Cracking the Kernel, Composer Alistair Smith on TOC

 

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The Open Choir

Having been involved on the sidelines with TIC – The Improvisors Choir, a fly on the wall to their rehearsals; witnessing their creative process emerge and evolve into a strong force, bursting with ideas and potential. It was now my turn to be a part of the  action, as Jenni invited me to sit beside her at my first rehearsal with TOC – The Open Choir.
A discussion ensued, during which members of the choir gave feedback and told of their experiences so far. I became quickly aware that this was another group of unique individuals, embarking on a journey of discovery into improvised ensemble sound. Some had sung in choirs before or had attended Vocal Tai Chi workshops, so although amateur, these explorers were not completely new to vocal expression.

The Choir Conducts

In this first session, Jenni surprised us with our task for the evening: to have a go at conducting! After clarifying the conducting signals, we split off into smaller groups. To see things from the other side; to be responsible for instigating, arranging and sculpting whatever may emerge, was at once a little daunting. In no time at all, this apprehension was transformed into a joyously educational and liberating pursuit. Everyone met the challenge in their own way, each strikingly different in their approach and style of execution. The result was a recital of miniature pieces in which the personality of each conductor met with those of the ensemble to produce a series of distinctly unique studies in improvisation. I personally really enjoyed the chance to be at the helm and would love to try it again. I am sure also, for all of us, it was a valuable insight into the challenges, responsibilities and rewards that Jenni experiences as conductor.

Cracking the Kernel

The following week in Earl Haig Hall, the focus of attention was drawn to a tIMG_1632ype of sonic material that Jenni had been directing us to initiate: a short melodic/rhythmic idea or pattern that could be used as a seed to build part of a performance. This class of material she termed the ‘kernel’ and our endeavour this week was to practice creating these patterns ourselves and to imitate those of others.
My partner and I went to our corner and tentatively began the process. I think we both felt a little exposed at first as we each tried to come up with something, but we soon started to loosen up as our confidence grew.
Each nascent pattern felt its way into certainty, solidifying into a confidence. Experienced by the receptive counterpart, this confidence was affirmed by their ability to mimic, reinforce and enhance. Next the solidity of the idea was tested as the partner attempted to add an interlocking counterpoint or compliment. The instigator of the original pattern was charged to hold their ground, to keep the bonds of their sonic construction intact in the face of a new potentially reactive molecule. This evoked an uneasy moment as the two found where and how they fit together; as their relationship became known and as the new sonorous compound was forged.
Plucking an idea out of nowhere, playing with it, tweaking it, until it ‘feels’ right was the initial exercise. This wasn’t as difficult as we first thought, and several attempts proved enjoyably successful. Imitating the other was almost harder; listening to the nuances, getting the pitch, feeling the precise timing (pulse and rhythm seemed a visceral phenomenon). All of this for us untrained singers was at times a challenge, one that I feel we all met with slight apprehension but which was overridden by the joy of making sound together.

Many of us had experienced Vocal Tai Chi and this gave us a grounding in a sort of vocal expression that was ‘our own’, that is, intentionally authentic; this being without the prerequisite of fitting into a tuning/structure or other conventional musicality. Although, even in the open field of the VTC workshop, there was often a natural and easy flowing musical result. Together with Jenni’s guidance this gave us all a life-line in the sea of uncertainty and a point of reference from which to take a bearing.

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Performance

When the day of the performance arrived I was nervous, but in a different way than I was expecting. As a performer, I am used to experiencing nerves before a gig. This, I acknowledged to my self, is often due to the fear of making a mistake, getting it wrong, forgetting something etc. In this case, however, I experienced the novelty of being nervous of something unknown – not yet conceived – something not set – where a mistake is not very probable and could be said to be impossible by the very nature of the activity. And the core of this feeling is of course a consequence of the foundation of this activity – improvisation. When Jenni gives you the ‘thumbs up’ it is your turn to step forward and improvise a solo. Vocal extemporisation of this kind; stylistically free and potentially liberated from conventionality, is not common. ‘Free improvisation’ as this is often termed, even for many experienced musicians, can be challenging and intimidating. For members of a community choir such as TOC, these feelings can be amplified, quite understandably so. Stepping forward and making up a vocal solo is a kind of intimate exposure that is quite extraordinary. The type of nervous energy this generates created a mutual, if unspoken, emotional charge to the choir; underlying the group’s dynamic. A performance is like riding a wave, or waiting for a wave, getting ready to stand on that board out in the force of nature as the sound swells around you. You are instinctively navigating the surface, with all your wits about you, intending your sound to be right and true.
Details about the actual performance I find difficult to recall, as the whole thing happened on this leading edge of activity, a type of presence of mind that is exciting and charged with that nervous energy we were talking about.
Listening back to the recordings I find it as inspiring as my experiences watching TIC. I get the same shivers up my spine and at times even forget that I’m in there, part of that composite evolving sound; not just a compliant voice but a creative component, a member standing round in ceremony playing my part. Some moments I do indeed find reminiscent of some ancient ritual as the music winds its way helically into a strong revolving mantric cycle; or a steady thumping pulse emerges that motivates and holds everything in a tribal trance.IMG_1622
Hearing the recordings of my fellow singers’ distinctive vocal personalities ad libbing riffs and vocal patterns on the spot, knowing now how it feels to be out in the open on this platform, is quite touching. Of course, there are uncertain or unsteady moments, where an idea is being born and has to find its feet before it can be used and moulded. I challenge any professional musician to come up with a rock-solid musical idea every time. Hearing Jenni take our emergent ideas, layering and building them into a solid edifice and arranging them into a compelling musical narrative is very satisfying.
This way of making sound together is a special thing; full of uncertainty, discovery and vulnerability, it is a truly democratic and humble way to be creative together. Jenni as conductor, is mediator and manager of the group’s vocal personalities and individual inventiveness. As part of the group, one has the wonderful opportunity to witness each other’s uniqueness and collectively give each other permission to step up and express that uniqueness. The result feels and sounds something like an enlightened fellowship of communal acceptance. I look forward to the next expedition into the unknown.

 

By Alistair Smith

composer, guitarist, sound healer,

featured banner image photo by Nadjib Le Fleurier

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