The Book Cooks
Excerpt from

VOCAL Adventures
Lauren Newton
(Wolke Verlag; Hofheim, Germany)

Chapter 4


“The human voice is capable of making the most ravishingly beautiful sounds, but it must be remembered that the vocal organs are just as comfortable making sounds which are shrill, penetrating and even ugly. To assume these sounds will harm the voice when the response is correct is a mistake.” (Cornelius Reid)


This statement by Cornelius Reid touches on something very fundamental about the human voice, namely, its intrinsic depth. It is as individual as a fingerprint – a voiceprint! Its tones consist of frequencies that have an effect on our body, health and mood. Some are audible; some are inaudible, at least to human ears. In essence, every human voice encompasses the entire spectrum of sounds needed to express something or convey an intention. The voice’s flexibility and richly textured varieties of shade, color, line and point all play a part in achieving the finest variations and nuances of pitch, vowel, tone, overtone or noise, all of which in turn even influence the space between each sound. The voice can elicit the exact amount of intuitive or deliberate emotional energy needed to generate extremely subtle or highly energetic sounds within nanoseconds! It can bring forth any kind of sound associated with an emotion, a scent, a color, an object, an image, a memory, a flash of inspiration. And in fact I am convinced that any musician can do the same with their instrument. No matter who it is, the impulse originates from the inner voice. For this reason I invite them to come along on this adventure too in the hope that they can profit from insights gained in this way for their own musical practice. Let the voice ‘play’ you.

What makes free improvisation especially interesting for me is the fact that it concerns all the unique aspects of the voice or instrument, not just the ‘beauty’ of its tone, which of course is based on a subjective aesthetical judgment. Naturally, we cannot ban those ‘beautiful’ aspects – they are either there or not. Nor can we change the frequencies of our voice because they are the essential biological characteristics that make that voice identifiable, our inherent voiceprint. In the exploratory setting of free improvisation we learn to acknowledge and accept all our natural and true vocal (and instrumental) qualities along with our current technical abilities, all of which can be explored, altered and extended in various ways.

That inexplicable ‘living thing,’ the voice, is intrinsic to the singer’s nature and vocal articulation along with attributes of emotional and physical sensations and intuitive understanding. Improvising with the voice constitutes a holistic act with intuition, intention, and action coexisting and co-creating the desired idea or abstraction it aspires to. All of these aspects point to the importance of preparing body and mind for better awareness of self so that you can trust and surrender to the act of singing.

Free improvisation in music is most enriching when a singer can cultivate an open attitude towards any or all options and perform with functional freedom. A singer needs to acknowledge and work on both the mental and the physical levels. I highly recommend that vocalists acquire at least a fundamental knowledge of bodily functions involved in singing, especially if they are pursuing vocal improvisation.


During my first years of voice study in Oregon, I listened to and sang along with the recordings of pop, folk and rock singers like everyone else did in that era but it was never my desire to imitate a singer’s sound. My primary interest was to be attentive to how my voice sounded and what I wanted to express with it. When I was studying in Stuttgart, I resolved to learn as much as possible from my teachers and trust their guidance as well as my own ears. I often attended performances of professional classical singers to listen to and watch how they sang. One of these gave me the opportunity to hear my voice professor, the soprano Sylvia Geszty, perform in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana at the Stuttgart opera. What completely mesmerized me was her charisma and her demeanor while she performed one of her solos lying flat on the floor while soaring effortlessly up to a high E flat! I was also fascinated by recordings of the soprano Cathy Berberian performing compositions by John Cage, Luciano Berio, Igor Stravinsky or her own works with her extraordinarily expressive, adventurous and humorous way of singing. I admired the singer and composer Joan La Barbara for her pioneering of unconventional vocal techniques. Parallel to classical singers, I listened to recordings of famous jazz singers like Sarah Vaughan, Chris Conner, Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Billie Holiday, the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and many others, yet it was always Ella Fitzgerald who was highest on my list. Even the LP recordings of Ella seemed to emanate the spirit and energy that was so characteristic of her singing and improvising. Though I was just a fledgling, these particular singers impressed me and were my secret mentors during those first years in which I sang both classical and jazz songs.

The first free improvising vocalist I heard was Jeanne Lee, a few years after I had joined a rock-jazz group in Stuttgart. At this time one of the members showed me a live video recording of Jeanne in concert with Gunter Hampel’s band. Their music was far beyond what I normally listened to and Jeanne’s performance was a total surprise to me. It was intense yet light, sincere yet very free! Her way of singing was exceptionally unique and I had never encountered anything like it before. Little did I know we would meet and work together a few years later in Baden-Baden, Germany, at the Vocal Summit Meeting. (see Chapter 8, Ensemble Work)

Often instrumentalists, while packing up their gear after a concert, will look at me and say, “You have it easy! Your instrument is already packed up!” The fact that the voice is ‘built in’ and ‘ready to go’ has its advantages (less so, if you catch a cold). It is exactly that ‘is-ness’ of the voice that has always fascinated me. Where does it originate before it reaches those two bands of tissue called vocal cords? How does it evolve, what secrets does it impart when it fills the air with sound, and when it disappears, where does it go? I was thinking purely in terms of sound, like the sound made by an instrument, so my focus was on quite the opposite of studying songs and learning how to interpret lyrics. For me, it became a matter of looking for opportunities to omit words so that the voice itself could be perceived. – just the voice!

This quite naturally brought another question to mind: how could I balance intuitive insight with skills and communicate a more personal music to fellow musicians and listeners without words? My biggest self-challenge along that path lay in exercising self-awareness to acquire a deeper understanding of my voice’s sounds, and how these sounds express my inner world. This aroused my awareness of the sounds in my environment and resonating with those sounds transformed my entire vocal repertoire. This awareness also made me realize that there was much more to perceive than what was obvious to my ears. That is why vocal exploration in the freer sense has always fascinated me more than being bound to one music genre or singing discipline.

I continued to question my artwork and vocal ‘language’ with, “why do I sing and use my voice in this way, what does it mean, is it really interesting to me or to anyone else?” I also turned a question around. Instead of, “what do I want?” the question became, “what does that indeterminable ‘living’ thing called voice want from me?”


“Sound is sensual: it whispers and shouts, tickles your ear, and thumps in your chest. We embody, and are embodied through, sound.” (Gillian Siddal, Ellen Waterman)

I was 42 years old when I met the visual artist Koho Mori. He came from Japan to Europe in 1974 and travelled all around Africa and the Mediterranean countries until settling in Southern Germany. On my first visit to his studio my ears were greeted by music, to be precise, free jazz! He has an impressive LP collection of music by musicians like Yosuke Yamashita, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra and others. I was elated to discover guitarist Sonny Sharrock’s Paradise album among them with Linda Sharrock singing and using extended techniques on several tunes! (Linda and I had become friends in Vienna during the late 1980s when I was living there.) Koho and I both loved the freedom of being artists – we married in 1995. One day Koho handed me an LP and simply said, “Listen.” It was We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite recorded in 1960 with Abbey Lincoln singing Prayer/Protest/Peace. Here was a woman improvising from the soul like no one I had ever heard before. Her singing was unmistakably genuine and an undeniable revelation to me, a kind of shock! Her cooing, groaning, pressing, screaming, sighing, whispering and singing were phenomenal and deeply moving.

My experience is that an even deeper level of expression is reached by sensing interior bodily movements during vocal activity. Sometimes listeners ask me where all my resonance comes from. Resonance is always there the moment the voice sounds! It’s just that when we become aware of its vibrational frequencies (the physical sensations the body produces while singing) this helps the mind learn how to achieve a desired volume or technique. So let’s talk about technique for a moment and then ask ourselves what it has to do with ‘free’ improvisation and whether this is something that can be learned. In other words, how is technique relevant to freely improvised music? Well, this is something you’ll need to find out for yourself, with your own voice or instrument, but that’s what this book is about. I know that there are many talented musicians out there who have very little formal voice or instrument training who have diligently cultivated their resources and attained unique ways of singing and playing. All in all, I feel that the best way to approach the learning process is by being yourself, being attentive and curious, learning from others and enjoying the process. When you know your true voice, your true self you attain a certain levity because you see no need to compete with others; you just have an appreciation of your gift and a strong desire to share it in your own unique way. I have sung ever since I can remember but when I began taking voice lessons at age 18, it meant I was obliged to learn vocal techniques and that meant learning how to perceive my voice and body simultaneously! Learning vocal techniques was always interesting to me, which is probably why I began exploring extended techniques whenever the opportunity arose.

But in improvised music it’s not just about techniques; otherwise we wouldn’t call it ‘free’ improvisation! As I see it, this seemingly paradoxical statement points to an important aspect of performing any music, namely the necessity for learning how to articulate an impression or an intuitive idea precisely so that fellow musicians (and listeners) are able to understand its essence and empathize or be in tune with you. Music is always music – whatever form it takes.


You might be asking yourself, “Can I learn free improvisation?” The term ‘freely improvised music’ already implies that such music cannot be learned the way we would learn a composition. In this music, we are the composer, or rather the initiator of the immediate aural moment. Our working materials are sounds, notes, noise, words, sensations and split-second ideas all waiting to be channeled through our voice or instrument and set free if we decide to do so! What we can learn is how to prepare our mind-body-voice for the inevitable moment of an unforeseen sound-surprise, one that might originate from our subconscious mind or from our fellow improvisers. And this is just one of the many challenging moments that arises during an improvisation. During an improvisation, no one knows what will happen next but with practice, we can learn how to be more comfortable with our inner voice and how to accept this paradoxical state of ‘not knowing’! In my opinion, this is the ideal state (of mind) for allowing spontaneous, intuitive things to happen. See what happens when you let your inner voice decide which note, noise, word, melody or motive to sing or play. Let it sing you. Such music takes on a life of its own, becomes a never-ending adventure.

© 2022 Lauren Newton


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