choir + video
commissioned by Volti
Singing Puzzles began with a simple question from Bob Geary: how can we create a choral piece remotely? Having worked with Volti in the past on a piece called Playbook Choruses that was based entirely on musical games and no traditional score to speak of, I was excited to continue this line of thought down the virtual rabbit hole by creating something that would be realized improvisationally in real-time instead of rehearsed like a conventional composition. A reluctant novice in the ways of online audio, I was further compelled to create as low of a technological barrier of entry as possible for the musicians while maintaining some facet of the spontaneity and energy of a live experience.
In order to juggle all of these aggressively non-choral constraints, a strange workflow emerged: the musicians would meet regularly to try out ideas with me in real-time, synchronized visually in Zoom, but singing into their 16 different audio recorders, in their 16 different spaces across the western United States, without hearing much of each other at all, let alone knowing what the final composition would sound like. The sounds they created in these sessions -- generated entirely live and spontaneously, but assembled after the fact by me -- would be combined in some way to create a piece.
What happened next was nothing short of a creative leap of faith. Over the course of six weeks, we convened on Monday evenings to explore different strategies for making music alone, together. Proceeding through a dizzying thicket of musical obstacle courses, verbal prompts, and visual challenges, the virtuoso musicians screamed, cursed, imitated crude sound effects, impersonated turtles, brutally butchered IPA symbols, sang beautifully, and conjured up just about every sound the human voice is capable of into their recorders.
Elements of the choral experience — such as group rehearsals, coordinated singing in time, visual cues — remained, but deconstructed in bizarre ways that only a year like 2020 could deliver. The end result is, in many ways, a kind of variety show featuring these digital experiments in visually coordinated, aurally displaced, improvisational musical games. Some are bone-headedly straightforward - others are a bit more slippery and unclear. In the same way that the musicians were presented with creative puzzles to make sense of in their own way, I encourage you to do the same, probing the relationship between what you see and hear in each of these compositional puzzles we present to you now. I hope you’ll consider watching it more than once, too, to catch anything you think you might have missed.
As Bob said in our first conversation about this project, whether a group of people are in the same place or 16 different places, if they are all singing at the same time, they are still contributing their voices to the world in consort. I find this idea profoundly moving in these times of distance and detachment. It’s an idea that is true to this piece, and it rings true to me in a broader sense, too: our voices, whether we are together or not, all contribute towards a vast, mysterious puzzle that — if we are curious enough — we are destined to make sense of in our own way.
Video and editing by Danny Clay
Produced by Barbara Heroux
Livestream by Nicholas Dahlman
Campfire footage by Jon Fischer
Recorded Fall 2020