Blog Spot – Alistair Smith on TIC TOC Sing

Alistair Smith tracks the journey of TIC TOC Sing
since it’s beginning in November 2015.

TIC – Final Rehearsal before first performance 28.11.15
TIC – First Performance 5. 11. 2015 – The Vortex Jazz Club
The Open Choir Alistair joins TOC community choir, working with the same method as TIC 4.7.2016
Club Vocalé Launch – Earl Haig Hall 25.9.2016
Club Vocale III TIC – TOC & Cleveland Watkiss

TIC – The Improvisers’ Choir – Rehearsal 2


In Jenni Roditi’s stunning loft apartment, light streaming in through the windows that are two sides of the space, seven unique individuals entered one by one to greet Jenni. “The warming up is done! The bonding is done! Now it’s time to get down to it!” These were some of Jenni’s first words to the group as they commenced their second rehearsal.

The singers were encouraged to accept their present state; to honour their history of singing as part of their musical language: “What is the music that you carry without a score? Honour the music that is inside you.”

Jenni led the singers in duets and trios, a process of ‘finding each other.’ The diversity of styles, traditions and idiosyncrasies began to emerge immediately. The differences of timbre, intensity, types of agility and articulate, and approach displayed this distinct collection of sonic personalities. The term timbre feels inadequate to describe the rich differences in tonal quality, colour, texture and depth that were conversing and weaving around each other. This created a sumptuous complexity to even a held unison.

In discussion about this ‘meeting of voices’ the singers revealed, not just a a great imagination of performance, but also of listening. The listeners experience of their fellow performers was as varied as the sounds that were produced.

The singers also revealed the intimate nature of the exercise. There were feelings of shyness, of feeling exposed and of expressing something deep – a “heart – soul voice”. This set the tone for the depth that the group would be working on throughout the session.

Once seated in a choir formation the singers were then encouraged to not hold back, to “step out on to the ledge,” whilst always working together, supporting each other, giving each other space.

Part of Jenni’s mission brief for the choir was “The directed conducting will focus the shape of what is emergent. The emergent process will subtly determine the shape of the directed conducting.” I was intrigued by this bold idea and wondered how it would work. And boy! – Did it work!

As the choir began its first tutti exploration, Jenni would pick up on an idea, take it in to her hands and improvise a gesture to express it – expand it, shape it, pass it around the group. In this way, they followed the direction of an idea, went with it, others were directed to follow or change it, support or contrast. This felt like new territory between performer and conductor – a conversation not direction. Even the body language of the performer could inform the conducting.

The idiosyncrasies of the performers came to the fore and were taken by Jenni and put into the melting pot of performance. She was also ready to let go of the reigns and let the singers try something on their own. Different voices met, their worlds combining, igniting into dynamic, scintillating possibilities. There were serene, glass-like tones; tribal pulsing and hocketting; rich chords woven together, shifting across varied harmonic and timbal palettes. There were moments of repose, and of the urgent. There was both the conventional and unconventional, the serious and the silly, experience and innocence.

It was decided to give space to all these elements; to honour both the conventional and the Avant Garde, the consonant and the challenging. This seemed to me to be real ‘free’ improvisation – where anything goes – even the harmonious and predictable that free improv. players sometimes avoid.

The pace of learning for these eight unique individuals was fast and unrelenting. It was a stimulating, revealing and emotional experience, both challenging and satisfying. All acknowledged that there was deep work going on within them, a process of such honest expression that this was bound to happen. In fact I would say that one thing that unites these sonic personalities is honesty – for me the essential core feature of a great voice.

The possibilities of this group and their approach to making music are vast, extremely exciting and inspiring. I can’t wait to hear more…and more.

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TIC – Final Rehearsal before first performance 28.11.15

Three weeks after my introduction to the Improvised Choir, I was once again in Jenni Roditi’s loft apartment with its stunning view of Alexandra Palace. All ten singers were present for their final rehearsal and dress rehearsal performance after six weeks of experimentation and exploration. The burgeoning rapport that I witnessed three weeks ago now seemed to have developed into an harmonious accord, these individuals now expressing themselves and their voices confidently and openly. Jenni, with a fractured toe, had to adapt her newly developed conducting style to being seated in a wheelchair.

The choir’s approach had a ritual feel to it, most apparent in their warm up as Jenni’s experience as a vocal coach and worship facilitator came to the fore as master of ceremony. This was done without any sense of superiority or of being the boss. Her leadership was participatory and representative of a truly democratic process. She was mediator rather than manager and all voices were heard and considered.

When the rehearsal began they immediately launched into a process that had been developed since I last saw them. They had decided to inaugurate the performance and set the scene with a movement of chords, slightly emotive and evocative, over which each singer could introduce and display their own “vocal signature”. The group provided a crescent of support and mutual respect for each others uniqueness to shine. The chords themselves were also given the opportunity to expand, each gradually opening out like a blossom, an exploration of the groups’ feeling for the chord; a shifting of colours; an unfolding of a petal to release another, then another. The collective sound explored itself and the emerging sense of direction, reaching up before another layer was revealed and a new sense born. The effect was of a timeless presence of musical creation with no agenda than to explore its own being and to evolve in an expansion, a symbiotic unison of purpose that has now been found and established in this group.

Jenni, with her new challenge of conducting with an injury, still used as much of her body as possible to take these musical forms in to her hands and facilitate their performance. Some conducting gestures had been agreed upon and were very effective. It was fun to see her shaping the envelope of a delivery, from incremental swells to precise blocks of composite sound. Emerging ideas were coordinated by Jenni and individual voices were given their moment to ornament and expand on a theme, or to just add colour, or to contrast. She is becoming more adept at recognising and capturing a moment that “just happens” and give it space and light to shine; whether it be two voices that “meet” and understand each other, synthesising something new or significant, or an idea that is simply captivating in its inherent strength.

Next came a rhythmic tapestry of percussive patterns, a new habitat for an evolving shoot to peak through, surface and reach for its own particular sun and sky. The landscape evolved as new horizons came into view and the group moved forward on a new leg of their journey. As before, there was such a wealth to the tapestry of sound that was created by the choir: the delicate, the spine tingling, the powerful, the pure and smooth, the raw, gritty and rough, the finely refined, and open unrestrained releases. I could name specific stylistic areas or genres that contributed but this would not do justice to the distinctness of each voice.

All that makes music predictable and familiar: periodicity, tension and release, convention and tradition. All that makes music unpredictable or uncertain: spontaneity, juxtaposition, the irregular; all this exists within the realm that this choir explores.

One part of the rehearsal I particularly enjoyed was the passing round of non-pitched extemporised flourishes. This performance was very fun and delightfully ridiculous. The group was now so comfortable with each other that there was no holding back. The process was infectious and I really had a strong urge to join in. This “ameba” like point of departure as they called it, then undertook mitosis into a larger, more complex musical organism ,morphing, exploring its existence before evolving into a new creature, born out of silence and emerging into the space, before receding back into the void of possibilities.

What became even more emphatically clear than the previous rehearsal was the importance of listening to the working of the group. It is essential, a vital part of the metabolism of the whole. It was not just implied either, it was stated and restated and discussed by the group. The performers also gave feedback and guidance on conducting gestures. The discussion was open and constructive and all comments were considered and received with grace, with no apparent friction or dissonance.

To me, the choir, its approach and its entire range and extremes of sound worlds is really an honouring of the essentially simple concept of vocal expression. Cosmopolitan, inter-faith, multi-tradition, spanning manifold styles, it is an allegory for a new world; courageous in expression and, more importantly, in its openness to listen and honour another’s voice and presence; where free speech really exists without fear of judgement or of causing offence; a non-judgemental acceptance of someone’s being.

I find it difficult to find fault and be critical of something that is a constantly emerging process. Obviously, some things are more successful than others and with such a huge spectrum of sounds and extremes of approaches and imaginations, some things will be more appealing than others to each listener. But speaking as a composer who likes to explore his own ways of putting sound together, and as a guitarist in a reggae band, a music teacher and and someone who works with the therapeutic potential of sound, I find their approach very exciting, their sound so rich in its variety and complexity, and more significantly, the potential so vast – at least in relation to what I have heard so far and what it stimulates in my imagination.

Having raved about this choir in these last two articles, one thing is still very clear: That there is still much further that they can go and much more this group of unique individuals can do.

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TIC – First Performance 5. 11. 2015 – Vortex Jazz Club

One of my favourite things to do at university was to go to the vocal recital seminars and watch the singers trying out their current works in progress. To be in an intimate setting and hear the singers giving it their all, acting the part of their pieces, was a bit of a thrill. Shivers up my spine, time after time was the buzz and I loved it!

So imagine being in a similarly intimate setting of the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston and seeing ten unique vocal talents displaying their technical prowess and musical sensitivity. Add the formidable direction of Jenni Roditi and the excitement of extemporisation and you’ve got plenty of potential for those shivers. I’m sure whatever that reaction is in the body, whatever it is that happens in the nervous system, or what biochemical reaction causes that sensation must be good for you.

So, sat in a packed-out venue, I waited to see what further sonic explorations this choir that I have been following these past seven weeks would embark upon.

They began their initiatory piece that I had seen evolving in rehearsal; three simple chords built up note by note by the choir divided into three groups. Over this, each member of the choir introduced themselves with their own unique vocal signature, scrawled in freehand across the composition. Immediately the choir showed its many colours in a multitude of approaches as each singer displayed their deftness and musical sensibilities. Jenni let the solo part take the lead and shaped the accompaniment around its meandering line. She provided space or matched its intensity with an appropriate dynamic, or pulsed the chords beneath a singers dramatic flight. Each voice generated its own guiding principle, its own thread for the others to weave around, giving strength and fibre to their journey. Or coursed through the chords forging a channel around which the others parted and formed what was needed along the way. At times there was such nuance and subtlety, reminiscent of a refined sentiment captured in the repose of an aria, but just appearing ad hoc at the tail end of a cadenza. Jenni took a round to introduce her own unique voice before the group focused in on a unison note highlighted with subtle overtones.

The choir juxtaposed the serene opening with what they term their “ameoba” section. The singers literally threw their ideas playfully at each other across their crescent shaped formation on stage. Initially bizarre, at times comedic, this was merely the exploration of vocal expression without pitch. To me this was immediately appealing to that childlike part of us that liked to babble away without meaning or purpose other than to simply enjoy making sound. The sounds were often very familiar but out of context took on a whole new light. Playful, animalistic, growling, clucking; then gliding glissandi and aching, trembling guttural throws; licking, tongue clicking, chuckling, belly laughs, mimicking language without words.

After a few minutes of these exchanges, Jenni picked up on an idea and reinforced it, signalling some to follow, others to provide a counterpoint; first in unison then dividing into harmony. Then she motioned for singers to converse over the top. The evolving ostinato shifted gear as its interlocking patterns took on slightly different emphasis and the soloists responded. The mechanism of patterns, the choir working in discrete teams; wheels, cogs turning together; sounds revolving around each other, was thinned out layer by layer until only throbbing hums remained.

Several times the choir changed position on stage; new configurations for new approaches. After one such reordering a trio began and three voices of different weights and colours wound around each other serenely. Once again a rhythmic idea was captured in Jenni’s hands and harmonised before a complimentary downward figure responded from another group. A third legato motif of three notes provided a further counterpoint before a soloist was signalled to begin, then a duet. A change of vowel opened up the downward figure which took supremacy over the other parts and more solos began. All this developed into pleasantly woven parts turning over each other, coming into a harmonious whole then shifting and sliding into slightly evocative dissonance.

When the activity subsided, there remained a composite blur of shifting intervals and relationships, as a dune shifting with the wind, winding its meandering ridges across the distance. Jenni lay this horizon open and invited the singers to collectively contribute. This became utterly primal in nature, a jungle of species emerging to revel in their new habitat, chattering away in a delightful clamour. This continued and intensified until a vocal percussion was found and sculpted into a groove. Layered upon this matured an appealing arrangement as these creatures evolved into sentient beings delighting in social collaboration. Some of the singers began thumping and stamping, clapping and tapping until this took over from the voice to end the movement.

The Improvised Choir’s first performance was a truly improvised gig. Compared to the rehearsals I had been to, some of the pieces just happened to be shorter. There was greater use of the rhythmic ostinato, characteristic evolution of interlocking patterns and more frequent occurrences of harmonic consonance. It showed the groups constantly evolving process, evident even in performance. There were of course those moments of uncertainty when an idea reached its moment of expiration and subsided, revealing the fabric beneath, inviting something new to surface. Or when parts began to shift, creating a friction or tension, a pull to move or expand; a bifurcation point where it must grow or cease; a node of change.

This expeditious diving into the creative primordial soup and the surfacing of an idea into the light, its flourishing into forms and proliferation into patterns, is this choir’s art. It is the fruition of Jenni’s vision, born out of her own experience of delving into the depths of unrestrained creative process. The horizon of potential is wide open for this group of unique individuals united purely through the love of creating sound.

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The Open Choir Alistair joins TOC community choir, working with the same method as TIC 4.7.2016

Having been involved on the sidelines with TIC – The Improvisers’ 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 type 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.

Performance as part of the Crouch End Festival

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.

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.

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Club Vocalé Launch – Earl Haig Hall 25.9.2016

Dreamwalking, Uran Apak

Snaking a path through the hall, furnished with audience members, the scenery of this walk of chance. Of chance encounters and chance ensembles, meetings and greetings of voice and style. Until the disparity dissolved into a ceremony in the round. The now united chorus created its own institution, as each voice slotted into place and the edifice was founded and sounded into being. Thus the scene was set and the audience prepared for this latest exhibition of The Improvisors Choir. The first half was to display newly devised-improvised works by members of the choir. This opening piece by Uran Apak was inspired by a dream that became a walk of micro and macro improvisation.

Haiku, Veronique Chacon

Veronique Chacon’s Haiku: Tous les possibles. Eventail ouvert au bleu – Joie – All possible, Fan open to the Blue, Joy – saw her take the stage alone with a Tibetan bowl and only her own unique solo voice. Head down, held tight in a bud, she pulsated and broke into the light. Valiantly, she ascended and bent forwards, outwards. She unfolded, opened out, towards us. The soul, gently and tentatively at first, revealed herself with a bare and vital honesty; a touching and richly expressive validation of a deeply personal joie de vivre.

The Heart Opens Like a Lotus Flower: shedding layers, arriving/departing, spiralling up towards heaven, Dilara Aydin-Corbet

Dilara Aydin-Corbett’s first performer opened the piece. To his right the next followed, taking the essence of what he was given and making it his own. They passed their gifts on round the choral crescent, each building upon the last, reinforcing it, giving what each thought best, making each entry more than the last. They found different ways of fusing themselves into a growing form, of opening and expanding. A heartfelt fellowship of sounds, ushered into easy agreement. A communal commonality of creative rotation.

Transition, Sarah Jenkin

Impassioned personalities slid fluidly across the screen of Sarah Jenkin’s performance. Vital, unrestrained, spiritual, nostalgic and joyous, all in one virtuosic cadenza. Then, after a sudden hiatus, an emotive refrain began, in stark contrast to the freedom and vivacity of the beginning. The choir joined in imitation as pillars holding up the solitary voice, enfolding it, giving it body, purpose and companionship, all the while amplifying the sense of yearning. As the emotional intensity blossomed through the entwining polyphony of the choirs staggered entries, the solo voice rose again, given a new impetus and meaning through new circumstance. Then the choir subsided to a solo voice of its own and our heroine returned to conjure a fervent and dramatic duet to finish the piece.

Vicious, Martins Baumanis

Martins Baumanis’ themes of control and humanity were explored with words delivered over a recorded drone.

Contorted voices in the dark, emerged above the single, simple tone. Outbursts and repetitions, modern mantras that seem to define these times. All were orated above a ceaseless monotone – monotony personified. The voices whispered as if in our minds, over and over, invading our consciousness, trying to define us. And then, suddenly they all exited, leaving a lone voice standing alone, bemused and empty, calling out, solitary in the darkness of silent meaninglessness.

Second Half – Full Ensemble

Listening to a composite chord generated from the minds and musical sensibilities of each member, I wonder if it is possible to capture every nuance of human emotion through the slightest incremental changes in harmony. As the ensemble feels its way through this language beyond word and reason; as one note slides into a new relationship, it puts all others into a new light and modifies the colour and appeal. And the meaning, unique for each of us, is evoked from within, as the sound resonates hidden depths that have sunk and settled into the bedrock of our personal histories. At times vivid, then strangely vague and curious, the progression suggests myriad variation and vast potentials for revelation. This guided self discovery is steered through the intuitive reactions of the performers, via our inherent subjective responses. It propels us, wheeling down a channel that has many branches, that a simple, single change of note may impel us to slide into, gliding towards a new sensation.

I love hearing them play with tension, a divined tension of different musical dimensions – of frequency and time, texture and character. It holds the suspension in a stratum that feels like it has no resolution, no apparent release, as it has no obvious conventionality. The parts revolve around each other, glaring at each other across the musical space, in good humour and never needing to agree. The tensile strength of the space asserts itself to the extent that it seems to gain a stability in of itself, on its own terms. This induces a playfulness that is as appealing as it is provocative, a wonderful and perhaps inevitable result of truly free improvisation. And for us, the listeners, the potential emancipation of our own musical sensibilities as we are cajoled into accepting this initially uneasy union of sounds.

The ensemble plays around with all manner of things. There are no rules, nothing they may not touch upon, and nothing they could not use to possibly touch or provoke us. There is nothing to constrain them, they have the delightful permission just to play and steer us into new waters. And Jenni, biding her time, waiting for the right array of motifs, or simply working with whatever is there, pulls their ideas together into an inventive invention. It may define its own purpose or leave it to the imagination of us, the witnesses to decide, if we need to, what it is all about. But do we need to? Can we take the step towards open acceptance? A state of being completely receptive to what is being created, bypassing our usual inherited and learned listening filters of understanding and appreciation. Can we listen to new music on its own terms, not listening what is not there, but to the new relationships that are being defined by the musical language itself. I revel in the ride of uncertainty and possibility, not knowing what new vistas lie round the next turn of musical phrase. For me, a single piece by the choir may pass through innumerable landscapes and identities, sometimes invoking familiar reactions within me, other times new and stimulating phenomena. Until, as all sound must, it ebbs away and melts back into silence; the silence that, as the composer John Cage described, is perpetually pregnant with sound. The silence is indeed more potent when you don’t know what’s going to emerge from within it. The moment is more magical when uncertainty is in its air. And the mood is more intense when the music is made mercurial.

Club Vocalé II was not documented by Alistair unfortunately.

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Club Vocale III TIC – TOC & Cleveland Watkiss

Cleveland Watkiss is a singer with a huge wealth and diversity of experience. Despite his many different collaborations and projects he is still primarily regarded as a Jazz vocalist, due to the improvisatory nature of his solo work. However, he has moved beyond Jazz into a much wider sound world, drawing from all the different threads of his past. This world is where he and both TIC and TOC met for this latest Club Vocale.

First Set: TOC & Cleveland

As a member of TOC I had the privilege of performing in this concert, joining TIC, Cleveland and, of course, Jenni. I remember commenting to my neighbour, standing in choir formation: “I’m a little more nervous about this one!” I think we all were feeling this, performing alongside such formidable forces. In a previous article I described the unique nature of performance nerves, when what you’re going to perform is as yet undetermined. We rehearse the process of course but all material is to be born in the moment. This gives everything an ‘edge’ of anticipation, an almost volatile atmospheric charge. After all, literally anything could happen.

TOC is a community choir and listening back to the performance it seems to give a deeper meaning to this term. Our voices are a community of sound. Imagine diverse members of a community assembling for a discussion. It could involve a great many challenges in mediating such a gathering, with some voices being dominate, others unheard, conflict, judgement, disagreement etc. In this community there is a respect for each other’s sound and idea. There is a conscious intent to listen and an acceptance of what is being heard. Listening to my fellow singers I feel touched as each courageously steps forward and gives of their own uniqueness. I think one can hear and know something of each other that isn’t perceived in normal spoken expression and interaction. Being essentially amateurs, and in an improvised arena, everything comes enthused with a vulnerability that everyone can feel and constitutes part of the choir’s appeal. There is a kind of strength that can be found in the expression of this felt vulnerability.

As our community of voices began each piece, offering ideas in turn, Jenni took them into her hands and reinforced them into elemental forces. These micro-climates accumulated into systems of shifting substance and form. Sometimes amorphous, undulating over each other as clouds amass and thin over field and mountain. Other times, patterns became riveted into a dance of parts that interlaced over and around each other, driving the system forward. As the form turned over itself, boring its way onwards, single voices pulled themselves away to explore a temporary independence before merging back into the whole. And whilst these creations unfolded and refolded, Cleveland added his own colours and decoration, or generously helped us along with a strong rhythmic ostinato. He slotted in his manifold motives and loops into the mechanism, adding a novel and stimulating dimension to our sound. When he took charge, he charged the performance with a vital spirit that felt a celebration of sound.

We are constantly learning how to listen more intently to each other in order to join the other in their offered idea, to fortify, harmonise or embellish. Listening is almost more important than the doing in this way. As a musician of a non-vocal sort, this process has began to inform my other musical activities and I am becoming a better musician because of it.

Second Set: Cleveland solo, followed by TIC and Cleveland

When I write about TIC, I am there watching each performance. My internal experience is different to that of singing in TOC, as I am not inside it in the same way. It is, therefore, my subjective response to The Improvisers’ Choir. It is both a description and an interpretation of the sound worlds that they inhabit during their performance. I tend to leave my compositional head behind and instead just revel in the images, sensations and inspirations that they conjure. Here then, are my responses to a selection of TIC and Cleveland’s devised-improvised works of the second half of Club Vocale. Altogether there were five pieces, I’ve commented on three for brevity’s sake.

Cleveland Solo

To open the second half, Mr Watkiss stepped up to offer us his own unique extemporised explorations. He has an extensively rich range of styles, techniques and experiences to draw from. He began, making his first impression upon the blank canvas with a solo exploratory line – broken – stepped – turned and twined, sliding into place, floating on a resting place, spanning space. A fluent flamboyancy on waves of ideas.

Searching and seeking, revelling in every note and node, textured breath and roundness of tone. Following himself round and round, turning over the layers of warm sound.

An anthem, reminiscent of Purcell, steered onto the rails of a rolling beat that carried the idea forward and up into another age. An age where style, tradition, convention and progression can interface with unconstrained freedom and play.

Resting into the essence of what is there, he plays, stirring the surface with free-form syllables and melismas, cushioned on the vibrations of the running wheels.


Mathematic – Polyrhythmic. The game of a countdown gone crazy. Never ending, voices rotating around dials of different dimensions. Cogs turning: meeting, parting, interlocking and unlocking. Building into a maniacal mechanism that starts to breathe a clockwork breath. Cables and levers pick them up and carry them across and into the distance.

Starkly contrasting ethnicities begin to spurt out of the device, acting to lubricate and soften as the pulsations synchronise and meld into one thumping agreement.

Breathe in Breathe out (titled by Kate Shortt)

Sighing voices fall beneath a touching refrain, so comfortably persistent. Voices begin to reinforce, growing into a harmony of tantalising proportions. A geometry that expands and contracts, opens and dilates, then draws in to form clusters of fibres that bind. Together, somehow, they magically become transfigured into ancient and cosmic winds, blowing through and around him, embracing the so human refrain.

Then a new voice steps forward to sing their own perception and voice their own history, as its brethren grow and swell, pushing her backwards into even more ancient times – before man and before the times of legends and Angels.

Through the Veil

Descending ever downward. Gasps and swallows, trembling, shivering. Coming to rest uneasily on a squeezed and narrow respirating rhythm. This pattern has a flaw, that doesn’t sit right, a crack! And from within this awkward opening the light of nascent hallelujahs begin to peak through, an uneasy birth of potential deliverance.

The perturbation of these two forces illuminate an incompatibility of Human and Divine. The jarring sensation of the Human condition – a stark silhouette against an all too perfect light. Striving, as the forever unanswered yearning of our hearts, calling out for something more – for completion – for resolution.

TIC TOC and Cleveland

To the Paradise Land!

As a culmination to this exposition of extemporised voice, Jenni invited everyone onto stage for a final meeting on the field of potential. TOCs initiated the first fledging ideas and the ever supportive and generous TICs joined us, helping us on our way. Quickly, this new, wider community sounded its tutti expression, rolling its way down a road with momentum and motivation. Jenni and Cleveland joined and delighted with a discourse on this “road to freedom”.

In their wake resounded a series of further duets from members of TIC and TOC, and everyone really went for it! Cleveland shifted the gears and ramped up the rhythmic impetus, impelling us onto a fast train forwards.

There was a hint of Gospel about the accompaniment, and a member of TIC offered us some words, telling us where this train would be taking take us: “to the paradise land!”.

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