Produced by Jean Martin
Recorded @ Rosedale United Church, Toronto ON
With David Travers-Smith, J. Martin and Chris Willes
Mixed and Mastered by J. Martin
at The Farm, Toronto ON Canada
Cover Art and Photos by J. Martin
Liner Photos by Alisdair Jones

All pieces were Improvised and Recorded on February 17-18, 2009
by Duncan, Martin, Robertson, Lewis, Zubot and the Element Choir C SOCAN 2009

Christine Duncan - conducts The Element Choir a 51 voice improvising choir
Jean Martin - drums, trumaphone
Jim Lewis - trumpet
Eric Robertson - Cassavant Pipe Organ
Jesse Zubot - violin

February 17, 2009
1 Prologue 4:04
2 As the Crow Flies 12:00
3 Funhouse 14:00
4 Cloud Hands 10:00 Listen mp3

February 18, 2009
5 Dapple 4:00
6 Bird Calling 11:00
7 Processional 10:43
8 Sun Up 10:30

I’ve watched the Element Choir grow into the wonderful paradox that it embodies on this record.  It is both a ragged multiplicity – its membership reflects extreme differences of age, history, style, and education (just like that of any community) – and a remarkable unity under Christine Duncan’s singular leadership and conduction skills.  Insofar as the Choir coheres into a single thing, though, it amounts to one of the five personalities who create this ostensibly small-group and – let it not be forgotten – freely improvised music:  Duncan (Choir), Lewis, Martin, Robertson, and Zubot. They possess the musicality, playfulness, and restraint to allow these unique and, in the most sublime moments, overwhelming sound resources (not only instruments and voices, but also the space itself) to be harnessed and channeled into a tangible feeling of wonder.  This is very literally a wonderful record.

-Scott Thomson, January 2010


This recording features Christine Duncan’s extraordinary 50-voice improvising ensemble, The Element Choir, in collaboration with Jesse Zubot, violin; Jim Lewis, trumpet; Jean Martin, percussion; and Eric Robertson, playing the church’s beautiful Cassavent pipe organ at Rosedale United .

Coke Machine Glow
Joel Elliot 6/26/2010

It’s easy to get bogged down in the concept behind Christine Duncan’s Toronto-based the Element Choir, so I’ll just give you the relatively brief version. A loose collective of around 200 vocalists (51 of whom are represented here), the improvisational ensemble operates according to a mix of intricate sign language, discreet direction and happy accidents. Avant-garde operas with interpretive “scores” and coded sign language aren’t new, but Duncan’s crew is both grander in scale and void of the usual conceptual apparatus that govern similar projects. Its aim seems to be to create an ongoing lexicon rather than craft a distinct narrative. The most fundamental guiding principle—that of imitating various elements based on the mood of the performance and the interactions of the accompanying musicians—might seem vague or flighty, but as a conceptual score it’s both more open-ended and substantial than, say, Anthony Braxton’s inscrutable diagrams.

The Choir is also as much an ongoing and always-shifting community art project (Duncan has even mentioned taking the idea on the road, drawing on local choirs) as anything else, connecting vocal improvisers and multi-disciplined artists or non-professional musicians who might otherwise have no interest in experimental music. It’s also something that should really be witnessed in person: there you have the chance to witness how Duncan’s simple hand gestures become seamlessly translated by the vocalists and how spontaneous eruptions in turn get harnessed and re-distributed by her directions. When they played the album release show at Christ Church Deer Park with William Parker, Duncan had the choir mimic a passing siren on Yonge St., a hilarious interjection in an otherwise softer moment in the performance. It’s these shifts in mood and the ability to respond to the other musicians as well as the environment—“elemental” definitely being the right word—that makes the experience so thrilling.

Considering that you don’t get this experience on a recording, it’s somewhat surprising how well the two day improvisation At Rosedale United works. The group makes full use of the opportunity to play the resonant spaces of the church, especially with the backing of Jim Lewis on trumpet and Eric Robertson on pipe organ. While there are moments of full-spectrum sound, the relative restraint is remarkable. “As the Crow Flies” contrasts scraping violins and distant horns with sudden full-choir shouts, manic chatter and idle conversation, as if merely gathering all the elements together for the aptly-titled “Funhouse,” a surreal, plodding parade of languid trumpet and imperfect harmonies. At one point, the latter track gives way to the arrhythmic thudding of toms and single bowed violin notes with the choir’s voices bubbling up in individual spurts like lava. That aspect of choirs that tend to make them ill-suited to freely improvised music—constant synchronicity, numbing wall-of-sound dynamics—are carefully avoided here. In this sense the choice to include non-professional vocalists seems less like a gesture of inclusiveness than a conscious aesthetic choice.

On the other hand, one of the things the Element Choir do well is to gradually filter in what most people would probably naturally expect from a huge choir and a massive pipe organ. The fact that these moments of naïve, seraphic beauty come out of silliness and irreverence is what makes them that much more powerful. On At Rosedale United that moment comes in particular with “Cloud Hands.” Initiating with what sounds like the organ from a Bela Lugosi film, the track seems to shift towards the sacred without warning, soft cooing building into a soprano solo where each line is echoed by the choir like a wordless liturgy. A whole album of this would be tedious, but coming out of (and returning to) formlessness, it carries a wistful transience.

Void of pretense, At Rosedale United carries a surprising familiarity. The music reflects innocence not by way of the strict non-idiomatic approach of a lot of avant-garde groups, but because it absorbs everything. This is the stuff of cartoons, melodramas and sacred choral music, of meditation and confusion, the sound of sweeping orchestral flourishes and instruments tuning up. Occasionally the number of voices operating at once cause it to smear—as it does towards the end of “Bird Calling”—though with any large-scale improvisation that’s pretty much to be expected. And even hear everyone eventually finds their footing, and the air clears for a minimal trumpet solo. Like any community art project, it is messy, but in the end it carries a sense of accomplishment that goes well beyond what any single recording could convey.


Exclaim Magazine by Glen Hall

Arguably Canada's foremost vocal improviser and a virtuoso singer who covers everything from new opera to blues, Christine Duncan is a national treasure. She's now using her creativity and artistic insights to lead the 51-member Element Choir in their first recording, done at Toronto, ON's Rosedale United Church. Joined by Jesse Zubot (violin), Jean Martin (drums), Jim Lewis (trumpet) and Eric Robertson (Casavant pipe organ), the ensemble journey through invisible landscapes populated by shouting crowds, chanting monks, calling birds and assembled angels, all summoned by Duncan's deft conduction. The choir improvise, cued and guided by her intuitive grasp of massed sound's architecture and sectional interplay. Especially evocative are the roles played by the organ and trumpet, which set moods with clarity and emotional resonance. The 80-minute, eight-track recording provides an enveloping, transcendent listening experience well worth the time invested.

Emoragei magazine

Montreal , samedi 2 octobre 2010, par Olivier Boivin

Si j’avais à choisir 3 pactes que s’est donnés l’ensemble torontois The Element Choir pour leur enregistrement à l’église Rosedale United, qui a eu lieu les 17 et 18 février 2009, ce serait ceci : on improvise notre espace tout en la maîtrisant, on s’amuse avec originalité, on fait les fous sans perdre la tête. Avec la participation de 51 personnes dans le chœur, réunissant la caméléonne « leader » aux multiples variations vocales Christine Ducan, ainsi que Jean Martin à la batterie/trumophone, Jim Lewis à la trompette, Éric Robertson à l’orgue Casavant et Jesse Zubot au violon, nous entrons ici dans une chambre noire capitonnée d’improvisation tourmentée, dans une profonde réflexion.

D’abord par des intentions ambitieuses que j’ai nommées plus haut, mais aussi en mélangeant les différences d’âge, les personnalités, même l’origine des membres, les musiciens aux allures disparates auraient pu nous apporter que de la cacophonie, mais heureusement non. Contrairement à ce que l’album peut laisser croire à la première écoute, l’harmonie est là, désirée, presque calculée. Malgré l’improvisation qui fournit beaucoup de liberté, The Element Choir s’accorde pour fixer un point central unique en son genre et structuré, dans des atmosphères denses et cinématographiques, jonglant avec les extrêmes du bruit, le minimalisme sonore, le silence inquiétant, et une foule confuse en délire. L’allégresse est omniprésente et c’est ce qui m’a plu le plus dans cet enregistrement. L’album nous fait voyager dans un univers complexe, où imagination et précipice sans fond se fusionnent. Je me suis vu assis dans une balançoire suspendue d’une foire mal gérée, un peu comme le suggère la pochette. On imagine des scènes de grands suspenses, comme s’ils nous tenaient dans une attente angoissée palpable, comme lorsqu’on fait la file à la grande roue d’un cirque. Les voix primitives en canon nous inspirent dans la 3e pièce, Funhouse, qui se veut enfantine, émancipée, apportant beaucoup de texture au reste du contenu.

Je dois mentionner qu’il faut se sentir prédisposé pour une écoute complète. Être ouvert musicalement et même apprécier l’expérimental seraient des prérequis ; c’est pourquoi je le recommande aux mélomanes avertis et en quête de liberté contemporaine.

MONSIUER DELIRE by Francois Couture

Splendide et génial, rien de moins! Un quintette d’improvisateurs dans une église, c’est déjà bien. Quand Christine Duncan (voix) et Jean Martin (batterie) de Barnyard Drama en sont, c’est dèjà mieux. Quant Jesse Zubot (violoniste de Fond of Tigers et Tanya Tagaq) en est aussi, c’est encore mieux. Quand on ajoute le trompettiste Jim Lewis et, surtout, Eric Robertson à l’orgue Casavant de l’église, ça devient vraiment spécial. Bon. Prêt pour la cerise? Ajoutez à cela que Duncan dirige une chorale d’improvisation de 51 voix! Deux sessions sont chroniquées sur ce disque. Chacune s’ouvre par un court introït en quintette, suivi de trois longs mouvements avec chorale, une chorale qui répond au doigt et à l’œil aux indications de Duncan. C’est plus que beau, c’est majestueux, grandiose, éminemment touchant. Un peu plus, je retournerais à l’église. Très chaudement recommandé aux amateurs d’impro, de voix ou de musique qui fait vibrer le tréfond. [Ci-dessous: Un extrait de “Cloud Hands”.]

THE ELEMENT CHOIR With Christine Duncan
At Rosedale United
Nick Fraser W/ Tony Malaby 
Town and Villages
Evan Parker  w/ Joe Sorbara and Wes Neal
at Somewhere there
Juliet Palmer
The Element Choir and William Parker
at Christ Church Deer Park 
Veryan Weston
The Make Project
Land of Marigold