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Free Improvising choirs (non-jazz)

I need names of conductors of choirs who explore free improvisation, not vocal jazz improvisation.  Thank you!
Replies (16): Threaded | Chronological
on March 27, 2013 4:09am
Hello Patrice,
The late Marlene Montgomery, a Boston choral director, would use something she called "humdrones" in her warm-ups.   She would start a drone and everyone would improvise adding tones.  Because it was a warm-up and not for performance, she would encourage everyone to use different parts of their ranges, different vowels, different timbres.   No solos were allowed and no part could stick out.   Unconventional harmonies were welcome, but the best were always those based on a minor mode.
Most cultures of the world use heterophonic textures as opposed to monophonic, polyphonic, and homophonic.   Each musician is free to alter their melody or harmony.   You hear it in the old Irish dance music where each player is improvising on the melody simultaneously.   The best example is Dixieland Jazz, but you asked for non-jazz examples.   Before the homophonic texture became the norm, Spirituals were sung very freely.   The group Sweet Honey in the Rock still sings Spirituals in this style, but they rehearse it a lot and it is not as improvisational as it sounds.  
The heterophonic texture is not so much about improvisation.   It's more about a different paradigm of making music.  This is music for sharing, not performance.   The end result for the singers is a real community of voices.   Alice Parker leads many such sings.   She points out that you could not write down the music being created.   It is always much richer than anything we could arrange.   She will get everyone singing a familiar song, then ask everyone to feel free to augment, harmonize, or add counterpoint.   As I said, it is not improvisation.   It is everyone being free to contribute to a powerful communal celebration.
There are choral works by John Cage and others that suggest form, texture, melodic shape, timbre, and other musical elements.   It is up to the performers to fill in the dots.   There is a reason this style of singing has not caught on.   
I love Ligeti's piece Nouvelles Aventures.  It uses what is called "extended vocal techniques," non-traditional vocal sounds.   It sounds highly improvisational, but when I followed the score once I was amazed that each performer was creating the exact sounds called for.   The same is true of his masterpiece, the Requiem.  Its' use of tone clusters sounds improvised, but it is ingenious in how it is scored.  It is not as hard to sing as it sounds.   Leaders (with tuning forks I'm guessing) within each section begin a pitch, then everyone around them form exact clusters around that pitch.
David Hykes leads his Harmonic Choirs that explore the many uses of harmonics.  They are able to sing a fundamental, then add ringing harmonics on the octave, fifth, second octave, M3, m3 and on up the harmonic system.   But this is only the starting point.   They can sing one melody on fundamentals while singing a countermelody with the harmonics.   The freedom of expression employed by each singer is not improvisation in the strict sense.   
When you allow freedom in a chorus to not sing what is written and to be creative contributors to something that is eternally new, you end up with "Power With" as opposed to "Power Over."   It gives the singers a powerful sense of ownership.   The phrase "eternally new" is key.  It is alive.   But this can be said of ALL music.   We cannot sing a Bach motet the same exact way each time.  It's always going to change.  It is not improvisation.   It is life.
Nick Page
Applauded by an audience of 5
on March 27, 2013 1:12pm
Great reply Nick and very interesting topic.   
In my community choirs I have many non-readers - but they are fabulous musicians.   This is evident at the end of every one of our sessions when we end with a communal improvisation for about 15 minutes.    We usually start with a familiar song, maybe a spiritual, and everyone is free to experiment and contribute their harmonies.    Sometimes the effect is astonishing; sometimes we fall over in a heap laughing at how ghastly is sounds.    
It is a real eye-opener for me to listen to what they can do with their voices.  Some of the singers categorically state that their range is so-and-so, but funnily enough, when they improvise suddenly their range has extended to notes that I (and they) would never have thought they could reach.   
The most important thing for the singers is that they feel "safe"  - although we may laugh at our collective efforts, no one is going to laugh at one individual's attempt at improv.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 28, 2013 6:07am
I do not know if it will be exactly what you are looking for, but you might look into the work of Christopher Azzara at the Eastman School of Music. He has made a specialty out of teaching improvisation to non-improvisors (most of us!).
Tom Bookhout
on March 29, 2013 5:54am
Hello Patrice,
One very effective thing to do with your choir is circle singing. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, and to better understand it, I recommend you listen to the albums "VOCAbuLarieS" and "Circlesongs" by Bobby McFerrin. He is the true master of the art form, not only in the jazz idiom but also in the choral idiom. 
Two of the most common ways to do this is by having someone create a motive and assign different voices to sing that motive, then continue to add different layers. Some of these layers could be a countermotive, harmony, or something percussive. It is also worth mentioning that it is incouraged that once the circle song is created that the person who created it improvises on top of it. It doesn't have to be what people think of as typical "scat." 
Another variation on this is creating an initial motive and then having every individual create a different texture. This allows more freedom in the individual without having someone "prescribe a part." 
One thing I've learned is to allow space in the motive. If there is no room for silence, it tends to get messy because you will just continue to compound sounds on top of each other. Again, listen to those albums if you want a good guide to follow. 
Good luck,
-Sam Alhadid
on March 30, 2013 7:37am
Hi Everyone,
I've researched and done a lot of free improvisation (and vocal jazz improvisatio) with students, but I'm looking for secondary, collegiate or professional choral conductors who do free improvisation as a regular practice, even in performance and recordings (like ASTRA in Australia).  I just need names of choral conductors who do this.  Thank you!
on March 31, 2013 3:45am
Astra? really? Every time I've heard them, they're singing scored music.
on April 1, 2013 5:45am
Yes, but mostly live.  Recordings are of scored music.
on April 1, 2013 6:39pm
I've been to many of their concerts, and never witnessed free improvisation. The closest I've seen them get was in the Fluxus concert they did a few years ago, where there were obviously a lot of aleatoric elements in the scores.
Admittedly, it's about four or five years now since I last saw them.
Their specialisation is in hardcore modernism(s), so it wouldn't surprise me if they've dabbled at some point - but everytime I get one of their flyers, it's always promoting piece X by composer Y.
on May 13, 2013 9:51pm
I've just received an email promoting an upcoming Astra concert that will feature "The Astra Improvising Choir". Sorry I doubted you.
on April 1, 2013 6:43pm
Speaking of Australian groups - Stephen Leek once had a group called Voiceworks, who I'm told put on entire concerts of group improvisation. I never got to hear them, and they've been defunct for about 20 years now. Stephen's compositions often incorporate aleatoric elements, and that's been a feature of his subsequent work as a conductor as well (notably with The Australian Voices) - but I don't think aleatoric elements in otherwise scored compositions are what you are asking about?
on April 2, 2013 5:57am
"Robert Smallwood was Director of Astra in the period 1983-4, and other guest directors (Joan Pollock, Graeme Leak, Kenneth Gaburo, Sue Healey, Anne Thompson, William Henderson and Allan Walker) have extended the Choir's work into the domains of film, dance and improvisation."--from Astra's website.  It was Joan Pollack's work with them that aligned with my improvisation interest.  But, yes, sure aleatoric elements are included in my interest.  OK, I'll come clean:  I'm co-authoring a book on  vocal/choral free improvisation and would like to find someone enthusiastic, expert, and known for it who would also be a good writer for the Foreword, and I realized no one came immediately to mind. 
on April 3, 2013 7:57am
Bobbie McFerrin, Bernice Reagon Johnson, and Ysaye Marie Barnwell come to mind as people with deep expertese in choral and/or communal singing with lots of space for improvisation.  Good luck with the book.  Jeremy
on May 17, 2013 12:12pm
Thank you to all of you who provided responses to my questions about free vocal improvisation!  They were very useful!
on June 24, 2013 9:28am
Hi Patrice
From Ontario, Canada. Christine Duncan's group in Toronto, ON is a non-jazz, free-improvisation choir called "The Elements Choir." The Wilfrid Laurier University Choirs did a study on choral improvisation based on the methods of U.K. Improv Guru, Peter Wiegold who visited the region in 2011, working with universities, high school, and elementary school groups. I have been practicing and working out methods and approaches for large-choir improvisation for the past decade. Both in the states and here in Canada. Quite a practice. . . still not at all perfect, but amazing and full of discovery. Choral improvisation and cross-cultural choral improvisation projects have been successfully pulled off here by a number of conductors:
Leonard Enns with his DaCapo Chamber Choir (Waterloo, ON)
Lee Willingham, Wilfrid Laurier University - Choirs and Music Ed (Waterloo, ON)
Gerard Yun, University of Waterloo Choir, Wilfrid Laurier University Choir, and Bell'Arte Singers of Toronto (also with community liturgical musicians, school choirs, and children's choirs in a variety of workshops)
Lee and I will be giving a paper on Choral Improvisation and how it affects the choral leadership paradigm in July, 2013 at the Phenomenon of Singing, International Symposium, St. John's Newfoundland, Canada. Actually, I'm writing up the paper right now! 
on July 6, 2013 2:42am
Hi Patrice,
I am a composer for Choir of improvisers.
Contact me:
I can send you freely a copy of my works.
all the best
on August 15, 2013 7:32am
Hi Patrice and other thread-followers,
you should check out The Genetic Choir from Amsterdam:
To my knowledge, we are the only free improvisation choir that sings concerts from nothing, really. (but correct me if I am wrong  :-)  )   
You can listen to some of our live recordings here:
I am leading the choir in the practice and projects we embark on (however, in our concerts we never use a conductor to organise the music - all is left to the 'open system' of the group of singers). You can contact me through the website if you like.
How come your interest?
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