Don't they know it's Christmas?

From Hanukkah songs to Frank Sinatra, The Shout offers an alternative festival of carols
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The Independent Culture

When people think of a choir, they usually think of a homogeneous mass of people making a homogeneous noise. The Shout isn't like that. In the six years since it formed, the 15-voice collective has been described as "a vocal Stomp", a "vocal big band" and "a choir of Babel". Set up by the composers Orlando Gough and Richard Chew, its singers come from wildly varied musical backgrounds - gospel, jazz, contemporary classical, opera, early music, rock and Indian classical, and include several accomplished improvisers. But this choir isn't just a melting pot with lungs. Every one of these flavours comes through.

"All I knew when we started," says Gough, "was that I wanted to gather all the brilliant individuals Richard and I had worked with over the years. It was pot luck that it would work, because none of them had much experience of ensemble singing, particularly the jazzers, who were used to being a rule unto themselves. But everyone had talent, everyone was willing."

The Shout performs from memory and unaccompanied, which means the singers have a huge responsibility to each other, particularly in regard to tuning. Gough has been fascinated to discover the wide discrepancy in how different disciplines approach tuning. "Some blues singers sing flat in a very musical way, which is very effective with a load of instrumental backing, but can be problematic when other singers are relying on those pitches for their note. I've had to make some tricky decisions about who has to stay in tune and who's allowed to take liberties."

The choir also performs without a conductor. "It may just be that I'm bad at doing it myself," says Gough, "but I find watching conductors really dreary and I want there to be a direct relationship between singers and audience. Eye contact becomes essential for musical cohesion, and it makes the whole thing a lot more fun to watch".

A Day in the Life, The Shout's current touring show, is essentially an alternative festival of carols, weaving together diverse seasonal songs with Christmas Day diary entries from surprising sources: Jean Cocteau, Brian Eno, the polar explorer Robert Scott, and even an inmate of Auschwitz. Unusually for this programme, each singer has arranged or composed a number of their own. "This wasn't as haphazard as it sounds," says Gough, "because I knew specifically what I wanted, as in, 'Can you do me a doo-wop version of "Blue Moon", please?'"

The final compilation includes a haunting arrangement of a Jewish Hanukkah song, Sinatra swing standards, daft Christmas pop songs, vocal improv and an extraordinary Tamil song in praise of the Virgin Mary. And just this once, Gough has lifted his ban on accompaniment, to allow homemade percussion fashioned from industrial salvage, and bells from old oxygen cylinders.

Komedia, Brighton, 8 & 22 Dec; Warwick Arts Centre, 10 Dec; Thoresby Riding Stables, Ollerton, 11 Dec; South Hill Park, Bracknell, 12 Dec; St George's Bristol, 16 Dec; Dartington Hall, 20 Dec; Purcell Room, London SE1, 28 & 29 Dec