Embodied Complexity in Choral Singing

  • Daniel Galbreath
Keywords: choral music, aleatorism, complexity, embodiment


Amateur musical ensembles draw participants from widely varying disciplines into shared artistic activity in a way that few other artforms do; in particular, choral music, in which bodies both create and directly receive sound, raises profound questions of how performers’ uniquely embodied creative approaches interact. Amateur choral singing therefore offers a lens into how musical creativity is distributed among, and emergent from, a diverse group of individuals. This article explores how the performance of indeterminate and improvisatory choral works offers a powerful example of this distributed creative agency via a network of sounding bodies.

This article centres on a case study (March–October 2017) involving three British amateur choirs in the performance of improvisatory choral scores by Kerry Andrew (2005) and Cornelius Cardew (1968–70). Complexity Theory (Davis and Sumara 2006) offers a useful framework for understanding how creative impulses and constructions interact; both the vocal expression and corporeal receipt of these creative ideas occurs in an embodied way, drawing on dance and embodiment theory (Sheets-Johnstone 2009, Downey 2002). The research process and qualitative-data-processing methodology (Charmaz 2014) of the case study are described, before findings are laid out with a view to how they point towards ideas of embodied, complex interaction. These findings offer an important, and hitherto unexplored, view into how Complexity Theory (a common theoretical framework in other fields across the sciences and humanities) might usefully describe musical performance. In transcending attempts to atomise ensemble interaction according to shared intellectual knowledge and verbal communication, the complex, embodied interaction of diverse singers, through the physical connection of sound, might involve those singers in the distributed authorship of a musical work.

How to Cite
Galbreath, D. (2020). Embodied Complexity in Choral Singing. Airea: Arts and Interdisciplinary Research, (2), 49-62. https://doi.org/10.2218/airea.5044