Gian Slater: ‘Gone, without saying’

In the bathrooms after Barney McAll’s Graft at the Wangaratta Jazz festival in 2011, I overheard this conversation, over cubicle walls.

“So, what did you think, dear?”
“Oooh, very DIFFERENT, very NEW YORK”
“Yes, they like that sort of thing over there.”

Apparently we liked ‘that sort of thing’ here too.  Jessica Nicholas in her review of the festival  said the suite was a highlight, praising McAll for his ‘…visionary new work Graft (featuring two pianos, vibraphone and a 16-voice choir) [which] combined soulful grooves, electronics, ethereal harmonies and exquisite lyricism‘.  Invenio were an important part of the suite – their voices added a heart-stopping dimension to McAll’s already beautiful music.

I’d heard Invenio first when they performed Gian Slater’s composition ‘Gone without saying’ at The Edge in Federation Square  as part of the 2010 Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival. Something pure and ethereal touched me about the performance. I was lost in a world created by Slater’s music and even now, when I think about that night, I don’t visualise the choir as they were – ‘down there’ on the stage. I seem to be among them, in my mind’s eye, and bathed somehow in whatever it was that she had created and that she and the choir were jointly offering to the audience.

Since then, Invenio has premiered Gian’s second large work Us and Others, composed for 18 singers and 4 percussionists from SPEAK Percussion led by Eugene Ughetti at the Malthouse Theatre to sell-out audiences. They have also performed at the Sydney Opera House Studio, Dancehouse Theatre, The Melbourne Town Hall as well as featured performances with singer/songwriter Lior and the Melbourne Arts Festival’s Notes from the Hard and Beyond at Sidney Myer Music Bowl with the Black Arm Band, Ricki Lee Jones, Mavis Staples, Archie Roach and Joss Stone.

With the release of the CD Gone, without saying by Listen/Hear Collective in December 2011 (see end of interview for details) we asked Gian if she’d talk to us briefly about her music and Invenio, as well as her thoughts on composition, colour and movement.

Miriam Zolin: How did the name of the Invenio singers come about?

Gian Slater: The name Invenio is latin for new/discover – I really wanted a word outside of our typical frame of reference that could hint at the primal nature of the voice and the sophistication of its potential but also to have a neutrality about it, so that the group can move between various settings without the perception of style limitations and constraints.

MZ: How do you approach composition for the group? Where do you begin?

GS:  For the two large pieces I composed for the group – Gone, without saying and Us and Others, I started with an overall concept and then mapped out the form/shape of the whole show. It definitely helped to have this structure in place before I started writing any music, as it enabled me to focus on a single direction and thread, which I think brought together my musical ideas in a more interesting way. With the voices, I have been trying to work on finding a balance between the experimental, improvisational elements and the more functional melodic, harmonic worlds that I love exploring.  I tried to think about the blend of the voices in the writing, thinking about how each voice could compliment and lift another and from one big sound. I also really enjoyed writing for the individual voices in the group – allowing for personality and character to shine through.

MZ: I’ve seen the group perform standing still and moving. What part does movement play in your composition for the Invenio singers – or other ensembles you write for?

GS: The movement aspect happened as a natural progression in the rehearsal process. When rehearsing the music and imagining the performance, it occurred to me that the idea of a choir standing still (for an hour of music), was unnatural and somehow more distracting. The movement is good for focusing the singers and giving them a purpose and body language to project, and for the audience, I think it brings a level of flow and story line to the performance that lifts the music.

When we are performing with other musicians, there is already a lot of movement, action and personality on stage and so it can be much more focused and communal to be still.

MZ: In a visual context, you clearly make costuming and presentation decisions when performing that you may not need to make for a different type of ensemble. How do you approach the question of ‘costume’. What’s important about it? What’s challenging?

GS: I am interested in the potential we have to create an atmosphere that is both honest and mysterious and that reinforces the unity in voices coming together. Our default costume is neutral colours – white, grey, beige etc. Again, like our name, I want to keep a level of neutrality and blank slate in our image – and yet allow for individual choices in how a singer interprets the colour limitation.

MZ: Is there a musical inspiration that you’re drawing on when you’re creating music for this group?  

GS: My main source of inspiration in vocal music is Meredith Monk. When I saw her perform in New York with her vocal ensemble, it completely changed my universe. I was deeply moved with how she explored and experimented with voices and compositional minimalism in a way that was earthy and warm, yet challenging.

I have also been drawn to Arvo Part’s vocal works and Steve Reich’s large ensemble works, in particular – Tehillium and You are (variations).

MZ: Audiences were wowed at Wangaratta with the collaboration between the Invenio Singers and Barney McCall in his composition Graft.  Do you have plans for future collaborations?  What do you look for in a potential collaboration?

GS: Barney’s piece was a thrill to perform and the singers all loved the intricacy and honesty that this music embodied.

This year we also collaborated with singer/songwriter, Lior and percussion guru’s SPEAK and are really enjoying what we are learning from these opportunities.

I am really interested in collaborative projects and at this point am open to whatever comes our way. I guess my main consideration for prospective projects would be whether I find the idea interesting and can see how our Invenio approach would work with the idea.

MZ:  What’s next for Invenio?  

GS: At the moment, we are trying to consolidate the work we produced this year. It is in my nature to want to move on to the next creative opportunity, but I am learning the importance of following through with one project at a time. We will perform Us and Others again in 2012 and Barney McAlls Graft piece, which will be released on CD at some point in the near future.

Invenio is: Gian Slater, Jenny Barnes, Tom Barton, Gideon Brazil, Natalie Carolan, Helen Catanchin, Miriam Crellin, Georgie Darvidis, Ed Farlie, Bronwyn Hicks, Kate Kelsey-Sugg, Joshua Kyle, Louisa Rankin, Jem Savage, Ben Taylor, Loni Thompson, Gemma Tully, Au?ur Zoëga

Photos supplied by Brian Stewart of Cyberhalides Jazz

The CD Gone, without saying will be available from the Listen/Hear Collective online store from Wednesday, December 21 2011  The CD is being launched at  Provenance Food and Wine Bar Wednesday, December 21, 6-8 pm

Find more information about Gian, Invenio and Gone, without saying on the Listen/Hear Collective website >>>>

Read more about Barney McAll’s music on his website >>>>