How far can you be pushed in the name of art? What impact does social media have on singers’ careers? Can you combine a passion for singing with an interest in the sound of other languages? And what about mixing singing with social activism, like being taught to sing by migrants in their native languages? HesaMag joined the migrants who sing in Lucy Grauman’s choir in a working-class district of Brussels and talked with the artist, singer and therapist about what working conditions are like for professional singers.
It’s Thursday evening in the Marolles, a historic working-class neighbourhood near Brussels’ imposing Palais de Justice. In a rehearsal room in the Bruegel Cultural Centre, which is run by the municipality, a mixed choir of around 30 singers is tackling the chorus of a traditional Hungarian song about little handkerchiefs with four embroidered corners. The group are counted in and burst into song:
"Kiskendő, nagykendő símára van vasalva.
Mind a négy sarkába a babám neve van varva.
Egyik szőke, a másik barna,
a harmadik csuda szép.
Megállj te, csuda szép majd eszedbe jutok még."
This amateur, mainly female, choir, some of whom may be undocumented immigrants, are following the lead of their choirmaster, professional singer Lucy Grauman, who accompanies them on the piano. "Careful, it’s tricky here because you have to sing 'nedj', like in 'Juncker', but you can pronounce it as if it were Flemish," Grauman jokes. Her enthusiasm is as infectious as her passion for her favourite instrument, the human voice.
"Isn’t it nearly always marvellous to hear someone singing and putting their heart into it?" she says when we talk after the rehearsal. Our conversation soon turns to the working conditions of artists who are singers or dancers. She mentions the impact of the #MeToo movement on female performers and singers, who have begun sharing their experiences in private social media groups. "What I’ve mainly read about is humiliating, abusive behaviour ... not necessarily rape or things like that, but bad treatment, especially in the dance world. There are lots of reports of male choreographers’ questionable or abusive behaviour towards young women and girls. This often happens at auditions or castings for film or theatre roles. A director has huge power over someone who wants to sing or act. How far will he exploit that power imbalance? At what point does it stop being about work and become manipulation?"
It’s a hard question to answer, given that every artist seeks excellence in their chosen cultural field. Isn’t it common to hear of conductors or directors pushing a performer to the limit to get her to produce a particular emotion on stage? "I think that I used to be really open to a lot of things if it meant I’d sing even better or get interesting opportunities. But I took some hard knocks in one production where I felt disempowered and completely disengaged. I felt defenceless artistically and lost my ability to commit to the permanent expectation of perfection. However, in another context at a different time, the work wasn’t uninteresting for a professional singer. I was in a contemporary opera with a nice company. But I realised I simply was no longer having fun and had started counting how many performances we’d done and how many we still had to do. I just wanted to get back home. At that point, I said, okay, that’s it, I’m no longer getting the pleasure I need to keep doing this. In 2001, I had the sudden realisation that I only wanted to sing things I like with people I like and for people I like."
Grauman, who is of Irish descent, has had an eventful career. She started studying singing in the 1970s and developed a desire to do theatre. She became part of the alternative artistic scene involved in contemporary and experimental art and improvised music. "They tried new things like projecting music onto my dress, turning it into a screen," she recalls. She was classically trained at the Royal Conservatoire in Brussels and got her break in the 1980s as part of Belgian Radio and Television’s vocal ensemble (RTB and BRT). As a member of this group, she sang at the funeral of Léopold III, the wedding of Princess Astrid and for Queen Fabiola. She also sang on television programmes featuring the likes of popular entertainers Adamo and Enrico Macias. In the late 1980s she met Marianne Pousseur, the daughter of Belgian composer Henri Pousseur, and worked with her, sometimes in collaboration with the French writer Michel Butor, on classical compositions by Pousseur, Boulez, Berio, Stockhausen and John Cage. In 1994, when no one seemed interested in those projects, she agreed to give singing lessons to dancers at Brussels’ famous school of contemporary dance, PARTS (Performing Arts Research and Training Studios) in response to an invitation from PARTS founder Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Today, Grauman divides her working life between being a professional musician and a therapist in a family planning centre.
Drawing a line under competition and the obsession with performance
Despite her impressive list of prestigious professional collaborations, Grauman is openly critical of how dominant the competitive spirit has become. "The artistic world is really tough today. When I was 25, it wasn’t too hard to find work in choruses, at the opera and elsewhere. There were opportunities. Now, despite the fact that the ability of the singers coming out of the Conservatoire is much higher than in my day, there are hardly any openings, and it’s very difficult to get a contract. The spirit of relentless competition in the field, which is amplified now on socialmedia, makes me really uneasy. Take the case of a brilliant singer I admire and follow on Facebook. She posts about her successes all the time. I got to the point where I felt there was something shameless about her continually posting on Facebook about her successes compared to all the other singers who hadn’t made it to her level professionally. It’s great for her, of course, but does she ever think of her peers who took the same path but aren’t getting offers of work? We’re in a competitive system, and I think there’s something intolerable about it. It has always been a significant impediment in my life. Whenever something becomes competitive, I want no further part in it. Instead of running all the time, I’d rather go and lie down in the grass. The idea of 'performing at all costs' is an unhealthy aspect of singing. When you enter the world of classical singing, there’s this display aspect that takes the form of the need to have a voice that’s strong, rich and distinctive enough to wow people," Grauman adds. So that aspect of art doesn’t interest her? "That’s right, because it’s an aspect that was an obstacle for me and closed off other wonderful things that might have happened. Be that as it may, I think that, compared to dance or the theatre, the world of singing has been less exposed to physical abuse. The voice remains an extremely fragile instrument, so you can’t make a singer howl in the way you might push an actor to the limit to see what she’s capable of. You can do horrible things to dancers and actors, such as making them dance in a very cold studio. But that won’t work with singers, because the only possible outcome is they’ll have no voice the next day. So there’s still respect for the voice, a hyper-fragile instrument that protects the body and sometimes soothes the spirit."
Liberated from the competitive spirit, Grauman founded a small ensemble for female singers in 2005 called Ik zeg Adieu (translated from the Dutch as "I bid farewell") and, in 2009, she began the Voix de voyageurs (Travellers’ Voices) project, which would later become Stemagnifique, which aims to give asylum seekers the opportunity to sing. At that time, some female asylum seekers were being housed at the church of St John the Baptist at the Béguinage in Brus- sels while they waited for their applications to be processed. Andréa, a Congolese woman whose own application had been successful, agreed to work as a volunteer with Grauman to make the asylum seekers in the church feel more welcome. Seeing how little interaction there was between the women and the volunteers, Grauman asked Andréa to sing to them in Lingala, and the women, who came from a variety of different countries, began to smile and clap in time to the impromptu performance. Grauman decided to start a weekly choir that would rehearse popular songs in different languages: "We said, 'Come and teach us a song from your homeland.' This approach was based on the idea of inverting the relationship between people. It means it’s the asylum seekers who are in the position of teachers, correcting us or laughing when we make mistakes, because, of course, we don’t speak their languages. When we eventually gave a concert, we had men wanting to join the group to sing with us and we thought, why not? But sometimes there are cultural barriers; for example, one day, we were working in a deprived area of Brussels with adolescent girls from Morocco and Africa as part of an artistic-social project, and the presence of just one Congolese boy was enough to make older brothers and parents forbid their girls from coming to sing with us. But we mustn’t give up, and we can keep singing with those who want to take part."
Views may vary on bringing together the art of singing and social engagement with vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers. Is the group any good musically? Do they sing in time? Do the voices blend well? "I’m open to criticism, but it irritates me too because I want to say, that’s not what matters about what we’re doing with this group. To me, they’re musicians, and I mean that in the fullest sense. When I asked Andréa in 2009 to teach me a song from the Congo, it was genuinely because I was excited to learn a song in Lingala. I wanted to learn to sing in a language that sounds so surprising to my ears and fires my imagination. It’s out of musical interest, not some charitable impulse. I do also like understanding what the words of the song mean, but that’s secondary, because what interests me most is the rhythm, the sound of the language and the way artists have conveyed all that in the music."
So, dare I ask the meaning of the words of the Hungarian song the Thursday evening choir sang? Lucy Grauman recites from memory, "I think it’s something like, 'Little hand- kerchiefs, big handkerchiefs, with the names of my loves embroidered on each corner. One of them is fair, the other is dark, the third is more than ravishing. Let’s stop, or I risk appearing in your thoughts.'"•