SINGING OUR WAY TO UTOPIA:
The Similarities Between Choirs and Cities
Singing our way to Utopia is based on the idea that a choir and a city have a lot in common.
A great choir is much like a great city. A choir creates harmony from diverse voices. It depends on differences in the range and pitch of its members. Singing together allows people to create something that transcends the sum of their individual voices. Trust, collaboration, difference – as well as musical ability –these are the bases on which choirs exist.
And these, too, are the qualities that underpin a good city. Accepting difference and welcoming different groups of people, opens up cities to new and creative ways of thinking; collaborating with diverse individuals allows the city to function; and trusting individuals helps to build stronger communities.
SOUND AND SPACE IN THE CITY
The great US sociologist, Richard Sennett, in The Fall of Public Man, wrote how over time city spaces in which the public can meet and interact have been reduced and constrained. Increased surveillance and control have limited the opportunities for people from different walks of life to meet and interact in public spaces. In place of the public urban realm has emerged the virtual spaces of the internet – the “blogosphere”, the “twittersphere” and the Facebook wall.
For Sennett, the loss of this public realm, and of face-to-face contact in cities, is one of the defining features of modern societies. It is also one of the key elements for declining trust between individuals who might use the same spaces but who no longer interact with each other.
We’re Here uses the sound of a choir to question the importance of the public spaces in cities within which people can meet and engage with each other. The project invites us to participate in creating a vibrant, urban public realm. It shows how diverse individuals and groups, now and in the past, can use sound to assert a right to be present. The sound of the choir flows through the performance space unhindered and unbounded. Through the choir, brought together from different places and comprising a diversity of people,We’re Here invites everyone to consider what constitutes a vibrant public place and to think about its importance in helping to create a great city.
DIVERSITY BUT NOT INTEGRATION
In the choir we trust…
According to a recent report, Britain is becoming more diverse but not necessarily more integrated. This is the finding from the Social Integration Commission’s report, Kingdom United? Growing age differences, greater ethnic variety and widening inequality all help to create a society that is more diverse than at any time in its history. According to the Commission, lack of integration carries with it costs both for individuals and society: it diminishes a sense of community well-being; it reduces opportunities to find work and it hinders the creation of a diverse workforce. It creates barriers between people based on group characteristics rather than on individual characteristics.
Higher levels of integration, on the other hand, help to foster greater trust between individuals from different backgrounds. This means that people are more likely to react to others as individuals rather than categorising them purely on the basis of their age, gender, sexuality, religion, race, ethnicity or class. This opens up many more opportunities for a richer, more diverse community life in which individuals from very different walks of life, of different religious beliefs, sexual orientations etc can more easily develop strong bonds of friendship and trust.
In forming a choir of diverse people coming together as strangers but with a common purpose and in a public space, We’re Here addresses some of the fundamental issues of social integration in our cities today. To sing together is an act of trust. We depend on others to sing with us in harmony. The choir itself depends on different voices working together. It is a visible and audible representation of a diverse society. It encourages integration by recognising and celebrating what we share in common through living together in our urban places. In the process of sharing those experiences, we learn about the differences as well as the similarities between us. With that knowledge comes greater trust and with greater trust comes better understanding and appreciation for who each of us are as individuals.
THE OPEN CITY
In Cities in Civilization (1998), the great British urbanist, Peter Hall talked about what makes a city a creative place. Wealth alone, he argued, was not sufficient to foster the imagination or generate new ideas. Nor was necessity: there were plenty of examples of cities in different periods where the need to change was evident but which failed to innovate and so stagnated. So, what encouraged the creation and adoption of new ideas that allowed cities to thrive?
The answer, according to Peter Hall, was the acceptance of outsiders with different experiences and the willingness to listen to new ideas and ways of doing things. It was the social framework of the city even more than its physical make up that was crucial to encouraging and adopting new ideas. Newcomers to the city from varied cultures and backgrounds, and with different views were often the key to a city’s success. This idea is borne out in very different cultural contexts.
In this, the 400th anniversary of his death, we should not forget that Shakespeare, too, was a migrant to London. The birth of the Hollywood film industry also was associated with migrants, or sons of migrants, almost all of whom were Jewish. In a city’s culture and the arts, no less than in other walks of life, diversity, toleration and inclusion were 5 5– and still are – the basis of creativity.