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!