Oakland women’s choir Kitka yearns to perform in person again
By Lou Fancher
Anyone seeking sounds of hope during the long, dark stretch of the COVID-19 lockdown need look no further than the human voice. Among the first sounds heard in the womb — and often the last sound heard in life’s final moments — a gentle voice has deep, soothing neurological impact or provides encouraging, enabling energy.
Elevating and expanding the elemental profundity of a single voice, Oakland-based women’s vocal ensemble Kitka brings polyphonic harmony into the equation. Performing music rooted in the Balkan and Slavic vocal traditions of Eastern Europe as well as those of the Caucasus region, Kitka’s ambitious 40th season arrives right as the world is caught in the COVID-19 pandemic’s grip.
In early March, Kitka’s vibrant voices were abruptly silenced by massive cancellations of pending performances and workshops, long-term collaborative residencies including a project with Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor, and extensive national and international summer tours in Northern and Southern California, New York, Pennsylvania, the Republic of Georgia and other locations.
“The cancellations began March 7,” recalls Executive/Artistic Director Shira Cion in a recent interview. “Thank goodness we hadn’t bought plane tickets yet. Not only did we have three major projects postponed; we’ll have to reimagine the form they’ll take if there’s no vaccine by the time they happen.”
After an initial period of shock, Cion says reimagining began in earnest. Members of the ensemble plowed through archival performance videos for highlights to share on social media, reconfigured in-person workshops and vocal training courses for online distribution and created an NPR Tiny Desk contest submission. The popular NPR video series that annually draws more than 6,000 submissions features musicians performing live, original music, and intimate, desk-centric spaces. Kitka’s submission required that Briget Boyle learn how to use Adobe Premier in a matter of days and forced everyone to reinvent the group’s music-making process.
“Kitka is all about collective music making, deep listening together,” Cion says. “A few years back we got a grant to explore digital media, and we did all kinds of experiments. What we we learned during this two-year experiment is that we’re all about making music together in-person. Now we’re being forced to go back to that digital format. It’s been very frustrating because with Zoom you can only hear one voice at a time.”
To create the video of “Geshem, Geshem” (“Rain, Rain”) with original music by composer/flutist/vocalist Janet Kutulas, the singers first had to overcome technical issues with microphones and software. And there were other problems: The piece met contest requirements — original, unusual and recently composed music is necessary — but there are hockets, a musical term that refers to tight, interlinking relationships between voices that’s nearly impossible to achieve remotely. With each musician performing her part alone, could they produce the marvelous blend?
The “2020 quarantine edition” NPR submission in which one singer holds up a tiny, dollhouse-size desk is available to watch on Kitka’s website and Facebook Live page. Other online content includes a first interactive Watch Party (held May 8), daily Russian and Yiddish “Sing With Me” sessions and concerts, weekly vocal warm-up sessions, 30-minute Balkan vocal workouts and more.
“We’ve become aware of how geographical borders have melted away,” says Cion. “Yesterday, we released a virtual video project with two elder folk singers based in a village in Ukraine. Kitka and the two women and a whole bunch of American and Ukrainain artists contributed to the video.”
Because a lifetime of training to be sensitive to sound, alert to timber and skilled at producing the intricacies of five-part harmonies makes it apparent the sound quality of online platforms is “truly horrible,” Cion says, Kitka is focusing primarily on songs sung in unison for new content. “We’ve tried singing together, but really only one person can sing at a time. We sing, then mute and unmute ourselves. You don’t get the harmonic satisfaction when you pass it along the line like a relay. We’re still working on solutions.”
Monetizing the online content is also an ongoing puzzle. “We think about that a lot. We’re experimenting with different models, from free to sliding scale to ‘here’s the price.’ It’s the same crisis musicians have had with streaming content on free platforms, which doesn’t serve you either.”
With the Balkan technique workout, being proactive brought results. At the end of the session, instructor Michele Simon held up a sign with the URL for receiving donations.
“We learned if you don’t ask, you don’t get it,” says Cion. “But how do we function like a gig-economy platform? What is a fair divide for Kitka and the person leading the workshop?”
While juggling technology and outputting new works online, Kitka is on hold with presenters for at least three months. Will events be held outdoors, virtually, streamed live? When will audiences be willing to go out, be in crowds, attend live shows? Even the silver lining of having a full year to build better and more events into tours postponed to 2021 provides slim satisfaction. Maintaining grit and patience, Cion says, is now “a test.”
Motivation arrives at Kitka’s cornerstones: The universal connectivity of voices singing “funny, goofy, humorous” pieces like “Geshem, Geshem” — and the people who returned 90% of their tuition to support the choir’s directors after Kitka’s community choir sessions were canceled. The heartening response and comments received reinforced the belief that singing has ushered people through life’s most difficult and joyful moments. Cion says she can’t wait until Kitka can again be in a concert hall — or in a field outdoors — performing and sharing their live, human voices.