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Walking through the dream

(photo from Dalhousie Unconscious Collective Facebook page)

(Photo from Dalhousie Unconscious Collective Facebook page)

Nocturne is always a night of many sights and many sounds—bizarre sensory treats that defy expectations and explore new ways of expression. Wandering through the city, one might come upon a sweeping chorale coming from Alderney Landing, in Dartmouth, where the Unconscious Collective Vocal Ensemble will be performing a six-hour vocal improvisation titled Sogno Continuo.

Michael Robson, the ensemble’s artistic director and recent graduate of Dalhousie’s composition program, says that his aim is to, “surround the space. You’ll be continually hit by this wall of sound. As soon as you enter the room, you’re a part of the dreamscape. You could find yourself immersed in scattered whispers. We could be shouting as if in a nightmare. We could be singing clouds and clouds of long tones.

“Everyone, either singing or listening, will have their ears opened to something entirely new,” says Tatum Shiff, the ensemble’s general manager.

The ensemble decided to organize the performance around this year’s Nocturne theme, Time and Space, and begun planning a six-piece improvisation loosely structured around the cycles of sleep.

The event’s title, Sogno Continuo, is an Italian term which translates to “the continuous dream,” and recalls the basso continuum, a Baroque music term wherein a song’s bass section lays a groundwork upon which the rest of the piece evolves. Additionally, the title plays off of the ensemble’s name, a spin on Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious.

The piece is set to be performed with around eight of the ensemble’s 20 members, throughout Nocturne’s entire six hours. It will be a record-length performance for the group, which was officially started three years ago by three King’s students. The ensemble has since been performing throughout Halifax and regularly performs on Dalhousie and King’s campuses.

Sogno Continuo is the culmination of their creative work. “If you had told us in December that we’d be doing this, I think we all would have panicked a little bit,” says Shiff.

To prepare for the event, Robson has been guiding the group through a number of improvisations, focusing each on a different creative aspect of music, be it texture, harmony, melody or pitch. He compares circle singing to a theatre improve group. “When we hear an idea, we respond to it in kind. Sometimes it can be very chaotic, and there’s a beauty in that.”

Robson is particularly interested in utilizing the texture of sounds rarely used in music—such as yawning or coughing—as improv prompts. “It’s amazing the variety of things you can incorporate in vocal music. As any good electronica artist will tell you, you can put anything to a rhythm and it’ll become music.”

A promising lesson in the exploration of vocal music, Sogno Continuo is, in the words of Kevin Shi, ensemble member and Dal student, like “the dream where you wake up and think that you want to go back in and finish.”

Mat Wilush
Mat Wilush
Mat Wilush once went to see Agent Orange on the outskirts of Toronto, where the beer was salty and drunken teenagers took turns sitting in a prop electric chair. The music had aged poorly. A mohawk’d middle-ager danced through the first couple songs, but quickly tired out. There just isn’t much room for surf rock in the world anymore. What next? Mat Wilush wants to know. Mat is the Gazette's Arts Editor. Follow him on Twitter at @wilushwho and email him at

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