Tag Archives: chanting

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.

Druid Camp

At this early stage, much of Druid Camp is a mystery. I know I’m looking after a contemplative space. I know James Nichol will be talking about contemplative Druidry, and that there will be chanting – I’m hoping for an Enchanting the void session from J.J. Middleway, and I’ve got designs on doing some awen soaked anarchic music experimenting. Probably on the Wednesday night. I may well lead some meditation sessions – what and how much depending on who else wants to do what, and how much. Part of the joy of Druid Camp is that there’s a lot of flexibility, a lot of space to go with what happens and follow the inspiration. I’m really looking forward to it.



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.

Druid Camp

In just over a week’s time, Druid Camp kicks off in The Forest of Dean. I’ve been before as a day visitor, but this is my first go at doing the whole thing. The lovely organising folk invited me to come and do some stuff. Mostly at the moment the closest I get to holidays is going nice places for work purposes, so being able to work a ticket to Druid Camp means a lot to me. It also gives the boy a splendid few days of free ranging and experiencing, as he will no doubt be getting involved with the yoga and exploring his new enthusiasm for all things woolly.

Druid camp offers a huge breadth of experiences and opportunities. Dance, yoga, stav, arts, crafts, music, sweat lodge, rituals, talks, workshops, entertainment. Leading lights, such as Ronald Hutton, Kevan Manwaring and Kris Hughes will be there. All manner of people from the Druid community will also be sharing their thing. It’s a great opportunity to learn, connect and be inspired.

I shall be teaching two forms of subversive creativity. I’ve been in plenty of circles that feature chanting and/or drumming. Either it’s a brief process, rapidly burned out by boredom and self-consciousness, or it tends to be a lengthy opportunity for tediousness. Chanting and drumming tend towards the repetitive. Now, there is a theory that through repetition we clear the mind, entering trance-like and meditative states. This is fine if you’re a dedicated practitioner. However, if you’re just some regular soul who turned up at a circle, ennui is far more probable than enlightenment.

There are ways of taking chanting and drumming, and developing them creatively. These are the most basic forms of human music, (no drums required even, we can do improvised percussion). Keeping it basic makes it easy to get involved, but learning to play with it makes the process more interesting. Then, if you can really give yourself into the experience, really engaging with the music you make with the people around you, it can have a real effect. When we do these things creatively, opening to inspiration and awen, attentive to each other, amazing things can happen.

What we do in these workshops can be taken back into ritual. The percussive approach is especially good, because a ritual circle can be encouraged to go through their pockets for things to improvise with, try sticks, stones, their bodies, the person next to them…. Engaging with the space to find the means to make sound, is powerful all by itself.

The basis of subversive music making, is actually listening. Rather than banging away on our own drum, or belting out another round of ‘we all come from the goddess’, subversion begins when we undertake to really listen to each other, and the quite that holds the space we are in. There’s a lot more to drumming and chanting than just making noise.

Do come along and play with me next week, http://www.druidcamp.org.uk if you need more information. If you would like me to bring a little musical subversion to your circle, let me know. Also, if you’re doing a thing at Druid camp, do tout it in the comments.