…Alice Chance reimagines the choral experience
Last week The Australian Music Centre released the first of 13 Peggy Glanville-Hicks commissions for 2020 – Until We Gather Again by Alice Chance – an aleatoric, audiovisual work for scattered choir, created in collaboration with the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus (LEC) under the direction of Michelle Leonard OAM.
You can view it here on YouTube
To create this work Chance set up a special website with instructions, tutorial videos, learning aids, vocal tracks and ‘how tos’ for the choir while Leonard and accompanist Benjamin Burton ran virtual rehearsals on the choral elements. I know this, because I was one of the many LEC choristers who took part… All up Alice received 186 email submissions to the project inbox. Some people contributed one thing, like the singing or some footage, and others contributed several times in different ways. I asked Alice, Michelle and a few of the other participants from LEC to tell me more about what I can only describe as a multimedia, digital, compositional masterpiece.
What was the inspiration for Until We Gather Again?
ALICE: Well, during isolation in Sydney, I’d started taking little trips to the rooftop carpark of Marrickville Metro and just sitting and working in the car. (Sometimes I’d get some groceries too.) I’d been thinking about how different the world was now and how to create art for it. I also looked at the sky a lot. Gradually this idea came to me of a virtual choir whose voices didn’t necessarily need to be synchronised. To me, canons and aleatoric ideas better reflected the way I was feeling about remote music-making than synchronised voices and videos. I was also curious to hear from members of a choir what sorts of things they were doing and how they were feeling about no longer being able to gather. I thought if I asked them to wish things for each other, we could weave a beautiful honest portrait of the group with their individual voices. I also realised that I wanted minimal footage of the actual choristers, and instead asked them to film or photograph their homes or environments, anything that related to their experience of isolation.
MICHELLE: When I realised that in its 22nd year the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus would not be able to gather collectively for some time, I spoke to some composers about re-imagining what choral isolation could do for our creative process… and to look at this ‘instrument’ [a community choir] for what it is innately capable of artistically achieving rather than trying to make it work to a click track. I wanted in fact to celebrate the out of time ‘zoom effect’ and make something beautiful from it.
Watching so many choirs internationally create works that demanded click tracks or a sense of perpetual motion in a very exacting understanding of time made me realise how important it was for the LEC – a choir that for such a long time has championed creativity and a more lateral approach to what choir can be – to say something about the passage of time at this extraordinary moment in world history.
Were there any challenges during the process?
ALICE: With all the submissions I received, I found it really challenging to gradually cull until I had what I thought was a holistic and cohesive work. Everyone’s submissions were so delightful, profound and sometimes really humorous. I had to bid farewell to a lot of great stuff in order to get the tonal arc I was after for the piece. But as I said to members of the choir, everything I received affected the work. Every insight they generously gifted me with, enabled me to better know the participants and create what I felt was the best portrait of them as a whole.
MICHELLE: Like many community based organisations internationally this choir is not made up of individual soloists – indeed the very premise of why they would be singing together is precisely the opposite… many publicly would not even identify as a singer!… however these covid choral times now demand the ability to sing solo, hear your voice, critically analyse it and record…many people join a choir so their voice can blend with others and so they feel a part of a greater whole where individualism is sublimated into a collective artistic response, and to feel the thrill and energy that entails. Recording solo is daunting enough for professionals… let alone us mere “mortals”
LEC SINGERS: Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the project was the individual singing… it was daunting to hear your own voice, not recognise it initially, and then be somewhat taken aback by the sound we produced as a soloist.
It stretched everyone who participated to re-think what it means to be in a choral group.
What was most inspiring about the project?
MICHELLE: Particularly exciting for me was the re-empowering of each singer to put their own individual response to how isolation, and indeed lack of face to face rehearsals, has affected them – and what they wish for as they dare to imagine a time when they will be able to gather again.
ALICE: When I started receiving the submissions, I made a little loop of the sung material and played peoples spoken reflections and wishes on top of it. Each file was like opening a Christmas present. I dragged it into my project, sat there and listened, and would often laugh out loud or say “Aww!”. Even though I’d asked choristers to respond to the things they loved about their homes, and their experience of time passing, I wasn’t prepared for their generosity and openness in sharing their insights. It’s such a confronting thing to record your voice alone in a room, let alone details about your life and experiences! I take my hat off to everyone who managed this!
LEC SINGERS: The whole concept of this piece was inspiring. The opportunity to participate in a project that was unique and quite different to other online choral projects was very special.
For me, the most inspiring element of the project was Alice herself. Michelle had such faith in her abilities as a composer and through this work, I was able to gain insight into a gentle, thoughtful and creative mind. Alice’s directions for the project were the magic that most retired teachers (myself) only hoped that somewhere in our careers, we achieved to some small degree.
We were treated like professionals – by that I do not mean placement on pedestals, but like a pro we had to take individual responsibility for how we prepared, practiced and executed our tasks. This started with Anna Fraser’s regular online training sessions. We had no idea if other choristers all contributed and we couldn’t lean on them. In this seeming-contradictory way, I think the choir will have been strengthened.
What did Alice do to assist you to navigate through the process?
- Alice provided us with very clear instructions, modelled all the different steps and demonstrated techniques for recording and filming. She did this in a very gentle and encouraging way. Her approach was very open ended, it left you feeling confident free to engage in our own way with the content.
- If I was still teaching or working at a university in charge of new ‘teachers’, I would make Alice’s process essential viewing.
- This was the most inspiring part. Alice has many feathers in her cap! She linked our disparate vocal and visual abilities by creating a visual scribbling – a consistent pictorial style to complement the musical integrity. The scribbling was brave. Its imprecise, ‘amateurish’ play enabled the background, polished, precise score to carry the day.
And what did you all think of the whole thing?
- Alice’s project made this lock down time better. It provided a focus, a time frame and direction that some days seemed lost to me. Although each of us as participants were alone, it did not seem that way because we were promised as a group, not as an individual, but as the group that we have in LEC, that this project would be inclusive and all of us would be part of the greater whole.
- This project confirmed a personal space – creatively and literally. I could focus on things other than what was happening within four walls.
MICHELLE: I am utterly delighted with the way this process has joined the choir together and strengthened their relationship to creativity with a living Composer. I sincerely hope that it encourages other choirs to experiment or indeed give their own voice to what it feels like to be “singing in a choir” at this time.
LEC SINGERS: …beautiful. The way in which Alice has fragmented, layered and built up the vocal sounds is poignant and evocative. The rich layering of voices in the final section is very powerful and resonates like memories in a medieval cathedral. The visual imagery is often playful and whimsical. It is a really lovely piece.
…it was a magical experience for all who viewed this.
Interesting dialects of space inside vs outside which are a direct response to the lockdown but also to the internet…. Great project, great idea, great use of digital technology and equally great execution!!
The finished project was nothing that I could have imagined and so much more than I ever could have hoped for.
Any last words?
LEC SINGERS: Michelle constantly trusts those around her. She took on the most difficult part – godawful choir rehearsals on Zoom. She entrusted professional colleagues to give us voice exercises, and composers to ‘do what they want’ with her body of singers. So she supported everyone, whilst recognising our need to feel we still belonged to a choir.
MICHELLE: It is my every intention that this model is shared as far and wide to bring as much joy and hope as possible and I’m sure Alice wholeheartedly agrees.
These sort of projects cannot happen without a resilience and extraordinary generosity of spirit, this is what choirs really give to us at every moment in history and even more so now – until we gather again! Bring joy, bring hope and just keep singing!
ALICE: Just a huge thank you. Thank you to the Australian Music Centre, the Peggy Glanville-Hicks trust, and the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus for giving me work during a time when I had just had a lot cancelled or indefinitely postponed. A huge thank you to Anna Fraser, Andrew O’Connor, and Mark Donnelly who recorded rehearsal tracks for the choir to sing along to. A huge thank you to Michelle Leonard and Leichhardt Espresso Chorus for believing in the idea. And a huge thank you to everyone who confronted the challenges of recording themselves and sharing their honest experiences with me for this project. I’ve been truly honoured to be able to make this.
You can view this extraordinary project in its entirety on YouTube