Von Eszter Kállay
“If there’s something that you wanna hear / fuckin’ sing it yourself”
Varsányi Szirének (meaning Syrens from Varsány) is a dulcet autodidactic music machine based in Budapest. What does this mean? It is an international all-female amateur choir, an acapella group that mainly covers pop songs, like “No Scrubs” by TLC or “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani. Songs that speak to us, that mean something to us or that we feel are about us in some way. In our times of depressive late capitalism, this collective practice compensates for more alienating, individualistic artistic practices that are now dominating the art world. This last sentence tells a lot about my motivation for joining the choir: artistic self-expression together with building a female community and a collective practice for which you only need your voice. However, as in every community, all of the members have slightly different motivations and reasons for taking part in it, which is why I have decided to ask my fellow singing friends to share their own inner motivations, insights and thoughts regarding this ever-changing communal singing group. This short article is dedicated to them, since it was shaped by our conversations, their self-reflections and many collective questions.
The example from which the choir has developed was the Berliner Kneipenchor, a choir that creates and performs acapella covers of famous pop songs and that one of our members was a part of before becoming a founding member of Varsányi Szirének. The choir’s first building block was a regular practice: for a long time, there were no performances, being social and enjoying singing together were the choir’s only reasons of existence. The place of the rehearsals (the apartment of the choir leader, Laura Szári, on Varsányi Irén street) provided a safe space where you could let your voice out, even if you do not think you have a ‘good’ voice. There were and there are still no requirements for joining, meaning that there are no tryouts and no need for previous knowledge in music and singing. This brings us to the diverse problematic of what it means to be an ‘amateur’. We find that it has a liberating effect: the fact that we are amateurs does not mean that no one can sing. On the contrary, it means that everyone can.
Of course, aside from breaking with the concept of professionalism, this amateurism (love for music) can become quite complex, exactly because of our diverse backgrounds and different experiences in singing. On the one hand, it makes it easier for everybody to join and access the group, and it provides a relaxed and more at-home setting. On the other hand, we then consciously break with this safe space and sing in public. We are invited to perform at festivals and events, and this is then quite different to the familiar environment in the apartment and during rehearsals. For example, we are sitting in a circle and we can look at each other during rehearsal, but when we go on stage, we face the audience. So, during the weekly rehearsals, we try to prepare for this moment of exposure and performance since not everybody of us has experience in performing. This moment of exposure can then turn into something healing: it can counter negative or humiliating experiences that we had with musical education (after all, singing is an act that makes one vulnerable). We also use it to promote issues that are important to us: among other organizations and events, we performed at Lovefest, sang for donations to Utcajogász, a housing rights organisation, and took part in a women’s strike at the festival of NEM!, Nők Egymásért Mozgalom., a relatively new feminist movement.
As in every heterogenous group, it is not easy to name clear and common values but based on the texts and interviews of the other members, I can safely say that I managed to collect some. First of all, we make each decision together. Secondly, the group is absolutely judgement-free: creating a community is more of a priority than professionalizing the choir. The structure is completely open: anyone can propose a song for the choir to work on. The community works in a way that you can contribute to the choir in many different ways, e.g. by organizing concerts, creating the logo of the group, coming up with a melody or contributing with a text. These contributions always develop spontaneously, in an organic way. At the same time, there is definitely one person, Laura Szári, the choir leader, who is the most engaged organizer. She is the base and foundation of the project and keeps the choir together by coming to all the rehearsals and concerts. She is very conscious about her role and her responsibilities, and she inspires us greatly. Something that also came out of our conversations about the choir is that there is a real comfort in being only women in the room. There is a certain power in it, and it helps to experience and see all the different ways in which you can be a woman. It feels empowering to become a part of a chill and accepting female community with a wide sexuality spectrum. Another way in which the choir can be a source of power is through the power of pop songs. Pop music is something that is oftentimes not regarded as ‘real music’, and in many ways not taken seriously. It is excluded from the canon, similarly to female authors, artists and creators. It feels good to reclaim their power, to reinterpret them and sing them in a meaningful way.
The choir aims to be completely inclusive, this is why its primary language is English. One of the main goals is to create a platform where no one feels left out (even if they do not speak Hungarian or are not super confident in English). The internationality of the community starts conversations within the group that would not happen otherwise: it brought to the foreground topics like cultural appropriation, inclusivity, language barriers, and the problematic of center and periphery. These issues are rather discussed in smaller groups, before or after practice. This collective learning process is open-ended, there is also a pedagogical aspect to it, but this is never one-sided: learning how to sing together is in reality a form of listening and paying attention. It is a fragile but constant part of my life that gives me and many members a sense of continuity and a place where you can connect with other women. I am curious to see the directions it will take.
You can listen to us here.
This article is part of a cooperation with the Master in Critical Studies Program at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.