Concert: Sound Symposium XVIII, St. John’s Vocal Explorations Choir –  improvisations led by Christine Duncan and Chris Tonelli

By Paula Weber

SoundSymposium-2016-3315-ChristineDuncanI chose to write a review of this concert because I have a bachelor of music from the University of Regina with a voice major. However, I did not realize that I would be participating in this set for the very same reason.  I attended the Sound Symposium as a graduate student in a course at Memorial University’s School of Music. I just could not stay away from these fabulous musicians once the Sound Symposium began. I first saw Chris Tonelli at the sound colloquium, where he presented his work with his St. John’s Vocal Explorations choir (Vocal X for short). I was immediately intrigued. I have recently entered the voice exploration world; after my strictly classical bachelor degree I started exploring new vocal sounds and even did my first public performance using extended vocal technique in April. However I had no idea there were entire choirs dedicated to the practice! I was introduced to Christine Duncan at the first concert at The Ship on Friday July 8th, which featured both Tonelli and Duncan. I was awestruck by their exciting sound production.

The next day, Saturday July 9th there was a sound walk designed to introduce sound installations to the audience. The artists behind each sound installation were present to speak about their work. Little did I know that this sound walk would be my first performance at Sound Symposium. Once the tour reached St. Michael’s Print shop and Eastern Edge Gallery there were no longer fixed lines between audience and performance. During our visit to Visions of Sound, Jude Weirmeir’s intermedia exhibit, Tonelli called me up to do a duet with Duncan performing Weirmeir’s piece Questionnaire, a fantastic piece in his exhibit. I must say I stuttered a few times with the verbal score, however the experience was exhilarating. The Vocal X choir then demonstrated the same piece at their Thursday night concert featuring Weirmeir’s preposterous kit of verbal prompts – absurd questions and equally absurd answers.

There were four improvisations in Vocal X’s Thursday night set. The first was an improvisation lead by Duncan, who instructed the choir to begin making ‘water sounds’  during Tonelli’s introduction of the set. As soon as he realized we became his impromptu back up singers he handed the stage over to Duncan (she used a technique called “conduction comprised of hand signals to relay different types of instructions to the choir). The improvisation included grunts, a consonant major chord, as a returning theme, and some solos from choir members. I cannot fully retell the beautiful variety of human voices present throughout the set. After this piece, Weirmeir’s kit was used. I was in the group located in the center of the stage. We were given flipbooks and told to use the shape shown by them to influence our sounds. There were two groups on either side using round bits of paper that could be spun using elastics bands and they were instructed to use the spinning shapes as direction along with prompts given by both Tonelli and Duncan. There was also a group of singers situated in the balcony. I understand the audience did not get to read the instructional signs shown to the choir by Tonelli and Duncan; they were statements such as, spin in a circle, hum the highest possible pitch, sing an ‘ee’ vowel on middle C (or what you guess is middle C) etc. Tonelli clearly demonstrated one sign, when he actually dropped his pants (thankfully not his boxers) during the concert. Yes, the sign said ‘drop your pants’.

The last two pieces consisted of a free improvisation conducted by Tonelli followed by a double choir extravaganza conducted by both Tonelli and Duncan. There were several guest members of the choir that night, including one of my fellow graduate student colleagues who performed one of the most haunting and beautiful vocal solos I have ever heard. If you have never made the journey from audience member to performer, I encourage you to visit the next edition of this wonderfully inclusive festival in 2018. The Sound Symposium is truly a place for YOUR voice.