Up until now, the versatile singer, songwriter, and producer Caroline Polachek has been best known for her work as the singer for the popular, adventurous pop duo Chairlift. Recently, the much-loved group announced its plans to disband. Meanwhile, Polachek, who wrote and produced Beyoncé’s 2013 single “No Angel” and issued her first solo project under the name Ramona Lisa in 2014, surprised her many admirers (and no doubt earned new ones) with Drawing the Target Around the Arrow, the album of deceptively simple electronic pieces that she released free of charge in January via Kickstarter’s vital young webzine, The Creative Independent. Now, as part of Polachek’s National Sawdust residency, that electronic project comes to life onstage February 23 and 24, with new vocals supplied by the adventurous vocal chamber ensemble Choral Chameleon. In a recent conversation at National Sawdust, Polachek and Choral Chameleon founder Vince Peterson talked about this unique project.
How many records are you typically working on simultaneously?
POLACHEK: Usually one record is being born while another one is being performed – that’s sort of the way I like to do it. Right now I’m juggling three, because I’m working on a music video for Chairlift that’s going to come out pretty soon – we’re putting together a final tour – and I’m playing this record live and working on a third one. So it’s quite a bit of mental compartmentalization, but the hope is that they’re all sort of grounded in reality.
Was your current record conceived as a potential choral project from the start?
POLACHEK: It wasn’t. This record was started by my desire to have a really pure tone to work with, just for composition. I was making my first solo record under the name Ramona Lisa, which was meant to evoke a sort of combination of classical music and ’60s pop, and to make that I was using a lot of soft synths: organs, ’80s synths, some synth strings – all computer plug-ins. At a certain point I was frustrated by how evocative of certain genres these plug-ins were – a string patch evoked a certain thing, an organ evoked a certain thing. It seemed like so many of these sounds were meant to emulate something else. So I said, I want something to write with that evokes nothing beyond a note; I just want pure notes. So I downloaded a sine plug-in, and I started playing around with phasing, playing two similar pitches and detuning one of them.
The sound that that produced was incredible, but I didn’t really have a use for it in Chairlift, at least not front-and-center use. I’d once in a while make little pieces, three-minute, five-minute pieces, for myself, save them and put them in a folder. And after a while the folder started growing: I had about three hours of these things. And I found that I had never enjoyed listening to my own music as much as I enjoyed listening to these. I listened to them all the time. Before the record even came out, they were used in three different dance pieces. I would circulate them among friends. I used them as background for all sorts of things. I’d use them for background when people came over to do interviews in my apartment, I’d use them for warm-ups at dance rehearsals. I just found them extremely useful.
Of course, being a singer I did experiment with putting vocals on it. I sort of always had this little thought: That’s sort of what people expect of me. I sing, I love singing; I should try it. And it sounded good, but it instantly made the pieces of music less functional for me… I found it was kind of distracting to hear voices on this thing. But when it came time to do something live with it, I thought, well, wait a minute, the same thing that made it too distracting for recorded music makes it perfect for live. Adding vocals makes it extremely personal all of a sudden. Vocals always give something a sort of narrative element, and I think that’s a perfect way for people to experience this music live.
How did you connect with Choral Chameleon?
POLACHEK: I’m working on a series for National Sawdust, which we’re calling “The Open Mouth,” a choral series where we’re pairing some of my favorite contemporary artists with choir, because that’s something that as a musician I’ve always wanted but never had very immediate access to. National Sawdust essentially offered me their “black book” of choirs. I listened to some MP3s of Choral Chameleon, and I think 10 seconds into the first track I knew this was the choir I needed to work with.
What was it that convinced you in specific?
POLACHEK: It was very pure, which is what I was looking for on this one. It was very finely articulated, pure sound. I needed a choir that would be able both to understand the mood of the music and to have the vocal control to be able to imitate the phasing that I’m doing with the synths. And these guys completely got it.
PETERSON: In this business it’s so rare that the person you’re working with, who you’re being paired with, who you view in a certain way in society, turns out to be a real, authentic, incredible, loving, gentle-hearted person. And that has been what this is. In music making, I think genuineness, authenticity, and an intention to fill a need are really what make good music, and what make good music received in a positive, impactful way by people is if they need it. We want to use the choral instrument, which is an instrument made of people, to fill needs in the world. This music is so much the epitome of what I consider to be functional music, something that can be used in perpetuity to fill a real human need that people have. And I think that because of everything that’s going on in our world right now, that need is so pronounced. I was thinking on the way over here that Caroline must be, in her life’s experience and her centeredness, almost telepathic, because all of this started happening long before Trump was elected president, long before the world started basically imploding. There must have been some kind of knowingness, some wisdom there.
POLACHEK: I think it was just good luck. I will say that it’s a fitting time for music that’s hyper-focused, and can be used both for relaxation and for focusing and getting things done.
PETERSON: Oh, it’s outright medicine.
POLACHEK: I’ve had an interesting response to this record that’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before. Typically when Chairlift has released a record, they’ll either give us very hyperbolic feedback – “Oh my god, I love you guys so much!” – or they’ll talk about us in third person. I’ve never had so many people just sending me straight-up “thank you, I needed this.” And that might have had something to do with the fact that I released it for free – and it still is available for free, and it always will be, even though it’s on normal retailers and streaming sites, but the intention behind it really was to be a gift. That’s why there’s no promotional cycle. I’m not touring it. I’m not doing music videos or anything like that. It’s really just, please, take this.
PETERSON: And it’s needed. It’s needed in the world.
From a technical perspective, how did you make this material performable?
POLACHEK: I think we met up for three arrangement meetings, where we looked at each piece one by one. For about half of the pieces I had sketches that I’d prerecorded vocally, which were the things that I had tested out to decide whether I wanted vocals on the album. Of those six, we used about half, and with the rest we just started from scratch, just singing over it, thinking of the idea: Do these synths want the vocals to be one with them, or to do something completely separate? And I think we do about half and half: half of the pieces where the vocal is just giving a human dimension to these pieces, and half of them where it’s essentially call-and-response between the singers and the synth.
PETERSON: My role was to help guide that thought process, and to home in on what Caroline wants in terms of vocals for this particular music, and to be a sounding board and a mirror – but also, to objectively be the voice of my singers in it.
POLACHEK: Vince is so sensitive to tone, and he really knows his singers so well, which was really fascinating for me, because I was really thinking in terms of harmony – “let’s have this interval sustain this long” – and Vince was thinking in terms of “let’s shape it like this.” This is how much breath they’re going to have, this is how much they can sustain, this is the color the singers can have versus another.
PETERSON: The choice of vowel sound or syllable to sing on is really very carefully selected. There’s this idea out there, this new genre of devised theater, where the piece that is ultimately performed in front of the audience is something that has been built during the rehearsal process, through trial and error, through conversation, through discussion. And this is not exactly like that, because of course the album was a done deal already by the time we started working on it. But the process of how to integrate the chorus into it has been a devised process in that way. And the result, which will be heard here in the concerts, is a vocal-element layer being put on top of this that is devised.
POLACHEK: We devised it, the two of us, so we showed up at the first rehearsal with arrangements that were just written out in sentences.
PETERSON: And a little bit of notation here and there. If something was totally independent of what would be heard, if it was a melody that wasn’t identical to something that was heard in the sine waves, I jotted it down in hand-written manuscript. We sent all the notes and all of the roughs of the tracks to the singers beforehand and said, just get in the water and familiarize yourselves with this. Being good choral singers, they were all emailing me saying, “Do I have to prepare something for this? Should I be memorizing how this all goes? Do I have to know which one’s which?” And I said, just wait and calm down. It ended up being that they, in the rehearsal process, were really among the first recipients of this gift in the way that Caroline was talking about it.
POLACHEK: It was pretty amazing to hear it for the first time, because we’d planned out the arrangements essentially in terms of cells. A lot of these pieces use repetition, but there’s no meter, there’s no set tempo. It’s more of a bodily muscle learning of the repetition part. So we’ll have a kind of language with the singers: OK, we’re moving into 1A, we’re moving into 1B, now 2A, now we’re moving into C.
PETERSON: We gave sort of arbitrary labels to different ideas. And it started as a real call-and-response thing in the sense that I would say to them, OK, this is idea A; I’m going to sing it to you – sing it back to me. No notation, nothing like that. Here’s idea B. Now, half of you are going to sing idea A, half of you are going to sing idea B: go.
POLACHEK: In that sense, it felt very elemental, to not have sheet music and not have lyrics.
PETERSON: And it felt liberating for me, certainly because we’re used to working in a situation where everything is notated out, even with cells. We’ve premiered pieces that have exactly that same type of notation, aleatory, all of that… and this is so freeing. It’s so freeing to work in such a visceral way with something that is also, as I said, so medicinal in its nature and calming and centering as this music is.
POLACHEK: The length of pieces was something that got played with a little bit during rehearsals, too. On the album, when I wrote these, I mostly had my eyes closed – I’d play one line at a time and just feel when it wanted to end. But with the singers added, that gave it a whole other dimension. The group would naturally swell… you could actually see it on our rehearsal recordings; you could see these beautiful shapes and dynamic changes. And there were moments where it just became obvious: This is where it needs to end. And in a drone piece, what makes one moment different from another? You’re following the sort of hive-mind of the singers. Something else we’re doing that’s unique, to me – because I grew up singing in choir, and never got the chance to do this, though I would have loved to…
PETERSON: She’s a great conductor, too, despite what she’ll tell you.
POLACHEK: [Laughs] I don’t have any of the proper techniques. Yesterday I had to tell a group to quiet down, and I found myself going like this [gestures in air], and they didn’t know what that meant. So I have to learn some of the actual conducting lingo.
PETERSON: It’s a rush, though, isn’t it?
POLACHEK: It is a rush. It’s great. But one thing we’re doing a lot in terms of technique in this show is something that I call “wind-chiming,” which is when each singer is assigned a note and they’re meant to follow their own natural breath cycles coming in and out on that note. So everyone will enter gently at the same time, but some singers might have more sustain on a note than others. And very quickly it falls into this organic natural pattern: Maybe six notes will come in at a time, and then you’ll be hearing two, then four, then three. Technically speaking, the whole song is one chord, but no two moments are ever the same. And the idea with that is that the singers can just be as comfortable as possible. If they’re feeling tense and breathing fast, they can breathe fast. If they’re feeling very calm, they can really let the note live for as long as it naturally wants to live.
PETERSON: And ironically, by the very nature of what a professional choral singer is and what they expect to do when they do a gig, this process is the antithesis of that. They’re used to having it all laid out in front of them. And this was so arresting for them – as have been many things that I’ve done, which makes them the ideal choir to do this: besides just the sound, that they are open to that kind of process. And we have done things similar to that, where we were kind of building and evolving and changing things. We do it all the time, so by the end of next season, Chameleon in the first 10 years will have premiered over 140 works.
PETERSON: I say it because I’m proud of it, but it means that these people are open to that. Seven out of the 12 of them are founding members of the group, so they’ve been there the whole time. There is that considerable absence of resistance, absence of angst, absence of putting a wall up – “no, this is not comfortable for me, this is not what I normally do, this is not how I think I should be learning a piece, therefore I’m going to resist all the way” – that’s just not in the room with these singers.
When you built this project, did you think at all about permanence and repeatability? Is this a project other performers could take on as available repertoire?
POLACHEK: It’s interesting that you ask that. I was actually approached last week by a friend and collaborator, Danny L. Harle… he essentially makes trance electronic music, but he has an early-music background, and he actually incorporates a lot of that counterpoint into his electronic music. He’s with the PC Music label, so working in a very, very different context. But he’s doing a recording at Maida Vale for the BBC, and he’s actually doing one of the sine-wave pieces with harpsichord.
When I made this record, in terms of permanence and repeatability, I was thinking more in terms of sampling, just because the recordings themselves have a very specific timbre that I could imagine a rapper using, I could imagine a physical therapist using, I could imagine a Reiki person or a masseuse using. So I would love to see this material getting sampled all over the place.
But in terms of compositions, I would be thrilled to see them turn up being hand-played by other ensembles. And the cool thing about them being sine waves is, it’s no mystery what the composition is – you can hear it. There’s almost never more than three notes being played at any given time, so you almost don’t even need notation. Anyone who can identify intervals can listen to it and quickly pick the piece apart, and write it on a piece of paper that’s only an inch.
What kind of toolkit would another chorus need to take this project on?
PETERSON: I think that now that it’s been built, one could go back and notate it.
POLACHEK: Yeah, notate our set.
PETERSON: Notate our set as we’re about to do it, and that could be coherently notated in traditional notation, using the recording as a fixed-electronics source.
POLACHEK: But now that I’m thinking about it, I do love the idea that ours is not the only choral interpretation of this piece – that any choir could take the sine-wave pieces and do a legitimate Drawing the Target Around the Arrow piece where they’re making their own arrangements.
PETERSON: You know what it would be useful for – [to Polachek] and I may even find myself using it this way in the future, with your permission – is it would be great to do workshops with choirs in this way, where you go in as a clinician, you bring this source material…
POLACHEK: …and you compose around it.
PETERSON: You compose around it with singers who are not used to working in that way, and it helps loosen them up and open them up. I could see that being done quite easily with any number of choirs, within reason, below a certain number of singers. I mean, you could do it with 100 or 200 singers, but I think that this is also something that by its very nature is so personal and intimate that it feels like it will always work better with smaller groups. It’s so liberating; it’s such knowing music. I always feel like the greatest artists in the world are people who are not doing what they’re doing to be great, but they’re doing what they’re doing because they feel that they must do that. And that is so, so, so true here.
Caroline Polachek and Choral Chameleon perform Drawing the Target Around the Arrow on February 23 and 24 at National Sawdust.