The Singing Field: A Performance of Environmental Vocal Exploration

Nicola Oddy, MA RP MTA, PhD Candidate, Carleton University

How many times have you heard people say, “The lock-down conditions of COVID-19 have been beneficial for my progress”?

I know – I might be a bit of an anomaly. The fact is, that last year around this time, when everything stopped, I suddenly had all the time I could dream of, to do the research that I had been planning for so long.

At the end of April 2020, my graduate committee accepted my dissertation proposal, and I was a newly proclaimed PhD Candidate. However, I had to act fast to make my project work within the realm of a pandemic, changing my ethics application, and documenting how I planned to make concessions for it. Within a month it was done, and five amazing women came forward to help me discover how performative vocal improvisation in different environments can lead to a renewed understanding of, and relationship with, the environment, and how voicing in environments can change one’s self-perception.

The Singing Field is a research-creation project in which six singer-researchers performed with one another in a variety of settings, exploring environments through collaborative vocal improvisation in a practice that I call Environmental Vocal Exploration (EVE). These semi-private musical performances, which constituted a form of collaborative ethnographic fieldwork, took place in six locations in and around Ottawa over six weeks during the summer of 2020. The collaborative process included brainstorming sessions, collaborative vocal improvisation, and reflection/analysis of each session. Performers wrote personal journals in which they recorded thoughts that emerged between performances. I also interviewed them individually before and after the six performances, and led group debriefs at the end of each session. All activities were video recorded, both to document research data and to create a culminating documentary that would contextualize the dissertation for readers. It is, after all, not a kind of music making that many people are familiar with.

EVE is a process-based form of vocal improvisation in which only those involved in the performance are present. There are passers-by, but the purpose of EVE is not to perform for an audience; it is to explore the surrounding environment through vocal improvisation. This idea was born through the work of R. Murray Schafer and his Theatre of Confluence, where he states that the first purpose of art is “to effect a change in our existential condition” (Schafer, 2002). Vocal improvisation offers a larger musical vocabulary and thus more possibilities of expression with which to engage sonically with a given location (Eidsheim, 2019). EVE is performance designed to encourage performers to know an environment in a new way, and as a means to come to an “experiential truth” (Feld 1996, 97) through engagement with it.

I have used vocal improvisation in my work throughout my career as a music therapist. When I improvise with people, motifs, rhythms and textures in the spontaneous music provides an avenue for self-discovery through metaphor that emerges in the singing. It works for psychotherapeutic practices, but also more practical purposes such as, for example, gaining confidence, increasing self-esteem, improving breathing, or improving quality of life. My project evolved out of work that I did with those who came to me for therapy, when I took them to places with different kinds of acoustics to improvise, and when I saw how their perceptions of themselves changed when singing in different environments.

From the start, I knew I wanted to create a film from the fieldwork to contextualize my dissertation. At first, I thought it would simply be a document that would offer an understanding of what, exactly, we were doing to readers of my dissertation.

Just before the lockdown, I met Hasi Eldib, a filmmaker from Carleton University who became an integral part of the fieldwork. He was there from beginning to end, filming and participating in discussion. John Rosefield, our location sound technician developed a mobile recording studio with expanded battery packs, a strong little cart that could handle the terrain we were on. The film turned out to be very beautiful – much more beautiful than I expected. At our preview with the other performers and their families, everyone agreed that we would share it. We had our premiere on Sunday Feb. 28th, 2021.

You can see the trailer here and the full film here.

At the time of writing this, I am at the final stage of completing my first draft. Once I complete my study, I look forward to developing a model for Environmental Music Therapy using EVE as the central mode with which to work. This work has exciting implications for music therapy, especially in the times of covid restrictions, where going outside to make music is a possible way to follow hygiene protocols.

I want to thank Hasi, John, and my five amazing singers, Cait, Ellen, Helen, Frances and Kelly-Ann, who all gave their consent to share this work. The insights they shared are remarkable, and are guiding me toward some inspiring discoveries for my study.

Eidsheim, N.S. (2015). Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice. Duke University Press

Feld, S. (2015). Acoustemology. In D. Novak and M. Sakakeeny (ed.), Keywords in Sound, (pp.12–21). Duke University Press.

Schafer, R.M. (2002). The Complete Patria. Arcana Press.

Published : April 28, 2022