Forty Tongues, Forty Throats

Juxtanother Antichoir from Sheffield, Juxtavoices
Discus CD 44C, 10)

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 to 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. Listen to a sample here and buy direct from the makers.

      David Kennedy 2013