If you think that group improvisation is challenging for an instrumentalist, try doing that as a vocalist – along with about hundred and twenty other singers. Friday afternoon at the Cloisters, WQXR’s Nadia Sirota led a determined ensemble of college kids, tourists and at least one proprietor of a music blog through two performances of Pauline Oliveros’ 1971 improvisational chorale Tuning Meditation, the shorter of which will be broadcast on Sirota’s Meet the Composer.
The intimate sonics and medieval polished marble ambience of the Fuentidueña Chapel there made for a choice of venue that did justice to the composer who fine-tuned the concept of deep listening. Beyond a few gaggles of college-age friends, it didn’t appear that any of the singers knew each other. While it also wasn’t clear what percentage of the participants were trained or had performing experience, many of them, especially the women, turned out to have strong and expressive vocal range. Having been in the audience at what might have been Oliveros’ final New York performance – a lustrously crafted, largely improvisational set in Fort Greene in 2015 where she played accordion alongside members of International Contemporary Ensemble – there’s no question that she would have found this experience validating.
The instructions for the piece – an etude, essentially, designed to build listening and collaborative skills – were very simple, Sirota explained. You take a deep breath – in both senses of the word – then you hit a pitch of your choice (and hopefully maintain it). Your second note matches one sung by one of your choirmates; your third is a pitch that has not been used before. Barely a minute elapsed before the slowly but methodically shifting blend of voices had combined to produce just about every note that a human voice can reach.
The music itself was enveloping, and otherworldly, and often absolutely magical, in both an unselfconscious and very self-conscious way. The latter became a central issue because the singers started out rather tentatively, no one ever reaching for the rafters throughout about twenty-five minutes worth of music. But in the context of this performance, cutting loose and belting wouldn’t have worked.
Which was a challenge, as anyone who’s ever fronted a band, or sung in a choir, or harmonized around a guitar or a piano would realize. It’s one thing to stay on key while you’re projecting; it’s another thing to hold a long tone quietly. But everyone was game, and stayed focused to the point that a rhythmic cycle developed, the echoey mist of notes contracting toward a center and then expanding outward.
What was it like to be part of the choir? It was hard work, not only singing alongside some terrific voices, but matching their pitches and resonances. Ironically, it was more daunting to find a rhythm within the music’s elegant sway than if there had been a steady beat to follow. It was also easy to get hopelessly lost: was that last note supposed to be a new one, or a match for somebody else’s? After awhile, it became hard to keep track. As the improvisation went on, higher pitches began to stand out, as women in the crowd became more expressive – or had run out of lower notes. This resulted in extra sparkle and lustre – and also created the need for balance on the low end.
Which is a biased argument. If you buy the premise that low registers should be utilized whenever feasible – a stereotypical bass player-like point of view – that development opened up plenty of space for extra anchorage in the bass clef. Which is where the opportunity to cheat and go off script proved irresistible. If you manage to catch Sirota’s broadcast and hear a long series of simple, long-tone variations on the E below middle C during the last five minutes or so, let’s hope they’re on key. If not, you know who to blame.
As a participant, what was the takeaway? Oliveros’ etude is everything she meant it to be, a great exercise in listening, and vocal control, and being a good bandmate in general. It’s worth repeating, especially if your own creative music is limited to playing an instrument. Any group of people can do this, anywhere: the glorious natural reverb of an old stone chapel is a luxury option.
While this performance certainly qualified as microtonal, trying to sing microtonally turned out to be anything but easy. An internal autotune kicked in, along with a tendency to resolve to a nearby pitch. Clearly, to paraphrase Wadada Leo Smith, the tyranny of the key of C runs deep. So here’s a variation on Oliveros for the microtonally-challenged:
1. Take a deep breath and exhale the note of your choice.
2. Choose a pitch just a hair lower or higher than your neighbor’s, but not a sharp or a flat in the western scale. It could be a halftone, or a quartertone, or something more shady. And hold it!
3. Take that note you just sang and sharp it.
4. Repeat steps 1-3!