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 practice 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 workshop 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 classical guitarist who plays in a reggae band, a music teacher 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.