Participatory Ritual Vocalization

Participatory Ritual Vocalization

How to use vocalization to create a sense of shared ritual?

Redemption was a larp about the last days of the Romanovs before the revolution changed everything, at a retreat organized by a breakaway Orthodox sect who believed that to achieve redemption one must sin. The larp’s sound design was created by Anni Tolvanen who also came up with the larp’s signature ritual technique, participatory ritual vocalization.

The core team for the larp consisted of Maria Pettersson, Massi Hannula, and myself. I was particularly happy with the vocalization technique Tolvanen created because it was accessible even to somebody like myself with no singing ability. As long as I was able to hum O or A, I was able to participate.

Here, Tolvanen answers a few questions about how this technique works.


Anni, what are the design reasons behind this technique? What’s the effect it’s intended to have?

The main goal of the technique was to create an inclusive and intuitive way for all participants to join in on or run their own rituals during runtime. The technique aims to give everyone the feeling of “doing it for real,” without requiring time-consuming pre-runtime practice, or previous experience in ritualistic singing or chanting. The technique is designed to blend into the general soundscape of the larp; to become part of it and add to it in a diegetic manner.

Each participant has equal agency to impact the ritual’s mood and content through their personal contribution to the shared soundscape. One is not merely allowed to accompany an appointed ritual leader, but to improvise their own content within the parameters of the technique.

The technique forms an intuitively understandable frame around a ritual scene. By joining the technique you are joining the ritual.


Can you explain how participatory ritual vocalization works? What do people do?

All participants are free to start using the technique at any time. When someone starts praying or chanting, other participants taking part in the scene find a shared note to hum. This hum provides the anchor – the drone – to the ritual recital. The drone is collectively carried on throughout the ritual, and does not stop until the ritual ends.

The drone acts as a musical base for the ritual leader or leaders. They can recite and improvise text either by sticking to the same note, or by freely chanting or speaking on top of it. In the workshop for the technique participants practiced a simple musical scale of 2-4 notes while acting as ritual leaders – but sticking to the scale is obviously not mandatory.

Ritual leaders are not meant to be solo performers: Participants doing the drone are also invited to improvise content, for example by repeating particular words or sentences of the leaders, shouting inspired remarks, or making the drone change in intensity, volume, and tone color.

When the ritual leader wants to end the ritual, they end their recital with an emphasized end phrase (in Redemption, “Amen”). This phrase or word is then repeated by everyone in the scene, after which the drone stops, and the ritual is over.


What’s the deeper musical thinking and history behind the technique?

Using one’s voice to contribute to a soundscape is an ancient and deeply human activity to take part of. While singing or chanting with others, we do not merely join into making music. We also sync our expression, our internal pacing, and even our breath with others around us. It is a powerful experience, which forms its own temporary magic circle: You join the circle by adding your voice to the soundscape.

Musically speaking, the core benchmarks for the technique are the use of drone notes, improvised recital on top of the drone, and (optionally) the simplistic scale used by ritual leaders. At Redemption, the latter was modeled after the medieval theme “Dies Irae” – a particular four note scale which is nowadays used by composers all around the world to communicate tension, ardor, and fatality. (In other words, it’s a musical meme.)


How does the technique work if people have wildly varying levels of musical skills? Some have none, others are great singers.

For practical purposes, singing skill does not have a meaningful impact on the technique. It is in fact advisable to instruct more experienced singers to stick to the basic drone and recital, and avoid more complex musical improvisation.

The power of the technique comes from its simplicity. Most people can find and stick to a drone note, and even if they can’t, doing things “correctly” is not nearly as relevant as following the collective ebb and flow of the ritual. Everyone’s voice contributes to the soundscape, and the soundscape creates the magic circle for the ritual.


How does the technique interact with the broader soundscape of a larp?

The auditory streams from the ritual (the drone and the recital) communicate to participants in different spaces that a ritual is taking place. The ritual becomes part of the larp’s soundscape and impacts the mood of the larp as a whole. At the same time, any pre-existing soundscape (for example, background music, other participants’ activities, other rituals) impacts the soundscape of the ritual.

When implementing background music in particular, some sound design ahead of time is needed. Background noise and ambient music may lower the threshold for using the technique, as participants can lean onto other sounds to find a coherent, shared drone, and get the ritual going. On the other hand, too dominant background music may make it harder for participants to use the technique freely, as music will set boundaries to what kind of sounds make sense during the ritual.

Cover photo: Anni Tolvanen at the larp Redemption (2021). Photo by Kai Simon Fredriksen. Photo has been cropped.

This article is published in the Knutpunkt 2022 magazine Distance of Touch and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:

Pettersson, Juhana. 2022. “Participatory Ritual Vocalization.” In Distance of Touch: The Knutpunkt 2022 Magazine, edited by Juhana Pettersson, 51-54. Knutpunkt 2022 and Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen seura.

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Juhana Pettersson is a Finnish writer and roleplaying game and larp designer. His best-known larps are Luminescence, Halat hisar, End of the Line, Enlightenment in Blood, Parliament of Shadows, Redemption and Saturnalia. He has published over a dozen books, including the collection of essays about Nordic larp Engines of Desire. He currently works at Renegade Game Studios as the Lead Developer for World of Darkness releases.