04.07.19

Words by: Felicity Martin

The 10 Best Vocal Pieces, according to Shards

"Every time I hear this piece of music I get the shivers..."

For centuries and centuries, the human voice has been the most efficient – and versatile – instrument, and London-based vocal group Shards are a 12-piece exploring the intricacies of this tool. Led by singer, composer and producer Kieran Brunt, the group formed after the Barbican asked Brunt to form a choral group for Nils Frahm’s Possibly Colliding festival. Selecting a tight group of friends and friends-of-friends ranging from instrumentalists to teachers, the unit boasts a wealth of different voices, all individually selected for what they can bring to the table vocally.

The group has an album on the way via Erased Tapes, ‘Find Sound’, with each track intended as an individual sonic painting that explores light and emotions through the medium of vocal chords. Below, Brunt has selected the ten pieces of music that have inspired his explorations into channelling the human voice, from Kanye to Ben Frost…

1. Sergei Rachmaninoff – ‘Bogoroditse Dyevo’

“Every time I hear this piece of music I get the shivers. I used to be in the choir in this video, and remember the immense feeling every time we reached the loudest part (1:50) when everyone just strapped in and went for it.”

2. Laurie Anderson – ‘O Superman’

“The voice as machine, and vice versa. For a song with such sinister lyrics it still manages to feel warm and tender somehow. The vocal elements are simple but poignant, and this surely has to be one of the most beautiful uses of the vocoder to date.”

3. Kanye West – ‘Ultralight Beam’

“There are so many incredible vocal performances on this track. Softly spoken rap, heavily tuned vocals, a huge gospel choir… Whatever you think of Kanye, you can’t deny his ability to coax magic out of his collaborators.”

4. Benjamin Britten – ‘A Ceremony of Carols’

“Benjamin Britten devoted most of his time to writing music for voices, and was particularly obsessed with the fragility and transience of young boys’ voices. This is a set of carols for boys’ choir and harp, mostly in Middle English.”

5. Caroline Shaw – ‘Partita for 8 Voices: 1 – Allemande’

“A game-changer in the contemporary choral world, Caroline Shaw’s music in this first movement is so fresh and wide-eyed. I went to hear her and Roomful of Teeth perform it live recently and was blown away by the huge range of vocal techniques they employed.”

6. Animal Collective – ‘We Tigers’

“It’s easy to forget how important the vocals are in Animal Collective’s music. I’ve always loved how wild they are on this track.”

7. Nico Muhly – ‘Mothertongue’

“Nico has been a good friend of mine for a while, and his musical community has played a really important role in shaping who I am as a musician. He has written so much great music for voices that it’s difficult to know where to begin, but I’d say this early piece is a good place to start.”

8. Thomas Tallis – ‘Archbishop Parker Psalter Eighth Tune: God Grant We Grace’

“Thomas Tallis wrote this tune over 450 years ago, at a time when religious rule put limits on what composers were allowed to do in their music. Those in power sought to make church music more simple; Tallis cunningly worked within their restrictions and wrote this beautiful canon. Listen closely and you’ll notice the top voice is echoing the second lowest throughout.”

9. Beacon Sound Choir – ‘Drone 3’

“Bathe in the immersive warmth of these voices, recorded in an intimate and lo-fi way. I love it when the blurred chord changes happen and little dissonances poke out of the texture.”

10. Ben Frost – ‘Fortitude Excerpt’

“Ben’s music often feels like so much energy has been pumped into it that it could explode at any minute. He made these strange and brilliant choral arrangements for his score for Fortitude, a TV show about frozen parasitic wasps which awaken and cause people turn into zombie-like cannibals… go for the gore, stay for the music.”

Shards’ ‘Find Sound’ is released on August 30th 2019 by Erased Tapes. Stream ‘Summer Sickness’ now: