Aella Choir: These singers are warriors for music

Aella Choir will perform on International Women's Day in the NAC. Photo: Jasmine Stairs

This International Women’s day, some singing warriors will be sharing music at the National Arts Centre.

The 12 voices of the Aella Choir will perform works written and arranged by women in the NAC’s Public Spaces as part of an evening of music celebrating the day.

Aella’s journey to this concert started three years ago when it was formed by local singer and teacher Jennifer Berntson.

“The name is Greek. It was the name of an Amazon warrior.

“When I founded the group, it was supposed to be for a one-time project. I was doing a Canada Day concert at First Baptist Church and I was thinking about collaborating with some singers I knew to do some treble music.

“Fairly soon into the rehearsal process, it became apparent that people were really enthusiastic. We were having a lot of fun together and the quality of the music-making was really high.”

The group had four rehearsals to prepare for that first concert, Berntson said, but by the second get-together they were talking about keeping it all going after the concert.

“So we started talking about a name.”

They were singing a song by Kim Baryluk, a member of the Wyrd Sisters, called Warrior. The song was addressing a series of murders in Winnipeg that flowed out of domestic violence.

“It was a powerful experience to sing the piece. A lot of the women hadn’t sung it before. That night someone sent me a list of women warriors through history and Aella was on list.

“I liked that one because it also means whirlwind in Greek. There is this connection to breath and wind and to singing.”

There is a strong connection to social issues underpinning Berntson’s own background in music.

She is originally from Saskatoon. She studied voice at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick and then took her Masters at Carleton in the Music and Culture program. which places understanding of music in the context of the wider society. Berntson also sings in the Capital Chamber Choir, she teaches privately and works with the Ottawa Children’s Choir.

Social awareness is part of the motivation of the group, she said. They want to represent.

“It is hugely important. We talk about celebrating women’s voices. We are creating a space where we have 12 voices that are performing a lot of repertoire by women. I think that is a really important part of what Aella is about.”

The rehearsal space is really open, she said.

“I have a 10 month old daughter and she has been at rehearsals since she was two weeks old. Another member’s  11 year old daughter is often there too. And we have other babies at rehearsals as well.”

This explains why they rehearse on Sunday afternoons.

“I love the idea that we are a strong social network as well as a musical network, that we have this social compatibility. The fact that we are not conducted means we have a lot of ownership over the music.”

“I think there is something subversive about getting rid of the conductor and opening it up so everybody is more equal.” The fact is that many choirs are led by male conductors.

Aella is made up of mostly altos and sopranos although some of the members do sing tenor in other ensembles.

But, Berntson says, “I actually think about voicing in a different way. We are not really divided into traditional voice groups. I change the parts people sing in every song. I have people who will sing everything from alto two to soprano one in a concert.

“I’m trying to build the sound in the ensemble so no one has to hold back. So, if there is a piece where I want a light sound for the high sopranos I’ll have only one or two voices there. I’ll choose the people who can sing lightly in a healthier way for those parts and I’ll load up the bottom parts to achieve a pyramid of sound.”

Having only 12 members means Berntson has a good idea of everyone’s voice. By the way, there is one man who is part of the project. Bernston’s partner Shawn Potter is the accompanist whenever the ensemble needs one.

There are other all-women ensembles in town including Hypatia’s Voice led by Laura Hawley, the Canterbury Trebles. And Aella is influenced by other all-female voiced choirs such as Lady Cove from Newfoundland.

For that first performance, she asked some people she knew who liked singing. There were 11 in that debut. These days she holds auditions for new members when someone leaves for whatever reason.

“We haven’t had a lot of turnover but some change has happened,” she said.

She’s also is not in a hurry to expand.

“I am cautious about growing the group. The way we perform it is really helpful to be able to be in a single semi-circle. Because we don’t have a conductor we really need to see and hear each other well.”

The music the group chooses is a mix of traditional choral music with some more contemporary pieces and folk and pop songs.

“The idea is that everybody in the choir should have something that they are really excited about performing and audience has something it is excited about hearing.

She is not daunted by more complex contemporary pieces. “We just go for it.”

It’s not all democracy in Aella. Berntson chooses the songs they sing after much discussion.

“We have figured out a process and I think it’s working really well.”

On March 8, the program will feature works by women composers and arrangers. There will be some challenging modern pieces and some folk songs. One song sort of exemplifies what Aella looks for in performance. It’s called Maid on the Shore which has been arranged by Kathleen Allan.

“It’s one of my favourite folk songs. You may have noticed that in a lot of folk songs, women are  portrayed without a lot of agency and often at end of the song, the woman dies of broken heart.

“This one starts out as a typical folk song. A captain on a ship sees a beautiful woman on the shore. He abducts her. Once on board she entrances him with her music and then she steals all his treasure and escapes. The last image in the song has the woman rowing to shore using his sword.

“It’s a fun piece of music for International Women’s Day.”

They do more serious themed music to such as Be Like the Bird by Abbie Betinis which is a canon written after the composer endured a second round of cancer treatment. It sets to music a poem by Victor Hugo.

There have been a lot of firsts in Aella’s short time and another is coming this summer with their first tour which will take them to Nova Scotia for gigs in  Halifax, Lunenburg, Wolfeville, Truro and Pictou.

The singing warriors are on the march.

Aella Choir
Where: NAC Public Spaces
When: March 8 at 6 p.m.
This is a free event. For information please see

In addition: The NAC Is celebrating International Women’s Day with a performance of the four pieces that make up Life Reflected. On the same bill, Tanya Tagaq, winner of the 2014 Polaris Music Prize, will perform Qiksaaktuq, a lament for murdered and missing Indigenous women.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.