Something you do with your choir that others might find bizarre!
Since improvisational choirs are not a very widespread choral method at present, others often find it strange that we would build a choir around the notion all human vocal sound is fascinating and choir members are free to introduce any and all kinds of vocal sounds into our performances.
Choir Name: Groningen Vocal Exploration Choir
Location: Groningen, The Netherlands
Style: Improvisational (Conduction)
Number of singers: 1-150
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What are rehearsals like?
We are totally free to explore all the pleasures and textures of free vocal exploration – without worrying what an audience would think. With this freedom, incredible soundscapes and irreducible moments emerge that could not possibly be anticipated.
For an improvising choir, rehearsals are spaces of magic.
Is repertoire existent in your choir?
We don’t really do repertoire, however we perform some structured improvisations innovated by various musical figures. The most important of these for us is “Sustain Piece” by John Stevens, which I learned from Maggie Nicols. It is a favorite piece because it is based on such a simple instruction yet it can yield such profound sonic communion, reflection, and complexity.
What is the key role of the conductor in an improvising choir?
The conductor does most of the deciding of who improvises in each piece, but the members are free to enter without being prompted by the conductor. Mostly the choir members trust the conductor to shape the piece and wait to be called on so as to realize the conductor’s improvised vision, but there are times where the individual choir members need to follow their own musical impulses and the conductor adapts to their choice to do that.
How is a show planned out, or is it?
We collaborate often in projects where artists from other disciplines (dance, visual art, poetry, etc) seek us out for performances that explore a particular theme or concept. Since we are improvisers we are agile and can respond immediately to particular themes and since we work with voice we can use words and text to emphasize particular concepts. If it is this kind of show we gather material ahead of time that we can use in our improvisations (for an example see our Ode to Responsible Gastronomy here). If it is not a collaboration or concept-centered performance, we do not plan anything in advance.
Everything is decided in the moment during the show, including how it will begin and what types of improvisation (conducted, structured, free) we will engage in.
What was a very special performance and what made it special?
In 2017 the Groningen Vocal Exploration Choir performed at the Room for Thought lecture series and it was a particularly special performance due to the fact 40% of the choir for that particular performance was made up of new members who had never participated in choral improvisation until that evening. They had come for their first choral improvisation workshop and I announced at the workshop that they were invited to join the choir for a performance we were participating in later that evening.
How did the new members react to this proposition?
Though some of the new voices were scared off by the idea of performing on the very same night they first encountered choral improvisation, a large percentage of the new voices rose to the challenge and confidently opened themselves to improvising with the group, leading to a wonderful improvisation. See it here:
How do you encourage a shy singer to improvise?
Improvising choirs can be like confidence laboratories. For individuals who come in and are shy to improvise, they are given a space where we affirm that any and all contributions they make to the choir (including being with us in complete silence) are accepted and celebrated. At some point, in most cases, a magical moment occurs where their sound becomes the core of a section of the improvisation and informs the embodiment and vocalizations of all the other members. That can be a powerful moment for some members.
Overall, our philosophy that all vocal sound is worth listening to brings singers into a comfortable space where they become less timid.
Any favorite inspirational quotes?
“We’re socialized to feel inadequate, to compare ourselves with other people, to think that we are never good enough. That’s so damaging. People come to my workshops and the first thing they say is “I can’t sing,” and I think “What has happened to you?” There’s something about aggressive testing that can make even the most accomplished person seize up, convinced that they’re going to do it wrong. That’s so sad. Not everyone is going to make singing their life-path, but singing is a birthright. Loving music is ultimately what makes us good at it.”
–Maggie Nicols quoted in “Open to the Muse: The Vocal and Social Art of Maggie Nicols.” by Julian Cowley in Musicworks issue 101 (Summer 2008).
What are the key benefits a singer might derive in a group such as yours compared to a more traditional choir?
- All the music we make comes from the spontaneous impulses of the participants. We practice being totally in the moment, trusting ourselves and our creative impulses, and learning about each other through bearing witness to the impulses and processes our community members go through in our gatherings. Many of these processes unfold in traditional choirs as well, but not via the choir members generating all the musical material themselves. With that added element we can reveal different aspects of ourselves than we can with a predetermined, pre-composed repertoire.
- We affirm all bodies, all voices, and all sounds. Whereas much music making is about exalting the supposedly exceptional (everything is exceptional; as Terry Eagleton said once, nothing ever happens twice precisely because it happened once already) we align ourselves, to a large extent, with sounds others tune out, ignore, dismiss, or decry. I believe there is a social benefit and a personal benefit to our members of participating in a practice that challenges narratives that argue some sounds are exceptional and others undignified or uninteresting or unexceptional.
Are there guidelines you give to new members?
We remind our choristers that part of the beauty of improvisation is you don’t have to sound any specific way, so if something they are doing is uncomfortable they can stop or move to a different way of singing. We also remind participants that there are no hard rules in the group, choristers do their best to be present and attentive to everyone around them and help everyone realize a collective vision, but if an inner impulse arises they are free to follow it regardless of what the conductor and others are doing and the ensemble will adapt in response.
Any recent performances to note?
A recent performance we gave was at the opening to the Centre for Health and Humanities research at the University of Groningen. The performance was an improvised response to a lecture on the ‘human experience of breathlessness’. We performed an improvised piece with three sections, each based on three different categories of breathlessness described by Jane Macnaughton in her lecture.
Any turning points in the life of your choir(s)?
When I began conducting improvising choirs I made the mistake of acting as the only member of the choir that conducted. Conducting duties in musical ensembles are rarely shared by the full collective and I made the mistake of following that norm rather than devoting part of our rehearsals to cultivating conducting skills in other choir members. Because of this, when it came time for me to relocate, I left my first choir without a conductor and the group dissolved in my absence. This saddened me and I realized I had made a mistake in following this standard division of labour.
How do you incorporate conducting lessons with your Groningen choir members?
We have two gatherings every month. At our gatherings we improvise and anyone interested in conducting is welcome to conduct. The choir members give the conductors tips on how to give their cues clearly and get the results they desired from the choir.
Any rehearsal gatherings that you will never forget?
Recently, I found out mid-rehearsal that a good friend had died. I requested that the choir sing an improvised lament for my friend and immediately the group poured out a dense layer of sonic love. It was like being hugged tightly by 30 people all at once, a sonic expression of respect, care, empathy, and gratitude.
A story/fact you love to tell your choir members
I often tell my choir members a secondhand story I have heard about how Maggie Nicols deals with improvisers who feel the need to take up large amounts of the sonic space in ways that might drown out others.
How does she approach working with improvisers like this?
Rather than exercise her authority as the leader of her improvising gatherings to insist others moderate their dominance of the sonic space, I have heard that she uses this as an opportunity to self-reflect on why we have the impulse not to allow that person to take up that space, why we might not be reflecting on why they might emotionally need to take up that space and how we have it within ourselves to allow them that space.
If we find that in ourselves and give them that space, eventually their needs are met and they return to a way of sounding that leaves space for others and we have realized that we have the strength in ourselves to afford them that space and resist an unnecessary urge to exercise a control over the situation that would have prevented them from taking the space they needed to take.
Chris Tonelli is a soundsinger, improvising choir conductor, and philosopher and historian of vocal practices. His book Voices Found: Free Jazz and Singing provides a history of free jazz vocal and choral practices. He teaches music at the University of Groningen and has founded three improvising Vocal Exploration Choirs in Guelph, Ontario, St John’s, Newfoundland and Groningen, The Netherlands.