The integrative approach found in Vocal Tai Chi (the other project I am presenting as part of the Spiritual Arts Foundation) was taken further in 2015. I was itching to put this unusual voicework (Vocal Tai Chi) in public concert form. One day I clocked that ‘conduction’ might be the way to do that: Sun Ra, Frank Zappa, John Zorn, Phil Minton and Peter Wiegold and The Improvisers’ Orchestra are examples of others who have used conduction. I called auditions for creative professional singers and formed a conduction choir.
I auditioned twenty-five singers and selected ten of them. December 2015 marked the first performance with The Improvisers’ Choir (TIC) at the Vortex Jazz Club. There was a sense of euphoric breakthrough afterwards, as none of us had done a performance like it before and the energy was unmistakable. The singers were from multiple genres and I conducted the improvisations with agreed hand signals, shaping the music as it unfolded. Since then, in some of the concerts, special guests (Ian Shaw, Cleveland Watkiss) have been invited to collaborate, devising music with the choir around the guest’s music and allowing them to find ways into the choirs.
As conductor, I integrate the guest, hold the overall space, shape ‘symphonic’ long-lines (over the course of an evening) and aim to realise the ‘implicit journey’ of the whole, across each piece and the complete concert. In 2018 TIC recorded an album which became the soundtrack to a film by Sara Pozin whose brief was to articulate, in moving images, the essence of the musical worlds of each piece. ‘Land Mass,’ – a music-film – ‘a spontaneous vocal-visual liturgy for the land’ is the result.
The only professional review, so far, for The Improvisers’ Choir, in March 2019, called TIC’s music ‘a societal allegory.’ This speaks of a performance practice that points beyond music, to its social implications.
The allegorical quality in The Improvisers’ Choir, has several facets, which I will explore below. The choir are delivering publicly in an unusual social/musical set up, to bring about new music. They look unlike a conventional choir who have their eyes in their scores, or an ensemble of instrumentalists, sitting behind music stands. The singers stand in a semi-circle, without scores, looking directly at the conductor, the audience, and each other. It is a transparent situation, especially as the music is yet to be plucked from thin air.
Here is the full review comment: ‘Jenni Roditi’s vocal improvisation choir was poignantly reaffirming of the power of the individual voice, and the difference it can make as part of a collective, not least in the creative practice of collaborative music-making, but as a societal allegory.
What is the ‘social allegory’ of the conductor in this context? The conductor is the convener of the practice and takes on leadership responsibility. Holding the space and using an ear that draws on compositional as well as performance sensibility without the dogma of a full score – the conductor is also reliant on the choir to spark the music into life. There is a high level of trust needed between all.
The conductor’s role delineates a fine membrane between the singers and herself. This is a defining edge, but also a porous and flowing one, with influences moving to and frow across the membrane. As in an earlier reference to Vocal Tai Chi, where yin and yang are ‘opposite but interconnected forces’, this allegory symbolizes leadership as a publicly observed exchange of agreed creative cooperation. The membrane sits at the point of equal, opposite and interconnected force. The conductor is one force, and the singers are the other. Yet, there is a third force that interconnects both – the whole group together, and event itself. This includes the audience, the room, the theme and context of the event and so on.
The Improvisers’ Choir project works on the basis that a leadership role is necessary for a musical overview and, if done well, adds inspiration and support to the singers. Working in an improvising vocal group without a leader, suggests a different stance, and a different allegory – one of consensus as opposed to leadership. That has a different social narrative. With conduction, it is accepted that a responsive, receptive leader who, at the same time makes creative interventions, can helpfully move things on, shake things up, start, stop, and sensitively orchestrate the space, as overseer-overhearer.
Conduction helps make the most of the potential in each choir member, encouraging individual journeys through each piece. Conduction also works with past and future time- space in the music. As a conductor it is possible to recall something musically that happened five minutes ago, and signal a return to that, just when the latest episode is running dry, and the piece might die without some recapitulation. Oppositely, a conductor can keep things moving with a change of tempo, meter, mood, pitch area, fresh groupings etc.
In group vocal improvisations without a conductor, I’ve heard instances where the piece comes to an end because there is no overview of its compositional line. The music could not lift off more fully because it was dependent on moving forward, episode by episode. Cross cutting, dramatic shifts, and changes in tempo, meter, tessitura and grouping were not so easy, as no one was steering (or willing to steer from within) the space, to help the music sit in a broader space and timeline.
Of course, this is not to say leaderless group improvisation doesn’t implicitly have shared or individual leadership from one or several group members, it does, but it has a different creative stance. It leans towards no one being, so-called, ‘on the outside.’ Such separation may seem hierarchically unhelpful, but I believe it to be musically useful and like the breathing diaphragm, a membrane, that is both an integrated, and a separate, form and useful force.
As well as social cohesion and allegories within the music, being part of an improvising choir is to be part of a social community. The Improvisers’ Choir has been a creative opportunity for each person to bring their vocal ideas to the group. Feedback from all the singers, suggests that they felt a sense of homecoming, as the music-making gave them a chance to offer their own original contributions.
This article consists of some short and adapted extracts of text from the chapter “Beyond Music Workshops – A Composer and A Community” written by Jenni Roditi, to appear in the “Routledge Companion to Women’s Musical Leadership – The Nineteenth Century And Beyond” – forthcoming, November 2023.
To find out more about Land Mass, the trailer, audience feedback, and the link to the complete film, please visit the link below.