Banff Voice Workshop 2008: Another Kind of Bel Canto

I recently returned from an amazing 10-day workshop with Richard Armstrong in Banff. The International Voice Workshops have been running at the Banff Centre for many many years. The last time I attended was in 2001, then worked privately with Richard in NYC in 2002, then he & I kept missing each other through my travels.

The work Richard does touches so many levels beyond just the voice. The body, the psyche, social constructs, composition, staging, emotion….all of it is dealt with in Richard’s work yet it is all done through the voice.

I wanted so much to attend the workshop last year, but didn’t have the physical energy or stamina. I wasn’t convinced that I had the energy or stamina this year but felt that it was time to push myself and that Richard would understand me needing to rest in the “safe zone” during the workshop. However, I did not end up using the “safe zone” even once. My energy returned during the workshop almost in full. I only say almost because I didn’t do a yoga practice the whole time. With my full energy in place I would have. This isn’t to say I’m unhappy with what energy I did have! Far from it. I’ve been back for almost a week and still have tons of energy. I’ve been doing yoga daily, and even managed to bike 6 blocks to my acupuncture appointment the other day. I feel myself returning.

And in this returning of self, I thank Richard and the work he does to bring out the potentiality in each of his students. It is a process of uncovering, of dis-covering through the voice that has re-enlivened me.

Richard pointed out early on that a lot of my energy lay in the “Elf” or nasal resonance. This resonance, for me, embodies micheviousness and also the old crone who doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks of her. Her motto is “f*%#k it!” So I did. I just did it.

That makes it sound too easy. I did it, but it was also a process of learning to trust that my body was once again able to support the work I want/need/desire to do and pushing myself through physical and vocal boundaries to find those edges re-created that trust. And I don’t think I actually hit any of those boundaries. Each time I pushed myself I felt myself filled up once again.

This old crone, this wise woman, this attitude, was quite prevalent for many of the women in the workshop. I and two other participants joked that we should make t-shirts that said “2008 International Voice Workshop – Another Kind of Bel Canto” (a phrase Richard coined during the workshop) and on the back: “f*%#k it!” because that is what we did.

In tandem with this there was much exploration of “the beast” sounds. Low growls that we sometimes shy away from. It may have been because there were so many men in the workshop, but low sounds were explored daily, and Richard took us all through “beast solos,” through which many of us discovered our low low low ranges as well as our multiphonic capabilities.

I brought one new piece of music to work on in Banff — “sweet heart beat” — an a capella piece I wrote for the short video project I’m currently working on. It is both a lullaby and a lament to my heart. During the first session with this piece the familiar nervousness at showing a new piece of my work to others returned, but I pressed on. Richard guided me to discover the dark parts of the song, and encouraged me to have other people sing the piece so I could hear it from outside.

I had three volunteers to sing the piece, and teaching it to them in chorus, began to solo over it, which worked wonderfully. We presented it to the class again, adding a dancer into the mix. This also worked well, and there was yet more opportunity for layering and so at the next showing I brought some in-process text and had one of the male participants read it while we sang, and Christine danced. The piece has become a very organ-ic piece of music theatre through this process, and now I am back in Saskatoon, mulling on how to integrate it into the work I’m doing here, without such experienced and understanding bodies.

While there I also wrote a new piece, tentatively titled “bloody jazz.” This piece was from some text I wrote for my short film project this spring, but that didn’t quite fit into the film. The music/performance aspect of it has turned into a spoken/lectured text, jazzy low singing, and panicked peep-tones. Near the end of the workshop, I found out there was a jazz bassist at the Banff Centre working on a book, and he was willing to jam with us. I was very impressed at his intuitive playing during our group jam session and brought my piece out. Outcome: wonderful! I only regret that I didn’t record it, but know that the piece could shift again because it is so new. We presented it at our workshop showing on the last day, and it grew further. I may need to make a visit to Minneapolis to record it in the spring….

The entire group was very experienced and very into the Roy Hart Work this time. I met so many wonderful like-minded people. People willing to push the boundaries of the voice and of performance. And we clicked!

And, as always, there was the opportunity to meet other artists-in-residence at the Centre. Laurie Millan and Shawna Dempsey were performing their “Lesbian National Parks and Services” piece for a few days while we were there. Brilliant stuff! “Please don’t step on the lesbians.”

For the last few days of the workshop, Ed & Jarrod camped nearby so I got to see them a bit. In some ways it made the transition to home easier. They got to meet everyone in the workshop, including Richard, and also got to see the showing, which they both enjoyed. On the drive home, we spent a night in Edmonton in order to see the Bodyworlds exhibit at the science centre there. wow. just wow. I have the book & DVD.

Back in Saskatoon now, finishing up my short film project, administrating the two yoga classes I’ll be teaching, and planning out the next few months. I’ll be online poet-in-residence for the LCP youth poet forums in November, and Helen Pridmore (also at the voice workshop) and I are planning a concert for the winter. Other opportunities are popping up as well, and will be blogged about as details become clearer.