jakobshalle with all singers. To perform something that everyone can do together. We decided to do this against the setting of a film. There were a few conditions that had to be met: The film had to be five to ten minutes long at the most, and there could be no spoken words in it. In addition, the film had to have a general message that no one would be offended by and that could be subscribed to by the many different choirs from various countries. It also had to be suitable for all ages, which was anything but easy: The 10-year-olds should be able to relate to it just as much as the 25-year-olds. It ultimately had to be in colour and emotional, encouraging people to let off steam in their composing activities and to create different moods.

The starting point for this performance is very special. On the one hand, the work will be performed live, and on the other hand, the piece will be performed by 1,000 young people from 13 countries, most of whom will be meeting one another in Basel for the first time. Did this play a role in composing?

Balz Aliesch: Yes, definitely. We knew from the start that it couldn’t be too difficult. The motifs had to be simple, recurring. That’s why we created 25 musical ideas, as we referred to them. They are, so to speak, the building blocks, that are used again and again. So it was not an option to create a piece that was progressing and constantly changing; instead, the same elements occur repeatedly. This was also a result from the film itself: In it, certain elements also occur repeatedly, just like in a cycle. Some of these ideas have a musical nature, with a four-part instrumentation. Others are sounds from nature, for example a crow or the sound of a fish jumping into the water. Some of them are very short ideas, and some of them are 20 bars long.
Kathrin Renggli: Especially in this context, we had some discussions and had to find each other. Balz, of course, always thought musically and made certain passages too complex. I then called him each time and told him he needed to make it simpler. While I always had the implementation and the choir director’s point of view in mind, Balz’s focus was on the music.
Balz Aliesch: I have sung a lot in choirs myself, for example in the Knabenkantorei Basel, and I still sing in a male choir and a cappella. So I have a lot to do with the voice. However, I have never written for such a large line-up. Kathrin has great experience with choirs and provided important inputs, for example which division makes sense or what suits which target group. I was the composer, but Kathrin was always also part of the writing team as a “musical advisor” and very close to the creation of the composition.
Kathrin Renggli: I would never have implemented this project with someone who didn’t have experience with choirs. Many film score composers are active in the instrumental field. The fact that Balz can do both was a stroke of luck for me. Balz also recorded certain sounds in preparation because you can’t write them down in a notation.
Balz Aliesch: Exactly. In each case, I tried to describe these sounds as text in the instructions. I then realised that I needed to send along a sound file so that it would be clear to the choir conductors and the choirs what was meant. For example, how the bicycle chain sounds in the movie. I then recorded the sounds in a program synchronized to the film with my voice and sent it to the choir directors. Anyway, I recorded and sang all the parts first myself, and then wrote the score based on the recordings.
We also deliberately did not use words, if only because the choirs come from 13 countries. That’s why we worked with sounds. “Circuit”, the title of the film, is the only word that occurs. Otherwise, the composition is onomatopoeic and makes do only with sounds.
Kathrin Renggli: Film scores are usually always instrumental. The fact that these are implemented exclusively with choirs is something I have never encountered anywhere before.

One composition for 1,000 performers

What was different about composing this piece compared to commercial or film score that you, Balz, usually write?

Balz Aliesch: Here, the difference compared to other film music commissions was the focus on the music, not the film. But in terms of basic approach, I went about this work the way I always do. First, I had to find a tempo for the entire film. That was a little easier here because the film is only eight minutes long. I determined the highlights of the film and created a metric based on that. For example, there is a moment in the film when the cyclists fall and collide. This was one such highlight. I knew that that was where I wanted to have a special attack, a hit or a similar highlight. Based on that, I created a sort of grid, which is something I like to do in other projects – again, so I have a default that I can then fill with audio. After that, I start finding musical ideas that I like and that, in this case, might also be great for the choirs to sing. Simple and catchy. I then found two main musical themes, which recur several times in the piece.

The work will be performed live by about 1,000 choral singers on 17 May. What are the special challenges of such a performance?

Kathrin Renggli: Actually, the performance was already planned for 2020, but then we had to cancel the event. In 2021, we held a national festival. We used this to test this work, even if only with 250 singers and without an audience in the Stadtcasino.
This test has provided us with important insights. The singers came unprepared and had a whole day to rehearse this. Afterwards, we received feedback that they had too much time on their hands to do so. Also, because of this rehearsal, we have changed the system of conductors. In 2021, all conductors and choir directors had a click [metronome, editor’s note] in their ear, which was very laborious. For the now upcoming performance in May at the St. Jakobshalle, we have one main conductor, Dominique Tille, and three sub-conductors, each conducting one of the three groups. Only these four conductors have one click each. The individual choir conductors take in conducting impulses through the eyes and not through the ear.
The size of the hall was also important for the composition. The area where the choirs are located is about 1,500 sqm large. Since the choir conductors take in conducting impulses through their eyes, there may be minimal delays of fractions of a second for individual choirs. Therefore, it was not possible for the piece to contain any hard rhythms. Balz had to compose the piece so that this distance would not affect the music.

Singing together is in the foreground

100 years ago, MECHANLIZENZ, SUISA’s predecessor, was founded. Back then, films in cinemas were usually accompanied by piano players or, in large movie palaces, by orchestras. With the performance of the film score by the choirs, you are virtually going back to those early days of film screenings. Was that something that went into or resonated with the process of creating this work?

Balz Aliesch: There were no specifications for the composition. In addition, there is a soundtrack in this film that quite sparsely plays back individual sounds that would have been too difficult for the choirs. In two instances, we have a sound with concrete pitches in it, so that the choirs have the right tone. And finally, the click for the conductors runs synchronously. From that point of view, it’s different here than with the silent films, when there was no soundtrack and clicks. Back then, they tried as best they could to play the music live to the films. However, the audience will hardly notice that there is this soundtrack with the noises in “Circuit”. That wouldn’t be the idea – they are supposed to bathe in this cloud of sound.
Kathrin Renggli: I have been involved with music and film for about 20 years, ever since I saw films from the Italian film archive at an international film festival in Turin. These were set to live music, but with a lot of instruments, and the vocals consisted of one single voice, which was more some kind of decoration. They had restored the films just for the project, and I have a very vivid memory of them. I would love to set them to new music again. That’s why I’ve been dedicating twenty years to think about this idea. Once we had decided to do the performance at St. Jakobshalle, I said to myself: “Right, now we’re really doing it.”
The combination of film and music is exciting anyway. They do belong together, but in a different relationship. Chaplin, for example, primarily wanted to tell a story, and the music rather underscored it. That’s how I imagine it was 100 years ago. Later, the music became more and more important and almost an equal part of the film. And we are taking our project one step further. For us, the music is at the centre, and the film has to take a back seat visually alone with a presence of 1,000 singers.
There are many international festivals, for example in the Baltic States, which bring together thousands of singers. My vision is to develop a concept and music together with Balz, which can later be used by many other festivals. The goal is to bring people together at a big international festival and have them sing together. I’m not so much concerned about the soundtrack of a film per se.

SUISA as a partner

Balz, as a composer and musician you are at home in various musical genres. What significance does SUISA have for you?

Balz Aliesch: SUISA is a good partner. If you have written and registered something, then it is “safe” with SUISA. I have had only good experiences so far. I also like the system that you only have to sign up and pay once and then you are a member for life. Especially because, hopefully, you compose music for a lifetime. In other countries it is partly different, and you have to pay a membership fee every year. I also appreciate the personal contact with the employees at SUISA. If you need help, you have real people on the phone who are happy to answer all your questions.

You, Kathrin, are a customer of SUISA as the director of the European Youth Choir Festival What are your experiences as an organiser?

Kathrin Renggli: Expensive! (laughs). It costs a lot and is a big item for the budget. But it’s good to know that the money is going to the right place, to the creators. As an organiser, it really concerns and, yes, annoys me how little the composers get in relation to the others involved in such a production. What we have to spend on the technology in the St. Jakobshalle, where there is nothing in it, and what the composer earns in comparison, represents a blatant disproportion. It is quite clear that technicians are entitled to a good wage. But then when you see what the composer gets in the end …
Balz Aliesch: As a composer, it is better not to calculate the hourly wage for your work (laughs).
Kathrin Renggli: It’s pretty stark. After all, technology would have nothing to amplify if there were no composers to write for that salary.

Thank you very much for the exciting interview.

The 13th European Youth Choir Festival Basel (EJCF)

From 17 to 21 May 2023, around 2,400 children and young people who are enthusiastic about singing will gather in Basel and the region, as well as over 30,000 festival visitors. For its thirteenth edition, young choirs from twelve European countries and a guest choir from the Philippines have been invited to the Festival. More than 500 choir events and a dense supporting programme for singing enthusiasts of all ages make the Ascension Days a great festival of meeting and singing.
The European Youth Choir Festival Basel sees itself as an international concert and meeting platform for highly qualified children’s and youth choirs. It occupies a top position worldwide in this role. Apart from the event with musically high-quality choral concerts, it also considers it to be its task to gather people across all borders and to allow them to discover new horizons together. This is true for the singers as well as for the audience and the choir directors from all categories and scenes.
SUISA is a partner of the European Youth Choir Festival 2023.

Balz Aliesch from Basel is a composer, singer of childrens’ songs and cultural worker. He studied music and media arts at the Bern University of the Arts and film music composition at the Filmakademie Baden-Wurttemberg in Ludwigsburg. He runs a small recording studio in Basel and has been a singer, actor and arranger of the theatre-a-cappella-quartet “Urstimmen” since 2015. In 2022, his second CD “Liebi Giess vo mine Fiess” with Baseldytsch children’s songs was released. Balz Aliesch has been a member of SUISA since 2011.

Kathrin Renggli is a trained teacher for elementary school and basic music course, choir director and music school director. She holds a master’s degree in cultural management. Since 2000, she has led the Basel vocal ensemble “I Canterini” and from 2011 to 2016 she directed the children’s choir “Sunny Kids” from Bottmingen. In earlier years, she worked as artistic director and production manager for various clients in the independent scene as well as music and elementary school. In 2002, she took over the artistic and organisational direction of the European Youth Choir Festival Basel. Under her leadership, the festival established itself and now attracts over 30,000 visitors. It is considered a unique meeting place for children’s and youth choirs throughout Europe. Kathrin Renggli has been on the Pension Board of FONDATION SUISA since 2015.

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