How would an Improvised Choral Piece go?

If you’re an improvising musician – and if you’re doing it right – then every time you make music, I’ll be hearing your opinion on all the music you’ve ever heard. It doesn’t matter whether you’re faithfully reproducing a Classical piece from the sheet music, wailing free-jazz, or anything in between. From your song selection (or lack thereof) to your chosen approach to the songs you pick, you’re saying something about music, and about which approaches are valid, useful, and meaningful in the context of the material you’re doing.

Once upon a time there were 5 singers, on a stage, in a room, with an audience of 50. The singers knew that all improvisations, no matter how loose, need a structure – need some way for the improvisers to wordlessly understand what was expected of each other. So they had sought a structure that created a maximum of freedom for creative expression.

They had decided ahead of time whose turn it was and how the turns were going to go. And so the first singer had the silence – or the ambient noise – of the room to give an answer to, from whatever was in his heart at the moment, and from his opinion on all of music. He had freedom to do whatever he wanted, but he understood that he was beginning a process of music-making with others, and therefore considered what sound he could answer the silence with that they, in turn, could give answer to. And so, he began.

The second singer now had the first singer’s sound to interact with. As almost always happens, it called to her in a particular way; almost unbidden, some way of answering it came to her mind. The singers (really, it was thanks to people like Rhiannon) had developed strategies for answering sounds: Harmony, Interlocking, Contrast, Solo (and specialized answers such as Bass and Percussion). Each had a different effect on the overall music. Again, she had complete freedom, but she understood that there were going to be at least 4 other voices that she would be in conversation with – more, if one of the singers chose to involve the audience. She could even have answered the first singer’s sound with a Solo, but she understood that that might have made it challenging for the rest of the singers to find their parts. And so, with all of this in mind, she began.

And so it was for the third singer. In the sounds of the first two singers she heard possibilities, informed by everything she had ever known, hated, and loved about music. On this particular occasion, she understood the first singer’s part to be a Motor, and the second singer’s part to be a Contrast – whatever the previous singers’ intentions might have been. She heard the opportunity to insert a part that she deemed to be Interlocking with their sounds, and that was what she chose to be her answer to them.

And so it was for the fourth singer. Already there was a musical structure set up, one that meant something to him, a meaning unique to his understanding of music. He had heard three parts unfold so far, and had had a reaction to each – sometimes surprise! And, although he had complete freedom, he knew that the fifth singer’s expected role would be to Solo, to take the audience on a journey, to make the musical texture that they had created have a beginning, and a middle, and an end. And so the fourth singer heard a way to add to the texture; on this particular occasion, he chose a Harmony with the second singer’s part.

These first four singers, having done their jobs well, created a wonderful and nuanced ostinato musical texture, a kind of running conversation between them, one that reflected the musical influences and current emotional states of each of them. The fifth singer heard the nuances, and was naturally drawn to certain details that were meaningful to her. Without questioning why one thing or another seemed meaningful, she sang something to draw out that meaning, and so began the journey – or “path” – of her Solo. With her body language she asked the first four singers to be more hushed, so that she would have room for her idea. From the first note, a second occurred to her, and a meaningful way to move from the first to the second. From there, a third, and several after that. Soon, an intensification of the musical ideas that she had found. After a short while, a climax or a point to what it was she was had been building toward saying. And after that, a gentle conclusion.

But this did not, on this occasion, conclude the piece. It might have; it had had the possibility to. As the fifth singer brought her musical path to its gentle conclusion, all five singers listened very sensitively to one another, as they had been all along. They sought cues and clues from one another, in sound and body language, about whether each felt that this piece had said everything that they had wanted to say with it. If it had, one of them – probably either the fifth singer or the first – would have used body language to indicate that each singer should find a way for their part to conclude, and all would have done so.

Instead, on this occasion, the third singer felt that there was something else to say, some other journey that this sound was to take the singers (and audience) on. The fifth singer had settled into a subtle little ostinato pattern at the conclusion of her solo, adding to the four existing parts in the texture. Now, the third singer left her part to begin her Solo.

As she left her part, the texture of the sound they were co-creating changed, giving each singer opportunity to consider whether they felt there was now some lack in it. Each may have had a different opinion on this point, but it was the fourth singer who reacted to this change in the sound. Perhaps he deemed the third singer’s Interlocking part to be important, and his own Harmony to now be less so in light of the fifth’s singer’s subtle addition. Whatever the case, he left his Harmony and added an Interlocking part much like the one left by the third singer, but influenced by his personal style. In this way, the overall sound adjusted to the on-the-fly change in the role each singer played.

As it happened on this occasion, this third singer had heard something in the fifth singer’s Solo that she felt needed a response, and she saw an opportunity to do so with her own voice and with the voices of the audience. And so she began her musical path with a bold theme, a musical phrase which contrasted nicely with the previous solo. She repeated it, with slight variation, and re-stated it one more time. Then, using body language, she divided the audience into two halves, left and right. To the left she sang a simple three-note phrase with an exciting rhythm, and indicated with body language that she wanted them to repeat it. When they got it, she turned to the right and sang a similar three-note phrase in harmony with the first. Very soon, the 50 people in the audience were carrying these harmonies. She gave the other four singers on the stage an indication to pump up their volume, and they responded.

On this sound, the third singer delivered her response to the fifth singer’s Solo. She brought back her theme, developed it slightly, and repeated it. She found something else to say, a transformation of her theme that revealed that it might have multiple meanings in different contexts. And, having thus provided a contrast to her original theme, she returned back to it. This was all that she had wanted to express in response, but she did not yet feel that it had been said enough, so once more she brought back her theme, repeated it, sang her contrasting phrase, and returned, all the while supported by the other four singers’ musical texture and the harmonies of the audience.

Having now sung her peace, she returned to her place with the singers on-stage, settling on an ostinato pattern like one of the parts she had given the audience. Again, all five singers listened very sensitively to one another, seeking cues as to whether each felt that this piece had said everything that they had wanted to say with it. This time, all felt done, and with body language the first singer felt that he had everyone’s permission to guide the conclusion. Still singing his part, he stepped forward and indicated that the singers on stage were to keep going. Turning to the audience, he indicated that they should sing their part more softly and then, after a short interval, gave them a signal to stop. Turning back to the singers, he used body language to indicate a gradual quieting, followed by a dramatic slowing, and concluding with a held note. The singers responded to each signal, and thus the piece came to a close.

The audience applauded, and the singers expressed their gratitude to audience and each other with modest bows and a little bit of hugging.

And it was time for the next piece. So, the first singer became the second, the second the third, and so on, with the fifth becoming the first. Thus arranged, they began again.

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