Dr. Charles Beale - Conductor of the New York City Gay Mens Chorus

He/Him - Born in London in 1964, Charlie Beale is a choral conductor, a jazz pianist, a music educator, and a speaker on the arts and LGBT issues.

He has been Artistic Director of New York City Gay Men’s Chorus for eight years. Under his energized leadership, the chorus has expanded to 275 singers, has a renewed, more passionate sound, has developed a more interactive style with audiences, and has transformed and expanded its outreach programs. NYCGMC has achieved strong commercial success in recent years, and is recognized for its innovative and entertaining performances locally, across the US and internationally. Recently, NYCGMC has performed with Sia, sang in the Emmy Award-winning movie of Larry Kramer's iconic 'The Normal Heart', toured Europe and raised around US$55,000 for Marriage Equality Ireland In one Dublin performance. In 2015/16, it also performed at Carnegie Hall with Alan Cumming, was the guest star of the New Philharmonic Orchestra at Lincoln Center, and sang at GALA Festival 2016 in Denver Colorado.

A campaigner for stylistic diversity within music education, Charlie became one of the UK's leading jazz educators, and was nominated for a UK Jazz Parliamentary Award for services to jazz education in 2005. Central to the invention of Grade exams for beginner jazz musicians, he toured within the UK and internationally, working with thousands of musicians and educators on first steps to improvising, jazz rhythm skills and teaching and learning by ear. Having received his Doctorate in 2001 from the Institute of Education, he is also a prolific writer and arranger in jazz and choral music, published by Oxford, Hal Leonard, Faber and ABRSM Publishing.

In recent years, Charlie continues to give frequent clinics and workshops internationally, focusing more and more on the transforming power of music. A member of the Board of GALA CHoruses, he worked with an all-Australia LGBT chorus of 200 in Summer 2013, and has been central to 'Big Gay Sing' events in Denver Colorado, Trafalgar Square in London and New York City since 2009.

http://www.charliebeale.com

{Jacob} - Good morning! Thank-you for chatting with me today. Before we jump into your work with the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, I’d love to hear about how you began conducting the London Gay Men’s Chorus.

{Charles} - Well, in the early nineties I had found a niche in London as a freelance teacher of jazz improvisation in higher education. I had been to Guildhall and completed their jazz program. At the time, it was one of the best jazz programs in the country and internationally. In fact, it is still one of the best programs even though there are now many more on offer in the UK. While I was gigging as a freelance arranger, teacher, and big band conductor, I began working for a choir called Eclectic Voices in Islington. Because I had this diverse background in improvisation, jazz, as well as classical, we were able to do a wide variety of things with that choir that many SATB choirs at the time were not doing. So, one evening after a concert where we performed Carmina Burana and a selection of really rhythmic jazz pieces, someone came up to me and told me that the London Gay Men’s Chorus was looking for a conductor and I seemed to fit the bill. So, I said, why not! The first gig I did with them was at the Royal Albert Hall in preparation for them going to the Sydney Opera house the following week.

{Jacob} - A casual start to a new job.

{Charles} - Very casual. But, I sort of just fell into it all. They were a great organisation with a lot of dynamic and passionate people already working for them. Working for gay choirs became a sort of addiction though. Five years with them and now twelve years here in New York!

{Jacob} - Wow! Twelve years in New York. Did you move to work for the NYC Chorus?

{Charles} - I did, yes. It’s another long story, but it all happened fairly similarly. They were looking for someone and I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

{Jacob} - What I find really wonderful about queer choirs, is the visibility and unabashed out-ness of the work they do. Especially with such a high-profile chorus as the NYCGMC. As a chorus that often has so much publicity surrounding it, how often do you have conversations about the mission and purpose of the chorus? There must be many non-musical conversations about what the chorus represents and presents to the world.

{Charles} - Endlessly. I wish we had more time to talk about the music sometimes! But that is what makes these choruses so special. I can put my hand on my heart and say with all honesty that this chorus changes lives. I’ve seen thousands of lives change through singing. They find self esteem and courage. They literally find their voices. Partly through the singing, but also largely through the social interaction of the group. As we are in New York, we’re a very international chorus. We have had people arrive from the Philippines or Yugoslavia and the first thing they do, to build their new community, is join the gay chorus. We also find that singing in the chorus often encourages people to look out into the world and become an activist and an advocate. To do that through song is very convincing and empowering. It changes you. So yes, I think those conversations are what drive the artistic vision of the group. I have come to understand that those conversations about why we are creating music in the first place are what makes art relevant. I look back on my days as a church musician or classical musician, and think, if the sole purpose of making music is to genuflect to dead composers, then we’re missing the point! We should choose music primarily because it connects with people and play it with such intensity and passion that they are forced to look at the world through different eyes.

{Jacob} - I couldn’t agree more. I am coming to my own understanding that I don’t have a way for the art and music that I create to be separated from who I am as a person. I think that is also true for the ensembles I work with. Although, I am the one programing the selections, I think it is impossible for those playing the music to separate their own identities from what we’re playing. I would imagine that is especially true for the groups you work with. When their identities are so politicized there is no way for people to create art without some conversation about how performer and performance interact.  

With all that in mind, how do you go about programming repertoire and concerts for the group? Do you put the focus on the music or what the music is saying? How do you navigate your personal artistic vision with that of the organisation to create an engaging and musically satisfying performance?

{Charles} - It is a very complicated job. Certainly, I have my own idea about the artistic vision for the NYC Gay Men’s Chorus. But, it is also a large world class arts organisation with concerns about ticket sales, media, publicity, and that side of things. It is also a chorus that performs for, and is made up of, skeptical New York City gay men for whom singing “I am what I am” is no longer interesting or radical. In a city that is so saturated with performances, programming becomes that much more challenging. I should also say that because we live in New York, the type of people who are available to join the chorus is different than almost anywhere else in the world. The singers I work with are often music theatre trained with degrees in performing arts. We also have a large crowd that have phenomenal ears and can sing and riff with the best of them but have very little training. So, what we program is very related to the singers in the group, the city we’re in, the collective skills the singers bring with them, and also what needs to be said in terms of lgbt issues in New York and America right now. New York and the NYCGMC have a very strong feeling as an international gay center, that if they’re queer, we need to be queerer.

{Jacob} - The first couple things that pop-up on a youtube search of the Gay Men’s Chorus are the Good Morning America tribute to the victims of Pulse Orlando, and a concert produced by Logo where you perform with Sia. Two events at very different ends of the spectrum. One a glitter and glitz celebration of queerness and pride, the other a sober and deeply moving tribute to the worst hate crime in American history. The world works in pendulum swings and obviously at the moment we’re in a swing to the right. As a group that has such a national and international media presence, where do you see the chorus going in the future? How can their presence aid in larger discussions?

{Charles} - I would say one of the first things to discuss is that we are a TTBB chorus in an age of gender and identity change. That makes what we do challenging and interesting. We are thinking a lot at the moment about gender and how we can rework many key concepts, both about gender in choral singing, and about what music to program. We just did a whole show about David Bowie, genderfuck, and bisexuality. Which is a challenging concert for many gay men, for whom their identity and acceptance took many years to carve out. It is easy for people to feel like they need to protect an identity that took them decades with which to arrive and feel comfortable. Then, to be asked to rethink those struggles and include genders and sexualities that had for many years not been included in discussions feels difficult. It is absolutely complicated, fluid, and confusing, but it is also healthy. In many respects as a chorus with a long history, we have more to unlearn and reprogram than a queer chorus that started five years ago.

The other thing we are trying as a group to understand is the mission and effectiveness of what we do. For so long gay men’s choruses and queer choirs have been tools for vocal and political activism. Some say that now is the time to “Fight Back” through song, and that our programming should focus on that fight. And there are others in our movement who feel that our message and efforts would be more effective through a more joyful and positive means; that there is enough divisiveness in the world already, and that our primary purpose is to build bridges. Aside from that, there are also more complex and varied emotions at play than just singing about fighting back. It is difficult to build bridges and be joyful in that pursuit when the people who disagree with us are so very disrespectful and nasty. So what is the role of art? To heal and connect, or to express what is going on and how we feel?

{Jacob} - Which brings us back to those first two youtube videos. The tribute to Pulse is not a celebration or a fight back. It’s a raw and emotional mirror on the pain of a tragic event where the Sia concert is a visible, loud-and-proud celebration of diversity. I work in a university institution. My mandate, on paper, has nothing to do with being political, but what I’ve seen in my time there so far is that the institution is more and more invested in presenting an agenda. The university is actively and vocally advocating for indigenous rights, women’s rights, and queer rights, and they are interested in promoting art and content that brings those things together. I do see their interest shifting to allow art to express the current climate and try to and use it to bridge the gaps. You’re right though that is is hard to do when the opposition is so vehement.

Having watched many other videos of the chorus, there is also a strong tradition of drag in the group. Can you tell me more about the talents your members bring to the group as seasoned and up and coming drag performers?

{Charles} - There is a very strong connection to drag performance in our group that has been there from the very beginning. We have elected drag ‘royalty’ in the group that are responsible for a certain amount of public relations and the organisation of social events. Every year the group elects one ‘butch’ and one ‘queen’ to serve in those roles. We also have “Lily’s School for Girls,” which is a workshop opportunity for members to try out drag for the first time and explore gender non-conforming in a safe space. It’s fun and a great social event, but it also opens the door for us to continue these conversations about gender and expression.

{Jacob} - What I love so much about queer run groups, is how much they communicate and then enact those conversations. As I talk to people, I’m realizing that organisations like yours know their membership on a deep personal level, build communities and relationships between people, and integrate those discussions into the artistic vision of the group. I think we would be hard pressed to find an orchestra, or other choir (even a community group) that has the profound understanding of the purpose of the group and how art and creation relates to it. That is such a special facet of queer communities.

{Charles} - It is. And sometimes we succeed with integrating those ideas, and sometimes in taking artistic risks we fail miserably. As much as we have these conversations and we are all personally invested in the artistic vision of the group, when it comes down to it, we’re still a chorus. We’re an arts organisation. We can talk about expression, gay employment rights, gender, and political outrage, but when it comes down to it art is largely about love and death. No matter who you are, much of the art we create is about the biggest things in life. But, we do the best we can. We are as inclusive as we can be. We try to sing about things that matter and we try to ensure that what we sing makes a difference in the world.

{Jacob} - Thank-you very much for taking the time to chat with me. I can’t wait to see what massive projects the chorus takes on next!

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