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Vocal festival with a touch of nature

Evilena Protektore

«Voicingers on Tour» in its third year in Riga — new venue, new teachers, Latvians singing in Chinese, and other exciting things

Grzegorz Maslowski

The vocal-instrumental festival/camp «Voicingers on Tour» has traveled to Riga for the third consecutive year. «Voicingers» is an international team of artists united by the Polish musician Grzegorz Karnas and his like-minded colleagues. This team travels the world, bringing the knowledge of improvised music, helping people find their voice, and opening new paths in musicians’ creative lives. This year, there have been some changes in the festival — although the location for masterclasses remains the same, the premises of JVLMA, the concerts and jam sessions have moved from the summer terrace of «M/Darbnīca» gallery to the basement club «Biedrība,» which is a minute away from the entrance to the Academy of Music. Along with the territorial changes, the festival also brought new inspiration — a refreshed team of teachers that offered participants to get closer to Chinese jazz, enjoy yoga in Vērmanes Garden, and listen to many great concerts in the evenings. Santa Šillere, a jazz singer and coordinator of the «Voicingers on Tour» festival in Latvia, shares the changes the festival underwent this year and what interesting things happened in general.

Santa, please tell us about your impressions — how was the festival’s third year spent?

In my opinion, the year was successful! Every year, it’s interesting to look at the changes in the program, and this year, there was a perfect balance in the volume of masterclasses — strangely enough, compared to previous years, we heard from masterclass participants that the schedule was too intense; they couldn’t survive everything and still attend concerts! It seems that this year, we found this excellent balance for the participants! The other part of the balance this year was the concerts, which were two in one evening and quite diverse! So, in terms of balance, the third year was the most successful, and I am delighted about that. This year also brought many new additions because we try to come up with something new every year since, similar to jazz, we have an ever-evolving nature; we try experimenting with the festival program. It is exceptionally joyful that international students from Poland and Estonia joined us this year, adding a new and fresh feeling because the students were not only Latvian. Although the masterclasses are in English, visiting students added a somewhat foreign feeling, which the teachers themselves provide every year but even more so this year. I am especially pleased that among all the «Voicingers,» they chose to come to Riga, not to another country in Europe or Asia.

Yes, that is commendable! We literally just talked to Indriķis Veitners about the fact that the Luznava festival and camp session are the only ones in Latvia that attract international students. Although they initially had the concept of uniting all three Baltic states.

Yes, we went in a similar direction, but it is a fundamental principle for them, and it happened to us unintentionally. But I support it in every way because these participants are young musicians who need «networking» right from the start — building contacts and new musical friendships. I only support it; it can really create a positive result.

Yes, it inspires, although, speaking of the Baltic states, we are not so far apart, but there is a difference, and something interesting can arise as a result!

Yes, both by collaborating and making friends from another country, you can go perform in their country, and they can come to perform in yours; it’s a forward-thinking mentality.

Jot Cil

But back to your heart’s affair, so to speak. You changed the location this year — from «M/Darbnīca» to the «Biedrība» club — why?

There were various considerations, including the desire for changes, and the «Biedrība» club is highly convenient in terms of location because masterclasses take place at the Academy of Music. Honestly, the first two years at «M/Darbnīca» went well. However, the distance is still felt, especially for the masterclass presenters who have to go for rehearsals and sound checks right after classes, so the location change solved logistical issues. Also, the atmosphere of the «Biedrība» club seemed appealing. Although there were great reviews from both masterclass participants and listeners about the «M/Darbnīca» terrace, which suited both the music and the overall festival concept, we were easily intrigued — how could this project and these artists, concerts look in the atmosphere of the «Biedrība» club/basement, where many artists perform nuanced music with a lot of improvisation, chamber ensembles, maybe that was lacking on the beautiful outdoor terrace, where the intimacy provided by subdued lighting and space can highlight the right qualities, so «Biedrība» was a great choice. Among the musicians, there are also lingering reviews about the quality of sound in the «Biedrība» club!

Yes, Mārtiņš Strelēvics is a sound wizard! And about the workshops — last year, I remember there was a lot of exciting stuff: free improvisation, yoga, workshops on vocal technique, percussion class. What was special this year?

The improvisation section hasn’t disappeared anywhere, as «Voicingers» masterclasses are based on its values, encouraging people to find their voice, their flow of thoughts in improvisation, and how to express themselves. Therefore, it was definitely a dominant element in the masterclasses. Speaking of yoga — it was also there this year, but it was something completely different! Last year, we had the wonderful Dana Indāne-Surkiene working with us, and she took a more meditative approach, incorporating movements and dance elements, and conceptually, it had a different feel. This year, we were lucky to get two birds with one stone — this year, the team was joined by the fantastic pianist from Azerbaijan, Elchin Shirinov, and, as it turns out, he is a certified yoga instructor! So, with him, yoga was something else; it was more based on physical, athletic sensations. We could all break a sweat; for many, it initially felt like a sports class, but by the end of the class, you were both tired and recharged. This yoga was also very focused on breathing. I was also among the participants attending the classes, and I really liked it! I started to think more and more that such practices should also be taught to academy students because they are very relevant, especially for singers—working with the body. We have long known that it is not just about working with vocal cords, the larynx, etc., and also the principles of breathing, which I find very interesting because he also talked about the methodology he follows (he is familiar with the Wim Hof method and other breathing techniques), explaining in which situations to use which breathing method — there, of course, was more about how to calm oneself in stage anxiety, for example.

Another interesting aspect was that we had outdoor workshops this year because the weather was so wonderful. Some teachers decided to conduct masterclasses in Vērmanes Garden — walking and singing, which was very interesting! People passing by were watching, interested in what was happening! There was a touch of nature this year, so to speak!

Grzegorz Maslowski

There were also changes in the lineup of teachers, as every year, it’s a project’s feature to have dynamic changes in teachers in each country, allowing teachers to meet in different combinations, and it’s also interesting for the students of a specific country when someone who has been there before comes again, but also someone new! And this year, Coco Zhao from China was the furthest visitor for us, and it was very long and pleasant to look forward to meeting him. He conducted workshops on improvisation and storytelling through song, and he has such interesting techniques in how he approaches it. I think it was valuable!

That would definitely be useful for people who sing in «non-universal» languages! A Latvian listener probably won’t understand what the song is about if it’s in Chinese. [laughs]

Telling stories seems like an elementary thing, especially while studying; so much attention is paid to technical matters in singing, often the other very important aspect — storytelling — remains in the background. We forget that telling a story is hard work because we, vocalists, are privileged to use words. It’s not just a matter of singing! There are also rules to follow to make the performance successful.

I completely agree! And what about the concerts this year? A very wide variety was announced in the program!

The concerts were just a surprise this year! First, I want to note that we continued with the excellent idea — a series of concerts that showcase both new Latvian musicians and festival musicians from abroad. How we arranged the lineups this year and the combinations on specific days were fantastic! On the first day, one of the «Voicingers» coordinators, Līga Kupča, performed — an incredible artist who had already created a magnificent concert program for her master’s degree final exam. She took a bold step, arranging choir songs in jazz. It sounded successful during the exam, and it was clear that it definitely had to be heard beyond the word «exam» and allow people to hear how interesting choral music can sound! After Līga, Grzegorz Karnas performed, who loves to sing in Polish, and for me, that evening was special with languages — everyone sang in their native language, each one different and beautiful. It also helps break the stigma that jazz can only be in English. In fact, it’s not; language gives that special flavor and frequency to music when it adds to a specific genre.

The next evening featured two absolutely different worlds of styles. Latvian musician Miķelis Dzenuška charged positively the entire «Biedrība» club hall, people, and what he did, by the way, only as a trio, was truly unique! Miķelis sang and played keyboard instruments and vibraphone — it was something very powerful! After that, festival leader Grzegorz came up to me and said, «Where did you find these guys?!» I said, «Yes, we have them!» He was pleasantly surprised; it was unexpected in terms of atmosphere, but it fit very well! After Miķelis’s concert, Coco Zhao followed, who introduced his ethnic sound, although Coco is quite a traditional jazz vocalist in terms of his sound. But still, his roots break through phonetically when he sings (he performed songs in both Chinese and English), and it really permeates the environment from which he comes. Of course, also musically, there was such a feeling — pentatonics appeared in many places, and it was a complete contrast to Miķelis in a positive sense. Miķelis simply lifted that roof into the air, but Coco painted that roof in a different color.

Grzegorz Maslowski

The surprises didn’t end — on the next day, a new vocalist and saxophonist, Karlīna Priedēna, performed, and how interesting that her performance seamlessly connected in one evening with the Danish saxophonist Asger Uttrup Nissen’s concert. It was a very sequential, transformative transition from one concert to another because I saw something very similar in both of them, even though they were completely different. Karlīna chose to perform both her original music in Latvian and English and, in honor of the next artist, had learned one of his compositions! Asger also brilliantly, technically, and excellently represented his concert, and what I found interesting was that he talked a lot about compositions. I realized that instrumentalists rarely want to share their verbal energy or talk about upcoming pieces, as they feel more comfortable in music; it’s not like talking for vocalists, as we feel more natural at that moment. Asger was very communicative and left a convincing, good impression. It was also a special moment for him because he was in Riga for the first time, and he said he really liked visiting us, the Latvian audience, and the students.

Our fourth concert day concluded with an excellent combination — a «Jazz Piano» night featuring two contrasting jazz pianists. In the Latvian part of the concert, Matīss Žilinskis performed, bringing his energy and playing pieces from his album, captivating both musically and otherwise. His musical jazz language is rich and international, but in Matīss, there’s a good sense of where he comes from — Latvia, and it beautifully marked the guideline of his concert. Following him was the eagerly awaited Elchin Shirinov with his trio. Elchin was especially anticipated for several reasons — firstly, he had not performed in Latvia before, and he is a very busy musician in his daily life. I was shocked When Gregorz told me we could collaborate with him this year! It turns out he has been a friend of «Voicingers» for years but hadn’t traveled with the festival team for some time. He usually performs with the Avishai Cohen trio, so it immediately creates a pleasant feeling — what to expect from him when he comes to us with his own project and his compositions. It was extremely interesting because his roots shone through every line, intonation, and characteristic of Azerbaijani folk music. It was a great conclusion to the artist concert week!

Of course, there’s already a «Voicingers» tradition — the last day is the student final concert, eagerly awaited by the participants themselves to apply the freshly acquired knowledge. The concert had two parts, featuring beautiful jazz standards, heart-touching ballads, ensemble pieces, and, in the finale, a performance with all the students. This time, Coco volunteered to teach students a song in the jazz style but… in Chinese! It included both improvisation and polyphony; Koko stood in front, conducting, and it was a very moving moment and, at the same time, smile-inducing because you could feel that it was something new, different.

I can imagine! Are there any plans for next year?

Actually, at this moment, there are various considerations about what the next year could be like because three years is enough time to understand what might work better for the Latvian audience, what might not, and perhaps change something in the festival concept itself — these changes are more related to concerts, but how it will unfold is currently challenging to say. In any case, we are looking to the future optimistically, and right now is precisely the «eye of the storm» moment regarding how the next year might look! There’s a lot of planning work ahead, and all the updates will be on our social networks, so stay tuned!

Grzegorz Maslowski