Cartoonesque Cadenzas

Composer/Sound Healer Alistair Smith on…

TOC – House Concert 12th November 2017Screen Shot 2017-11-30 at 16.31.50

After a mad dash down Crouch Hill, I just about made it for this season’s concert at Jenni’s loft apartment. Due to personal circumstances I was forced to drop out of the choir for the term. This time I was on the outside, looking on at my friends performing their newly devised-improvised works.

The programme was ambitious, consisting of around 15 pieces showcasing this term’s explorations into improvised choral sound. The concert also included several experiments with pre-composed material, from which the choir would construct each relevant work. This posed a new challenge, both for the choir and also to the original premise of the choir as an improvising ensemble.

What actually is TOC?

Each half began with a theatrical discussion by members asking “what actually is TOC?” In a way, every TIC and TOC concert poses this question in that every performance, every piece, is unique. This uniqueness is much more significant and all pervasive than the subtle differences and details that make composed music distinct each time it is played. At the most, one can describe their music in terms of principals of conception, growth and delivery, rather than any actual stylistic elements. The very nature of the music is constantly in flux, endlessly evolving, resulting in an ever expanding palette of musical material and ideas. This makes stylistic definition and description challenging and perhaps irrelevant. Like much free improvised music and contemporary composition, it is perhaps better to receive each piece on its own terms and not force futile attempts at definition based on pre conceived ideas and knowledge. The question “what actually is TOC?” would either needed to be asked for each piece, or simply constantly evaded, leaving us in a perpetual state of uncertainty about what it is. This state would be uncomfortable for some, but for me, exciting as it suggests the potential for continually new outcomes.

The Music

The ensemble itself expanded and contacted, moved and morphed through various sizes and configurations throughout the concert. Jenni seemed to be explicitly expanding its possibilities and challenging any methods that may have become familiar. I will describe a handful of these movements and some favourite moments.

Smaller ensembles appeared as quartets and, as Jenni termed it, TOC-C, a more chamber version of the group. The quartets were compact fun, showcasing the groups’ – almost comfortable now – ability to bounce off each other and create dynamic relationships of shifting roles. There were the stable ones, giving foundation and continuity, whilst solos were swapped and fired from each of the four corners in turn. There seemed to be a pair within one of the fours that teased each other. I wonder if these liaisons were planned or arose spontaneously and if they were born of external compositional process or from the personality of the participant. The latter felt to be the case at the time as the idiosyncrasies seemed so natural to me. It was the enjoyment of four distinct personalities revelling in each others uniqueness, and an experiment in the politics of four.
For another miniature number, 5 members condensed on stage to form the TOC-C quintet. This was a rhythmic hoedown; a quickly changing, swiftly shifting jam that changed tempo as roles rotated across the ensemble. They created a sonic space of animated exchanges that seemed to resound as if a chamber of bouncing balls!

More of a classic TOC number and one of my favourite approaches used that evening saw solos of jibba jabba banter, reeled off as cartoonesque cadenzas before being rudely interrupted by ‘normal’ singing; short refrains followed and fortified by the remaining members. These had the character of wordless sea shanties or workers’ songs, as repetitive motifs heaved and hauled, lifted and gifted us a song of fellowship. The rebellious solos had no other choice but to succumb and join the overwhelming force of their fellows’ endeavours.

Another brilliant TOC standard was, I think, called ‘Pin Balls’. Fledgling ideas, uncertain at first, tried themselves out. Others got to their feet, ready to meet the first. Feeling their way around each other until the pattern crystallised and a momentum emerged – driven by the complimentarily of parts. Then a duet popped out of the pattern and was given all the space to twitter out of uniformity and into its own destinationless direction. This reset the space and the pace and one of the duetees began another round with a rolling riff, ripe for the taking by the other participants of the game.

An example of the choir’s recent excursions into pre-composed material was ‘Microchips”. This was manufactured from a single line of song written by Jenni in 1985. If I remember correctly, the words were: “Specialisation, miniaturisation, mechanisation, alienation…” These words were moulded into automatic ostinati that rolled, clanking, off their assembly lines as chugging cogs; teeth slotting into teeth. Human voices were then squeezed out of these metallic rollers, whaling and crying out in despair, starkly pained against the cold hardness of the new machines.
A striking and surprising piece, drawing from more prepared material, was a folk-song-like performance over a recorded guitar part. The theme was trees: “Sing for the trees, the burning trees”, Jenni sang through the microphone, stage left. There followed a series of conducted, improvised interludes, between which other members of the choir took the mic. I had never heard these friends of mine sing like that, it was quite touching. The material of the solos was improvised text around the theme, each member adding their own perspective and feelings on the leafy giants. Jenni joined them at times, adding her counter melody and the piece finished with all the branches of material entwined into a climactic canopy.

This was, perhaps, one of TOCs most ambitious concerts, stretching their abilities and broadening the scope of their sound world. In challenging the original concept of the choir by injected elements more prepared and set, Jenni has once again thrown us a curveball, reviving and restating the question: what actually is TOC?.

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