Sunday, November 24, 2019

Voices In the Living Room

I will never tire of hearing the ranges of a human voice. There was a sense of warmth and play during New Music Edmonton's UltraViolet concert last night. They also invited guest vocalist and composer, Jane Berry, into their living room space. Chenoa Anderson, Allison Balcetis, Amy Nicholson, and Roger Admiral began with John Cage's Living Room Music as they each played items one would find around their home, such as a rifled through magazine or a 2x4 piece of wood. A rhythmic series of percussive taps and restless rustles of paper invited the audience into their on-stage domestic space. They also recited Gertrude Stein's "The World is Round," which introduced the voices of the instrumentalists into the space as well. They sat in a semi-circular formation complete with carpet on the floor, two recliners and two wooden chairs that looked like they had been been borrowed from a dining room set, a lamp on a side table, and even a plant perched at chairside.

Tanzer Lieder by Ana Sokolovic is structured with three different language voices in the five movements from French, German, and English. Sokolovic's writing demanded an array of vocal technique from Berry from the wailing vocal glides in Stimmen to the haunting vocal suspensions in Last Song. There was a cohesive tension created from the instrumentalists and Berry's vocals throughout the movements. The sounds from the piano and cello strings often matched the held frequency from Berry's own vocal folds. The pulsating vibrato on the flute gave an audible sound to the fluctuating breath heard in a body.

Alyssa Aska's The Woman and the Lyre: Sapphic Cycle shared many movements of vocal and instrumental play. I am more tremulous had a racing agitation between Anderson and Berry and there was good use of created reverb in Of the tacet earth where Berry's live vocal input was processed live and fed back to the audience on speakers surrounding the audience. It changed the resonating space around Berry's voice.

Chains  by Frederic Rzewski was by far one of the most playful as Berry read a local newspaper on the recent climate strike led by Greta Thunberg at the Alberta Legislature. Berry's speaking voice ranged from matter-of-fact to sarcastic depending on the sentence being read. A large repertoire of sounds were shared from tablet and phone ringtones, boxing gloves being used to play the piano, and the sound of the typewriter echoing the other voices on stage.

There was the world premiere of Berry's composition The Break, which shared text from a young woman, Cassandra Siwiec-Hlewka, with bipolar disorder. The poetry was from Siwec-Hlewka's first manic episode. Berry created opportunities for each instrument to have their own vocal line before introducing her own, which was the last in the progression. There was a sad beauty in the lyrical lines, but space between each instrumental introduction, as if space was being held for them on stage to be heard. There was this feeling of cyclical descent with text "catch me, under the water it's pulling me" and repeated phrases such as "I pray and I pray..." Out of the ebb and flow of vocal lines emerged a hopeful image of a flower blooming in the darkness. It was a beautiful image to finish the first half of the concert. An acknowledgement of the internal resilience that people possess even when their challenges are not visible.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

An Interview with Conductor, Elaine Choi

Conductor and music educator, Elaine Choi, is a citizen of two places. She has lived half of her life in Canada and half of her life in Hong Kong. Choi is based in Toronto and immigrated to Canada in 2002. Prior to that, she was living in Hong Kong for 17 years. She is the cultural ambassador that the Canadian choral scene needs with her skills to facilitate the exchange of choral music between Canada and Asia. Choi understands the void of Chinese choral music in Canada and, conversely, the absence of Canadian choral music in Asia. Choi shares: “We sing a lot of different languages. Choir is always a way to welcome people into a country or place. But I have never had a chance to sing Mandarin choral music ever since I came to Canada. Mandarin choral music is quite accessible. There is language complexity that tends to scare people away.” Choi is well suited to be make the introduction since her Doctoral thesis looked at the complexity of Mandarin as lyric diction and the dissemination of Mandarin choral music. Her goal is to have a choir that is not afraid to sing in Mandarin and this could be a way to increase a singer’s comfort level by having a mix of non-native speakers and native speakers in her group. On a previous visit to Hong Kong four years ago, Choi realized that Asian choirs were unaware of Canadian choral composers. When she informally polled choral musicians in Hong Kong, oftentimes there was only one Canadian composer they would mention: Healey Willan.

Last year, she was invited to share Canadian choral music with The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CU) Chorus. She partnered with CU Chorus to arrange workshops with five local high schools this July. Each school has chosen to learn a work by a contemporary Canadian choral composer that they will workshop with Choi and members of Babεl. One school will be tackling Eleanor Daley’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” another will sing Mark Sirett’s “Things That Never Die” and there will be a mass choir with all five high schools, Babεl, and the CU Chorus performing Matthew Emery’s “Sing Your Song.” It is not often that a choir is created in response to an international workshop request, but that is a factor in Babεl's formation. Choi realized that if she brought singers with her to Hong Kong this July for these workshops the music would further resonate with audiences. Choi and Babεl will also be working with the Caritas Institute and sacred professional choir, Vox Antiqua, to promote sacred Canadian choral works.

Babεl is comprised of singers that reflect the diversity of the Greater Toronto Area. The group includes non-Chinese speakers, non-Chinese descent, international students studying at the University, and many first and second generation Chinese, and some who have parents that speak Chinese but who don't speak the language themselves. For the latter, performing in Mandarin allows them access to a part of their culture they have never been exposed to.

Choi believes there are two large contributing factors that has resulted in limited Mandarin choral music in Canada:

1. Chinese is a hard language to learn and can be intimidating for non-speakers.
2. Organizations and choral leaders don’t know where to find this music.

The first area of difficulty is addressed by using pinyin transliteration, which can be read using the English alphabet. As long as the rules for consonant and vowel pronunciation are outlined, it is no different than a choir singing a work in a different language. Choi also notes that the tonal part of Mandarin is not a distinguishing feature once the text is sung, often on neutral vowels and different pitches. There is an increasing amount of Mandarin choral music written in a western style, especially in Taiwan. There needs to be further development in marketing these scores for North American choirs and making sure there is standardized pinyin in North American music editions. A goal of Choi’s would be to work with composers in Asia to publish accessible North American editions to encourage non-native speakers to sing this music outside of the country of origin. There is an authenticity that results from standardizing the music from the source since there is a challenge when North American composers are trying to write arrangements of Asian folk music. Mandarin music is more than songs about jasmine flowers and Japan is more than Sakura. If the arranging composers don’t use the standardized pinyin transliteration, it can end up creating a lot of text confusion for non-native speakers since there may be multiple transcriptions of the same noun.

The passion in Choi’s voice is evident when she verbalizes the goals of Babεl and the excitement of beginning an important process to promote and share culture through music. Choi grew up in a musical family with her Mom and two Aunts as accomplished music educators and piano teachers back in Hong Kong. Piano lessons commenced for Choi at 2.5 years of ago but her family knew that immigrating to Canada would provide more options for Choi and her sister, Yvonne, to pursue musical careers. Yvonne has a degree in collaborative piano and works with many Toronto choruses. It is apparent that Choi is a music educator at heart. It doesn’t matter if she is working with professional singers, a community adult chorus, or a children’s choir because Choi has the warmth and inspiration to guide them all.

A video to learn more about the choir

Curious to hear more Mandarin choral music and groups?

Composers to watch:
Jan Tien Hao (冉天豪) - Taiwan
Ng Cheuk Yin (伍卓賢) - Hong Kong
Xingzimin Pan (潘行紫旻)- China
Jenny H. Chou (周鑫泉)- Taiwan
Jin Chengzhi (Aaron King) (金承志)- China

Choirs to listen for:
Rainbow Chamber Singers (Shanghai)
National Taiwan University Choir
Taipei Philharmonic Chorus
Taipei Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Music Example:

Grandmother - by Rainbow Chamber Singers

Love tree - Taipei Philharmonic Chorus - Chamber Choir

The Happiness of Snowflake - National Taiwan University Choir

Babεl Biography

Babεl began as a dream to bridge choral music between Canada and China.  The SATB ensemble is dedicated to supporting Canadian composers through national and international performances and recordings of their work.

We also hope to play a pivotal role in the Canadian choral world - bringing work from contemporary composers in China back to Canada.

We are hitting the ground running, ending our first season with a tour to Hong Kong and Taiwan in July 2019. This tour will be an opportunity to collaborate with the CU Chorus, workshop with aspiring high-school musicians, and perform with the sacred music ensemble, Vox Antiqua.

DR. ELAINE CHOI (D.M.A) contributes to Toronto's vibrant choral community as a conductor, educator, adjudicator, and collaborative pianist. She is currently the Director of Music at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, Past President of Choirs Ontario and conductor of the University of Toronto Women's Chorus. 

As a music educator, Elaine was a faculty member at the National Music Camp from 2010-2015 and currently serves as a guest coach at various schools throughout the city, including Rosedale Heights School of the Arts, North Toronto Collegiate Institute, and the York School. 

Elaine is active as an adjudicator and a clinician for various community events, such as the Toronto Kiwanis Music Festival and Singsation Saturdays. 

Elaine is an advocate for Chinese Music as she is also proficient on several traditional instruments such as the Erhu and Zhongruan. She was the conductor of Toronto Chinese Orchestra from 2010-2017. This fall, Elaine has founded a chamber choir Babel, an SATB ensemble founded to bridge choral music between Canada and China. The group supports Canadian composers through international performances and recordings of their work and brings work from contemporary composers in China back to Canada. 

Elaine began music studies on piano and violin. She earned her BMus in Music Education (2008) and a MMus in Music Performance specializing in Choral Conducting (2010) at the University of Toronto. She also holds an ATCL (1999), an AmusTCL Diploma (2001) in piano performance from the Trinity College of Music, London, and an Advanced Certificate (2000) from Associate Board of the Royal Schools of Music, England. 

Elaine is a four time recipient of the Elmer Iseler Fellowship in Choral Conducting (2008, 2009, 2014, 2015) and a finalist in the Sir Ernest MacMillan Foundation Fellowship Award in Choral Conducting (2012). She's the 2018 recipient of the prestigious William and Waters graduating award.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Ten Years to this Day

I am a singer.

There have been many moments in my life where I have wavered on accepting this title. But after 10 years of blogging, and over 20 years of choral singing, I know that who I am at my core is a singer. It is a huge component of my identity. Singing is an expressive means for me to communicate. While it is my pleasure to work with patients on discovering their communicative voice as a Speech-Language Pathologist, singing has always been and will continue to be my expressive mode of communication.

There is a overwhelming gratitude I feel towards the blog for holding me accountable to my passion: choral music. For the past 10 years, I have shared my thoughts while going through an artistic process and relayed these discoveries with my readers. In recent years, the blog has also developed into a platform where I am able to share the work of other singers, composers, conductors, organizations, and choirs as well. It is staggering to articulate the significance this blog has served for me, as well as others, over this past decade. I have enjoyed looking through my posts and photos to assemble some of my favorite moments. It's also exciting to look towards the future and contemplate what new projects, pieces of repertoire, singers, conductors, and composers I haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting.

Please enjoy this anniversary post and my apologies in advance since I'm certain people have been missed from this sampling of content. Regardless, thank-you, dear readers, for continuing to read my choral musings.

10 Year anniversary by Sable C

Listed below are 20 significant posts on The Choir Girl Blog over the past 10 year. Many of them signal a change in my role as an artist, thinking, or direction at each chronological time point in the blog.

1. Camp: A Rite of Passage

2. We'll Sing Anywhere

3. Choir Uniforms Do's and Don'ts

4. Arrival of the Virtual Choir 2.0

5. ESO Reviews

6. Making the Cut

7. Sh*t Choristers Say-An Interview with the Vancouver Cantata Singers

8. Tweet Me. Embracing Social Media at Podium 2012

9. Opera Girl

10. Painting the Nightingale

11. The Culture of Fear in Rehearsals 

12. Epilogue: Life after the Circus  

13. Dear, Opera Chorus

14. Backstage at Madama Butterfly 

15. I'm a bit of a hippie: An Interview with Cy Giacomin 

16. Interview with the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, Teiya Kasahara and Neil Craighead 

17. Podium 2016 Social Media Team  

18. National Youth Choir Class of 2016  

19. An Interview with Jane Berry 

20. The Formation of FEMME