Sunday, March 3, 2024

Unlearning Within a Choral Community

Photo by Andy Rice
Dear readers,

I had the pleasure two weeks ago of reconnecting with my Canadian Chamber Choir (CCC) choral community. It has been seven years since I last sung with the group in-person on our Chicago tour of 2017. I was grateful to be a part of many online professional development sessions the CCC offered and I also had the opportunity to be a part of and the virtual choir premiere of Edward Enman's "Unimagined Light." 

However, re-entering the touring process this time looked different because we were not just performing a set of prescribed choral scores, but rather, the CCC was committed to developing a new work with Composer, Hussein Janmohamed. The CCC had already begun work with Janmohamed in the Fall when there was an incubation period with him in Winnipeg; however, on this most recent tour in Calgary, the CCC was committed to present a new, collaboratively created work in performance. Leading up to the in-person collaborative sessions together, Janmohamed shared his Doctoral dissertation research from the University of Toronto, readings on Shia-Ismali traditions and Muslim cultures, and Spotify playlists sharing music from the pluralistic South Asian sound worlds that he grew up with. I was part of an online zoom session during one of the CCC's work with Janmohamed in the Fall. Regardless of that virtual introduction, I still felt like I was coming in as a newcomer to the collaborative incubation sessions scheduled during this tour. However, this sense of feeling like an outsider was soon abolished when Janmohamed began our session by humming a drone, which we all picked up instantaneously, and he sang a South Asian Ismaili devotional poem (ginan) in Hindi to open our session space together. There was an overwhelming feeling of: we are all welcome.

It is not my first experience working with choral improvisation before. I have been significantly influenced by my work with Lone Larsen at the Banff Centre Choral Art residency, and hearing VoNo, a professional ensemble based out of Stockholm that embraces choral improvisation and collaborative co-creation. I feel that the more you release and play within the sandbox of choral improvisation, the more comfortable one begins to feel when the parameters of the sandbox shift. What I felt was most profound in terms of singing self-discovery during those Banff sessions was the sense of freedom in terms of expression and how that translated into a sense of ease with my vocal instrument. I was connected to the purpose of communication through voice. I was not focused on the biomechanics of singing. I also sang what felt natural to me in those moments. I thrived off the knowledge that nothing I could do was wrong. Everything I chose to do or not do was an acceptable offer. It was thrilling!

Thus, I was humming with excitement to come into those incubation sessions with Hussein. We assembled into small groups to play. I was so curious to hear the voices of those in the choir in an intimate way. The CCC is a cherished group of choral peers and I do not usually get the opportunity to hear everybody as individuals within a choral setting. We would break out, play, reassemble to see what different small groups came up with, and see which of those aspects would make their way into our collaborative composition together. CCC Artistic Director, Dr. Julia Davids, seamlessly decentralized her leadership role and integrated herself as a fellow co-creator, experimenting alongside others in the choral collective.  Janmohamed would record these fragments for us to listen to and process later. We listened to the audio clips and shared thoughts that came up. Upon the whiteboard brainstorm, keywords and phrases were written down:  

  • low drones
  • clusters built on future melodies
  • laments
  • conversations
  • individual voices, duets, trios
  • harmonizing and responding
  • angst/anger/tightening
  • vocal calls
  • movement
  • rhythmic components
  • irregular rhythms
  • wild
  • drone pulses
  • arrival together
  • unison
Janmohamed was vocal that it was a struggle for him to resist the urge to write music down for us. I could also sense that some choristers would have preferred a structure, any structure to ground our compositional process together. There was a tangible mix of tensions in the air between performing notated music yet an active resistance of doing just that. I could feel the unlearning happening around me. Some singers struggled, some were neutral, some singers looked enthralled, and many of us fluctuated between those states throughout the entire process. As singers, we can forget that we have been singing longer than there has been music written down for us to read. It was about taking a step back and deciding what we wanted to say, evaluate our motivations, and choose collectively how we wanted to do that. It is a process that takes organizational support, a unified intention to co-create a work to present, and time to allow this collaborative process to happen.

There were moments during those small groups where there was a suspended feeling of musical flow and magic. Janmohamed outlined a South Asian inspired modal colour we were encouraged to play within it. He facilitated and channelled the feeling of play. A sense of security, openness, and curiosity to experiment was present. We began to hear raw vocal textures and lamenting lines emerge from the singers. I heard voices emoting messages ranging from sorrow to certainty. Within the few days leading up to the concert premiere of the work, we did have to decide, as a group, the general structure we would choose to present. Dr. Davids was instrumental in helping to gather and organize our thoughts and transitions as well as provide cues to keep us aligned during the live performance. The supportive feedback and outside eye of Dr. Davids and another chorister, Deb, helped us with the staging elements throughout the piece. Thus, we were able to feel confident in remembering what we were singing and doing for the initial performances. 

We acknowledged that the piece would always be changing. It would never be finished. It was a framework that would evolve each time a group of singers returned to it. To me, that is the most exciting part of unlearning: singing what emerges and not just what we are told.

Photo by Andy Rice
Photo by Andy Rice

Published with permission from Hussein Janmohamed in message dialogue he shared with me regarding this blog entry:

"I think it is interesting how as singers and as conductor and composer we were all grappling with how we wanted to organize music in the ways we have learned to, and how we wanted to also resist that, as you have said. The interplay of order and indeterminacy was always here, and that was interesting for me. Especially that for me as a facilitator commissioned to compose something with the choir, I could not help but fall into the trap of telling the choir what to do, what and when to sing. I had to really challenge my own musical upbringing both in Western replicative arts, and in Ismaili traditional transmission that what people received and did replicated what they were taught...which inevitably came with artistry, craft, and a sense of unity, but also came with expectations of behaviour, thought, and action. I was panicking that I needed to 'write' the music out, or give the choir a graphic score of some sort, or whatever it was, but as soon as I sat on the notational software, I could not. The way we were singing, the tones, the modes, the movement between notes, etc. was not something I could give an instruction for. We had embodied a kind of sonic way of being that was in itself a resistance to the notated forms of defined melodies we are so used to, and that I believe embraced a completely different way of listening and sounding, enacting a performer as a composer way of being."

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