Christine Duncan and the Element Choir

BY David DacksPublished Mar 26, 2010

Christine Duncan works magic with the voice, either on her own or in a collective setting. Possessing a five-octave range, she navigates opera, jazz, country, pop or classical styles with ease, but she is most in her element with free improvisation. That would be the Element Choir, a battalion of voices ranging from 30 to 80 participants depending on the performance.

No matter how experimental her work becomes, it remains approachable because of one simple truth: "Even if it is unusual-sounding stuff, because these are voices, it's somehow more accessible or acceptable."

Duncan comes from a rich musical background. "My father is a Pentecostal minister and I've been on stage since I was five," she explains. "We were part of a singing travelling family group and went all over the place. So I travelled through North America since I was a very young child." Duncan recorded her first album of Christian rock originals in Nashville at age 15.

Yet as straight-laced as this part of her career might seem in comparison to the life of a free improv vocalist, Duncan doesn't see any disconnect. "My entire musical development has been very organic, I've never decided to do something intellectually; it's always happened on a gut level. Even when I was a teenager and my Christian rock band was opening for famous groups in 3,000-seat theatres, I would take solos and improvise on things. The thing is, if you're raised in a fundamentalist environment, you're familiar with improvising: there's speaking in tongues, there are praise and worship services [in which] by the end of the song people break out into improvisatory expressionism, though it's tonal. I didn't actually make that connection until I first started improvising in jazz, then more experimental improvising, then after that, non-structured improvising."

Listening to Duncan on her own proves that "non-structured improvising" doesn't entail a nonsensical barrage of vocal tics. Duncan is equally at home in the spotlight or creating background textures. She might use jazz phrasing with Mongolian throat singing techniques, refer to nursery rhyme couplets, or wordlessly duet with any instrumentalists in the room. There is subtlety and power, a wide range of emotions, and always a tremendous sense of composition and awareness of her vocal capabilities. That's what she imparts on a grand scale to the Element Choir.

Duncan is part recruiter, part coach, and part conductor of this multicultural, multigenerational musical experience. "I have over 200 names on my roster," she says. "At any point, all these people could come to a gig. I don't know what the hell I would do if that happened! In any typical performance, there are 20 to 45 people."

Duncan educated herself in methods used by vocal improvisers around the world to direct the choir. "From the get go, I appropriated what was useful to give me a running start. So I had a few basic things, then started filling in the gaps by making stuff up. I'll give a cue, but it's kind of a general 'do something that's sustained' within which you can do whatever the hell you want. I'm just trying to develop a vocabulary and teach it to people, but a lot of it is intuitive so it's not that hard to get a handle on."

In performance, the choir may follow Duncan's lead by murmuring delicately, following the melodic ideas generated by a trumpet like some sort of organic delay effect or even responding to a police car's siren racing along the street outside a venue. They transform from conventionally musical to absolute noise at the drop of a hat, but, proving Duncan's fundamental theory, remain accessible and engaging even at their most bizarre moments.

Much of the success of the group has to do with the interpersonal dynamics between her and the singers, and those within the group. Duncan is always developing projects by which to focus the group's energies. Their just-released CD The Element Choir At Rosedale United documents one such event: the choir in the grand acoustic confines of a church outfitted with a first class pipe organ, with additional instrumentation providing more improvisational fodder.

Still, though: "Is it gonna run out of juice?" Duncan asks rhetorically. "I have no idea. Part of the reason I don't do ongoing regular rehearsals is that it would hasten the process. You let the breaks be the breaks, and you gear up for the next project. In terms of keeping the live process happening, it's awesome. I just want to keep getting better."

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