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“Anyone who can talk can sing”

INTERVIEW. Open your mouth and sing! Michael Betzner-Brandt's I-Can't-Sing-Choir makes singers out of non-musicians, even you, as part of the Chor@Berlin festival, taking place February 13-16.

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Photo by Christoph Müller

Michael Betzner-Brandt’s I-Can’t-Sing-Choir makes singers out of non-musicians, even you, as part of the Chor@Berlin festival, taking place February 13-16.

Conductor, vocalist, silent film pianist, Betzner-Brandt is an influential figure in Berlin’s burgeoning choral scene. Teaching at the University of Arts, he leads jazz choirs and even founded High Fossility, a rock-pop choir for Berliners aged 60-plus. Passionate about exploring singing’s possibilities, he published Chor kreativ, describing the methods he uses with the non-singers.

You used to direct classical choirs; now you organise a choir for “people who can’t sing”. Why?

My desire was not there anymore, even though I liked my classical choir. After 10 years, I came to a point where I thought: I could play Bach again, or I could stop doing that. It became clear to me that I no longer wanted to be in a position to say: that’s good, that’s bad, do it more like this or that. In a classical choir, your aim is to get a precise, ‘correct’ result. And at some point I did not find that important any more, to get music to sound ‘right’. What interests me now is to pay attention to the individuals I have in front of me. I like listening to what people who say they can’t sing can actually do: of course they can sing, anyone who can talk can sing. What fascinates me is the authenticity that comes out of people’s personalities: I’m never bored of that.

How does Bodyphony work, exactly?

Everyone can come. It lasts about two and a half hours. After a short warm-up based on movement, I make exercises for people to experience their body as a musical instrument – singing different tones as a saxophone, a flute, or a violin would do. Then we can start interacting musically with each other, with the help of circle songs. It’s basically a participative concert without an audience, which means that the participants are the audience as well. After the warm-up, the concert itself is conceived as a buffet with different phases. We alternate between very calm moments, when you concentrate on quiet tones and pay attention to your own respiration; then there are solos when people sing how they feel, improvising; there are also musical ‘discussions’ among people. At the end of the concert, you’ve heard nice tones, but you’ve also interacted with people and done something good for your body.

But how does it sound?

Interestingly enough, it sounds good, at least to my ears! That’s crazy. I guess it has to do with the strength of music, primarily coming from the rhythm, which people feel rapidly after a bit of practice. There is this ‘natural’ sense of order which I use to make the whole thing sound good. Let’s not forget that 80 percent of the music that’s made on Earth is made without notes. Particularly, singing can be very natural – that’s how music started. We tend to be aware of that again: it’s an exciting time for the choir scene.

How do you explain that change?

A lot of traditional music was born in court or churches under strong hierarchies. But our society doesn’t work that way anymore, and choirs have to adapt. The idea now is to develop your own voice, which to some extent follows the individualisation of the society, but in choir singing is always in communication with others. Each person is taken seriously as a personality, and at the same time they need to be considerate and open, work together and not against each other… What makes me happy is that, although it used to be so uncool to sing in a choir, now it’s becoming trendy!

ICH-KANN-NICHTSINGEN- CHOR — BODYPHONY Feb 16, 11:00 | Radialsystem V, Holzmarktstr. 33, Friedrichshain, S-Bhf Ostbahnhof