Hitting the musical highs with the Dowsing Sound Collective


And this was just the rehearsal

Me and Puffles were in Bury St Edmunds earlier, rehearsing with the Dowsing Sound Collective and trying out a potential venue. Although arriving in the darkness, the sense of bland early 21st-century identikit retail/leisure park screamed loudly. But when we got inside, it was a completely different feel.


You know when you go inside somewhere that feels ‘unique’ and has that ‘wow’ factor. This for me is one of the reasons why the Cambridge Leisure Park in my neighbourhood – in a part of town that has had over £1billion thrown at it over the past 15 years – looks and feels pathetic in comparison. Box buildings on the outside, box buildings on the inside. (Personally I’d have given the centre a different name – ‘Apex’ sounds bland and unimaginative to me).

This is a place that screams for people to be inspired to perform in

Puffles (*jumps*) to the grand piano at the Apex Centre in Bury St Edmunds
Puffles (*jumps*) to the grand piano at the Apex Centre in Bury St Edmunds

The acoustics were out of this world.

I’ve moaned about rubbish acoustics before at many venues. Cambridge Guildhall, Finsbury Town Hall in London, the Cambridge Corn Exchange, The Junction… they’ve all to a greater or lesser extent muffled the sound. But with this hall, the several dozen of us singing produced a crystal clear sound with zero echo. Singing and hearing us performing a collaboration piece by Basement Jaxx, and experiencing us coming off at the same time to an eery, echoless silence was a mind blowing experience. Splitting us into two groups on either side of the audience seats, so ‘singing it back’ to each other.

“The buzz of performance…you’ve mentioned that before”

The final two paragraphs of The ghost of Christmas future – which I wrote in late 2011. Not had that performance buzz for years – decades even. I also assumed I would never get anywhere near it again. Yet given the superb support, challenge, mentoring and teaching by and from the splendid Andrea Cockerton (whose ability to get so much out of the piano – even when a piece is in G-flat major – which kind of rules out most of the white keys on the keyboard and the open strings on my viola), we’re closing in on the sort of levels that I thought only very serious musicians could hit.

At the same time, everything’s going against the grain of TV-talent shows where everyone is in competition with each other. Ditto exams culture. We do this because we enjoy it. The moment it ceases to be enjoyable is the moment we stop. As the saying goes, working hard on something you don’t like for someone else is stress. Working hard on something you love for people you like/someone you love and/or for yourself…is passion. Perhaps explaining why at gone 2am I still haven’t gone to bed. I blog because I like to.

“So…this singing for performance thing is ‘for real’ then?”

Very much so.  At the same time, the piece that we’re working on for the recording has come around at a very fortunate time for me and for a number of reasons. It’s a piece that I connect with musically, lyrically and emotionally – perhaps even more so than the original singers on the sample that we’ve been given to work with. You’ll find out why when the tracks are released.

For those of you not familiar with my blogposts, this in part is tied up with my musical journey – see here. There’s a history of anger and heartbreak – one which I dropped at the feet of a music professor when she headlined a conference in Cambridge recently. (See here). The Dowsing Sound Collective for me provides safe spaces to be musical in a place which otherwise has too much history to allow me to. It’s an energy release while at the same time being intellectually challenging reading the music. Again, while you can join the collective without having to read music, having the music papers allows my mind to wander through it.

“The concept of big choruses sounds familiar – has it been on the tellybox under a different brand?”

The Rock Choir – which has been featured on TV – seems to run on similar themes. Take some well-known songs, deconstruct them, tease out & construct the soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts, and weave back together. What makes both this and Dowsing different to other music singing courses I’ve seen (but not joined) is down to one thing: Scale.

Numbers: Make me feel like an integral part of something where I’m contributing towards something greater than the some of our parts. And make it sound good too. Play with it. (Something I was never allowed to do with music as a child – a mindset of being told to perform how the examiner wants it, not how you want it). Chips, shoulders and all that.

Organised flashmob mentality?

I remember a few years ago in Whitehall seeing some adverts inviting people to take part in some corporate flashmob in Trafalgar Square for a phone company – click here. <<– That was it. Nice bit of fun, have a sing-song, get on the tellybox and everyone’s happy. I didn’t go along myself because I looked at the terms and conditions of the whole thing and it looked too much like signing my life away. That, along with my take not liking how the original concept of random flashmobs being actions to highlight how we’ve ended up conforming to things has since been taken over and tightly planned by the very organisations trying to get us to conform to stuff.

The thing is, for someone like me – an individual who is far too intense even at the best of times, those sorts of large one-off organised flashmobs with a musical/dance component – don’t work. (They may for others though). They simply leave me feeling empty – a repetition of a life where too many people have made fleeting appearances before flying off somewhere else. Hence going for something that has far more stable roots.

Positive emotions in uncertain times

Hey – I watch politics all day. (Or rather when my sleep patterns allow). More to the point, what I see from too many political institutions and senior politicians is either an inability to deal with the very real problems that we all face, an unwillingness to accept that the problems exist or are as serious as they are, or complete irrelevance to what the rest of us are trying to do or achieve. Music amongst other things is time-out from all of this. At the same time, what I’m learning from it and from the people around me is to readjust my approach on a number of things.

It’s funny what a dose of inspiration can do. I’ll leave you with this from Eurovision 1997 – with an alternative visual interpretation.


8 thoughts on “Hitting the musical highs with the Dowsing Sound Collective

    1. Is this the bit the Apex Centre is in Gil?

      Throughout the 2000s I was a fairly frequent visitor to Bury St Edmunds – it’s range of independent menswear outlets is splendid – certainly one of the best in the region. Hence taking the train to go clothes shopping there. Hence my moan at some of the external new bits that felt too much like other parts of the country I had been in rather than something on the outside that to me felt like it was uniquely Bury – which I still think is lovely. (But being skint I can’t afford to go shopping there as regularly these days!)

  1. Really sorry to have missed practice last night – the Apex looks amazing. Cant wait to hear it all come together tomorrow!

    I just feel I had to respond to your blog, though, Antony, I hope you don’t mind… Whilst I (we?) would never diss Rock Choir, I just couldn’t let the comparison stand!! DSC are far more maverick, more challenging and unconventional than Rock Choir. In the range of music we perform, the ambition and the whole ideology. DSC are not a conventional choir, we are *truly* a collective – we have instruments (like you wouldn’t believe! – Eigenharp, anyone?), a phenomenal house band who regularly blow our collective socks off and lift our spirits to the skies, and we now have DOSOCO too, adding a whole other level to what we do. The day Andrea makes us all wear DSC t-shirts and start clapping along to “We are the World” is the day I up and leave. Somehow, though, I can’t see that happening anytime soon 😉

    As Ann Garvey (ex Telegraph, I think) said in her recent review for Local Secrets DSC are “a harmonic phomonenon bursting onto the scene like a firecracker” . We are completely unique, which is why I love us so!! xx

    1. Hi Jenny

      Many thanks for your comment, which in the grand scheme of things is spot-on.

      Again to clarify, I’m not comparing Rock Choir to DSC in terms of output, but more at a very basic conceptual level of getting ***lots*** of friendly people together to sing pieces arranged in a choral manner – ie soprano, alto, tenor and bass. And that’s it.

      Beyond that, the differences are significant. You only have to look at the branding of the mega events the former held compared to what we have for the Basement Jaxx recording session. Watching and listening to the RC online, the arrangements are on the simple side musically – as was the dancing choreography. (Years of ballroom/latin/salsa/rock’n’roll dancing showing!) But at the same time, you could see people smiling and enjoying themselves. And for me, that counts for a great deal in a childhood where (classical) music was all about passing exams and older generations competing against each other on the basis of whose children got higher marks. It’s a musical culture that for me still poisons classical music today. That’s why for me the basics of what both RC and DSC do are ever so important.

      Best wishes!

  2. Good to hear your thoughts on the Apex, it’s got an amazing acoustic!

    But Rock Choir? Really? I heard the Dowsing Sound Collective perform at Trinity Chapel recently and I’d have to say I can’t see the similarities. Sort of like comparing the Royal Ballet to Gwyneth Paltrow’s excercise video…you’re a brilliant writer but I think the blog entry may have missed the mark a little if comparisons need to be sought.

    1. Hi Annie

      Many thanks for your reply.

      To clarify, my comparison was about concept rather than standards of output. I was listening to the youtube videos of the mega-performances of Rock Choir recently. While I liked the concept of bringing lots of people together, on nearly all of the tracks there were things about the musical and choral arrangements that didn’t work for me at all. But that’s not the fault of the singers or the people taking part, rather that’s an issue for the musical arrangers.

      We’re incredibly lucky to have someone as talented and as passionate as Andrea leading us. I cannot recall ever having a music teacher who has been on anywhere near the same wavelength as me in terms of what I want to get from music. At the same time, for me it is also challenging arrangements we have. That’s not to say they will be too challenging for some and not challenging enough for others. Surprisingly at the Christmas gig (I was in the audience there) I heard from one or two people who were critical of the performance (in a sea of people including myself who loved it). That said, those critical were those that had a strong musical/choral background who had either heard or taken part in lots of performances.

      For someone coming into this new/after a break of decades, overcoming the wave of emotion to unpick some of the details is not something that will happen overnight. In one sense it’s similar to me and my former hobby/passion of ballroom dancing. My first formal ballroom ball was one of the most special moments of my life. But once you get to ball number 20…exactly.

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