The Element Choir:
At Rosedale United
Toronto-based Barnyard Records has got a batch of new releases on offer, including a live solo acoustic bass set by William Parker (At Somewhere There) and a trio recording by trumpeter Jim Lewis, bassist Andrew Downing, and drummer Jean Martin (On a Short Path from Memory to Forgotten), but to these ears the most ear-catching of the three has to be the one from the Element Choir. What's so striking about the release? It's not that it was recorded live at Toronto's Rosedale United Church on two days in February 2009, nor that its eighty-minute ride features soloists such as violinist Jesse Zubot, organist Eric Robertson (manning the church's Cassavent pipe organ), and the aformentioned Lewis on trumpet and Martin on drums. Nope, it's that the Element Choir is an improvising ensemble of fifty-one voices conducted by Christine Duncan. It's an extended exercise in conduction, then, and this first recording of the ensemble is all the more remarkable for being, yes, completely improvised. So, yes, there may be moments of raggedness and an occasional meandering quality to the material, as the participants navigate their way through ten indexed pieces. But Duncan doesn't leave things entirely to chance; she shapes the choir's sound using conduction cues and signals so that the developing sound originates out of pre-ordained structures that spontaneously emerge as the material, both tonal and non-tonal, unfolds.
That the choir, whose membership reflects marked contrasts in age and background (apparently its members include concert sopranos, singer-songwriters, sound poets, Japanese folk singers, etc.), achieves a unified character is a compliment to Duncan who is somehow able to marshall a potentially unweildly grouping into a simpatico unit. Whether babbling incoherently, shouting extemporaneously, or humming peacefully, the vocal ensemble becomes an extension of Duncan, and a particularly explorative one at that. Being a large ensemble doesn't mean that intimate moments aren't possible either, as a passage of melancholy restraint in “Cloud Hands” proves when a solo voice wordlessly intones against the organ backdrop. True to its title, the piece swells into a drifting ethereal vocal mass that gracefully rises and falls, and at one point the material develops into a lovely call-and-response episode that pits a single voice against the multitude. While the instrumentalists and vocalists are heard most often together, there are times when they appear alone. There are episodes during “Funhouse,” for instance, when Lewis and the other players exhume a waltz that Kurt Weill might have composed for The Threepenny Opera, and Zubot and Martin create something as macabre at the center of “Processional.” Collectively, the forces simulate a slow awakening appropriate to a piece titled “Sun Up,” and what makes the setting all the more memorable are the multi-layers of unearthly vocal moans that can't help but suggest Ligeti. But all such allusions aside, no one style or period predominates. Instead, the material typically transcends genre in amalgamating a range of musics into a fully alive and vibrant whole.