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Christine Duncan audaciously rethinks choral music in her Element Choir

Updated January 21, 2017
The most unusual choir in Canada will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year.

Christine Duncan conducts the Element Choir in Dominion Chalmers United Church at Chamberfest 2013 © Brett Delmage, 2013It has no fixed membership, although many vocalists have been part of it for years. It has formed and reformed in cities across Canada. It doesn't use sheet music, but instead creates its music in the moment. And it uses all the possibilities of the human voice – singing, yes, but also growls, shrieks, water and air ambient noises, and many more sounds.

The Element Choir is the brainchild of Toronto vocalist Christine Duncan, who is its conductor and spark-plug – and it reflects her own audacious spirit as a vocalist and musician.

This week, Duncan is in Ottawa to conduct a local choir – Tone Cluster – as part of the large-scale “Sung Ra” concert with the Rakestar Arkestra. For Sunday's concert, most of the music will be composed rather than the completely free improv of an Element Choir show, but Duncan will use the same system of conducting cues and many of the same musical ideas.

It's a system she's been developing since 2007, and using to perform stand-alone and with musicians like Tanya Tagaq. But it came about almost by accident – as part of a release concert for a CD project. “It was a very bizarre and random thing,” Duncan says.

Duncan has been a jazz and improvising vocalist for decades, first in Vancouver and since 2000 in Toronto. She's recorded with many jazz groups, including Hugh Fraser's Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation (VEJI), and she teaches the Vocal Jazz Ensemble at the University of Toronto. But she's better known for stretching boundaries in highly adventurous ensembles like Barnyard Drama, with her partner, drummer Jean Martin.

The results have been mesmerizing.

“I'm totally amazed by Christine,” says Rakestar organizer Rory Magill. “Her duo performance with Jean Martin at IMOOfest 2013 – she just floored me! It was like a gospel revival meeting practically! The energy was like that, but the music and the sound was not totally avant-garde … it was everything from goofy spontaneous poetry and true gospel and everything else to just complete soundscape. I think she's sort of a miracle. I think she's at the top of that game, and I've followed people like Phil Minton and David Moss and Theo Bleckmann – the way-out vocal improvisers. And I think she's just right up there.”

"We could actually create a real thing here"

She's also collaborated with Vancouver improvising vocalist DB Boyko, and in 2006, Duncan, Martin, and Boyko released an album called “Idiolalla” on the Ambiances Magnétiques label. They planned two CD release concerts, one in Montreal, and one in Toronto – but thought that just two voices and drums in concert might be “pretty unrelenting”.

“So Jean suggested to put together groups of voices in each city that we could conduct – as just one other sound source for this show, just to add a bit of different texture and bit of different possibilities. And also the potential of a choral instrument idea as opposed to just all solo or chordal instruments.”

I'm totally amazed by Christine. Her duo performance with Jean Martin at IMOOfest 2013 – she just floored me! It was everything from goofy spontaneous poetry and true gospel and everything else to just complete soundscape.
– Rory Magill

She and Boyko had already run joint impromptu choir sessions in Vancouver, where “we would split the group in half and the two choir groups would be facing each other and DB and I would be back to back and this was outside on the street. And we would do dual conducting, which is hilarious and really fun.”

The choir sections in the two CD release concerts were much simpler than in current Element Choir shows: “just gestural and call-response. But it was really fun and really cool and it was just another part of her and my expression as people who improvise together.”

“And it worked so well that Jean and I went home, and went, 'Wow! Actually, this could be a real thing. We could actually create a real thing here.' ”

"It just started and it kept going"

They applied for and received a development grant from the Canada Council to create the basis for an improvising choir. In 2007, Duncan spent nine months on research, learning different systems of conduction, and creating her own system of cues for the choir. “During that time, I was also doing a big project with Anthony Braxton in the AIM Toronto Big Band. And so I got the chance to work with him and see how he treats all this kind of material.”

She workshopped her ideas with a volunteer choir at the Toronto creative music venue Somewhere There. “For a two-month residency, we would meet every Sunday and rehearse and then do an open rehearsal/performance, where people could come and check it out.”

“And right from then on it just started and it kept going. I kept loving it and kept expanding parts, and working on things, and adding stuff to it, and tweaking it all the time. And Jean has been very, very involved all the way through. We basically consider it to be our choir. I do all the arm-waving but he's just vitally involved.”

“[It's] the craziest group I've ever been involved in. This group can show up and perform, anywhere! And it can work. We've done new music events, we've done improvised music events, we've done poetry events, we've done indie-alternative-rock events [laughs]. We've done other kinds of weird showcases, corporate events. It's just amazing, and it doesn't matter the audience.”

At corporate events, the audience tends to just observe, but at “other kinds of events that are music- or art-associated, people go nuts for it. They seem to love it – doesn't matter whether it's that hipster rock crowd or the new music crowd or the free jazz crowd, or whatever it is, or any combination of the above.”

An instrument of many voices

For Duncan, conducting the Element Choir is “like playing an instrument. So I'm improvising, and the instrument is this many voices – it's crazy! It's beautiful.”

The Element Choir under the Sappers Bridge at Chamberfest 2012 ©Brett Delmage, 2012“And it's an instrument you can't really control as well. [laughs] It's all structured improvisation so I'll throw a cue at them or something, but I don't know 100% what is actually going to come back to me."

"Say I ask them to make air sounds, perhaps. Well, there's a huge range of possibilities in the world of air sounds. And so what happens is like this instant kind of soundscape-y sort of vibe that will inspire me to do something else or ask for something else. And often things will happen where I'll hear a voice or something that grabs my interest, and I'll swap everything around based on what I'm hearing coming back from the choir, and maybe turn it into a feature for that particular sound, and readjust everything else around it to support it or whatever. The direction can change.”

“So I never have a pre-set plan for things. It's always completely improvised. Whatever the spark is in the moment is what makes it happen and what makes it go, and then it goes from there.”

She emphasized that the Element Choir is normally accompanied by instrumentalists – “usually with a pipe organ and drums and trumpet and often double bass or violin or different things like that” – who also participate in the improvisation.

Three hours to prepare for singing before 900 people

An Ottawa edition of the Element Choir performed several times at Ottawa Chamberfest in 2012 and 2013, outdoors under Sapper's Bridge, and indoors using the beautiful resonances of Dominion Chalmers United Church. The choir also collaborated with composer Scott Thomson in his “Chamber Elements” show at the National Gallery, and in his “Arcade Air” concert at Ottawa City Hall.

Throat singer Tanya Tagaq has recorded and toured with Jean Martin for years – and has also featured choirs directed by Duncan several times in her concerts. Last November, Duncan created an impromptu choir to accompany Tagaq at her National Arts Centre concert, from first-year students at the Nunavut Sivuniksavut School in Ottawa.

She had only three hours with the students to train them in her cues and her choral approach, before they sang in front of 900 audience members in the NAC Theatre. “I think it was a bit shocking for some of these kids. You could see the looks on their faces, right?”

“Working with the Inuit youth group, first of all it's not a choir really, it's just a bunch of students and although they do sing some of their own traditional music, they take a very, very different approach to music and sound-making and stuff. So they don't voice things like singers would first of all, and secondly, this is completely out of their comfort zone. In fact, they don't really have any kind of point of connection for the stuff I'm asking them to do. So you spend quite a bit of time just trying to convince them that it's going to be OK.”

That reassurance is an essential task working with any new choir or new choir members, she said, because her style is so different from regular choir music.

I work very hard to create an environment that feels … fun, that feels open, that feels safe. A safe place for them to just try stuff, and to make people feel really supported through the whole process. Because I'm constantly asking people to do things that they're not used to, not familiar with. Sometimes it's completely out of the range of even their imagination. Not always, but sometimes.
– Christine Duncan

“I work very hard to create an environment that feels … fun, that feels open, that feels safe. A safe place for them to just try stuff, and to make people feel really supported through the whole process. Because I'm constantly asking people to do things that they're not used to, not familiar with. Sometimes it's completely out of the range of even their imagination. Not always, but sometimes.”

“And I have to be able to expedite these things pretty quickly (laughs). So I have to find a way to make it attractive to them so that they want to follow me down that path. It's a very interesting dynamic."

She usually starts by introducing the choir to her system of conduction and cuing system, and uses humour and a bit of self-deprecation to break the ice. “I do stuff. I put things out there. I demonstrate the vocal stuff. I ask their permission to get them to come along with me and try stuff out.”

“And we make some pieces and so they buy in to the sound world first, and then we take that and transition into what's happening in terms of the performative space.”

The influence of born-again "praise and worship"

Duncan's own family background may have also contributed to her style as a conductor. She was raised in the Pentecostal Church where her father was a minister, and was part of a family singing group. She sang in choirs as a child, and led her church choir for a brief period of time in her early 20s.

“The other thing that's a very important part of it, I think, was the kind of church that I was in – a fundamentalist, born-again Pentecostal church. And one of the amazing features about these kind of church environments is the whole praise and worship phenomenon. There's times and places in every service, as far as I can recall, where it would go into this kind of vamp musically, and people would just be singing out whatever they wanted.”

“It's all like group improvisatory singing and sounding in the environment of music, and in the environment of, I guess, religious ecstasy so people feel free to let go and go there and not be monitoring what it is they're doing quite so much. And people are singing and talking in tongues and all those kinds of … so the sounds of many voices all collectively sounding together in a minimally structured sort of way, with a bunch of different kinds of textural sound and spoken sound and singing sound and all these kinds of things all wrapped up together. And then there's interjections, you hear interjections here and there. So it's a quite improv-y kind of vibe.”

That experience helped her understand possibilities for groups of voices, she said.

“I'd say that definitely it's something that I love, and something that I am drawn to, and I do find that from time to time even doing these choir gigs, you get into these kind of spaces vocally with the group where it really starts reminding me of that. It's just all these voices raised together in joyful expression, and it doesn't necessarily have to be a particular structure, it's just a sound and a joy and the fact that everyone's doing it together. It really actually reminds me of those kinds of experiences – and that's a very cool thing for me.”

And sometimes she's “preached” as part of a performance – for example, at the JazzWorks jazz camp where Rob Frayne asked her to “preach a sermon” on one of his compositions. On one piece in the “Sung Ra” concert this week, she'll be creating an exhortation as the first part of the piece, and then working with the choir in a jubilant improvisation.

“That's all from my church background – all of that entire thing. It's theatre, perhaps, it's a little theatrical thing. But man! the energy is there, the vibe is there, the feeling is there. What it evokes is very real stuff, so I have no issues with just going there and playing it, having fun with it.”

"Amazing and freaky things"

The Element Choir has released two albums so far: a live recording of the choir at Rosedale United Church [2010], followed by a collaboration with renowned bassist William Parker recorded at Christ Church Deer Park [2011].

Duncan and ten members of the choir were also featured on the soundtrack for the award-winning horror film The Witch [2015]. Soundtrack composer Mark Korven said, “We gave them very loose direction and they did some amazing and freaky things.”

These days, Duncan says, the Element Choir is performing at everything from pop-up gigs to shows at Roy Thomson Hall. On March 4, Duncan will conduct the brass section of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, using her Element Choir cuing system, for a 20-minute composition written by her, Martin, and Tagaq.

In fact, she said, she's begun to expand as a conductor in the last couple years, to working with instrumental groups as well as choirs – “groups that are not necessarily voice-centric, like mixed groups or groups of instrumentalists or a wind ensemble or a mixed group. Right now I'm teaching an improvising ensemble at Humber College which is a 10-person group, all mixed all with different instruments, and I did some of this work with them too.”

Her system of improvising conduction “really travels well into groups of instrumentalists or mixed groups where there's some voices and some instruments and everything. It just seems to be an across-the-board very interesting system.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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January 21: Correction: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert is on March 4.