A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

Men in Hats



You don’t need to wear a hat to sing, but it clearly helps. Most of the time.

Well, some of the time.


Most of the time.

And the hats are great. The hats, and the beards.

But I know the hats aren’t the whole secret because they come off occasionally – sometimes on purpose, sometimes involuntarily — and it doesn’t affect the singing. (The beards stay on. Except for those who don’t have beards. They lose the hats, but their beards don’t stay on, because they don’t have beards.)

I could go on… But I won’t, because I’m not male, I don’t have a beard and I’m just not as, well, spooky as the Spooky Men’s Chorale. And even if I was, if I did, if I were, I wouldn’t be as good at being spooky as this sixteen piece male a cappella choir.

The Spooky Men’s Chorale, under the direction of Stephen ‘spookmeister’ Taberner, is a vocal ensemble with a strong sense of pitch and an equally strong sense of the absurd. Taberner’s humour derives from the dead-pan school of comedy, mining the comic potential of a cognitive mismatch between what you say and how you react. Touching, acute observations are his forte — like his riff on the glum-looking man in row 17, who is fundamentally happy, but forgot to tell his face — as are wandering digressions (see above). But the funny – and fascinating –  thing is that how this approach plays out both in words and in music.

The opening number, for example, which starts as a soundscape of random noises. A tongue click. A sudden ‘oy’. A ripple of ‘huh?’s. There’s no hidden meaning, no grand plan or, at least, if there is it’s irrelevant. All you need to do is watch and listen, and in doing so you get gradually drawn into the spooky world. In anyone else’s hands it could be irritating or pretentious or twee. Here it’s just watching and listening. Which, it turns out, is a very fine occupation indeed.

Or the meta-drama of ‘Welcome to the Second Half’, built on poetry from the School-of-the-bleeding-obvious. Except that during the song, something shifts, and we move from a silly song about silly singing to a contemplation of before, after and now.

Woah! How did we get from absurdity to existentialism in one easy, a cappella leap?

By being spooky, that’s how.

The Spooky Men’s Chorale embark on their first Australia-wide tour this month, to be followed in short order by a UK-wide tour. Previously a badly-kept secret of folk and fringe festivals, this time they’re playing mainstream venues more used to hosting chamber ensembles — Angel Place, Melbourne Recital Centre, London’s Kings Place and many more. Does their strange silliness stand up in a more formal concert situation? Speaking from last night’s experience, YES. It takes a while to get the audience at Angel Place going, but by the end they are literally dancing in the aisles. So when the posters go up at venue near you don’t delay. Chuff along and get your tickets for admission in the spooky brotherhood. Beards preferred but not compulsory.

And after you’ve done that, chuff along to see my book page, www.unbound.com/books/sanctuary, where I’m crowd-funding a pictorial history of Dartington International Summer School of Music and see if you feel moved to pledge, share, or tell all your friends about this worthy project. I’ll be eternally grateful. 

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