Meet A Member: Shira Cion, Kitka Women's Vocal Ensemble

When Shira Cion hunted down Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble in 1988, it was a different era. There were no websites with which small niche arts organizations could make themselves visible to the world.

“I was living in San Francisco, where I knew there was a Balkan music and dance scene—I just had to find it,” recalls Cion. “Somehow at a used record store, I found an old CD of a women’s group called Danica. I started looking up the names of the people on the album credits in the phone book!

“I finally got through to someone who gave me the phone numbers of the directors of the two Balkan/Eastern European women’s choirs that were active in the Bay Area at that time. I called the first one—they were busy preparing for a concert, and said “call us back in about a month,” so I went on to the second one. The next Tuesday I had an audition, and the rest is history.”

Cion shared her unorthodox path to the choral world and the story of her unique ensemble with president and CEO Catherine Dehoney for our monthly “Meet A Member” series.

Q: How did you become so devoted to Eastern European vocal music?

SC: I was a classically trained oboist and English horn player in the first incarnation of my life. I was fortunate to go to a school (Wesleyan University) that had a rich ethnomusicology and contemporary music program. Once I was introduced to this music of other cultures, my interests sort of veered. I was particularly interested in music by contemporary women composers who were using the voice in unconventional ways and expanding its expressive potential. Meredith Monk’s residency was a transformative experience.

It wasn’t until about two weeks before my senior thesis that an ethnomusicology graduate student handed me a cassette tape that just said ‘Bulgarian’ on it. When I listened to it, I literally felt like I had been struck by lightning. I fell on the floor with tears streaming down my face. There was something about the sound of these two women’s voices singing together in incredibly close microtonal harmony with these wild ornaments and yips and hollers that somehow maintained a feminine sweetness. That was it. I was like, “Take me to this music.” And that’s how it started.

Kitka Women's Vocal Ensemble. Credit Thomas Pacha

Q: Kitka is described as a “creative collective.” What does that mean?

SC: Well, it’s an organizational model that is always transforming, largely based on who’s singing with us at the time. When the first music director that I sang under stepped down, we went through that classic organizational crisis of “how could we possibly go on without our inspiring director?” But there was a will to continue. So we operated as a collective for a while with different people leading different things. We had song leaders, “gigmeisters,” concert managers, and all sorts of roles. It got a little chaotic. We were on the verge of imploding, so we got together with an organizational consultant, and we had a two-day retreat. Out of that retreat a new leadership team was identified, including myself as executive/artistic director.

We functioned with a triumvirate model until 2010, and at that time two of those leaders decided to step back, so we did an international music director search. We met some incredible people, but nobody was exactly the right match for Kitka. We were never able to find the person who could embrace it all. We decided to do an internal hire and a mentored music directorship. One of our young singers mentored with an outgoing co-director for six months and then led the ensemble for a year, but then she decided to move on as well. We realized the group had evolved and the level of musicianship had grown to the extent where we were all equals, so we said “let’s try functioning more like a chamber ensemble” and share leadership. Now each project has a director, and it’s a mix of internally-led and guest master artist-led projects. And then I’m sort of coordinating it all, and sometimes leading projects myself. We model it a little bit on Cantus—they gave us some wonderful tips. It’s very much a work in progress.

Q: How does your board play in to your organizational structure?

SC: We have a nine-member board of directors. Three are members of Kitka, and the rest are community volunteers. We have an architect, a lawyer, an acupuncturist and professor of traditional medicine, a Kodaly music instructor—everyone has some aspect of themselves that is very artistic and another that is real-world-based. Our board is a little unconventional. We use our board like a think tank. I would say the organization is primarily artist-driven, and the board exists as a council when we are facing some tough organizational question.

Q: Where do you find singers for this unique style of music?

SC: Just like it’s challenging to find a music director, so is it to find the perfect Kitka singer. The styles of vocal production are quite different than what you might learn in the conservatory. We look for women who have very flexible, natural voices, who can sing in a mode that’s closer to spoken voice than the trained bel canto style. We’ve found people who have grown up folk dancing and listening to traditional music from Eastern Europe since

Kitka Links
KQED Spark Video Feature 
Kitka Remix Project  
The Rusalka Cycle

their childhood, people who have come out of theater and are accustomed to using their voices in unconventional ways, immigrant singers who have roots or family background in Eastern Europe, a few singers who’ve come up from more classical choral training programs, people like myself whose backgrounds were in instrumental music but were drawn into singing, and people have also come to us through language and ethnography studies, who are interested in Balkan or Slavic culture.

A new source is people who’ve been trained in our workshops and vocal skills lab program. We’re realizing it’s so hard to find these singers “off the street,” we should start training them ourselves, so we are putting more energy into them these days. Interest in these programs seems to be bubbling up in an organic way. People really want to get involved at a participatory level. We actually don’t have enough trained singers to meet the demand for all the teaching that’s been requested.

Q: What is your process for finding repertoire?

SC: When I first joined, the Iron Curtain was a major obstacle to accessing music from the former Soviet bloc. There were a few intrepid souls in whose footsteps we followed who ventured into Communist Eastern Europe and recorded traditional singers in villages. They would bring recordings back and American folk dancers might try to transcribe what they were hearing on the recordings to the best of their ability. In the early days of Kitka, I dare say we were probably singing words that don’t exist in any Eastern European language!

Since the Iron Curtain came down, it’s been much easier to travel there and we’ve had much more direct access. Most importantly for us, we’ve prioritized direct transmission of both repertoire and vocal techniques from master folk singers. We try to learn by that tried and true

Kitka carriage
"Not your typical tour bus," Cion recalls. Members of Kitka in a Ukrainian village on a trip to research repertoire and folklore. Credit Shira Cion

oral tradition. A number of times we’ve been fortunate enough to be invited or receive a grant to travel to Eastern Europe for cultural exchange. Also, there have been huge waves of immigration by master musicians who used to be very generously supported by the Soviet system that advocated and glorified their music. Suddenly all these people were without work. These are largely people that you might not know are master musicians—they’re working at Kinko’s or driving a taxi. We’ve really made a point to seek those people out and showcase their gifts.

And in our travels here and abroad, we are able to meet incredible composers and form partnerships that lead to some commissioning. There is a connection to the more classical academic choral tradition, with wonderful contemporary pieces being written and brilliant composers doing gorgeous choral arrangements of traditional folk songs.

Q: Tell us about one big success in your chorus that you’re really proud of.

SC: If I were to pick my favorite project, it would probably be The Rusalka Cycle. The whole lifespan of the project was probably 10 years from the initial conception to the last time we performed it. It was our first venture into self-produced vocal theater. The idea began when some of us heard this haunting Russian song invoking the Rusalki, who in Slavic folklore are

Kitka Rusalka Cycle
The world premiere of Kitka's vocal theater project, The Rusalka Cycle.

thought to be the spirits of young women who died before their time. There was all this fascinating folklore and ritual surrounding the Rusalki, and we decided to stretch ourselves and build a theater piece around it. It took us about four years to find the right composer, and then we brought a stage director on. We were able to raise $200,000 and we brought the entire group to Ukraine for three weeks, where we went on expeditions in rural villages collecting oral histories and Rusalka-related folk songs from elder Ukrainian women.

We premiered the piece in Oakland in 2005 and had an incredible response. We took it to festivals in Poland and Germany, and most satisfying of all, we brought it back to Ukraine. What was especially moving was that a busload of Ukrainian women made their way from their village to Kiev to see the piece. There they were up in the front row with their little babushka shawls—and they loved it! It really brought the whole project full-circle—bringing their songs back to them, transformed in this wild theatrical piece.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your chorus today?

SC: For us I would say one of our biggest challenges is succession planning. How do we cultivate the next generation of leadership for Kitka, given how specialized our programs are? We’re looking a lot at how to cultivate leadership from within the ensemble and attract collaborative leadership, pulling from talent that is outside the group.

One of the big challenges we’re facing in terms of recruitment is the cost of living in the Bay Area. In the days when I joined, it was possible to lead a kind of “on the fringe” artist life and still pay for your rent and groceries, but that’s just not possible now. So many of our singers are juggling multiple jobs. People are really committed; they just don’t have the same kind of time to devote.

What’s one exciting thing you’re currently working on?

SC: We’re working on the Kitka Remix Project, which is encouraging artists of all genres to make their own creative remixes using our recordings. We launched it initially through word of mouth to friends in our own musical circles, and thus far have received some beautiful techno, rap, psychedelic, blues, and singer-songwriter submissions. We originally thought it would be a Bay Area initiative, and now we’re getting submissions from Germany and England and Mexico. We’re in the process of forging a partnership with the Women’s Audio Mission, which is devoted to empowering women (especially low-income women) in the digital arts. They’re going to be having a remixing-focused workshop with 15 girls using samples from Kitka’s recordings as their toolbox to learn this mixing software. I think this will be a multi-year project and result in a digital album.

Why did you decide to join Chorus America?

SC: In 2009-2010 I rejoined when we were doing our music director search. I found that Chorus America’s resources were so helpful. When the Conference came to San Francisco, the Hewlett Foundation sponsored us to attend. It was such a gift. There I connected with Eric Banks, with whom we developed an amazing commissioning project. We went on to record it, and now it’s getting repeat performances. It was really a magical connection made at that Conference.

When you take off your choral hat, what else is an important part of your life?

SC: I’m a big-time language geek—as is pretty much everyone in Kitka. It’s kind of a prerequisite. I speak Bulgarian pretty fluently, and because of that I can also kind of get by in the south Slavic languages. I can understand about 60% of conversations in Russian, Ukranian, and Polish, and just started learning Yiddish. I love to cook, I’m really into food and travel, I have a wonderful family. I fantasize about becoming a textile artist someday. But I also just love watching Downton Abbey!

Mike Rowan is communications manager at Chorus America.

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