5th December 2015, The Vortex, Dalston, London.
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. One voice generated its own guiding principle, its own thread for the others to weave around, giving strength and fibre to their journey. Another 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 elegantly woven parts turning over each other, coming into a harmonious whole then shifting and sliding into gently 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 and passion of creating music, guided by the vision and direction of Jenni.