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.