44CD - Juxtavoices - Juxtanother Antichoir From Sheffield
Suppose you invited thirty people to meet one Saturday morning to try out their voices and hear how they might sound together. That's what Martin Archer did in 2010 and out of that and subsequent meetings came Juxtavoices. Only a few of the thirty were experienced singers. They found themselves performing alongside musicians from the improvising scene and other genres, a few poets, visual artists and some less rarefied souls who also happened to find it an exciting prospect.
Juxtanother antichoir from Sheffield presents a repertoire developed over three years and performed in venues as diverse as a bear pit, a library stairwell, a disused steelworks, churches and more conventional concert settings. It includes arrangements of poems by singers Christine Kennedy and Geraldine Monk and others by Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein and the grandmaster of sound poetry Bob Cobbing, with solo and collaborative compositions by Martin Archer and co-director Alan Halsey.
Juxtavoices is no ordinary choir. It's not an ordinary antichoir either. You've probably heard nothing quite like them before. Nor, they'll assure you, have they. 'Precisely what art should be: challenging, reflective and dislocating. Voices struggling to articulate thought and emotion, whispered and screamed and seduced and accosted from nowhere' (Norman Paul Warwick).
Martin Archer says: When I first considered forming this group I knew it was going to be very different from anything else I’d done previously. I have a real horror of simply repeating and reshuffling previous ideas. At first, the idea was to put together just a handful of singers to perform the vocal parts on the Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere CD (Discus 40CD). It quickly became apparent that the idea of forming a large choir could go way beyond the initial brief, present challenges I’d not dealt with before in music, and fulfil a dream I’d had for some while to work with multiple voice textures. However, one of the main reasons why the idea was attractive appears quite odd in retrospect. That is - until now all my music has either been made in the studio where I can micromanage every atom of every sound, or on stage in the safe company of highly skilled players. Juxtavoices was clearly going to be neither of those, and it was the sheer inability to control the music fully which actually appealed to me. Call me perverse for that. I’ve always incorporated an element of randomness into my works – with this group the randomness would be simply inevitable. The surprise has been the collaborative aspect of the group, joining with old friend, the writer Alan Halsey to co-direct, the joy of workshopping new pieces, the sheer FUN of such a large and unruly group, many of them strong creative voices in their own right in a variety of art forms, and finally the fact that this has been a group which has been able to make so many live performances – 24 to date - in a relatively short period. When I designed the artwork for this CD I deliberately wanted to show through use of gig photos that Juxtavoices is a real performing group of real people, and not a mere studio construct – that factor is very important to me. Finally, although I’m never usually given to stage nerves, this group puts me right on the spot, and even before a rehearsal I occasionally find my heart in my mouth. You don’t get 40 people out of bed on a Saturday morning only to waste their time…..
Juxtavoices directed by Martin Archer and Alan Halsey
Julie Archer, Martin Archer, Jon Ashe, David Bartholomew, Ian Baxter, Mick Beck, Nathan Bettany, Geoff Bright, Clinton Chaloner, Laura Cole, Julie Cole, Emma Cooper, Paul Coupe, Jonathan Curley, Edward Eggleston, Sharon Gill, Alan Halsey, Sarah Henderson, Lyn Hodnett, Ellie Johnson, Charlotte Jones, Richard Kedward, Christine Kennedy, Bo Meson, Tamar Millen, Geraldine Monk, Rick Moran, Carol Passingham, Tim Plant, Mike Reid, Marion Rout, Wolfgang Seel, Walt Shaw, Jan Todd, Jane Tormey, Caroline Veal, Peter Veal, Linda Lee Welch, Helen White, Gillian Whiteley
Martin Archer has been throwing combinations of sonic stuff at sticky Sheffield surfaces since the late 1970s. Assembling the 30 singers of Juxtavoices in atmospheric locations, he channels their breathy extemporisations through texts by Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein and the venerable sound poet Bob Cobbing, who would have loved Juxtavoices' inchoate evisceration of Are Your Children Safe In The Sea? Here's a mass exorcism, a whole tribe talking in tongues, 30 full-moon were-Ligetis, and Wicker Man workings wrangled by the Swingle Singers. - Stewart Lee, SUNDAY TIMES
Firstly, may I just say that this is completely unlike anything I have heard before, and I have heard one or two things in my time on this planet.
Juxtavoices sprung from an idea of Martin's back in 2010 to assemble "thirty people...one Saturday morning to try out their voices to see how they might sound together". That sounds fairly straightforward you may think, but, "only a few of the thirty were experienced singers. They found themselves performing alongside musicians from the improvising scene...a few poets, visual artists" and other "less rarefied souls" who came along for the ride.
Martin's co-director Alan Halsey wrote the first piece, Oneverlastartletterminaliendlessong, which begins with strange staccato call and response from lone female and male voices, others joining in as it slowly resolves itself into a harmonic anti-melody, before dissolving into a kind of agitated chatter. Thus we enter the odd world of Juxtavoices.
Evidence of live performance, something that I would imagine is a strange but satisfying experience, is supplied by the photos in the tri-foldout digipak. This evidence shows that all this is scripted, and, having once been in a choir, I cannot imagine how this is written down, but written down it is!
The texts to each piece are written by a number of people, some of whom are in the choir. Three Iterations of a Poem by Samuel Beckett is exactly what it says, the poem readings backed with exclamations, confirmations and sighs from the choir. Other writers who have their works interpreted by the ensemble are artistic polymath Gertrude Stein, and sound poet Bob Cobbing. The latter wrote the text to Are Your Children Safe In The Sea?, which sounds like it was once the introductory line to a news item. The line is repeated by various voices using numerous inflections and emotions, some treated electronically, over more impressionistic declamations and vocalised punctuation. The cumulative effect is very unsettling, and indeed, like being in a small boat a bit too far offshore on an increasingly choppy sea.
This is not easy listening, and it is a work in which one has to invest some concentration. Nine Entries From the Encyclopaedia of Sexual Relations is self-explanatory, the chapter introductions initially read and then semi-sung by choir member Christine Kennedy, the rest joining in, the whole piece ebbing and flowing to the pull of an unknown moon. Again this is a highly experimental piece and no less "difficult" than the rest of the album. You wouldn't want to make love to it, that's for sure!
Choir member Geraldine Monk's She Kept Birds features the verses in unison chanting, then different sections of the choir interact with their own text selections. Although not in the least conventional, with no actual melody, more obviously than some of the other pieces the arrangement has its roots in traditional choir structure and so comes across as a more "normal" work.
At least that is how it starts. A section that swoops up and down is backed by low volume timpani, eventually joined by chattering choir members evoking a gathering of small birds at a feeding frenzy. There is a humour at work here too; when you allow yourself to get lost in the complexity of this number you cannot help but smile.
Gertrude Stein's Susie Asado has some "electronic realisation of guitar music" included, but as one would expect, not in a manner that renders the tune hummable. This song reminds me of the wilful anti-music Scott Walker has a fondness for, and I've no problem with that at all.
When describing his motivation for this project, Martin says it was "the sheer inability to control the music fully which appealed to me", but it has to be said that the end result, although it is as I said before unlike anything I've come across previously, sounds remarkably controlled. Of course, underneath that is the feeling that it all could collapse in on itself at any minute.
Suffice to say this is not an album that I will find myself playing with any regularity, as it needs to be listened to properly with no distractions, and how often does anyone get the opportunity to do that these days? There is a list of gigs printed on the CD cover, and I note that the last one in Sheffield on 6th October has yet to take place. I will make every effort to be there for what should be a surreal and entertaining experience. ROGER TRENWITH - ASTOUNDED BY SOUND
They're well-named: a mixture of singers and non-singers (and poets), they perform vocal compositions and improvisations that range from spoken word, through to the choral (as in a Greek dramatic chorus), voice works through to chants, and songs through to the choral (in the musical sense). They play trained voices against untrained, male against female, hiss against yell, whisper against scream, voice against voices, words against sound, melody against noise. On their first CD, treatments by Archer, Halsey and others in the group, range from sound poetry (a fine multivoiced and probably largely improvised version of Bob Cobbing's 'Are Your Children Safe in the Sea?') to composed and tightly-scored spoken word pieces (such as the setting of a Beckett poem). Five members of the choir - Archer, Halsey, Christine Kennedy, Geraldine Monk and Bo Meson - provide some of the longer tracks (several up to 14 minutes), which are of especial interest, because they have been devised specifically for the group dynamic. What is unique and innovative about the (anti-)choir is the sheer variety of approaches to the voice taken here (with semantic, music, sound poetry and the occasional electronic manipulations taking second, third or fourth places to that variously). What strikes me as original is that this ensemble doesn't sound like any other I've heard.
Having already made that judgement from having seen Juxtavoices live, I was worried a CD wouldn't reproduce the excitement and vocal power of a 4-D spatial performance (it has to be 4-D with 40 voices in a room). But I was wrong. Archer's production for his own Discus outlet, with its additional studio electronics, captures the experience well. The church acoustics hollow out the low humming and assist high notes with their resonance, but it is still the energy of the performances (with their interactions between voices) that captivates.
Amid the many excellent pieces here my favourite is Bo Meson and Martin Archer's setting of Geraldine Monk's 'She Kept Birds', whose text is a list of (unorthodox?) names for birds, which are often purposefully lost in this Dionysian and complex piece. Glissando female wails, fluxing in and out of harmony, contrast and overlap with the metronomic bird list ('Our Lady's hen, Our Lady's hen!') until all voices break into musical Babel, only to be hushed and moaned into near silence for other textures to be foregrounded: a noise like wind under a door gives way to trills and tonalities that seem more avian than human. Before it finishes we get some squawks and yips (and somebody's going for goose). You know the vocalists have enjoyed themselves, as it resolves into a feathery electronic flapping (and one conclusive bird name). It's like Messiaen gone glossalalic and manic. - Robert Sheppard, STRIDE
I remember Martin Archer from/for his cooperation with Julie Tippetts. He did many other projects and also runs this label where several of them saw the light of day. Juxtavoices came from the idea of putting 30 voices together on one place and see how they would sound together. This album features up to 40 singers under the creative direction of Martin Archer and Alan Halsey. Only a few of the participants were experienced singers. The others still had a common ground of experience in other fields of expression or improvisation, like experience in poetry or even in visual arts. As a foundation for the performances they took poems like those from Christine Kennedy, Geraldine Monk, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein but also some sound poetry like one from Bob Cobbing. The tracks included a few solo or cooperative additions by Martin Archer himself. We also can hear some readers of texts distinguishing themselves like soloists in the group. Also can be heard a few sparse inclusions of instruments in two tracks here and there, like some sound-based percussion by Walt Shaw (7) or guitar by Martin Archer (8) without that they disturbs the idea of the vocal entity core.
You can’t call it exactly if Juxtavoices is considered a choir or an anti-choir or more simply a sound poetry meeting. There are too many spontaneous aspects in the meeting point to define it too simply into any constructed (or deconstructed) musical form. While there exists a layer of direction in it, most direction I assume comes forward from the spontaneous interaction of a directly working with some material. Because of the element of surprise and challenge and figuring out what we have, there is a small element of chaos at first, but there is also available a self-regulating group consciousness, which uses up its own sort of tendencies how to become organised, not so much in the sense of working towards a breaking free point, because the group has too much differences to allow that to happen, except than in an organised and well prepared way. One of the followed tendencies is to separate the harmonies of the lower voices (=male voices) from the higher voices (=female), where they tend to stick together more closely and create harmonies within their own group internally and only from there communicate outwards, in such contrasts. The harmonisation process itself tends to be expressed by longer and stretched notes.
The voices themselves can be used as instruments for singing but also for words or could come closer towards the sound-experiment, with a first separated emphasis on syllables and consonants or even is more directed towards sounds itself, becoming more animalistic in its expression, or like an abstract sound-based musical instrument, whenever being totally adopted into the groupings of similarities in sounds. With the syllables, musical contrasts between M/N sounds (combined with OO) and S/SH sounds are made, like there are also separate areas made for the lip-based sounds (based upon BL,L,R), singing those expressions in its own right or area.
It is really interesting to hear all these variations. In the performance, the project has luckily shown enough variation in its prepared material so that a performance with so much improvisation in it and with such high degree of randomness involved, in comparison to how educated people in the musical field would tend to use certain conditioned patterns for it, this very spontaneously really worked itself out well. - PSYCHEDELIC HOMESTEAD
When is a choir an antichoir? Back in the 1980s, it meant things like Kurt Newrock's work with large vocal groups, a kind of Portsmouth Sinfonia 'make some noise' concept. Or it meant things like Phil Minton's Feral Choir which grew out of workshops for non-singers. In recent years, the meaning of term has expanded to include groups like Hackney-based, all female Gaggle, The Parsonage and The Choir with No Name. These groups seem to share an agenda based around radicalised identities and repertoires.
The 40-strong, Sheffield-based Juxtavoices, co-directed by improvising musician Martin Archer and poet and publisher Alan Halsey, stands slightly to the side of the current antichoir scene. Standing slightly to the side perhaps has something to do with Juxtavoices' membership being drawn primarily from Sheffield's leftfield art, music and poetry scenes but only partly accounts for the group's distinctiveness. First, Juxtavoices has a repertoire based on both the historical avant garde and the contemporary experimental writing scene. The CD under review here includes settings of texts by Samuel Beckett, Bob Cobbing, Alan Halsey, Christine Kennedy, Geraldine Monk and Gertrude Stein. Working with texts that challenge conceptions of the page and which are often designed to have more life off it than on it enables Juxtavoices to move beyond the usual categories. The semantic is understood aurally and orally – and vice versa. Second, unlike nearly every other contemporary choir, radical or otherwise, Juxtavoices is equally divided between men and women. This means that the antichoir can explore a dynamic of very high and very low sounds. Finally, Juxtavoices are an improvising choir who perform compositions that don't always use set pitches. This means that a typical piece moves across and between fragments of individual voices and shifting, Ligeti-like tectonic plates of sound.
Juxtanother Antichoir from Sheffield is an excellent showcase for what the antichoir does best. The opening piece, a setting of Alan Halsey's single word text 'Oneverlastartletterminaliendlessong', opens with a kind of abstract polylogue (think of Evan Parker and Derek Bailey on Kenny Wheeler's 'The Good Doctor') before exploring group textures. 'Ha Nu', composed by co-director Martin Archer, places individual voices (urgent, anxious, exclamatory) against unison drones and sustains. After some handclaps, the piece repeats this before building and building, after more handclaps, into powerful, atonal choral textures. It sounds like something that might have been sung in the caves at Lascaux and the blurring of lines between the primitive and ultra-modern is arousing and disturbing. The piece is enthralling and exhilarating but requires the listener to participate in an aural experience where challenges and rewards may not be present in equal measure. The energy and commitment of the performers requires something similar from the listener. 'Ha Nu' also reveals how Juxtavoices tends to use textures of non-verbal sound and how sustains and drones are placed over what might be people speaking or chanting in the distance. And thinking of the Lascaux caves converges with the way Juxtavoices seeks out unusual venues such as the Magna Centre (Rotherham) or the Kelham Island industrial museum (Sheffield). At Kelham Island, they performed a text based on futurist writings to the accompaniment of the steam-powered, 12,000 horse power River Don beam engine built in 1905.
'Three Iterations of a Poem by Samuel Beckett', Christine Kennedy's 'Nine Entries from the Encyclopaedia of Natural Sexual Relations' and Alan Halsey's arrangement of Gertrude Stein's 'Susie Asado' underline another striking aspect of Juxtavoices: the combination of ensemble and solo voice. In the Stein piece, Lyn Hodnett's sprechgesang rises out of a buffeting and stormy collective. In 'Nine Entries', Christine Kennedy's voice moves from commentary to clear soprano and draws ascending and descending iterations by male and female voices out of the group. Juxtavoices, then, is about improvising and about exploring what can be done with various combinations of high and low, loud and quiet, speech and singing, talking and whispering, language and non-linguistic vocal sounds. The setting of Geraldine Monk's 'She Kept Birds' is, to my ears, the best introduction t o the anti-choir's full range of approaches and practices. Juxtanother Antichoir from Sheffield points to all sorts of fascinating directions for voices and experimental writing. Indeed, like readings by, say, Caroline Bergvall or Miles Champion, Juxtavoices plays with the fact that what is sounded cannot be properly understood. © David Kennedy 2013,STRIDE
Formed in 2010 from singers for the most part with limited experience, the Antichoir explores the most adventurous forms of the collective use of the voice, from improvisation to sound poetry to the most diverse combinations. 'She Kept Birds' seems to be the most scored piece, and makes the most use of the possibilities of the group and of its sub-ensembles without falling into cliché, but other excellent numbers are the crosscutting sound strips of 'Ha Nu', the effective simplicity of 'White Persimmon', and the sprechgesang (fortunately more gesang) on Gertrude Stein by Susie Asado. - Achilli, MUSICA JAZZ
We noted Martin Archer’s Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere in November, a large-scale epic release whereon the 25-voice choir Juxtavoices were occasionally spotlighted. Now Juxtavoices have their own album, called Juxtanother Antichoir from Sheffield (DISCUS 44CD), and there’s nine examples of their unique craft to be had. Their work shades from atonal choral singing to spoken word recits by way of Sound Poetry, and back again. The Sheffield poet Alan Halsey (owner of the West House Books imprint, and married to Geraldine Monk, also a Juxtavoices member) has, along with Archer, stamped his identity on the album – he’s co-director of the choir, and has composer credit for about half of the cuts; the rest of the choir are a rough mix of creators, including visual artists, poets, or just enthused amateurs 1 ; only a few of the choir members could be deemed “musicians” as such, some of them from an improvising background. If you were expecting the sort of free-improv babble-speech that Maggie Nicols is known for, perhaps look elsewhere as this record barely resembles much I’ve heard from the world of UK improvised music. Come to that, it’s almost entirely free from genre. The only precedent I can think of might be the music of Tom Philips, the famous UK painter who occasionally performed in free-form semi-directed choirs, sometimes interpreting his own texts from ‘A Humument’ 2. You might want to tune to the 14-minute ‘Ha Nu’ to hear some Ligeti-like microtones, but such moments are but fleeting in the wider arena of collective murmurings that this track comprises. The lovely piece ‘Are Your Children Safe in the Sea?’ also has links to another avant-garde genre, that of concrete poetry / sound poetry, by dint of Bob Cobbing’s original text, which is “freely” interpreted by the hushed and breathy choir so that they sound like caricatures of concerned parents wondering about the whereabouts of their children at the seaside. An eerie spooker, whichever way you cut it.
We’ve also got ‘Nine Entries from the Encyclopedia of Natural Sexual Relations’, based on a text by Christine Kennedy, and one which most resembles a forgotten 20th-century avant-garde opera which Pierre Boulez has never conducted. Plenty of overlapping voices and a delicious mix of sing-speak for your ears, and the structure of the direction – allowing for soloists and duets – has really paid off. Hard to discern any remotely sexual content in the piece, but I expect the point has been to bury the text in its own interpretation. With the numerical chapter structure which is emphasized here, I’m reminded of the films Peter Greenaway used to make, with embedded number or alphabet sequences. Further cross-cultural content to be found in ‘Three Iterations of a Poem by Samuel Beckett’, where Halsey’s somewhat downhearted tones seem most apt for the dismal futility of Beckett’s text. Another highlight for me personally is ‘She Kept Birds’, derived from a text by Geraldine Monk and with music composed by Martin Archer and Bo Meson. Next to ‘Ha Nu’, this mysterious and beautiful piece is about the most conventionally “musical” piece on offer, and is filled with dramatic shifts of tone and mood, high notes and low notes swooping about the canvas with an uninhibited joy. It’s easy for this sort of endeavour to result in very mannered and stiff music; not here. - ED PINSENT, SOUND PROJECTOR
The second half was extraordinary: the first performance of Juxtavoices, led by Martin Archer. They were a largely amateur choir that included Alan Halsey and Geraldine Monk, and the most standout piece was probably Three Iterations of a Poem by Samuel Beckett. But the blend of voices, the use of clicks, whistles, harmony and disharmony was extraordinary in all the pieces - Steven Waling
Never have I had such a thought-provoking, engaging, dramatic and ever-so-slightly-uncomfortable experience. Precisely what art should be; challenging, reflective and dislocating. Voices, struggling to articulate thought and emotion, whispered and screamed and seduced and accosted from nowhere as a setting sun slanted through a stained-glass window scene of crucifixion. Some of the words were spoken from the head, others sung from the heart and others wrenched and torn from the soul of Mankind. At times the words clashed in discordant, primeval white noise and at others sounded like the coherent aspirations of founding fathers of a newer world. Darkness descended and shadow changed thisimaginated landscape so that as members of this thirty-odd strong antichoir (as they call themselves) moved stealthily through the pews and peoples congregated there they seemed to be shadow, of no substance; wanderers forever, leaving only echoes in the air that were the here-and-gone warnings we all hear each day of danger, accusation, fear and suspicion and we, the individuals hearing those words, were left to interpret them and to prioritise them in our own way. This was true theatre of the mind. It was so carnivalesque as to be almost grotesque and it was astonishing at the end of the show (though in truth it was more revelation than show) that these characters who had seemed so wearied, so beaten, so blind, so lame, so hungry and so poor, so pleading for liberation from conformity and yet so pleading to be part of a caring society were simply you and me; writers setting words on light years of travel. This was all a comment, perhaps, on what it really means that "in the beginning was the word." I drove home remembering, for some reason, films like Network with Peter Finch and the tv series GBH with Robert Lindsay but my head was filled, too, with the opening pages of Under Milk Wood. This was, truly, exceptional - yet I have come nowhere near adequately describing the muse that was abroad last night. This was writing that could not, should not, have worked and could not possibly hang together; but it did. - Norman Paul Warwick Project Designer and Facilitator Literacy Consultant JUST POETS
If The Smiths had been high-church Catholics, and hired Diamanda Galas as producer.