Spectrum Music is proud to introduce acclaimed vocalist, conductor, and University of Toronto faculty member Christine Duncan as their Artistic Advisor for the 2014/15 concert season. Fresh off her performance with Tanya Tagaq at the 2014 Polaris Prize awards show conducting her renown Elements Choir, Christine sat down with Spectrum Artistic Producer Jesse Dietschi to chat about her approach to the voice and art as a whole.
One talent of yours that draws a lot of attention is your ability to drastically alter the tone of your voice. What drew you to start experimenting with extended vocal techniques?
I have been singing since I can remember and have always been a mimic and have experimented with vocal sounds. One thing I love about children is the completely unselfconscious and unedited “sounding” they do. The range and breadth of it is amazing! I strive to be that available with my vocal vocabulary. It’s a bit like a game to see how you can wrap your vocal instrument around non-idiomatic sounds. I have been doing that most of my life.
Your Element choir has been described as “blend[ing] improvisation and directed noisemaking, with a choir made of professionals and amateurs.” What about large choral groups do you find most intriguing/satisfying, and how did the concept for this project develop?
There is nothing else quite like the experience of a bunch of voices vocalizing together. The sound of it is extremely satisfying and the shared experience of people singing or sounding together is also very special. In 2006 I was releasing an album called Idiolalla, with DB Boyko from Vancouver, and Jean Martin – 2 voices and drums, improvising. We had CD release concerts booked in Montreal and Toronto, and Jean suggested that we put together groups of singers that DB and I could conduct as another element to the performances. DB and I had already been doing some of this kind of thing, albeit in a more primitive fashion than what the Element Choir has developed into. We arranged this for the concerts and afterward, Jean and I decided to apply for a study grant to develop a vocabulary for improvising choir. We were successful with the application and the Element Choir was born.
Are there any differences in how you approach improvising as a vocalist in structured vs. non-structured musical settings?
Yes. In structured musical settings, the structure has to be taken into account when improvising. It is more of an exercise where there is some conforming to external parameters that impact improvising choices. Everything is in relation to the external structure or composition. In non-structured settings there are no external parameters, per se. My choice in those situations is to function with an internal sense of structure, or even a compositional sensibility, to give intention and direction to the improvising material. This is harder to do but it makes the most sense to me, and keeps me interested in “free” improvisation.
What are you looking forward to doing with your new role as an Artistic Advisor with Spectrum Music?
I have only had one meeting with Spectrum members so far, but it looks like I know a lot of people in the field that I can introduce to you guys. As far as I’m concerned the most important thing is developing and maintaining relationships with like minded people, particularly for those of us (artists, etc.) that function more on the fringes of society. We create our own community, not only locally, but through the country and other parts of the world as well.
A big part of Spectrum’s vision is to explore the overlapping spaces between the worlds of improvising and through composition. How does your own artistic sensibility fit into this idea?
This is a big part of how I function, musically. I regularly perform in through-composed environments, improvised environments, and everything in between. Philosophically this lines up with my concept of the evolution of art as well. There is nothing new under the sun. What we look for, and where we find new information is in the liminal spaces where existing forms overlap, where we can draw information from varied, established sources and combine and recombine to create fresh or interesting approaches.
“we find new information is in the liminal spaces where existing forms overlap, where we can draw information from varied, established sources and combine and recombine to create fresh or interesting approaches”
What are you listening to these days? Are there any recordings/artists that have recently come to your attention or are particularly inspiring to you?
Because I’m constantly listening to music in a very focused fashion for work purposes, it is rare these days that I will listen to music for recreation or relaxation purposes. I tend to hyper-focus on music, and that is usually not too relaxing. That said, here are a couple of my current favourite albums:
Justin Haynes – Birder
Phil Minton and Veryan Weston – Past
Luciano Berio – Sinfonia
If for some reason you could not be a vocalist, what else could you see yourself doing in another life?
Yeah, not sure. I would probably be conducting, or put all of my attention into playing the theremin, you know, singing without singing…..