Aella Choir

Power Through Voice

MosaiK: Workshop with Kathleen Allan

Conductors photo at the 2019 MosaiK Choral Festival in Ottawa, ON.

Conductors photo at the 2019 MosaiK Choral Festival in Ottawa, ON.

In February, Aella participated in the MosaiK Choral Festival 2019. This annual festival brings together various Ottawa choirs to work with a guest conductor. This year’s guest conductor was Kathleen Allan. On Saturday, February 23, 2019, Aella had the pleasure of participating in a private workshop with Kathleen. The workshop focused on two of the pieces Aella performed at the final MosaiK concert: Little Bones and Maid on the Shore. Katarina Michalshyn, one of our members, kindly wrote about the experience. (Thanks, Kat!)

Little Bones is a Tragically Hip song that was arranged for Aella by David Keyes. After they first sang through the song, Kathleen commented on Aella’s distinct approach to achieving an effective sound, with all choristers leaning in vocally and singing fully to achieve vocal blend instead of holding back. Next, Kathleen had Aella experiment with the colour and sound of the piece. She asked them to abandon the syllables written on the page in favour of sounds that more closely emulated the guitar and bass riffs of the original Tragically Hip track. She mentioned that, in her compositions and arrangements, she cares more about having the performing choir produce an artistically effective sound rather than producing exactly what she wrote on the page. As an example underscoring the power of vocal experimentation, Kathleen spoke about the Finnish group Rajaton (an Aella favourite!), who can produce an effective and incredibly diverse array of sounds, which often sound like they’ve been created in a studio as opposed to being sung by human voices. As an interesting thought exercise for achieving the desired colours and sounds in Little Bones, Kathleen suggested that Aella members pretend they were arranging a piece for a jazz ensemble or orchestra: What colours would they wish to evoke in different parts of the piece? What instruments would be the most appropriate to achieve those colours?

Next, Aella worked on Kathleen’s own arrangement of the Newfoundland folk song, Maid on the Shore. This piece was commissioned by St. John’s choral conductor Kellie Walsh (fun fact: Kellie has previously conducted not only Kathleen Allan, but several Aella members in Shallaway Youth Choir and Lady Cove Women’s Choir!). Kellie gave Kathleen lots of artistic freedom with this commission, and Kathleen ultimately chose to arrange Maid on the Shore because of its message of women’s empowerment and agency. It tells the story of a captain who persuades a beautiful maiden to join him aboard his ship. However, in a welcome departure from the typical portrayal of young women in folk songs (i.e. helpless victims or passive objects of desire), this maiden uses the power of her voice to sing the captain to sleep, rob him, and row back to shore using his broadsword as an oar. The piece incorporates djembe as a means of linking the strength of the Newfoundland maiden to that of coastal women around the world.

Despite being written in 6/8, Kathleen underlined that Maid on the Shore should not be sung as though it were a Newfoundland jig. It is a powerful piece about a woman who is underestimated, which should be emphasized by using a darker tone and singing directed, continuous lines. This became Aella’s true Maid on the Shore challenge: as a conductor-less ensemble, the group tends to move together in a gentle bob in order to achieve exact rhythms and to stay in time, especially when learning new music. While this is a useful tool for early rehearsing, it is less desirable in performances. To combat this unconscious movement, Kathleen had Aella try a different artistic approach: In a part of the piece where smoothness was key, she had Aella sing their parts while successively lowering themselves towards the ground. This not only helped the group to achieve a smooth and grounded sound, but also got them thinking about they could emulate the dark depths of the ocean by creating a vocal texture. Kathleen emphasized how different parts of the piece have very different moods.

At the end of the workshop, Kathleen had a few moments to answer some of Aella’s questions about composition. Her advice to young aspiring musicians who want to explore composition was to start out by arranging songs that they know and like, and to move forward from there. This is how, as a kid, she began arranging. In terms of her own works: when she writes or arranges a piece, Kathleen really enjoys seeing what choirs do with the pieces she sends out into the world. You never know what interesting interpretations a choir might take that you would not have considered when writing the composition!

Aella had a great time with Kathleen, and looks forward to seeing where her work takes her in the future!

One-on-one with Aella: Kara Morris

One-on-one with Aella is an ongoing series in which Aella members interview one another so that you can learn a bit more about us! We are happy to be back and posting after a very full and busy 2018 :)


A conversation with Kara Morris
By Teri Slade

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Through Aella, I have had the great joy of meeting (and now interviewing) Kara. If you ever have the chance to meet her, you will be thoroughly blessed by the experience because she is just the loveliest person, who is also epic at what she does!

Growing up in Nova Scotia, Kara loved acting, and began studying voice so she could do both music and theatre. She ended up really loving the music side of things and going on to do her undergraduate degree in voice. While she only started studying voice later, Kara began singing in choirs in church as a child.

Teri: What are some of your choral highlights?

Kara: One of my favourites was Peter Togni’s consort in Halifax. It was all church music, but because he’s a composer and also the organist the music was always gorgeous and a lot of it was music he composed himself. And it was a small group, maybe 10-12 people.

Teri: Wow, that must have been a really skilled group!

Kara: Yes! And he conducted us from the organ.

Kara sang with the Gilbert and Sullivan Society in Halifax and when she moved here, she immediately auditioned for the Savoy Society because she knew it was a thing she enjoyed (and I imagine also because it’s a thing that she’s fabulous at doing, though she’s perhaps too humble to have said so).

Teri: What was your favourite role?

Kara [with zero hesitation]: Mabel from Pirates of Penzance.

Pirates of Penzance I first saw when I was a kid and I was just in awe of Mabel because she does that aria that goes really high. It’s the first thing you hear when Mabel arrives as a character.

Teri: So that must have been fun to star as her!

Kara: Yes, but even more than getting to do all of the showy vocal stuff, I love being around other people on stage, and in that scene, a lot of the cast is on stage. I don’t like doing arias where you’re all alone on the stage and just singing to the audience. That’s probably the biggest reason that I didn’t try to be a professional singer because I don’t like to just stand by the piano and sing. Although the vocal calisthenics are super fun, it’s not the same as interacting with others on stage. And in that scene, you get to interact with every other character. It’s great!

Isn’t that cool? I’ve always appreciated how much Kara likes to interact and connect with people on stage. So naturally I told her how much I love blending with her (because our voices match quite nicely), and she said:

I love blending with people. That’s something special about choir that you don’t have in operetta. In those roles, you need to sound like a soloist, but there’s something really lovely about everybody’s voices sounding as one. I love it! It’s such a nice way to connect with people.

And then I HAD to ask this question:

Teri: So, in Aella, people know how lovely you are and how easy you are to talk to, but surely you’re aware that you are known particularly for your high notes. How does that make you feel?

Kara: It makes me feel special! That I have something special to contribute. It hasn’t always been the case, at least not in my choir experiences. In university, I was not the one who you looked to for high notes.

In my first year of university, anything above an E at the top of the staff was not comfortable, so they pegged me as a mezzo. I had three different teachers during my music and theatre degree and it was the third one who taught me how to access my upper register. I don’t know how to explain what she taught me, exactly, but she helped me find a whole new register.

Sometimes when we sing things in Aella that is mostly in a mid-high register but pops up to higher notes, I sometimes need to catch myself and change into that higher register so that I don’t strain to make the pitches happen. So, I get it why people, when they are trying to learn to sing high, they stop at that point and say that they can’t go higher. It really does feel like there’s a block there, especially if you don’t know yet how to change into that higher register.

Some other highlights of things Kara does: yoga, spending loads of time outside (she intentionally chose to live in a spot by the transCanada Trail for access to trail walking), raising a most adorable pre-schooler, working as a psychotherapist, and missing Nova Scotia. No wonder she and I get along so well: we both spend lots of time missing our east coast homes. <3

One final quote from our long chat:

I felt that when I joined Aella I immediately had a dozen new friends.

Me too, Kara. Me too.

Artist's Corner: An interview with Natalie Hanna

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Today on Aella's blog, we interview local poet Natalie Hanna, with whom we are collaborating in Her Voice.  Hear Natalie performing her original poetry during Aella's final full-length concert of the season, 7:00 p.m. at First Baptist Church, Ottawa on June 4.

Tell us a bit about your background. How long have you been writing poetry? What sort of themes do you tend to write on?

I am a lawyer, a feminist, and the daughter of parents who immigrated to Canada from Egypt in the early 1970s. I have been writing for poetry for approximately 20 years. My writing focusses on women’s experiences, queerness, otherness, diaspora, relationships, politics, nature, and the body, though this is not an exhaustive list.

How did you get involved with this project? What drew you to Aella and "Her Voice"?

Jennifer Baker, whom I have the privilege of calling a friend, approached me to see if I may be interested in contributing to a project where poets would complement a choir singing music reflective of a multiplicity of women’s voices. I appreciate projects that foster inclusivity, so this was immediately interesting to me. I was also very excited about the prospect of joining music to poetry - a sort of modernization of and echo back to the Greek chorus.

What did you use as inspiration for your "Her Voice" pieces?  

The pieces I will perform focus on the struggles of my mother in overcoming the challenges of her life. They discuss her longing for broader horizons as a child, her hopes for her life and her children, and overcoming mistreatment. She was a doctor in her professional life and has retired now, and there is something of practical healing in the poems to honour her. The poems move backwards and forwards in time, so the audience comes to learn more of her story in the same scattered way that children often do. The poems are delivered through the lens of nature, with the sun and the moon figuring prominently in our cultural memory. The sequence closes with a poem for displaced people of the Middle-East. 

Have you ever undertaken a collaboration of this nature?

This is my first time working with a choir. Recently, I performed in the Blood and Bones (Ottawa) show, which merged storytelling (JD Hobbes) and poetry (Natasha Clery, Jamaal Jackson Rogers), with the gifted Jason Sonier collaborating on upright electric bass (bowed) and guitar. This brought such a beautiful added dimension to the stage. This collaboration is different, but I hope it will still be as entertaining for the audience.

Aella was very excited to work with you one-on-one. What was the experience like for you? Was it what you expected? Did hearing the choir change anything about the way you envisioned your pieces?

Working with Aella was an enriching, entrancing, and intimidating experience all at once. I am very cognizant of their skill and the work that they have put into their instruments. Imagine sitting in the pews of the sanctuary of a church, listening to a group of poised, precise, attuned women begin to raise their voices in a song that quickly becomes not words, but a feeling. Imagine that the feeling mixes hope, loss, power, praise, and daring. Imagine that they carry you forward in that space, on that sound, until you’ve forgotten where you are. Now imagine that someone tells you that you have to get up and speak to the room to which they were just singing. You’re not sure how. You’re not even sure it’s a good idea anymore because you don’t know if you can pair with something this beautiful. 

Listening to the choir absolutely changed how I decided to deliver my pieces. After learning which songs would bookend my sequence of poems, I incorporated phrases from “Warrior” by Kim Baryluk (of the Wyrd Sisters) which is the music that immediately follows the sequence, into the beginning and end of my poems, for continuity. I also approached my friend and drummer, Badger Jones, to collaborate for the set, taking the percussion from Maid On The Shore (which precedes my poems) into my set. I also approached Jennifer Berntson to see if the choir may be open to trying new sounds, and they were completely open and generous with working with me on this aspect. 

Final word: in your ideal world, what would you like the audience to take away from this performance?

Ideally, I’d likethe audience to seek out pieces of music in their everyday lives that reflect diverse experiences and share them with each other, in the spirit of this show. I’d like them to reflect on their own stories, as well, as there is power in each person’s history.

Artist's Corner: An interview with Jennifer Baker

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Today on Aella's blog, we interview local poet Jennifer Baker, with whom we are collaborating in Her Voice.  Hear Jennifer performing her original poetry during Aella's final full-length concert of the season, 7:00 p.m. at First Baptist Church, Ottawa on June 4.

Tell us a bit about your background. How long have you been writing poetry? What sort of themes do you tend to write on?

I hate to sound like a cliché, but I have probably been writing poetry with the goal of publishing or performance since I was around 12. First, I was writing to please adults, the way that over-achieving, anxious children do. Now I write more for myself, which is both the problem and pleasure of poetry.

Broadly speaking, I tend to write on themes of place, trauma, class, nature, dialect and identity, and the ways in which all of those issues are connected. I come from small-town Ontario, and have always been fascinated wih the way people—both people who live and work in rural places and people who don't—talk about place and community and culture, and class. I find the cultural differences between urban and rural places, the barriers and asumptions made between people there, striking. Most of my poems are about exploring the cultural history of Huron County, and our inability to see the culture that surrounds us—and often the pressure of keeping that culture's secrets—until we leave it.

How did you get involved with this project? What drew you to Aella and "Her Voice"?

I've been lucky enough to know Jennifer Berntson, Shawn Potter, and Erin Joyce for a few years, now, and have been living vicariously through their choir stories and listening to performances for quite some time (and lamenting my inability to sing!). And I think our talks eventually influenced my writing practice in that I've started to become really interested in form, and the way that a certain ear for language can bump up against, say, musical composition, or even sculpture. I'm still just getting started on experimenting in that sense. 

But the simple answer is that I was drawn to Aella because these women are ultra-talented and I love listening to beautiful music, of course!

What did you use as inspiration for your "Her Voice" pieces?  

While I'm not sure I would call my poems explicitly feminist, I have seen my overall project as a feminist one. Because I write lyric poetry, which is poetry about the Self, my pieces try to make a space for my version of home, with all of its difficult complications, inelegancies, and embarrassments. There is enormous power in honesty—it's something that sounds so easy to achieve until you realize you need to be honest with yourself, first.

My inspiration, then, is that I think the idea of women making their voices heard is a powerful one, and I have tried to pull together poems that represent my attempts to do that.

Have you ever undertaken a collaboration of this nature?

No, this is my first! I'm so excited to see how this will go. I'm sure I'll learn tons.

Aella was very excited to work with you one-on-one. What was the experience like for you? Was it what you expected? Did hearing the choir change anything about the way you envisioned your pieces?

I was very excited to work with Aella as well! I think the most surprising part of the experience was listening to the recordings (which weren't of Aella's performance), of Magnificat, which is to come before my first reading, and hearing Aella sing it for the first time in the space. The effect is just such an experience. I felt a lot more excited for the performance and a lot more nervous to do justice to that piece in concert. It was so good. 

Final word: in your ideal world, what would you like the audience to take away from this performance?

I'd be happy if people found themselves moved and entertained. But beyond that, I think the title, Her Voice, is particularly fitting for a performance that mixes poetry, instrumental, and choral performance. In so many of the instances that the audience is going to see, they're not just creating a space for women to have their voices heard; they're also witnessing what it takes to build a voice of one's own. I'd like the audience to come away with a sense of the vital and powerful nature of that work.

Artist's Corner: 'A little Snow was here and there', Matthew Lane

A little Snow was here and there
For four-part women’s choir
by Matthew Lane on a poem by Emily Dickinson

When Jennifer Berntson asked me to write this piece in the summer of 2016, I was overjoyed. I had heard Aella’s inaugural concert, and have rarely heard a women’s chamber choir with such a lovely blend alongside such a capacity for musical complexity. It was one of the few concerts where I truly stopped analysing the music, and just entered into it. She asked if I could write something snow-related.

While planning the piece in the fall of 2016, the overt sexism of the US election campaign was on display, so I looked for poetry by women, specifically those from North America. It felt necessary, perhaps only as a consolation to myself with a young daughter, to use poetry showing women had persevered and created in more difficult times than these. Knowing Jennifer for many years, I presumed she would approve of this sentiment. This meant passing over beautiful poems by Robert Burns, Robert Frost, and Christina Rossetti. Lucy Maude Montgomery was a close second choice, but I eventually settled on Emily Dickinson.

A little Snow was here and there
Disseminated in her Hair -
Since she and I had met and played
Decade had gathered to Decade -

But Time had added not obtained
Impregnable the Rose
For summer too indelible
Too obdurate for Snows -

Emily Dickinson

I love the poem for its simplicity, and for its juxtaposition of a sort of cause and effect: time, and who we become. On the surface, it’s about snow, but underneath, I understand it as a reflection on the passing of time between two people. How can we age gracefully, and allow ourselves to be moulded by the beauty and the joyful connections in our lives, and yet not allow ourselves to be deformed by the dark, cold “winters” we all pass through? It testifies to a special kind of endurance that only allows the “summers” of life to change us. This is a quality I always search for in life, a quality I want to be able to pass onto my children, and one I deeply admire in both Jennifer Berntson and Shawn Potter.

On a musical level, I wanted to contrast the simplicity of the initial image (“A little Snow was here and there”) with the kind of stubbornness and persistence I read into the fourth line of each verse.  For me, stubbornness and persistence begets complexity. I chose to endow those fourth lines with a chance to proliferate, to grow, with obstinate repetitions of short passages, building to the “mystic” chord of Scriabin in the whole choir.

A cascading density is created by layering the voices, one singer at a time, giving each one the freedom to begin their passage when they wish. This is what’s called “controlled aleatory” writing: it’s been a hallmark of contemporary composition, strongly associated with the Polish composer Lutoslawski. Much of the inspiration for this particular passage, however, came from a piece I sang in the fall: Jerome Blais’s Conductus 2. This work contrasts simple chant melodies in the choir, with spaces where each singer takes a portion of the melody and the choir collectively builds towards a dense effusion of sound.

The overarching structure of the piece was a build from the simplicity of youth towards the complexity of a mature individual, with all the turpitudes and contradictions therein. The different lines echo the multiple factions of a personality we develop over time; I sought to encapsulate the layers, internal conversations, and changing priorities of the different streams of our life in the four voice counterpoint.

The piece, like many of mine, took time, but not in ways people often presume. It took a month or so to consider what I wanted the piece to be about, which poetry to use, and how I might allow the poetry to guide the music. Writing the actual notes, the actual “composing”, took a little over two days. This was not so much out of a haste to finish the piece, but out of a necessity to express everything I needed to while the emotional impulse from the poem was still fresh. Through time and rereadings, I tend to reinterpret a poem many different ways, and it’s important for the unity of a piece that the understanding of the poetry does not change halfway through the composition. Thus, speed often creates a better-connected piece.

Come hear the premiere of "A Little Snow Was Here and There" on February 11, 7:30 p.m., at First Baptist Church (140 Laurier Ave W, Ottawa).