By Kerry Freek
I had no idea what to expect when my friend Isla said she was singing in a choir that mimicked the four elements. But last week, when I finally caught Christine Duncan’s Element Choir at a TRANZAC Wombat Wednesday, things came together like an alchemist’s experiment gone right. About 20-25 very different voices, ranging from several walks of life, took part in what I thought could be explained as “directed freedom.” (I later discovered it’s called “structured improvisation” — pretty close!) As the conductor cued her singers, the back room filled with intriguing, ethereal, and sometimes odd sounds, all coming together to make a one-time-only performance. Earlier this week, I interviewed the choir’s conductor, Christine Duncan, a five-octave-ranged vocalist with involvement in jazz, R&B, gospel, improvised music, sound poetry, new music, and musique actuelle.
MONDO: The choir seems to work sort of like John Zorn’s Cobra. It’s participatory and improvisational, and involves giving cues. How do your cues work? Is it up to the performers to interpret your gestures? What makes your movements (and, as a result, the choir’s sounds) “elemental”?
Christine Duncan: I’ve developed a system of hand cues which outline certain parameters for primarily vocal sound making, moving from very basic (e.g. sustained sound, talking, whistling, loops) to more complex and even conceptual ideas (eg. mini group compositions which represent some of the elements — air, water, fire, etc., and others which are music genre related — funky, jazz, devotional, etc.). In my research, I checked out some existing systems of Conduction, a term coined by Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris who has a system of about 20-25 hand and baton cues which are used by different improvising collectives, including the London Improvisers Orchestra.
Apart from the Morris system, I also looked at John Zorn’s Cobra, another system of cueing called Soundpainting taught by Sarah Weaver (who directs an improvisational performance group called Weave), and took a Feral Choir workshop from amazing voice artist Phil Minton. I also worked with some wonderful Canadian composers in advisory capacity: Peter Hannan from Vancouver, Juliet Palmer from Toronto, and Jean Derome from Montreal, who has developed his own unique system of conduction in the form of a musical game called Canot-camping. From the different systems, I borrowed certain cues which seem idiomatic for vocal expression, then made up some others to expedite certain sonic environments. All of the above mentioned systems use something called structured improvisation. The Element Choir is no different in that regard. The cues give a basic and very loose idea of structure to the performers, but what they do within that is completely their own choice. We do go over the cues in advance, so people know what I’m looking for when they see the cues. It’s not completely interpretive.
The main reason I named this group the Element Choir is because of my affection for and interest in what I call the music of elements. By that I don’t mean the wind and the rain, etc., although these things have found their way into our group expression through some of the more conceptual material. That was more of an afterthought, actually. Rather, I’m talking about a situation in which a group of different people can be making music together in the same space all at the same time, and what one is doing may or may not have too much to do with what anyone else is doing in an active sense, but the fact that it all exists in the same place at the same time creates something that is truly made up of all the parts and becomes something else entirely, as it is experienced — you know, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
MONDO: Do you ever come to a performance with an idea of how it might turn out?
CD: Not really, no. Sometimes I have an idea of where I’ll begin, but that’s about it. I’m improvising in terms of what cues I use and in what order they are given. What I’m hearing back from the group really influences the decisions I make and the direction things will go. I try to be as open as possible to what is happening in the moment and to my reactions and impulses. Hopefully the performances feel honest as a result — that’s really important to me.
MONDO: From what sorts of backgrounds do the performers come? Are they all trained singers?
CD: The Element Choir pulls participants from a lot of different places. We have everything from professional singers and instrumentalists, opera singers, jazz singers, singer/songwriters, composers, dancers, poets, visual artists, actors, and music students to people with choral singing backgrounds and some without much musical history at all.
MONDO: What kinds of reactions and responses have the choir’s performances elicited from audiences (and the singers themselves)?
CD: A lot of times I hear from people that they’ve never heard anything quite like this before. People are usually pretty excited about the choir; it’s quite wild and experimental sounding but with a very definite sense of structure. Some people find it a little scary. My first priority is always music, but my definition of the word may seem pretty open. Sometimes I get people coming up to me and telling me they make these kinds of sounds in the shower. The choir members generally indicate that it’s lots of fun, and that it feels pretty liberating to vocalize in this way. There’s something visceral, beautiful, and a bit frightening about the sound of a bunch of voices raised together in unexpected sound making. Also, it’s pretty funny sometimes and people laugh.
MONDO: What motivated you to start the choir?
CD: I’ve been a vocal improviser for years, and the idea of having a giant polyphonic vocal instrument to play with is pretty attractive. My first experiences conducting groups of improvised voices were in Vancouver with my friend, vocal improviser and performance artist DB Boyko, who has been doing this kind of thing for a long time. She and I do tandem conducting — that’s a trip — two conductors, one choir. I became interested in developing a vocabulary of conduction cues geared toward the voice. I wanted to refine my ability to improvise with this kind of multi-voiced instrument. The Element Choir grew out of the need to workshop some of these ideas with real voices. It was such a great experience for everyone involved and became obvious very quickly that it needed to be an ongoing project.
MONDO: What’s next for the choir?
CD: One exciting thing is that we will soon be recording an improvised album at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Toronto with the choir, Eric Robertson on pipe organ (this church has one of the largest pipe organs in Canada), Jim Lewis on trumpet, Jesse Zubot on violin, and Jean Martin on drums. This album will be released on Barnyard Records and produced by Jean Martin.
The Element Choir is part of this year’s Nuit Blanche. Check out Sound Forest, twelve hours of a capella vocal improvising in and around Queen’s Park, starting at 7 p.m. on October 4.