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Walking the Talk

Happy New Year! For the first e-news of 2021 we’d like to tell you about the first event of this year’s Festival. This Thursday we’re inviting you to join us on ‘The Clerkenwell Ballad Walk’, a virtual trip into the history of the area surrounding our venue, LSO St Luke’s. Folk-singer Vivien Ellis and historian Dafydd Wyn Phillips paint the picture for us in a mixture of local stories and the songs that celebrated them, drawn from the vast repertoire of so-called ‘broadside ballads’, simple songs printed on single sheets from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Sold on the streets for a penny, like newspapers, they covered similar topics, such as crime, sport, politics, religion, war, sex, scandal and disaster.
You can enjoy this treasure trove in two ways. Our next Baroque at the Edge podcast, to be posted on Thursday morning, sees Vivien and Dafydd examine some of the local background to the ballads in conversation with presenter Fiona Talkington; and at 4pm Vivien will lead a live Zoom workshop, looking at some of the songs in more detail and even teaching you how to sing them (all in the privacy of your own home!).
Here’s Vivien trying out her voice in Cowcross Street.
With all that going on, we couldn’t let them escape without doing one of our Baroque at the Edge questionnaires. Here goes:
Vivien Ellis
How did you get started singing?
I sang in empty echoing chicken houses on our small farm, as a child. I dreamed of being a singer. When I was nine, my school head teacher walked around our desks listening to our singing. He chose me and three others to sing The Coventry Carol in church in a village festival, my first public performance. At secondary school I studied singing to Grade 8, with a wonderful, dedicated music teacher called Mary Orman, who was taught by the famous soprano Isobel Baillie. There my formal music tuition stopped. I didn’t have the opportunity to study music at college, and trained as an English teacher. After that, the route to becoming a singer had many ups and downs!
You’re best known for singing early music and folk songs – what drew you to them?
Folk songs
As a child I absolutely loved the BBC schools radio programme Singing Together, where I learnt a range of popular, mainly traditional songs from Britain and beyond. In my twenties I was re-introduced to folk music by the traditional singer Frankie Armstrong. When I sought her advice on how to become a singer, she kindly invited me to visit and choose from her collection of folk music. Through Frankie I discovered many treasures! I was also grabbed by the voices of Bulgarian singers, and became obsessed with this thrilling vocal style. I travelled to Bulgaria to learn alongside the Bistritsa Grandmothers, I remember the moment it clicked with me what ‘oral tradition’ means. It was Easter, we were staying at a musicians’ hostel in the Rhodope Mountains. I was with a party of English people on an exchange visit. The Grandmothers sat knitting socks and teaching us sedenka songs (songs shared at a social gathering whilst doing manual work): ‘today, back in the village, this is the one we sing to wake up the bees and the sheep’; ‘this is one about a dragon, it’s probably over 2,000 years old, and it’s never been written down’. I began to learn what it means to commit to memory songs passed on through generations, never written down, helping a culture to survive. You can’t burn or destroy something that lives in the memory. And I began to see that songs could have a function, integral to everyday life and work.
Early Music
I continued to sing Bulgarian songs, and taught them in my first voice workshops, but I was still searching for something. Someone played me a recording of Jantina Noorman singing the troubadour song Kalenda maya with Musica Reservata. A revelation! I thought it was a Bulgarian song, but couldn’t recognise the language. It dawned on me that I could sing this music, and make it my own, and that it could belong to me, in a way that Bulgarian music never could. I realised that everything I had learnt about singing in Bulgaria could be put to use. I was hooked on early music! Soon after that, I heard Mara Kiek singing with Sinfonye. I thought, this is the embodiment of what I want to do. Perhaps one day…
What do you think it is about your voice that makes it suitable for these different repertoires?
Is it suitable? Not everyone thinks so! It’s a matter of taste, but not having a ’classical’ training might help. These repertories developed to a large extent before and outside the operatic tradition. I can sound like an opera singer, but it’s not hardwired into my voice. My singing voice is an extension of how I speak. I’m curious, and I’ve had the opportunity to explore different kinds of singing. I accompanied Stevie Wishart on some of her research forays into the mountains of Northern Spain to meet singing shepherds, and to explore the origins of the fiddle; we worked and learned from traditional Occitan-speaking singers; I spent time learning from sean-nós singers in Ireland. I collaborated with shape-note ensemble Northern Harmony in Vermont; and I worked with the fine singer and composer Moira Smiley. All these experiences, and more, inform my singing of this repertoire.
You’ve sung with a number of different ensembles in your career. Which ones have you enjoyed working with the most?
I feel enormously privileged to have worked with Stevie Wishart’s medieval/modern ensemble Sinfonye. She gave me my first job in early music. I feel grateful to have experienced the sheer joy of being amidst the sound of The Dufay Collective for many years. Working with Jeremy Barlow’s Broadside Band was a delight. Singing with The Carnival Band has been a total blast. I have had a long musical partnership with the brilliant multi-instrumentalist and singer Giles Lewin. We recently teamed up with wonderful early harpist Leah Stuttard to create a new performance for Beverley Early Music Festival (postponed until May 2021). I hope this happens, I love this new sound and collaboration.
For Baroque at the Edge this year you’re doing a ‘Clerkenwell Ballad Walk’ with historian Dafydd Wyn Phillips, as a podcast and as a live Zoom event. Tell us a little about how the idea came about, and what you’ll be doing.
I’ve been developing the idea of ballad walks since 2017, when I ran the first one for Hull City of Culture in conjunction with a local walking guide. I found songs to tie in with the history of Hull. We stopped at points along the way, heard something about each location, and I sang a song, often with a chorus for people to join. Sometimes passers-by tagged along. I enjoy collaborating with a guide who knows the territory, and I love to dig out ballads to tie in with the themes and location, and bring the landscape, and the songs, to life. Something about this format helps people to relax. I’ve continued to develop this with walks for Beverley Early Music Festival. This is the format of the Clerkenwell Ballad Walk – except we’re meeting on Zoom, and the journey and the story on the way will be told by Dafydd and sung by me. Lots of opportunities to join in with choruses, taught by me, with lyrics available. I’ve run two community choirs for many years, and since March we’ve met on Zoom every week, so it seemed natural to create a ‘virtual walk’ via Zoom, which anyone can join. It’s not the same as singing together in person, but this way, anyone can take part, and we don’t have to worry about weather, traffic, sore feet, or finding a loo!
You’ve done other site-specific projects, haven’t you? Can you tell us a bit about some of them?
The Digital Miscellanies Index led by Dr Abigail Williams at St Peter’s College Oxford: with musical partner Giles Lewin we created interactive, site-specific performances of songs from 18th-century printed miscellanies for locations including The Geffrye Museum, Dr Johnson’s House, and The Georgian Theatre in Richmond, Yorkshire. With my choir The Dragon Café Singers, which provides creative social support for current, past and ongoing mental ill-health as an arm of the Mental Fight Club, we have written and performed original songs for the annual Concert for Winter at Shakespeare’s Globe, celebrating the diverse communities of Southwark. I also created a bespoke performance for the opening of the Museum of The Mind, Bethlem Royal Hospital (or ‘Bedlam’), using puppetry.
Which musicians, of any type, do you admire most?
Jazz musicians.
What person, living or dead, would you most like to meet?
The Prime Minster of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern.
What interests do you have outside music?
I’ve been a care worker for the last two years. Outside that, music and family are my passions.
How do you relax?
With a glass of wine and a takeaway, something good on TV, Jess my dog nearby.
Tell us something about yourself you’d like us to know.
This year I published a research paper, ‘Creating Health’, about arts for wellbeing in the education of GPs.
Apples or pears?

Click here to read more about Vivien Ellis.


Dafydd Wyn Phillips
You studied languages, then trained as a classical singer at the Royal Academy of Music, and have subsequently had a career dealing with authors’ rights. How did you get started as a Blue Badge Guide?
Because of a conversation in a pub with friends. I was told that a friend of a friend had just started a guiding course in the City of London and that it might be something that would suit me because of my interests.
What do you have to do to become an accredited tourist guide, and how long does it take?
The duration of the course depends on its location and level. The London Blue Badge course lasts 18 months – a mixture of lectures and practicals, followed by three written exams, a project, a communications seminar and seven practical exams. You never stop learning though.
What do you think are the most important personal qualities needed to be a tourist
Ability to inform and educate whilst being entertaining.
You specialise in historical walking tours of Clerkenwell and the City of London.
What drew you to those particular areas?
The City because of its 2000 years of history; Clerkenwell because of its radicalism and religious dissenters – a complete antithesis to the City.
What’s the strangest question a client has asked you?
There have been so many strange questions – mainly concerning royalty…
What’s your favourite piece of London trivia?
Carnival floats are so-called as the Lord Mayor’s Show used to travel on the River Thames from the City to Westminster – the barges floated along.
If you could be a tourist guide anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Nowhere can beat London for the sheer diversity – I’m quite happy here. As Samuel Pepys said – if you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life. Not his exact words!
What person, living or dead, would you most like to meet?
David Lloyd George
What interests do you have outside history?
Classical music – especially 19th-century opera.
How do you relax?
I’m not sure if I do.
Tell us something about yourself you’d like us to know.
Beer or wine?
Beer – but it has to be real ale!

Click here to read more about Dafydd Wyn Phillips.

Tickets for this event can be bought via our website

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Ever wanted to know more about how to kiss?

Fiddle tunes, Danny Boy, Greensleeves, Purcell’s Plaint and Andreas Hammerschmidt’s Art of Kissing; all are part of the mix in FolkBaroque, the closing concert of Baroque at the Edge 2021, given by soprano Lucy Crowe, fiddler Tom Moore and La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates. Sweetly lyrical, gently moving, a concert to warm your heart in cold midwinter. Catch it on Sunday 10 January at 7.30pm. Tickets available to buy via our website.

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