Tag Archives: chant

The writing of chants

I’ve been writing chants for a while now, with varying degrees of success. I started because the chants I was encountering didn’t do what I wanted them to do. I wanted seasonally specific material that connects directly to my landscape. I find chants difficult to write because my inclinations are to use more words than anyone else can easily pick up, and to write tunes that aren’t easy to sing when you’ve never heard them before, so I’ve had to push back against that.

For chants to be available to people who haven’t had weeks to learn them, they need to be simple. Not too many words and plenty of repetition. Tunes need to be simple enough that less confident singers won’t be put off by them. However, chants that are dull don’t inspire people, so there’s a balance to find here.

For ‘Turn with the year’ I used the repetition of the word ‘turn’ to give something easy to latch onto. There are some significant intervals between notes here, but I think they’re the kinds of gaps that make immediate sense to the ears of western, northern hemisphere folk. It’s also a tune that’s very forgiving of people singing something else alongside it – which is often where harmony lines come from.

For my recent Beltane chant, I relied on echoing a song I think a lot of Pagans will know from The Wicker Man – Summer is acomming in. So I think it feels familiar, and apart from one line, the tune is really simple. When I tested this one on friends, they picked it up in a couple of goes.

The folk tradition has a broad and deep history of songs designed for people to pick up quickly and join in on. These are often more complicated than the Pagan chant. They depend on one person knowing the words, and an obvious pattern – there might only be one or two new lines in any given verse. I was thinking about shanties when I wrote Three Drops. The line ‘Fire in my head’ repeats three times in every verse and every verse ends with ‘three drops of inspiration’. There’s one new line at the start of every verse – three drops, into the forest, salmon in the well and drink from the cauldron – people get the ‘fire in my head’ sometimes even in the first verse on first hearing.

So, the questions to ask when writing a chant are, I think – what do you need to say? How can you say it in the fewest possible words? How can you make it easy to pick up? How singable is it? How interesting is it? Will people enjoy joining in with it?

I don’t think the point of a chant should be to send people into a trance born of boredom and monotony. Chants should be about the power of raising our voices together, the feeling of involvement and togetherness this brings. A good chant uplifts and inspires people. If you can hum a tune and string a sentence together, you have the key skills to try writing your own.


Videos for May

I made these two videos for the Pagan Federation online disabilities festival in May.

This first one I started much earlier in the year, charting the growth of the garlic – I haven’t got the final part of the process where it dies back.

 

This second video is a chant. I wrote it specifically for the event after Debi asked whether anyone could do one.

 

 


Turn with the Year

I’ve done a lot of chanting along the way. It can be a beautiful, powerful thing that forges connections and inspires participants. It can also be drab and tedious. For me, the key thing with a chant if you want to sing it more than a couple of times, is to mess with it. Add harmonies. Drop voices in and out, do bits as a round. Play!

So, this is a video of House Brown playing about with my ‘turn with the year’ chant. It isn’t a perfect, polished sort of performance because we’re mostly improvising. In order to play, it’s really important to give yourself permission to not be perfect, because it’s the space created by imperfection that also allows for real magic.

 

Turn, turn, turn with the year, turn with the seasons, turn with the earth. Turn, turn, turn with the tide, light into darkness, death to rebirth.


Turn with the year

I wasn’t planning this chant at all. I was pottering about in the kitchen doing something else entirely, when it happened to me – most of the words and most of the tune simply landed in my head. Full on awen, and considerable surprise!

Turn, turn, turn with the year, turn with the seasons, turn with the earth.

Turn, turn, turn with the tide, light into darkness, death to rebirth.

It’s rather short, and singing it three times as it is would be dull, and still rather short – and this is so often the problem with chanting. However, I knew the tune would take harmonies. There is only one of me, and I do not have headphones suitable for recording with. So the only way to do this was to write the other lines singing against the idea of the tune in my head, record them one after another and shunt them about in garageband. I also did a bit of a round. I like messing about with chants in this way when there are other people to sing with, and most chants can be played with. What I’ve done here is by no means the definitive ‘how to do harmony on this chant’ more some examples of the kinds of things that can be done, to this one, and to others.

In chanting, remember, there are two kinds of harmonies. There are the warm, familiar affirming harmonies, and there are the spiky, unexpected and exciting harmonies. And with that philosophy, there are no ‘bum notes’.

 


Druid chants

Music has always been a big part of my life, and I’m deeply attracted to the bardic threads in the Druidic weave. I’m also interested in meditation and contemplation. Unshockingly, this has led to time spent chanting. I even run the odd workshop on subverting and messing about with chants to make group singing more collaborative and playful. Let’s face it, there’s only so many times a bunch of people can sing ‘we all come from the goddess’ until it tails off in awkward silence. We are more likely to fall into tedium than reverie, if my experience in circles is anything to go by. I’ve long been interested in finding ways of changing that experience, for myself and for those around me.

I’ve been blessed with some excellent chanting experiences, too – most notably those led by JJ Middleway. His ‘enchanting the void’ sessions offer room for creative exploration around the chant, and I find what he does when chanting alone to be really powerful. However, I struggle a bit with the chants. Many of our ‘traditional’ chants come from the American goddess/feminist movement. Others are New Age or Hindu inspired. I can appreciate them as lovely and well meant things, but they do not resonate with me. They do not allow me to voice the things I want to put into the world, they do not reinforce the pledges I am making.

My general philosophy is, that if a thing I want isn’t there… that may mean it is my job to start trying to fill that gap. I began wondering what I would want from a chant, and have set myself the challenge of trying to write material that works for me. Having tested this one with the contemplative Druids recently, it appears to work for other people a bit, too.

So I’ve taken the plunge and put it on bandcamp. http://nimuebrown.bandcamp.com/releases

You can listen to it for free on the website, there is a small charge to download. If this works out well, I’ll do my best to write and upload some more of these. I’m also considering recording a few meditations and other spoken word things. It’s early days, and I’m very much testing the waters. If there’s something you’d like me to try – in terms of subject matter or approach, do let me know, I’m very much open to suggestions.