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The Element Choir brings an element of surprise and beauty (review)

Jim Lewis improvised on trumpet and flugelhorn with 55 members of the Element Choir conducted by Christine Duncan © Brett Delmage, 2013

The Element Choir
Ottawa Chamberfest
Dominion Chalmers United Church

Friday, August 2, 2013 - noon

Arcade Air
Ottawa Chamberfest
Ottawa City Hall
Thursday, August 1, 2013 - noon

View photos of this concert

“Let's see what happens.”

That's how Christine Duncan commenced the Element Choir's noon-hour performance Friday at Chamberfest. It was an unconventional and unpredictable choir performance – no scores, almost no words, and most importantly, completely improvised.

But what wasn't surprising, for those who have heard the choir before, was that the resulting music was often beautiful, interestingly textured, and unexpected – and repaid careful listening.

On the extended large stage in the church were 55 singers, raised up on several rows on risers, with Duncan in front conducting them, and three musicians: Jim Lewis on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jean Martin on drums, and Veryan Weston from England playing the church's huge pipe organ.

They played completely acoustically – not even any vocal mics – prompting Duncan to invite the audience to move closer to the stage before the show started. But despite the fact that Dominion Chalmers is one of the largest performance spaces in Ottawa, the sounds they produced worked well in that resonant space and, if anything, were improved by it.

The Element Choir is an ad-hoc group which is reformed for every city and just about every time it performs. I've heard it once in Guelph and four times in Ottawa. The common thread is Duncan and the system of conduction she has developed based on many sources, including some other improvising choirs, and then refined over the last half-decade. She uses hand signals to direct the singers, but not to control them – most of her cues can be interpreted in a number of ways and the singers are free to choose.

Earlier in the week, Duncan had taught her conduction signals to the choir in two rehearsals, but as choir members said afterwards, left lots of room for surprises.

The concert started with slow occasional notes on trumpet, alternating with deep, extended notes on organ and muted, slow drumming. As Lewis moved to produce low, full lines, the choir very softly started singing wordlessly underneath, slowly increasing in volume. And then suddenly all the instruments and the voices reached a crescendo. As they faded out, the singers switched to bird sounds on one sides and what sounded like a gabble on the other. One male singer put his hand over his mouth to create hissing noises.

And it continued, moving from barely audible to hugely exclamatory: with solos by each of the instrumentalists and by a few of the vocalists, and with the choir itself both creating background atmosphere and singing as one (or several) voices. Sometimes they sounded like a low conversational rumble; in one place they sang a series of abrupt individual notes, one after another, followed by a period of quiet soundless singing, slowly building up tension and texture. At another point, they alternated “You” and “Me” at two different pitches, changing the speed and rhythm as the chant evolved.

What was particularly noticeable was how carefully everyone was listening. At one point, Lewis picked up his trumpet, listened for a minute or so, and then put it down and picked up the flugelhorn and joined its more mellow sound in with the voices a few bars later.

Weston's organ playing was utterly unlike the thundering chords one might hear in a church service: there were times when it was just wispily audible yet beautifully modulated, and others when it built up the tension. He frequently used it to underscore melodies from the trumpet or the choir. Martin played with mallets, sticks, his hands, and a long chain, and was constantly reacting to the music with changing dynamics and rhythms, never overwhelming the choir but filling in the sound beautifully. He also played pocket trumpet at various times in the show.

A particular highlight of the concert was a beautiful flugelhorn solo by Lewis partway through, rich and subtle and as much classically as jazz-influenced.

One disadvantage of improvisation is that it's harder to balance everything: I thought that, if anything, the instrumentalists had more chance to step forward than the vocalists (although I would have loved to hear even more organ). The choir also reused one motif (the wordless vocals) several times to the point where it became repetitive. Nevertheless, to try to get a perfect balance in 50 minutes when there is no preset structure is almost impossible: I was impressed with the variety of interesting sounds which Duncan coaxed from the choir and how well they worked with the instrumentalists.

The audience certainly enjoyed it: the end of the performance was greeted with strong and extended applause.

This was the second year in a row that Duncan had brought the choir to Chamberfest. Some vocalists returned for 2013, although this year's choir was almost twice as large as in 2012. Last year, the choir performed short outdoor concerts under the Plaza Bridge, and were included in the performance of Scott Thomson's composition, Chamber Elements, in the National Gallery.

Arcade Air surprises passers-through in City Hall

This year, they also performed in a free performance of a new composition by Thomson, Arcade Air, on Thursday at noon. Thomson created the composition for Ottawa's City Hall, and specifically the bridges which cross that building's central atrium.

The atrium is four stories high, and he positioned trumpet and trombone players, two dancers, and the choir on the second, third, and fourth floors of its northern section. The choir members were mostly at the windows which pierced the atrium's walls; the brass players were constantly on the move, playing as they strode along the halls, and most particularly as they crossed the two sets of bridges which transect the atrium on each floor. The dancers gesticulated and whipped around on the bridges as well, appearing and disappearing unexpectedly.

For the audience members, most of whom were on the first floor and not all of whom realized a concert was happening, it was a fascinating experience. The voices and brass lines echoed around the atrium and it took a minute or so to figure out who was producing them – if you could see the musicians at all, because some only appeared as tiny silhouettes further up. Duncan and another vocalist had some particularly beautiful solo sections, singing what sounded liked Celtic-influenced songs.

And during the entire 30 minutes, the business of City Hall didn't stop: people kept rushing through, some noticing the music and looking surprised and often delighted, some oblivious. One man hurried through carrying a large platter of sandwiches for a meeting. In some ways that made it harder to hear and concentrate on the music; but it also increased the visibility of the music and introduced it to a larger and broader audience than in the National Gallery in 2012.

Those who did listen appeared to thoroughly enjoy it: the piece received strong applause at the end, and people were still looking up minutes later, hoping for a few more bars of music.

    – Alayne McGregor

See also:

All images ©Brett Delmage, 2013
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