I have never heard of a choir collaborating with a slam poet. Never. Maybe the closest thing I've heard about something like this is German composer Thomas Kessler setting Saul Williams' "Shotgun to the Head" for orchestra and slam poet. But that wasn't improvised. Who in their right minds could possibly lead a beast of vocalists, such as a choir, in an improvisational collaboration with slam poets?
Craig Hella Johnson, of course. Austin is lucky to have him, and Conspirare, in this fine city to lead experiments such as this weekend's Fusion: Choral Song Meets Slam Poetry, where Mr. Johnson will lead select singers of Conspirare in an improvisational session with poets Kevin W. Burke, Lacey Roop and Danny Strack at the intimate North Door.
"Having absolutely no idea what to expect is always a thrill for me," says bass Cameron Beauchamp. "Experimentation, improvisation and collaboration are my favorite ways to make music. The whole idea of mixing musical voices with poetic voices is so compelling. That, and I have 100 percent trust in Craig. I can't say no to him."
Though Conspirare has worked directly with contemporary composers such as Kevin Puts and Robert Kyr before, it is rare that singers get to actually meet and work with the poets who write the texts. Singer Stefanie Moore agrees.
"It's also rare to have new text, as many new works I have performed are settings of old texts. The poets we are working with are all extraordinary and inspiring artists and we the singers have been completely blown away by their abilities and their spirits. The poems they have brought to this project, and their willingness to climb into our particular 'sand box' of music, have energized us and prodded us into new musical places. We are exploring sound and rhythm and the human voice."
Conspirare singers will use all manner of vocal techniques — including speaking and singing — to enhance and play off of the sounds of the poetry. It will be curious to see how, since both poets a singers primarily use their voice as their vehicle of expression, these two types of artists compete and work together to create something cohesive without treading on the other's territory. Since a cappella choir music in and of itself seems to resist categorization, a project like this is naturally genre-defiant. Is it contemporary classical? Is it something entirely different? What does it sound like, if it sounds like anything else?
"To me, labeling it limits it. It's all genres, and we are treating all as equals," Moore says. "Each style of music is conveying meaning, and it's that thread that brings it all together. So we can put renaissance music and jazz and gospel all in the same stew and it is all valued." Moore sums it up best, perhaps, when she says, "to me it sounds like freedom from expectations."
Poet Lacey Roop says that while most of the poetry that will be read was written before the idea of Fusion, "once we begin rehearsal we may see ideas change, poems change."
"I love how organic this idea is and the evolution of this performative show," she adds. "Above all this will be performance that people will experience more than just attend."
There will be three performances of Fusion this weekend: one Friday night and two on Saturday night. Fusion expects a sell-out, so if you are interested in going, either get your tickets in advance or show up very early. Since this is the first attempt at such a collaboration (and it is considered more of a workshop than a performance), you can definitely expect another chance to catch these in the future.