New “hybrid” choir in the works

Olivia Hendricks

What do you call an ensemble that performs jazz, Renaissance, contemporary and world-music works? Funny you should ask. Phillip Swan, associate director of choral studies at Lawrence and director of this new “hybrid” choir, is not quite sure himself.
While the group may not yet have a name, it certainly has its own identity. It is a mixed ensemble designed for eight to 16 singers who want to become, in Swan’s words, “more flexible and more marketable” musicians by familiarizing themselves with the four genres.
These four areas were selected by Swan for the unique singing techniques they involve and because they are connected by an element of improvisation, which Swan intends to experiment with over the course of the year.
The combination of genres has one further benefit for students, according to Swan. “Sometimes when we categorize an ensemble, it automatically eliminates certain students,” he said. “To tie these four areas together draws on the greater group and seems less scary.”
Swan first came up with the idea to form a hybrid choir about 10 years ago upon hearing the Hilliard Ensemble, a vocal chamber group known for its work with early and new music, in collaboration with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek on the album “Officium.”
“It was a really interesting mix of colors and styles and that’s what really got my interest going,” said Swan.
Now, Swan’s vision is becoming a reality as auditions have taken place and the ensemble prepares to perform three pieces as a warm-up for New York Voices during Lawrence Jazz Celebration Weekend Nov. 7.
Interested vocalists need not despair, however, as Swan is considering holding auditions again in January for those who were not yet aware of the ensemble and its purpose. The group meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:10 to 4:20 at the conservatory, and Swan welcomes e-mails or calls regarding the group.
The flexible and experimental nature of the ensemble allows the involvement of nonvocalists as well. Swan expects to have a rhythm section for certain pieces, having already added a drummer and a bassist.
In addition, the choir should be a good resource for Lawrence faculty and student composers who are looking to have their pieces performed by a different type of group. Already, Lawrence music instructor Lee Tomboulian is planning to write something specifically for the hybrid choir.
Finally, Swan hopes to see the ensemble reach its audience in a nonmusical way as well.
“Much farther down the road, I’d like to do more community outreach. As a small ensemble, we have more ability to do that. The group could have that kind of impact.”
“We’re not just adding another ensemble to add another ensemble,” Swan said he frequently reminds students in the group. “If we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it to the absolute highest quality and absolute best, so people will sit back and say ‘This is possible.’