I’m writing this in the TGV from Marseille to Paris, travelling at a mind-boggling 300km/hr. Someone on the train has just managed to hijack the loudspeaker system and inform passengers that ‘due to a problem with the air conditioning, the buffet bar will be free of charge for the next half an hour’. The joke was not appreciated by the SNCF personnel, who responded promptly telling us to ignore the previous announcement. Indeed, the preposterousness of idea that anything might be available for free became apparent when I asked for a drop of milk in my tea costing €3.20 – ‘it’s 30 centimes for milk’, I was told, despite the fact that she had no change to offer and wanted exact money!

View from the window

This week has been mostly been spent on an Mediterranean island just off the coast near Toulon, in order to attend a conference entitled ‘Ecole d’été Sciences et Voix’. The sacrifices one makes for one’s profession! It certainly beats going to Milton Keynes for the Stroke Assembly. Nevertheless, the days were so jam-packed with events, starting at 8.30 and finishing around 11, that there was barely any time for the beach. The presenters came from a huge range of backgrounds, spanning biomechanics, acoustics, phonetics, linguistics, musicology and medicine.

IGESA centre

IGESA centre

Every evening there was voice-related entertainment laid on, from a presentation by a counter tenor/researcher about vocal registers, with sung excerpts from Purcell to Fauré, to a screening of the ridiculous Viktor Victoria (Julie Andrews playing a fake drag queen to save herself from ruin; verdict from the amused crowd: ‘c’est de l’humour anglais’…) to the final night’s eclectic open mic. This started with one of the physicists demonstrating his new pitch training software called The Snail, which displays not only the fundamental frequency of a sound (sung or otherwise) but also the resonant frequencies as colours in a very pretty spiral diagram. It’s been tested on the human voice and piano but not yet on string instruments, so I have volunteered my skills. Watch this space! Next up, the Chorus Digitalis, a quartet performing close harmony with synthesised voices by manipulating pitch and vocal quality with a stylus on a tablet. We added Chorus Humanis (the assembled participants) and recorded the net result with a French version of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ from the Lion King (rather disturbingly translated as ‘the lion dies tonight’…)

Chorus digitalis

The evening continued with one of the group performing some of his own songs, accompanying himself on the guitar. One song was about Monsanto and required audience participation for the rhyming refrains of ‘Mon – san – to! On veut pas tes poireaux!’ and ‘Mon – san – to! Ravale tes artichauts!’, which translates roughly as ‘we don’t want your leeks’ and ‘take back your artichokes’, respectively.

Finally, we were treated to an improvisation on the spinet (an 18th century harpsichord) based on a theme on ‘Nathalie’, the name of the organiser. Swiftly followed by karaoke to the classics of French chanson/pop, i.e. Daniel Balavoine, Dalida and no doubt many more, though at this point (almost midnight) I admitted defeat and went to bed.