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Organized in Time: Vocal Soundscapes and Choirs

My old public school choir teacher used to have a poster in her classroom that quoted Aristotle. It said “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” I think that the implication of that was that a collection of voices is more powerful as a big unit than each individual person’s flimsy little vocal chords, but I disagree. I think that the idea of the “whole” versus the “part” is so subjective. Yes, I understand what it’s like to sing in a choir and feel like you are a part of something bigger than yourself, just because that’s how the experience is by design. But as a listener, I want to strip away the “whole” and the “part” and focus on the details as well as the big sonic picture. On the other hand, when I sing, I want to focus on not being a part of a musical assembly line but interacting with a sound source while still maintaining my own unique back and forth. I’m tired of thinking of my voice as a part in a machine and I want to start thinking of it as an entity that can break through the limits I have put on myself and that the culture and history of music has put on me.

I am proud to be able to say that every year, without fail, since the fifth grade, I have sung in choir. From two part hungarian songs with the Manhattan Girls Chorus, to sephardic motets at summer camp, to modern interpretations of Shakespeare at Mannes prep in New York, to long, toxically masculine Handel masses with the UNCSA Cantata Singers, to “Africa” by Toto with my old public high school; I feel like I can say I’ve worked really hard to immerse myself in many different things that the human voice can do. I have listened and written and searched to find new ways that a group of voices, even just a small group, can push the boundary of the human concept of sound. In my short, inexperienced life, I need to constantly remind myself to ask simple questions like “why do we need choruses?” or more specific questions like “how does one pair a choir with a computer in a unique and innovative way?” or “what are the *ugly* parts of our voices? How do we navigate them?” and “how can a piece of choir music convey an idea without words?” I constantly have to ask myself “how do we incorporate the element of chance and variability in vocal music?”

Part of the reason why I wonder about things like vocal soundscapes is because yes, I am a singer, and yes, I am a composer and these are things in my life that just sort of feed each other. But I also want more non-musicians to question their own voices too, just like I am learning how to do. I mean COME ON- you, a human being, are born with a portable, all purpose instrument right inside of your body. That’s one of nature’s GREATEST MIRACLES and yet NOBODY talks about it! When you’re in high school, everybody is listening to mainstream singers who don’t experiment or push vocal boundaries simply because they have brands to profit from and reputations to protect. They don’t teach you about vocal mechanics or vocal health in biology or health class, and only the same archetypes of people join the school choir; and even they don’t always have exposure to experimental vocal music. Most choirs, regardless of whether or not they are professional, care only about either strict classical music or jazz/rock arrangements. 

Right now, I don’t want to rant about how people run their choirs. I just want to cease my rambling and write about what experimental vocal music actually is. The best way to explain it is to just do it. I want to invite you to go into your bedroom, or a quiet area in your house, get comfy, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing (yes, this is going to be a weird experience but humor my teenage brain). After a few minutes, start to pay attention to the sounds around you. Do you notice the rush of your AC or heater? Can you hear the rhythm of cars rushing down streets? Are your neighbors making an incessant racket? As you observe the sonic environment that you are in, start to mimic the sounds around you with your voice. There’s no pressure to sound good, the only rule is that you have to interact with a sound source by creating your own sound. Keep on mimicking until you decide it’s time to stop. Once you’ve stopped, you might feel either relaxed or weirded out, which is totally valid. But either way, CONGRATULATIONS!! You just performed “Environmental Dialogue'' from Pauline Oliveros’s collection of sonic meditations.

What if a big group of people got together in your house with you and interacted with that same source that you just did, each in unique ways, all juxtaposed as a group? Would it sound like music? Whether or not it does is up to you, but that is what experimental group singing is. It’s not meant to be music, although music is always a nice byproduct of anything we do in life as humans. Experimental group singing is just a way of observing the world using your voice, just like how lots of people observe the world through their eyes and ears.

So, why vocally observe the world as a group, you may ask? First of all, because it’s a fun thing to do if you are like me and you surround yourself with Spooky Dorks Who Like To Try New Things, but more importantly because this is where Aristotle may have been onto something after all- when lots of people start interacting with the same source, they begin to interact with each other. If you are listening to somebody humming your favorite song, you’re probably going to start tapping your toes along with them. It’s the same with experimental vocal practice. It forces you to want to find every conceivable sound in the universe and hold onto it and save it so that you can just enjoy it- including sounds that are produced from the voices of the people you surround yourself with. This also can include sounds from machines and computers.

If you thought this article couldn’t get more nerdy and philosophical and full of teen obsession, you’re wrong because we haven’t even touched on the choir + electronics world. There are so many awesome, ambient, variable sounds that you can get when you put a choir through a computer. Sometimes it will make you want to dance, sometimes it will make you want to cry, and that’s why this shit is just as important to me as things like rock and indie. In fact, a lot of electronics + choir pieces incorporate grooves from other genres like soul. If that sounds like a jam to you: check out this piece for concert choir, piano, and electronics:

If you’re looking for a more ambient, aethereal vibe, check out “Hildegard sequence: O fire of the spirit.” It’s got the spooky, earth shaking resonance and beauty of a Medieval chant combined with processed church bells, and live electronics, and something called whale-singing (which is exactly what it sounds like and I am HERE FOR IT). I especially like it because the singers have to change between rounded, open sounds and more nasal-sounding harmonics:

If you want to delve into the “weird” parts of the voice, I’d highly recommend Stockhausen’s “Stimmung.” I can’t describe how amazingly he explores the depths of what the human voice can do (so much so that it takes 51 movements!), so I’ll just let you listen for yourself:

This piece is probably my favorite example because it just sort of sails in the high range of the voice/midi/computer, and because there are so many cool found sounds- or sounds that somebody finds in nature and records as part of a piece of music- like bird calls. This is a great piece for listening to if you want to pretend that you’re the main alien character in a spooky space movie. You really get such an interactive vibe from this and I really want to sing this one day because I feel like there’s so many elements of it to connect with:

Another Lux Aeterna setting that uses experimental vocal practice would have to be Ligeti’s. I normally can’t stand Ligeti but ever since my composition teacher introduced me to this piece I have been the slightest bit obsessed with its rounded, dissonant nature. I found out that it was used in “2001: A Space Odyssey” because of its otherworldly aesthetic, which is caused by its abandonment of melody, harmony, and rhythm in favor of tone color. Check it out if you’re a fan of music that sounds like literal clouds:

Finally, if you’re not familiar with it already, check out Partita for Eight Voices by Caroline Shaw. It’s kind of a “basic piece” in contemporary music circles but I wish everybody jammed to it because it sums up so many of the ideas I’ve been trying to convey in this article. Shaw’s piece abandons traditional vocal practice and is written using techniques that are NEVER used, but should be used more in my opinion (i.e. combination speaking and singing).

I hope that at the end of reading this, you can see why it’s so important that we explore the full capacities of our voices, both individually and in groups. I hope that you’re asking yourself “why should we limit ourselves to thinking that music needs to sound a certain way?” and “why should we only explore the world through our eyes and ears and only use our voices for speaking?” As I grow older, I want to keep advocating for a world where people can sing without worrying if they are a “part” in a “whole” but asking themselves how they can interact with a small piece of the universe using their voice. 

If you’re still looking for some experimental choral music to listen to, I have a link to a playlist that includes more recommendations!


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