On collective improvisation

Reflections and ideas for
future vocal ensemble practises


Working with improvised performances in vocal groups, I've always strived to achieve form-development with possibilities for breaks, shifts and transitions, and to get there without abandoning improvisation as the main mode of work. Since the knowledge of sound and movement lie in the ear and body of the singer, the improvisational tools and elements cannot simply be conceived on an idea level. They need to be practised and internalized as sound and movement - and collectively so. This interests me.

Fine-tuned spontaneous interaction in a (vocal) group demands a deep listening state in which the music in the inner ear (=in the body) is strong and clear enough to equal the actual playing/singing and acoustics perceived by the outer ear. If a (vocal) group skips the joint embodiment process with a material (where the group's shared musical processing feeds back into that same material), the ensemble improvisation will consist of parallel individual improvisation, and will over time appear repetitive and predictable, because their common source is not being fed/developed.

The improvisational material must be embodied by the ensemble, in order for it to be immediately available to them, with all its properties. Until they reach that common ground, the collective can not handle all the different input and layers in the music in real time. In the early stages of internalization (or internalization experience), when the connection between inner and outer listening is weak, and we haven't yet experienced the collective's connected abilities with the material, we as individual musicians have an inclination to resort to individual action: automatic, irresponsive musical behavior, random musical input which does not help strengthen neither any of the lacking connections, nor the collective performance.

I am interested in trying to take vocal ensemble improvisation to the next level - a higher level of musical connectedness. I would like to try getting a vocal ensemble to constitute a unit with the same flexibility in complex improvisation as we achieve in long-term voice+instrumental collaborations. In my experience, vocal ensembles need a lot more time to embody and clarify musical elements - sounding, physical and spatial elements - and roles, than instrumental bands do. And it takes a different use of time. I have also seen how 'outer' structuring - wordless exercises that connect spatial properties with movement and improvised singing - can liberate the vocal group improvisation and expand the attentive, creative listening in the group. It would be fun to explore this further.