“Choral music is a living and thriving art form,” insists Jeffery Wall, the Chair of the Department of Music and Director of Choral Studies at Northeastern State University and our special guest at the Argent’s Pub this month. Just recently he launched Vox Solaris – a new chamber choir “dedicated to singing excellent music excellently.” Read about Vox Solaris’ exciting journey, members, and upcoming performances. We also talked shop, the power of music, and cage fighting (because, you know, anytime you talk about chamber choir you have to talk about cage fighting).
Argent: For those who aren’t familiar with Vox Solaris, tell us a little about your chamber choir.
JW: This is a little choir that I started this summer locally in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma with a friend and colleague. We saw several arts organizations in the neighboring Tulsa area, but nothing like it specifically in this community. It’s a mixed choir (men’s & women’s voices) of about 16 singers. We had our inaugural concert on July 1st to a very receptive audience.
Argent: I was especially intrigued by your blog. Writing about the difficulties, the trials and tribulations, so to speak, of starting your chamber choir, really personalizes the endeavor. What inspired you to embark on such a journey?
JW: The blog is a way to reach our stakeholders. I think it is important for people to know that these things don’t just magically happen. It takes a lot of work and there are many things going on behind the scenes. This is a way for people to peek behind the curtain and connect with our mission beyond what they see or hear for a single, one-hour concert.
Argent: I couldn’t agree more. As consumers of art, we sometimes forget about the process; the enormous effort needed to produce something engaging and memorable. I certainly commend your effort to pull back the curtain. Switching topics, how do you go about shaping and sculpting a concert repertoire? Do you purposefully set out to include music from different cultural backgrounds and/or historical periods? What in general is your process when you are first starting to plan for a concert?
JW: Repertoire selection is what takes any good choir director the most amount of effort, time, and energy. It is at the very crux of what we do because without appropriate repertoire, we set ourselves and our ensembles up for failure. Everything is considered: Ability of the singers, range of the singers, accompanied or a cappella, ability of the accompanist, historical significance, poetic value, language, performance timing of the piece, the time required to learn the piece, appropriateness for the season, appropriateness for the venue and audience, compositional prowess of the composer. These are just a few of the considerations as we waddle down a large stack of music to a smaller stack. Generally, is it good music? Then, the work of balancing the piece in the overall program occurs: soft, loud, fast, slow, genre, historical placement, foreign languages, folk songs. It is a delicate, but a delightful process. The great variety of possibilities is what makes it so interesting.
Argent: Tell us a little bit about your singers? Who are they? What are their backgrounds?
JW: The singers come from a wide range of experiences and vocations. All of them are excellent vocalists. Some of them are music educators in schools and they rarely get the opportunity to sing high-level music with like-minded individuals anymore. They are the ones leading their own students towards those experiences. Vox Solaris Chamber Choir presents them with this opportunity. We also have music industry professionals. For instance, one singer is a concert producer for a salon concert series. Others are former students of mine and/or co-founder, Justin Rosser, who teaches at Broken Arrow High School. Some are university students currently studying vocal music. It runs the gamut.
Argent: With your position as Chair of Music Department and Director of Choral Studies at Northeastern State University, the constant need to perform and administrate, and now with the need to oversee and direct the activities of Vox, how do you keep yourself motivated and fresh as you juggle so many projects?
JW: I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. I enjoy what I do, creating art with others. I stay consistently busy, but in the rare downtime, I find myself craving creative, mental, and social stimulation. I’ve grown so accustomed to the juggling of many tasks that it seems abnormal if I don’t have multiple irons in the fire.
Argent: What do you do to recharge your batteries after a long week?
JW: Personally, I love to spend time with my family. Though my dad-bod might disagree, I also find it very important to get in some physical activity. My other passion is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, so at least a couple of physically exhausting training sessions on the mat per week seem to give my life balance.
Argent: I can’t imagine there being many choir directors who also happen to be practitioners of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. How do your colleagues and students respond when they realize their choir director has been in a cage fighting? And additionally, with Jiu-Jitsu and music both being in the realm of the arts (though vastly different art forms, one must say), do you find that one form compliments the other?
JW: I don’t know of any others, but there are plenty of choir directors that are involved in the martial arts in some form. It’s a good method of stress relief and physical activity. Well, mixed martial arts, or “cage fighting” as some refer to it is very different than strictly BJJ. I did a little bit of mixed martial arts and had a couple of big fights when I was a little younger, more in shape, and less injury-prone. BJJ is a large part of MMA, but I retired from MMA and only focus on the grappling arts part of it now. That and choral music are really two somewhat separate parts of my life. I enjoy the duality. Most colleagues, friends, and students in my music circles are intrigued I think because it is so foreign to them. Some think I am intimidating because they know that part of my history (and because I’m a big guy by average standards). However, I feel like my personality is not intimidating. If anything, jiu-jitsu has made me a calmer and nicer human being. If I had to make a connection between these two parts of my life, I would probably refer to the rhythm. In fighting and grappling, one has to find the opponent’s rhythm and disrupt it. Music and BJJ are also life-long learning pursuits. There are no easy rewards. I think that is what is appealing to me about both arts.
Argent: At Argent, we like to blend genres and ideas, mix concepts and platforms that are not typically associated with one another. For instance, a piece about folklore might also include elements of fashion, pop culture, or film. Do you think choir and choral performances could be mixed with other, let us say, more modern genres, or is it intrinsically too traditional? In other words, is there room for the avant-garde in a chorus?
JW: Choral music is a living and thriving art form. It has not adapted, but rather informed society, politics, ritual, religion, and culture throughout history. It is inherently ready to mix with other media and platforms. The avant-garde is present in many choral works today. I look forward to seeing where it takes us next.
Argent: If you were to extend your chorus into other genres, which ones do you think you could most easily engage with?
JW: It probably seems easiest to collaborate with other art forms: visual arts, dance, theater arts. Personally, I like the idea of collaborative engagements outside of the expected. Perhaps something like choral music partnered with fantasy fiction. I don’t know. I’m just shooting from the hip on that.
Argent: How is it that you achieve such range and versatility?
JW: I can’t claim that I always do achieve range and versatility. Of course, I try. I think demanding anything less of myself would just be boring.
Argent: Why not have a more streamlined and focused repertoire?
JW: The interests, talents, and voice types that make up Vox Solaris are so diverse that I want to have a little something for everyone. There are some ensembles that operate very well in a niche market. I think for our location, it would limit singer and audience interest. Plus, there is just too much dang good music in too many different sub-genres that are satisfying to work on and perform.
Argent: Do you think Vox has a certain attitude? If so, how would you describe it?
JW: That’s a difficult question because we’ve only met and performed once. There were several other singers that expressed interest but were unable to join us for this first concert. Though I expect we will have the core group return, we might have others that join us for subsequent performances. The addition of new members will bring a new dynamic to the group. The thing that I expect will stay the same no matter who joins us is the spirit of collaboration. Everyone works hard toward the common goal of creating excellent music excellently.
Argent: Do you have a special ritual before a concert?
JW: I suspect all the singers probably have their own individual idiosyncratic pre-concert rituals. I don’t have anything really interesting. I don’t like to eat anything before a concert if that counts, so I usually eat a bigger breakfast or maybe a really light snack for lunch. I run through my mental checklist, warm the choir up a bit to focus the sound, give a few logistical reminders to the choir and then, we go out and perform. I want to feel ALL the things. I want to be taken on a roller-coaster journey through many emotions and aural landscapes. I want to see the choir perform as much as I want to hear them perform. I want to feel like we are communicating.
Argent: What happens if a performance isn’t going as planned? Is it difficult to make adjustments during a performance?
JW: It is difficult to make on-the-spot adjustments. Inevitably, things happen in live performance. Conductors and choirs learn to “roll with the punches.” Sometimes, a simple look or gesture from the conductor can realign things. It is a symbiotic relationship that occurs between singers. The thing about the music we sing is that likely, most mistakes will go unnoticed by the audience. The choir and conductor know the music the most intimately. While we rehearse together so that everyone knows the “plan,” we try to just live in the moment with the audience and enjoy the experience.
Argent: When you are singing in another language, is it important to take into consideration accent and pronunciation, or are you working within more of a musical framework?
JW: These are constant considerations when singing in a foreign language. These are considerations even when we sing in English. There are a few modifications made in diction sometimes to accommodate sung vocal production. Otherwise, authentic pronunciation, dialect, poetic syntax, and translation are heavily considered. A good composer knows how to marry text and music. It is our job as a choir to effectively interpret that marriage.
Argent: What would you most like for people to take away after having experienced a Vox Solaris performance?
JW: I want our performances to act as food for the collective souls of our singers and audience members. I want the music to connect us and help us to engage in meaningful human interaction. I want us all to achieve a “mountain-top” experience together that cannot be effectively expressed in words. Lastly, I want people to walk away knowing the positive impact that art has on our lives and our community.
Argent: In your view, what is so special about the human voice? How is it that it alone has such a capacity to move, to shed light on the human condition?
JW: Every voice is unique in tone color, resonance, range, etc. Yet, voices can work together harmoniously to create beautiful sounds. A single voice can also create such a myriad of sounds that its versatility is unmatched. As an instrument, the voice is a part of our physiology, so it is also a part of us. To share the voice through singing is to share a part of us.
Argent: Do you aim and strive for technical perfection, or are you more concerned with depth of emotion?
JW: Both. We strive for technical perfection, knowing it can never fully be reached. However, a choral performance of technical precision with no emotional depth will be perceived as uninspiring. We must actually perform the music with all available emotional affect as possible.
Argent: For me, the best and most inspiring choral performances are those that somehow bring to focus one’s roots; those that help one recall certain memories, and which harken back to various seasons and holidays. In this vein, choral performances, and the choir in general, are inherently tied and wrapped up in the community. The community, perhaps, more than anything else, validates a choir. Do you agree with these sentiments?
JW: Yes, to a degree. On the one hand, nostalgia and memory recall can be the result of choral performance. On the other hand, new memories and ideas can be formed as the result of choral performance. A good performance can change a person’s viewpoints on different issues, provide escapism, or provide a catalyst for new ideas and emotions. A single piece can also have a very different impact on different people. Your comment about “community” is what it is all about. No matter the varying opinions, viewpoints, or experiences found through the choral art, we are all there to hopefully connect on a deeper level. We are all there to experience something together.
Argent: If you could forget for a moment about being a director – put yourself in an audience as a spectator, someone watching a performance purely for the sake of pleasure, what would be the feeling and emotion you would most want to experience?
JW: I have likely attended more choral performances as an audience member than the average audience member attending our concerts. I can speak from that perspective. As an audience member, I don’t want to feel a single thing. I want to feel ALL the things. I want to be taken on a roller-coaster journey through many emotions and aural landscapes. I want to see the choir perform as much as I want to hear them perform. I want to feel like we are communicating.
Argent: Neil Young is often quoted as saying that music has the power to save the world. Do you believe that music can save the world?
JW: I quoted Karl Paulnack in one of my blog entries, so I’ll duplicate here and answer your quote with a quote. This was his address to the freshmen class of music majors at the Boston Conservatory:
“Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force, or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”
Argent: What’s the future for Vox Solaris?
JW: Well, our first concert was a trial run to determine if this was something that everyone was interested in continuing. Just before we went out to perform, I asked the question and it was pretty unanimous. Everyone wants to continue the experience. Now, we are tasked with forming a board, applying for 501(c)3 non-profit status, cultivating sponsorship and donors, and expanding our mission. In our brief conversations, we would like to provide experiences and scholarships for students heading to university intending to study music. This is one of many ways that we can “grow where we are planted” and positively impact our community. We are just getting started, but I see a bright future for this ensemble.
Argent: How can one donate to your cause?
JW: Visit our website at www.voxsolaris.net. There is a link there to donate. Also, attend our next concert on December 21. Details coming soon!
Argent: To any young, aspiring singer out there who will read this interview, what advice would you give them?
JW: If you can envision yourself in the future and see yourself doing anything else and being happy, go and do that. Pursuing music is not an easy road. However, if you can look down the road and know that you will not be happy doing anything except music, pursue your craft with unwavering fervor. Do not let anyone get in your way – including yourself. Learn all you can and continue growing as a musician and vocalist.
Argent: Last, and we ask this of all our Guests in the Pub, what is your drink of choice? And perhaps even better, if you were to describe Vox Solaris using a beverage (doesn’t have to be an adult beverage), what would it be?
JW: This depends on my mood or situation: 7 & 7 or a Yuengling IPL. Because of the solar reference in the name Vox Solaris (Voice of the Sun), I might describe it as a Flaming Sambuca.