I just missed Briony Greenhill’s last workshop in Pembrokeshire . I have always found pleasure in just playing with the voice…improvising with sound…so when I found out that Briony has arranged a workshop in June of this year in Nevern, I had to find out more about her….and there is so much more to the work that she does!
I asked her first about her connection with Pembrokeshire? What brought her here?
“I taught a weekend in Machynlleth last spring and a Pembrokeshire resident, Belinda Ray, said, ‘Ooh, could I entice you to come to Pembrokeshire?’ She got a few people together and hired Nevern Village Hall, I said I would like to come and we put on a weekend over the Autumn Equinox in 2018. Now another Pembrokeshire woman, Etta Happe, has asked me to come back and so we’ll do another weekend at Nevern this summer, June 15-16.
What was the last workshop like?
“I loved the Pembrokeshire lot who gathered last September! It was 16 people, the usual group size I work with. Some came down from Machynlleth and over from Bristol, most were local. I think someone even came from the North of England. We did some deep voice work; I call it the Resonant Body; it’s an approach to working with the body and voice that I’ve developed over 20 years . It’s the primary way I take care of my own voice, and through my years of teaching it’s emerged as one of the most helpful things in bringing out other people’s voices in this relaxed, healthy, natural, beautiful sounding, fully resonant way. It also seems to have a deep effect on the nervous system and emotions and at the moment I’m reading about polyvagal theory to try to understand that a bit more.
We worked with patterns and solos, the primary building blocks of collaborative improvisation – listening to each other and building up the trust and safety to let our voices out to play.
We also celebrated the Equinox by walking in some lovely ancient woods nearby. We separated out so we could be quiet, and really take the woods in, then sing; We sang our gratitude and acknowledgement of the season past, and sang into our intentions and hopes for the season ahead.
We worked with improvising with language and bringing all these things together – voice, patterns, solos, language and listening – to make music together that was completely improvised in the moment.”
Where are you from?
“I grew up in Suffolk, but Wales has always felt like home, though I’ve only lived there in patches. I’ve been living in California for the last six years. I’d like to make a retreat centre for this work in mid-East Wales, along with an eco village and farm. I think these are times for regeneration and resilience, local rooting.”
Tell me what you love to do? How do you spend your time?
“Well, I mainly travel to share this work with people around Britain and the U.S., to collaborate with other musicians and practice, and to spend time with my loved ones and partner, my god children and nieces. I love time outdoors, kayaking, swimming, walking, and most especially, dancing. Loving, healing, growing, supporting others in my life who are doing the same. And working towards my dream of a retreat centre and ecovillage. This all keeps me pretty busy.”
Did you always sing? Who were your guides/mentors?
I’ve always sung. I used to sit on the stairs when I was 4 and sing my head off. Amazingly, no one every told me to shut up. I’ve been a performing solo vocalist since I was 11, one way or another. But strangely by the time I was 16 I concluded I wasn’t a musician. I was lead singer of the school rock band doing gigs to 1000 students at the end of term, who would crowd surf and stage dive and get their lighters out for Everybody Hurts (it was 199) but music in my family and school culture was so classically oriented, I didn’t identify with that. Somehow when I was 14 I got hold of tapes of Miles Davis and Nina Simone, and would lie in the darkness really listening to them – so intrigued but with no idea how they made those sounds.”
What led you into your current work?
“I’d been a lead singer of several bands, a solo singer songwriter, a session singer. Meanwhile I’d obtained a degree in political science and worked in sustainability. I went to India for 3 months when I was 28, partly in search of a vocal approach I’d learnt at a festival in my late teens. This has now grown into the Resonant Body work.
It was in India that I saw my first entirely improvised concert; it was the violin player Atulkumar Upadhye performing at the 30th anniversary of the Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune.
His concert took us, the audience, into a trance – a kind of being dissolved in bliss. It was life changing. Afterwards I went to him, declared him my favourite musician in the world. I sang him a Gaelic song and he agreed to be my teacher. He taught me to sing as if I was a violin. I loved it.
Returning to England three months later, I wanted to find a way of maintaining these principles – improvisation, sacredness, deep rigour – but as a western musician. Oh, I thought, I guess we have jazz. I did a summer school at the Guildhall in London, considering a masters there, but I was pretty horrified by the approach they took with vocalists to be honest. Instrumentalists were respected, taught ‘chops’ (applied music theory), and held to a high level of expectation and support. Vocalists were rounded up into a choir and taught Way Over Yonder. I wanted to be taught, respected and supported to a similar level of musicianship as the instrumentalists. That was what I’d been up to in India.
In time I found a teacher in France, David Eskenasy, a double bass player and guitarists who teaches musicianship to vocal improvisers, and I studied with him for two years, coming and going. Luckily I had French A level. Amazingly, my boss funded it all as my professional development – by then I was leading singing workshops in London with an organisation now called Antidote, then The Fun Fed. I started to get obsessed with Bobby McFerrin on Youtube, and whenever he would say, “singers, you really oughta….” I would do whatever he said we oughta, e.g. memorising Bach’s prelude in C, for agility.
Part of my work with the Fun Fed was fun research (seriously…), so as part of that job I went to study with Bobby McFerrin in Omega, New York. There I met Rhiannon. Wow! She blew me away. The first night I was there, Rhiannon, Bobby McFerrin, David Worm, Joey Blake and one or two more singers all improvised together live on stage. It was maybe the most beautiful singing I had ever heard. My jaw hit the floor. I felt, ‘what are you doing and how are you doing it? This is the ocean, I’m a whale, and I need to get in here and swim forever.” Rhiannon was almost 70, silver-haired, a farmer and an incredible singer. I really wanted to be like her.
A few days later I was in a class with Rhiannon, and was asked to do a solo. To cut a long story short, I was invited to join Rhiannon’s year-long course in the U.S.; my boss sacked me and gave me a generous pay off, and I was pointed to the Katherine McGiliivray fund for musicians in transition, who gave me funding, and my American boyfriend asked me to marry him. So before very long I found myself living in America with a Greencard on the way, £20k of funding, a place on a year long with Rhiannon, and a serious immersion into spiritual, Western, rigorous, vocal improvisation. That was in 2011-12.
So I’ve been with this work ever since. I formed a quintet in California and we sung together every week for years. In 2017 we released the world’s first entirely improvised album, Listen (by The Elements).
When my Dad, a classical musician, heard it, I was terrified, frankly. To my surprise he was so proud. So excited by the music, and found it very hard to understand that improvisation was its source and method. (I finally got him to improvise on his viola for this first time in his life, aged 70, jamming along with me on the piano.) He said, “You should send this into BBC Music Magazine!” But we didn’t do any promo. None of us had the time and we didn’t hire anyone, we were a bit unprofessional in that way. We just love singing together.
Tell me more about what inspires you?
These days, alongside my teaching, I’m really working on my chops (my technical abilities and rigour with rhythm, harmony, melody.) I’ve taken piano lessons over the last few years with Huw Edwards in Wales and Frank Martin and Julie Wolff in California, all amazing pianists in ear-based and improvised traditions.
I’m super inspired by a lot of African-American music, and these days I’m listening to and transcribing a lot of music using “non diatonic” (basically really interesting) harmony and melody. I’m listening to and transcribing (which means writing down the music you hear and trying to figure out what’s happening) Esperanza Spalding, Abdullah Ibrahim (who’s South African, perhaps my favourite pianist), and Cory Henry. I love what these folks are up to with music. I also love folk music and listen to a lot of Chris Stout, Tony McManus and Alain Genty, Kathryn Tickell, and I love Welsh artists like Owen Shires (Cynefin) and Gwyneth Glyn.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m learning to speak Welsh. This year I’m aiming to put out a new entirely improvised album, a collation of collaborations with various artists in California, New York and solo work. My partner and I are sitting on quite a lot of songs, and we study and improvise a lot together. Let’s see, maybe one day we’ll manage and album and a tour… It’s largely just a question of fitting it all in!
Meanwhile I teach year-long courses to Vocal Improvisers at a retreat centre just outside of Cardiff and it’s my great pleasure to induct singers into this artform of vocal improvisation. I have 60 year longs students this year, from amateur to professional vocal musicians, and last year I taught 180 students in weekend and week-long courses. I’m maybe a bit of a vocal improvisation evangelist. I just really love it and it seems that lots of other people love it too. With improvisation, you settle into the present and let things unfold. I like life to be that way too :).
To book a place on Briony’s workshop in June 2019 :