“I can never follow my own instructions as well as my singers do” - Interview with Dóra Halas conductor
KultPult SALON - Dora Halas never dreamt of becoming a conductor. When she was young, she just liked to sing and play the piano. Today she is a successful musician, who has founded her unique choir Soharóza ten years ago.
Written by: Mariann Bencze
She has built a team, with which she can truly cooperate on all levels: Dora does not rule over the ensemble, instead she makes the members part of the creative process with her special methods. Presently she has two “catwalk-concerts” running with Soharóza: Taboo Collection was first performed two years ago and The Issue is their new production from this year, where she worked together with costume designer Fruzsina Nagy.
In the first interview in a brand new KultPult-column on the blog of Lean in Femspace in Vienna, you can learn about living in Hungary and abroad, about a leadership not typical of women, Dora’s ability of building a community and her special method named KOMP.
– Most girls like to sing and dream of becoming singers when they grow up; but how many girls follow the dream of becoming conductors?
I liked to sing, but I never thought of becoming a conductor. Apparently, I kept gathering people around me to sing WITH me. What’s even more peculiar: I didn’t notice this at the time. I just thought – at the age of 21, while studying Mathematics and English at university – that I don’t only enjoy singing in a choir, but I seem to understand and physically soak in every single word the conductor says (thank you, Gábor Hollerung, again!), while others are chit-chatting through this process. I am not good enough in any instrument, so what’s left there for me? Music teaching and conducting – that was the only course at the Music Academy that seemed to fit me, where you didn’t have to be an expert in one specific thing, just have sufficient knowledge of basically everything: a little bit of piano, a little bit of music history and music theory, singing, and so on. But then already in second year I became the conductor of a traditional chamber choir and a year later I co-founded my first experimental group.
– Do you also have the desire to be on stage and sing? Usually we only see your choir performing – do you ever step on stage with them?
Yes, I do, many times, but not when we perform theatrical pieces or catwalk-concerts. I enjoy conducting, but only if my presence and conducting really makes a difference in the output. In the more theatrical shows, I think it’s important not to take away any attention from what the singers or performers have to give, they must learn to do everything by themselves, without any help from the conductor, once they are on stage. In other cases, I have a very specific function: in improvised pieces or workshops I need to show them the musical framework, or indicate time for them; in more traditional concerts I like to connect with them live on stage to motivate them to express the content, the feelings and thoughts behind the music as much as possible; sometimes I sing with them too, but I have come to realize that I can never follow my own instructions as well as my singers do. Plus whenever I step into the choir as a singer, I become the naughtiest member, it must be some kind of a psychological liberation and an overwhelming feeling of enthusiasm that I experience at such times. It makes me feel like I’m a young girl again.
– By stepping into the choir from time to time during the course of a workshop or project, you communicate that flat hierarchy works well between a choir and its conductor. Does it really work?
As a whole I prefer a flat organizational structure – simply because I believe that everyone’s input is valuable to the same extent and that by sharing responsibility with them, they become more involved. If I am told to clean up my room, because it will look nicer then, I may be reluctant to do it and may not do a good job of it. But if I feel the necessity myself and I can do it the way I want to, I will not only get a much better result, but I may even enjoy the process. So as a leader of a group it is my job to provide the possibilities that the choir members can relate to and offer them the chance to fill it up with content. However, I must say that the final decision-making lies with the leader. The members can put forward their ideas as ingredients of a pot of soup, but they must have trust in the leader – and the leader must take full responsibility – to blend their flavours to produce a high-quality dish.
– What are the characteristics of the special method you call KOMP?
KOMP is short (and Hungarian) for “Collective Composing”. By composing, I don’t just mean the act of composing music, but composing a structure, a theme, a line of dramaturgy – composing as in piecing together, compounding, adjusting, arranging, just like the etymology of the word implies. We have experimented with numerous exercises, where the singers can feel free to submit their musical ideas.
SoharózaBasically it is a series of games. It’s simple playing. You receive a set of rules – different for each exercise – and you just follow along those lines. Sometimes the rules are very strict and keep your hands tied, at other times you are much more free to wander around in the game.
For choirs and students, the exercises can be used as a practical toolkit for development of intonation, sense of rhythm, aural skills, voice formation, paying attention to each other, creativity, increasing individual performance. But what I find the most interesting is when you start off from these simple games and slowly work through them by alterations, fine-tuning and suddenly find yourself with a piece of music, which is exciting enough to be shown to the public. Then we’ve done real composing.
– How do choir members react to KOMP when they experience your methods in practice?
In my own choir we have ups and downs. Some experiments work really well and we immediately get a good result, I see bright eyes and concentrated faces. At other times, the exercise is too hard, or people are just not in the mood for it, or there is simply no creative vibe in the air. This can happen and there is nothing wrong with that. We can always learn from these, make conclusions and improve. I myself constantly have the urge to renew myself and my methods when working with my own choir, which is sometimes tiring, but at the same time this inner provocation is what pushes us in the direction of innovation at all times. On the other hand, the reason I enjoy doing workshops for people with no experience with such activity is because for that short amount of time, the level of enthusiasm and participation is extremely high, simply because of its novelty.
– Your cooperation with the choir Soharóza and costume designer Fruzsina Nagy in the catwalk concerts has yielded a new genre. Were you aware of the fact that with Taboo Collection and The Issue a new genre will be created?
When we started working on Taboo Collection, we were not aware of this at the beginning. It was during the process, when we had to make important decisions in directing the piece that slowly-slowly we came to realize that this performance must be a catwalk-concert. Not a theatre play, not a concert with strong visuals, not a fashion show with live music – but a catwalk-concert, where the two art forms (choral music and costume design) need to go hand in hand, one inspiring the other in the same amount. There was no subordination and I think this is what makes it work.
– The catwalk-concerts have performed not only in Budapest, but also toured in other parts of Hungary and abroad. What are your plans now?
We are just about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Soharóza choir. Soharóza (and myself) have proved ourselves very effective in cooperating with representatives of other art forms – let that be a gastroblogger, a costume designer, a historian, a media artist or a theatre director –, so I think it is time we start letting our musical self grow and return to organizing music concerts with no extra layer. In addition, as a third facet of our operation, I would like to turn my attention to pedagogy with the help of some of my choir members, as much for children as for conductors or teachers, and for any adult groups that wish to sing and experiment with music-making. It is a somewhat hidden dream of mine too to be able to work on a more regular basis with Fruzsina Nagy as a catwalk-concert duo and be invited to theatre companies or any performing groups, who wish to enrich their own repertoire with a catwalk-concert.
– You have experience both of living abroad and building a community. How did you manage to connect with new communities during your years abroad?
I lived 4 years in Syria when I was very young and almost 6 years in Cyprus during my teenage years. In Syria, I just followed my parents everywhere, but already then I experienced the presence of a very strong community between Hungarians living in Damascus, with constant cultural programmes, educational trainings for the children, parties and dinners between the families. I don’t have real memories from back then, only flashbacks on a deep and unconscious level (emotions, sense of smell, sounds). In Cyprus I started founding my own singing groups and bands, throwing concerts at the school theatre, doing musicals, participating in team-building programmes organized by the English-speaking community of the local church, taking on organizing and leading roles there. I don’t seem to remember any difficulties, not even when we moved back to Budapest at the age of 17.
My last experience abroad was just recently: we spent four years in Vienna with my family. With two very young children on my back, I was mostly at home with them or running back to Budapest to manage Soharóza. So we got caught up in making kindergarten pals mostly and having friends and family and the choir visiting from Hungary almost every weekend throughout the four years, sometimes with 20 people staying at our flat, sleeping like sardines in a can on the floor. It was a fun four years.
– Do you also apply the KOMP method with your own children at home?
I don’t do any specific training at home. I believe the best way for children to learn and develop is by experience and free experimenting. The kids see us playing instruments, they hear me singing a thousand different songs and making all sort of strange noises without end, we have numerous different music instruments, a Clavinova (with demo programmes) and a collection of wonderful vinyl records in our home; they come to my choir concerts, we travel, we show them as much as we can of the world – so basically we just pass on our own enthusiasm and let them build their own.
But still, I would say ‘yes’ to your question: I do apply the KOMP method at home, because the most basic principle of KOMP is to be open to any sound and be able to consider it as music.
- to expand the creative aspect of any musical group,
- to construct full concert repertoires for choirs,
- to open up people who want to sing, but have no experience,
- to loosen up amateur singers,
- to teach music to children or adults on any level in a fun way.
Mariann Bencze, hostess of “KultPult SALON” is a graduated journalist, PR consultant, teacher of Hungarian literature and linguistics - since 2003 active in the field of publishing, public relations and organization of events.
She has been living in Vienna since 2011 and has started to teach children & adults. For several years she is particularly interested in 2 topics: culture and communication, but especially in people. She organizes Hungarian culture programs in Austria and also supports the integration of kids from abroad. Since 2013, she has been active as a PR & Employer Branding manager in Vienna.