“Witnessing one another weekly in our home environments, providing comfort to one another as we share more of our lives through WhatsApp groups, the sands of what is private or public are shifting for us all the time. Caring begets trust and from there we begin to let loose and play with our performative / private selves and we begin to reform our practice in this strange new world.“
By Natasha Lohan
Zoom to Commune
The practice developed within Voices in Motion and The Befrienders is rooted in an embodied approach to voicework. Whether singing familiar songs in harmony or devising original vocal and physical material through improvisation, the practice begins with awareness and exploration of the breath in the body and moves towards confidence that the vocalisations we each offer are a necessary part of the group sound. This approach to voicework is a bonding and community-building activity.
Separated physically in lockdown, we lose access to the support that comes when our individual presence is embedded within the group sound. Unable to feel each other’s physical presence, we lose access to the subtleties of a form of communication we developed together over many years.
Through establishing WhatsApp groups and the use of the video conferencing platform Zoom, both the Voices in Motion and Befrienders groups have fortunately been able to meet online regularly throughout lockdown. Many participants have been shielding alone and expressed great relief at being able to maintain contact with each other in this way, but they were also hungry to maintain creative activities too.
As we lost the interpersonal ephemera of live communication, I feared any attempts to recreate aspects of our live sessions might actually serve to highlight the greater loss socially if not carefully handled. A period of adjustment that focused on comfort with the medium itself was essential at first; we needed to establish our new environment before we might hope to play with its parameters. And this is where Karaoke stepped in to save the day.
Video conferencing technology doesn’t support synchronised singing as this is dependent on the speed of each participant’s internet connection, resulting in a disorienting simulation of the live experience. Working at first with all mics muted when singing seemed to be the best way forward.
We began with sharing the songs that lift us up, singers we love to croon along with when alone in the car. We put them in a YouTube playlist that could also be accessed outside the weekly session time. Sharing our thoughts on the songs, sharing memories of them in our lives gave us a lift in itself. These moments of increased chat time at the start of this online journey also brought us the joy of new discoveries about each other and has served to deepen friendships that have been a real source of comfort for those living alone.
This style of karaoke, in which we sing along with the original voice is functioning to give us a taste of that embedded feeling once again. We are leaning into the sound of another voice and are more inclined to let go of our inhibitions because we are not exposed in the performance of the song. All mics muted, we become Shirley Bassey, we embrace our inner Bing Crosby and we affirm the communitas of singing together in how we perform out of our separate screens and towards one another. From our individual kitchens and living rooms, the dynamic range of that small television-like rectangle we inhabit online is expanded once we begin to reach through to mirror and echo one another’s physicality.
Call & Response songs were another immediately adaptable activity. Everyone muted but the leader, this works up to a point; the pulse of the material is kept intact and there is a satisfaction for each participant in the dialogue with another voice, but this conversation is very one-sided as we lose the aural reciprocity of the activity. Again, the natural desire to maintain connection and communication despite not being able to hear one another was found in an expanded physicality in the responses. As gesture worked to help fill the aural void, we were leaning on one aspect of our practice while we worked out how to bring something of our vocal practice back to our sessions.
Part songs that we loved in our pre-Covid sessions seemed lost to us at first; we cannot sing these online together as we used to due to the latency issue. A particular favourite of the Voices in Motion group is the Liberian lullaby Banuwa. We would stand in a circle, each right hand placed on the upper chest area of the next person, feeling for the resonances as we hummed its soothing refrains, improvising into the circle in which we stood. Sat alone in my studio, I lay down each vocal part, summoning the room and that sense of touch as best I can. Playing this as a backing track in our sessions, I encourage all to seek out that place of resonance in themselves. We cannot recreate the physical closeness we feel in the live sessions but in using the song and that gesture of touch we can connect with the memory of the circle and tune into that shared lived experience.
Our group voicework has not only been centred on beat-synchronised material; we improvise, we explore with our voices in order to connect with one another and create our community. As anxiety with the new medium began to recede a little, it was heartening to feel that improvisational sense returning to our sessions. Many of our regular warmup activities can now be accommodated unmuted, both through gradually adapting them and also as a result of everyone becoming more confident with the medium and more accepting of the soundworld Zoom offers us. We’ve shared many meditative vocal moments with the sounds of the soup blender in the church kitchen or the roar of buses and planes around the Bromley Road. Voicing from an embodied space involves a special kind of listening and teaches us to find our place within the acoustic space in which we exist. This is still true online and our experience of this approach to voicework is helping us to accommodate to this reality too.
Our physical warmups now involve plenty of vocalisation with all mics on. A siren accompanying a full body stretch has no need to be in sync with anyone else’s and these moments of auditory chaos are so freeing. We can override the stilted nature of group conferencing software through this somewhat anarchic behaviour – whooping and sighing, we feel the presence of one another’s individuality. It will be fun to explore where this might go next.
In our Voices in Motion sessions we started to use the Breakout Rooms feature to replicate an aspect of our established creative process. Using improvisation, we often develop small individual vocal and physical gestures in response to external stimuli. Then in our trios, these germs of material are shared and shaped further. We receive each other’s material, we inhabit it, reflect it, play with it until we feel the shape and sound of a larger phrase. While we cannot physically interact, we can at least explore material in these private breakout room spaces.
In our pre-Covid sessions, the sonic element of this process was often quite muted; there is no aural separation for development of vocal material as we try to separate into corners of a large room and many times, I’ve felt the sonic aspect slip out of individual phrases. But in a breakout room, there is a special kind of privacy. There is an intimacy here in which a smaller group can commune and work together. Sequestered away from the rest of the group, vocal material is given space for development and this way of working is now pointing us in a direction for continuing our creative work together.
There are creative possibilities wherever we find ourselves. Once these voice and gesture vignettes are created in the breakout space, how they are incorporated back into the main room, how they are incorporated back into the main room and how we choreograph them into the larger group echoes the questions of how we interact with our audience that were fundamental to so many projects we created before lockdown.
Similarly in our Befrienders sessions, we are beginning to find ways to bend and manipulate the environment in which we now exist to best express our existing practice. Early attempts to record ourselves individually singing a song (of frustration and hope with life in lockdown) penned by our resident poet Avril Sydee fell quite flat as the technical skill and know how was still out of reach for most. This hasn’t stopped us as we have managed to record most of the group within Zoom itself. Jennifer Barwise, our admin assistant has found several useful hacks for getting what we need out of Zoom and is editing a film of inventive and fun outtake moments filmed by members at home – grainy phone footage of people cavorting within individual screens in the zoom space, films of faces trapped in windows and journeys through consoling lockdown gardens. We are enjoying the journey now and letting this film become an expression of the inventive fun that always exists in a Befrienders encounter with the public.
Witnessing one another weekly in our home environments, providing comfort to one another as we share more of our lives through WhatsApp groups, the sands of what is private or public are shifting for us all the time. Caring begets trust and from there we begin to let loose and play with our performative / private selves and we begin to reform our practice in this strange new world.
Our creative activities are still an expression of the community we have built.
We long to be in a room together, mingling our voices and feeling each other’s presence but until we can, we are still exploring and creating with what we’ve got. There is no going back to what existed before. When we return to our rehearsal rooms, we will take what we’ve learned here and enrich that space with this experience.
© Natasha Lohan 2020