Serpentine, Julie Tippetts & Martin Archer (Discus, Sheffield)
Juxtanother Antichoir from Sheffield, Juxtavoices (Discus)

Julie Tippetts was, of course, Julie Driscoll, a breathtakingly gifted 60s rock-soul-jazz singer and 'the face of 1968'. Famously, she turned her back on the world of the pop song and has performed under her newer name mainly working with her husband, the pianist-composer Keith Tippett, as a free improvising singer. I wouldn't repeat this (simplified) story of her metamorphosis if it weren't for the fact that Serpentine wriggles back into the world of the song. She approaches this with undiminished verve, with a bluesy inflection in her phrasing, and with harmonic and multivoiced overdubs, but with all the additional wisdom of decades of musical experimentation and with an impressive arsenal of accumulated vocal techniques that she uses sparingly but effectively behind, between and beyond her singing (and speaking) voice. It's simply great to hear a great singer singing (and her voice is still great, as pure as it needs to be, as grainy or wavering as necessity dictates). She has also written the lyrics and much of the music with Martin Archer. Archer provides electronic music, harmonious and dissonant by turns, augmented with others' floating flutes, full-on electric jazz rock guitar, rattling snare, occasional pulsing bass and a tense string section on a couple of tracks. Tippetts plays 'amplified doll's house' but I've not worked out which of the miscellaneous rattling and scratching sounds this might have provided.
Her lyrics (or poems) are mainly about the less-revered beasts of the earth - scarabs, scorpions, geckos, snakes - usually to articulate their uniqueness, and only occasionally (as in 'Crocodile Tears') for metaphorical and humanising purposes. Apart from patches of overwriting, they work well and are printed on the CD packaging (for which Tippetts provided abstracting photos). She mixes speech and singing on several tracks, and switches effortlessly from the rhythms and pitching of one to the other. On 'The Entry of the Scorpions' we experience sinister rustlings as well as the multivoice harmony chorus, 'Here we are', sung with unnerving conviction. Similarly, 'The Entry of the Scarabs' modulates from rhythm and blues phrasing, through to instrumental free jazz sax, floating organ sounds, a bit of Tippetts' scatting, before being told the creatures 'left weals like whipping', leading into another multitracked chorus, 'Here they come!' against a shimmering electronica background. There they went. Follow.

Martin Archer is also co-director with the poet Alan Halsey of the 40 strong Sheffield anti-choir Juxtavoices. They're well-named: a mixture of singers and non-singers (and poets), they perform vocal compositions and improvisations that range from spoken word, through to the choral (as in a Greek dramatic chorus), voice works through to chants, and songs through to the choral (in the musical sense). They play trained voices against untrained, male against female, hiss against yell, whisper against scream, voice against voices, words against sound, melody against noise. On their first CD, treatments by Archer, Halsey and others in the group, range from sound poetry (a fine multivoiced and probably largely improvised version of Bob Cobbing's 'Are Your Children Safe in the Sea?') to composed and tightly-scored spoken word pieces (such as the setting of a Beckett poem). Five members of the choir - Archer, Halsey, Christine Kennedy, Geraldine Monk and Bo Meson - provide some of the longer tracks (several up to 14 minutes), which are of especial interest, because they have been devised specifically for the group dynamic. What is unique and innovative about the (anti-)choir is the sheer variety of approaches to the voice taken here (with semantic, music, sound poetry and the occasional electronic manipulations taking second, third or fourth places to that variously). What strikes me as original is that this ensemble doesn't sound like any other I've heard.

Having already made that judgement from having seen Juxtavoices live, I was worried a CD wouldn't reproduce the excitement and vocal power of a 4-D spatial performance (it has to be 4-D with 40 voices in a room). But I was wrong. Archer's production for his own Discus outlet, with its additional studio electronics, captures the experience well. The church acoustics hollow out the low humming and assist high notes with their resonance, but it is still the energy of the performances (with their interactions between voices) that captivates.

Amid the many excellent pieces here my favourite is Bo Meson and Martin Archer's setting of Geraldine Monk's 'She Kept Birds', whose text is a list of (unorthodox?) names for birds, which are often purposefully lost in this Dionysian and complex piece. Glissando female wails, fluxing in and out of harmony, contrast and overlap with the metronomic bird list ('Our Lady's hen, Our Lady's hen!') until all voices break into musical Babel, only to be hushed and moaned into near silence for other textures to be foregrounded: a noise like wind under a door gives way to trills and tonalities that seem more avian than human. Before it finishes we get some squawks and yips (and somebody's going for goose). You know the vocalists have enjoyed themselves, as it resolves into a feathery electronic flapping (and one conclusive bird name). It's like Messiaen gone glossalalic and manic.

                  © Robert Sheppard 2013