Singing Christina Murray's praises

Conductor Christina Murray and the Camerata Xara Young Women's Choir are changing the way Haligonians think about choral music.

Camerata Xara is definitely not your grandmother's choir. The cutting-edge young women's choir is pushing the boundaries of traditional choral music.

The group's conductor, Christina Murray, avoids conventional church music, finding inspiration in trippy dream sequences; feminist theories of power-inversions; foreign melodies that confuse Western ears; edgy Scandinavian choral ensembles and theatre.

"The group has broken some boundaries with audiences because it's not your typical older ladies that come to our concerts. It's mostly university-aged people, young adults and the indie crowd," says Murray, who's also the education outreach manager for Symphony Nova Scotia.

Xara is composed of 24 women aged 18 to 30 who avoid stereotypical choir-girl cliquishness by throwing lots of house parties.

"I look for creativity and openness," says Murray. "If they don't have that, it doesn't matter how good they sound."

"Bravery" is also important, because "we don't just stand there," she continues. "They have to experiment with their bodies to express sound and movement."

Murray named the choir Xara, partly because the word has a nice ring. "I wanted it to be simple and punchy, not flowery like, you know, Roses and Hearts Ladies Women's Chorus," she laughs. But Xara is also a fitting name for the choir, as it's the Arabic word for blossoming, which is exactly what the women's choir is doing in its second season.

"It's nice to see that both the audience's response and the response from funding bodies have both been so positive. They're as excited about what we're doing as we are," says Murray.

Xara's parent organization, Halifax Camerata, gave the group a start-up grant of $5,000, which they've been able to pay back since their ticket sales have soared. The group also receives funding from the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism, Culture & Heritage.

The choir is appreciated in Halifax because there's nothing else like it here. Murray is a South Shore native, but found inspiration abroad during a two-year stint in a remote hilltop village in the Indian state Tamil Nadu. She was teaching music at an international school, where she interacted with children from a variety of backgrounds and spent her free time backpacking and exploring India's arts and culture scenes. The experience sparked her interest in analysing the structure of songs from other cultures.

"The melody patterns across cultures are really different," explains Murray. "The Tamil lullaby was actually really hard. In Western music everything tends to be in a really simple time-signature, but it had shifting time signatures and really random decorated notes."

In March, Xara performed songs from other cultures, as part of "Sweet Sleep: Lullabies and Night Music from Around the World." "Sweet Sleep" captures a child's experience of being afraid of the dark, chronicling the progression from dusk until dawn. The concert is interdisciplinary, relying upon spooky lighting, the strumming of classical guitarist Jeff Torbert, rhythmic chanting, movement and a huge sheet of fabric that appears to change colour.

Xara will be all over the place in the future. Murray is planning a December concert, which draws inspiration from research she is doing for her thesis in feminist theology at the Atlantic School of Theology. The show is about the femininity, mysticism and non-patriarchal power of the biblical Mary. There are plans to collaborate with a sculptor and a visual artist for a benefit concert for the Ecology Action Centre. Another concert in the works called "Dreamweaver" will be about "dreams that are scary, beautiful and weird." (LH)

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