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[VIDEO] Octarium Looks Back On A Decade Of Blending Eight Voices Into One

Julie Denesha

The signature style of the vocal group Octarium is eight singers, blended into one voice. After a decade of performances, this weekend marks the group's farewell concert. Octarium anticipates continuing to perform at least once a year, over the holidays.

Octarium (pronounced ock-TAH-ree-um) is Latin for "Eight as One." And the eight-member choral ensemble has taken pride in creating one choral voice. But, as some of the core members moved away from the Kansas City metropolitan area, founder and artistic director Krista Lang Blackwood says it became more challenging to bring those voices together. Blackwood and ensemble members looked back on a decade of blending together eight voices into one.

Interview Highlights 
On the "magic" of eight voices as one

Krista Lang Blackwood, Artistic Director and Founder of Octarium
"We weave together but in the end we're one voice, so I say, 'Eight singers, one voice.' When you've got eight, you've got a depth of sound and also a breadth of sound. So it's the perfect number to have a sense of breadth and largeness but not so large that you need a traffic cop to keep everything in order."

Leah Hamilton, alto, Octarium
"I think there's something magic in the mix of voices of eight. Having the different qualities of voice from female to male, I think is what gives Octarium its unique sound.

"I think in the beginning, there were a lot of reviews about how sometimes the music was a little too mellifluous or maybe too slow and I think a lot of that was just getting used to each other and maybe that slight hesitation of: 'Are you going to go? Are you going to go? Shall we all go? Ok! Let's go!' Whereas, with a conductor, the one person says, 'It's time.' 

"But what that gives to the audience is this real intimacy. You get to watch all the singers connect to each other and that is not something you have with a conductor. And I think that's what makes all of us so close. We really rely on each other. It's just like a family."

On waiting to take a breath, waiting for "those moments"

Krista Lang Blackwood
"It is the most difficult kind of singing that I can think of. Because, if you are in a larger choral group, and you have a frog in your throat, and you need to breathe there are three other altos around that are going to cover you. If you are in Octarium, there is usually nobody or one. And if they are breathing at the exact same time, and that's happened. And it always makes the singers smile when two of them breath at the same time, it's like 'Oh, we're so silly.' "

Jason Parr, tenor, Octarium
"I always felt like, we were kind of like these choir Ninjas. You've got to make these tactical decisions, sometimes during concerts. Jay is the other tenor. You'll have maybe like this eight beat long hold. And so somehow you've gotta breathe even though it's supposed to be this steady note. I would say, 'How about I breathe on beat two,' and Jay's like, 'I am going to breathe on beat seven.' And so you begin it and end it and it sounds like a continual note but, in the middle, you've broken it up.  You just have to be really conscious of your exits and entrances...if you do it well, nobody ever notices the difference. "

Krista Lang Blackwood
"What can eight people sing well? What can these eight people sing well? Who do I have singing tenor, what solo can I give to Jason Parr, what solo can I give to Andrea Coleman to pop out of the texture? Leah Hamilton has a great, smoky pop voice. What can I give to her to bring her out of the texture as a soloist and then have her pop back in?"

Jason Parr
"At the end of that piece or of a section of a piece you'll hear nothing. There's no noise and then, all of a sudden you'll hear somebody go, 'Oh.' I wait for those moments. As much as we can we try to create those moments, because we feel them too. And I think there's a huge interplay between the audience and us. It's kind of like when somebody does that 'Oh!' We're all going, 'I know!' It's not like, 'Didn't we do such a great job?' It's more like, 'Wasn't that awesome, yeah!'"

On deciding to end after a decade

Krista Lang Blackwood
"About four years ago when I was in a crisis of singers, I was trying to find the right singers to do the show and I thought I could hire three new ones and train them, or I can just work this show around the ones I have and the schedules I have. I remember sitting there making a conscious decision.  I am not going to hire new singers. I am not going to train new singers.  I am tired. I've worked so hard with these singers, these 15 I have, to create what we have. I don't want to start over again.

"So as we end at ten, I think the singers, there is a sense of relief from some and there's a sense of sadness from everybody. But that hope that we'll still be together at Christmas."

Leah Hamilton
"Just recently because there's all this talk of, you know shutting down, and only doing one concert a year has really forced me to be reflective. I went onto our YouTube channel and I noticed that "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," has, like over 20,000 hits and I was like, 'When did that happen?' And then you start to read the comments and some are like 'Thank you so much.' 'I sung this 20 years ago and it brought back such great memories.' There is one that's even 'I am playing this for my husband as he lay dying.'

"We've emotionally connected to people through this new technology. And I thought, 'How cool that my voice, and our voice, and Krista's voice, all of our voices, will be able to live on, whether we are physically together or not.' That's pretty cool. That's pretty special."

Octarium closes its 2012-2013 season with a Farewell Concert on Saturday, May 18 at 7:30 pm, Venue Visitation, 5141 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted. After the end of the season, the group plans to limit its schedule to an annual holiday concert and special engagements.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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