Singing and Dancing in the Rain

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The main stage and its superabundance of flowersThe main stage and its superabundance of flowers

Actually, there were some patches of glorious sunshine during last week's Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, but these were sandwiched in between days of persistent rain, punctuated by some impressive thunderstorms. The River Dee was transformed from its usual summer guise of sparkling backdrop for photo-calls into a raging torrent, and the guys selling wellies and brollies up on the Eisteddfod Field were doing very good business indeed.

But the people who had travelled from around the world continued undaunted.

It is a remarkable event in many ways, particularly in the way it sets up the interpenetration of local and global in its celebration of performance arts. It is based on a strong Welsh tradition of artistic competition, and, whilst its official language is English (as the language most likely to be accessible to people from all over the world), Welsh language and culture is much in evidence throughout.

At the same time, it reaches out to a global artistic community - and does so in two distinct dimensions. On one hand there is the internationalised language and conventions of classical music, particularly apparent in the choral classes, though also seen in solo vocal and instrumental classes too. Competitors are encouraged (and in some contexts required) to bring music from their countries of origin, but they also draw on a worldwide pool of common repertoire. You'll hear German choirs singing French music, and both English and Argentinian choirs singing in Latin, all with certain shared assumptions as to what constitutes appropriate styles of vocal production and ensemble.

On the other hand, there is the celebration of 'folk' arts - traditional song and dance from around the world - in which the distinctiveness of individual traditions and the honouring of local heritage is the primary value. Here we see the idea of a shared humanity articulated through contrasting rather than shared traditions. The gestures and steps, the costumes, the instruments, the tunes, can be strikingly different, and yet we can empathise across cultural boundaries, learning about how other peoples' emotional rhythms work, and in the process learning about ourselves.

Of course, the fact that the traditional arts have been taken out of their original contexts and staged immediately creates a common ground for understanding. But at the same time, it also strips away the very traditional contexts that gave life and meaning to them in the first place. This tension between fidelity to origin and packaging an art to reach out to a non-specialist audience is one that faces any artform that lives on in a changing world. We've just been performing choral liturgy in the concert hall for so long we've forgotten that there are analogous philosophical questions there.

Llangollen as an event is also an interesting case-study on the distinction between ethos and branding. Many organisations have a story they want to present to the world and put a lot of effort into building this public face. Llangollen has its own particular story of peace and celebration, but this is as evident in the back-room operations as in the customer-facing front, running through the event like words through a stick of rock.

For instance, the panel of adjudicators is just as international as the field of competitors: of the nine choral adjudicators, there were eight countries represented. And so, just like the competitors, we all came home with a much greater cross-cultural understanding to inform the work we do with groups back home.

Another example: one of the striking parts of the Eisteddfod's public face is the glorious display of flowers that frames the stage in the main Pavilion. You walk into that space, and you immediately feel special. If you go into one of the smaller local venues such as the Dinas Bran school or the Town Hall for a preliminary competition, though, you will also be greeted with a flower arrangement - not on the same scale, to be sure, but still more generous in scope than you usually come across at all but the most special occasions. There is a quiet message that even those who don't get to perform on the main stage also deserve to feel special.

And then, backstage in the adjudicators' space, we find floral table decorations. Seeing that attention to detail even in areas hidden from public view gives a very strong subliminal message about the values the event cherishes.

So if you've never yet been to Llangollen, I'd recommend you give it a try. If you're the kind of person who reads this blog, you're the kind of person who would find much to learn and much to warm your heart there. But take clothes for both rainy and sunny weather. There's a reason North Wales is so lush and green, you know.

Hi Liz,
What a lovely description of what Llangollen is all about and how we can all share each other's cultural differences in a beautiful setting. And an interesting insight into the 'backrooms' of the judging panel too! I only hope the 'maes' (field) wasn't too muddy for your wellies?!!
Warm regards,

Thank you Nova; glad you like it.

There was a good deal of mud, but there are at least paved paths there. I talked to a chap who described the conditions at the National Youth Eisteddfod at the start of June as 'like walking through gravy', so I think we got off likely. (That was also the weekend of the big floods in Wales.)

your comments certainly reflect my experience, especially your identification of the various dualities at play at the Eisteddfod: local/global; "art music"/folk music; reaching for the high bar/celebrating at ground level; and then of course the defining reality of of our trade, that we take things that belong elsewhere and put them in the glass jar of a concert stage (I suppose we do that even with that riot of flowers!). It's all so great! Thanks for your distillation!

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