Gian Slater: “‘Luminesce’ displays the central idea of Invenio, to celebrate the individual in a communal context”

To say that Gian Slater is a tireless explorer of the human voice potential would be an understatement. Apart from her solo work, the singer is also leading the innovative ensemble Invenio, featuring a roster of excellent vocalists who create aural landscapes – if not universes – inviting the audience to lose themselves inside them. One of their most fascinating works, ‘Luminesce’, is a dialogue between voices and light, created in collaboration with video artist Robert Jarvis. We asked Gian Slater to shed some more light on it. (Forgive the pun) What is ‘Luminesce’?

Gian Slater: ‘Luminesce’is a work I composed for Invenio in collaboration with video artist, Robert Jarvis. The show explores the relationships between sound and light; silence and darkness but the initial impetus came from this new technology that Bob has created. He first came to me a few years ago with the idea, which completely sparked my imagination and created a wonderful compositional puzzle. What if every vocal sound triggered a lighting or projection event? That each moment of silence was met with darkness and each utterance into the space would have an immediate, in sync image. How would I think about composing visually? How many singers would be optimal in terms of feasibility and creative possibilities?

Bob gave me a program to compose with that would allow me to see the way my compositions would look divided among seven singers. This gave me a really good starting point for thinking in a more visual way about the music, but after a while I abandoned using this tool, so that I could rely more on my imagination to set parameters and imagine the visual result.

The first phase of the learning process for the singers was very complicated. All seven parts are composed in a completely interwoven fashion; the linear, melodic shapes happen across the seven voices but within any given part the material is broken, fragmented and initially a bit random to learn. It was even harder to memorize. We managed to get everything together for the premiere performance in 2014, but it has taken a few more performances for us to really settle into this music with confidence.

The show has evolved a lot since its first incarnation; Bob is always refining and developing the technology and projections and the singers have really developed a new skill set and a rare level of prowess in part due to this unusually rigorous mode of music making and learning.

Invenio – Sun – White Night Melbourne 2016 from Bob Jarvis on Vimeo.

AJN: What was the creative process like?

GS: The composition process was unlike anything I had done before.

Writing with a visual outcome in mind really challenged me to create these visual parameters and scores before the music. In some cases, the rhythm or pacing of the parts was the first musical step to creating these visual patterns and that would dictate harmonic or melodic structures I would use.

I enjoyed thinking about the presence or absence of symmetry and the various ways we could vary the way the image would strike – accenting, velocity and duration of the note. In one of the pieces, ‘Sun’, I use these ‘swell’ events that grow and decay to soften the visual impact, giving it a wave-like feeling.

AJN: How did you work with Robert Jarvis?

GS: Bob and I touched base throughout the creative process to share ideas – I would show him some of my musical ideas and he would give me some new visual ideas to think about integrating. For the most part, we worked independently but with a really clear mutual focus.

AJN: What is the relationship between sound and light?

GS: Throughout the composition process, I kept thinking about all the connections between sound and light – in physical and philosophical ways – as a metaphor used to ‘shed light’ on some of life’s mysteries and universal experiences. This led to the use of some lyrics; from poetry that I wrote with these ideas in mind. I initially thought this work would be entirely wordless but was pleasantly surprised to introduce this other mode of reflection.

The Invenio Singers performing ‘Luminesce’ at St Paul’s cathedral.

AJN: How does this project allow for Invenio to show the group’s dynamics?

GS: The seven Invenio singers in this project are quite astounding. I feel very fortunate to not only compose for them but to sing alongside them. They are all wonderful musical thinkers, able to throw themselves fully into something new with agility, discipline and grace. Out of all of our projects, this one most blatantly displays the central idea of Invenio, which is to celebrate the individual in a communal context. There is no time to dwell on your self within this complex work – it is so interwoven that there is a really heightened level of listening and group attention. Everyone must sing in the most efficient and effortless way so they can tune their focus into the ensemble. Without trying; individuality emerges. Our voices blend and are individually distinctive, without using stylistic, affected or expressive means.

AJN: How would you describe the ensemble to someone not familiar with it?

GS: Invenio is an innovative large ensemble of improvising and contemporary singers, experimenting with the typical vocal group/choral form through conceptual composition, extended vocal technique, fluid improvising, choreographed movement and inventive performance. The singers of Invenio are selected from a pool of exciting contemporary singers who are all active performers, teachers and composers on the Melbourne scene.

AJN: What is the group’s backstory?

GS: I formed Invenio in 2010 for the Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival’s Composer’s Commission to perform my new work, ‘Gone Without Saying’. I had been dreaming about a different kind of choral music for a while and was inspired to think of the great young singers I could put together at the time. After the success of this first work, both in the performance and in the rehearsal process, I felt compelled to keep the momentum going. I felt that the musical possibilities were boundless as was the great potential of these amazing singers. I was immensely excited about presenting this music in different ways – with movement, with costumes, with lighting, acoustically, in different spaces. I felt that this kind of ensemble experience was something that filled a big gap in a singer’s performance life. Most singers will predominantly lead their own ensembles and are rarely invited into other ensembles, let alone ones that use, challenge and develop their musicianship.

Being a side-man or integrated ensemble member teaches you essential things about music making that undoubtedly makes you a more complete musician. Being able to learn new music, take responsibility for your part in the bigger picture, listen more to others than yourself, adapt and be open to new instruction are all examples of these ensemble skills.

Since the premere of ‘Gone, Without Saying’, we have performed seven of my large -scale works and have collaborated with many diverse artists and across art forms. Invenio performs in different configurations depending on the project from 3-20 singers.

AJN: How does Invenio fit in with your other projects?

GS: I think of Invenio in a really different way to my other projects.

Even though Invenio has provided a really incredible outlet and vehicle for my compositions, it feels like something much bigger than me or the other singers in it. It feels like a movement or culture that has a life of its own. To me, that life revolves around a need to redefine assumptions about the voice, to share in an exploration of our voices, to develop a supportive network of creative singers, to disregard vocal fashions, to simultaneously celebrate individuality and community, to embrace the timeless and primal nature of the voice.

AJN: What is your perception of singing as an artform?

GS: This is a big question, which really needs a big answer but I’ll attempt to say something brief.

As a vocal and music educator, I am so lucky to hear so many different voices. I love teaching singers to explore their voices and to delve into the deeper parts of music. I do feel constantly frustrated by the passing vocal fashions and warped value systems of singers and about singers. I think that the crux of this frustration stems from what I would call an imitative approach to singing and learning music. Wanting to sound like someone else is a natural desire for a singer, in the same way that we may want to look like someone else. BUT the world does NOT need another [insert iconic singer here].

Of course you learn from your heroes, but forcing your voice to sound a certain way not only makes you completely uninteresting, but also often leads to vocal health issues.

Commentators in the media and influential people in the industry encourage this imitative approach and then there is a trickle down effect to vocal teachers, young impressionable singers and the broader public.

When audiences listen to singers, they have strong expectations and opinions. They often have a need to relate and compare a voice to another voice. It is very challenging to be a developing singer trying to square with those expectations and so perpetuates the cycle.

I understand the dilemma of this cycle – but I don’t accept it. No one in particular is to blame, but everyone is a bit to blame. If you sell yourself short as a singer, if you underestimate a singer’s potential, if you push a singer into imitative territory, if you listen to imitative performers, if you are an imitative performer, then you are a part of this cycle.

I am interested in unaffected, honest and artistic voices. I am interested in the ideas – personal, philosophical, musical behind the voice. I detest the stereotypes of singing that still prevail in institutions, in industry and over most audiences. I want singers to dig deep into their potential, to strive to be the greatest musicians they can be, to sing with integrity, unapologetically into the world.

Voices have the potential to cut straight to the core of who we are. There doesn’t need to be a medium or impediment between the idea and expression of that idea. I strive to find more of that in my practice and to hear more of it of other singers.

Hmmm.. not so brief.

AJN: Which song best describe your current state of mind?

GS: ‘Old McDonald Had a Farm’ is the song buzzing around our house at the moment. My son loves the “ee-i-ee-i-yo”. It is pretty fun to sing.


*Invenio will perform ‘Luminesce’ at the Melbourne Recital Centre, on Thursday 18 May.