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23 September 2013

Halcyon: the binary star

The Pleiades - Alcyone just left of centre Image: The Pleiades - Alcyone just left of centre  
© NASA (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pleiades at Midnight is my fourth piece for Halcyon. Like the other Kingfisher songs, it has been written to celebrate Halcyon's 15th birthday, but my involvement with the ensemble has been both longer and shorter than that.

Longer, because I have known Jenny and Alison since my undergraduate student days at Sydney University, when we were colleagues together in a variety of musical undertakings - centred on the Contemporary Singers, a new music chamber choir that was active from 1986 to 1998, which I co-directed and all of us sang in. I first wrote specifically for Alison's voice in 1989, in a music theatre piece called The Hammer that Shapes; but I was also hearing both of them sing in a variety of repertoire, from medieval music and Bach to Messiaen and Berio. In 1999 I wrote for both Alison and Jenny in the pre-recorded score for an installation project entitled 25 Songs; this piece gave me a unique opportunity to hear their voices under the microscope, in the editing and mixing process.

Shorter, because I was living overseas at the time of Halcyon's beginnings, and didn't hear the group until 2004. When I did so, however, it felt like the resumption of a suspended conversation, rather than the initiation of something new. This is not simply because I already knew the people involved, but also because our shared history dated from a formative period in our careers: our ideals of vocal style, text setting and program building had been shaped by the same experiences, and had continued to develop along similar lines.

While in the US I had written a large amount of choral music, but very little for solo singers. Nonetheless, the predominant experience of writing my first piece for Halcyon, From the hungry waiting country(2006), was one of familiarity. The work is long and complex, with fifteen different texts in a variety of languages: each is assigned to a different solo or combination of the four voices (Alison, Jenny, Jo Burton and Belinda Montgomery), with individual vocal colour and musical personality at least as important a factor as range and voice type.

This particularity has characterised each of my subsequent Halcyon pieces. Petit Testament (2008) was a contribution to a Melbourne University project setting the Ern Malley poems; having decided to use two voices projecting a single line (in imitation of James McAuley and Harold Stewart's joint act of poetic ventriloquism), Jenny and Alison were the natural choice, because of their considerable experience working together, as choral and ensemble singers. For giving voice (2012) I worked in the opposite direction - starting with Jenny's voice and choosing texts which I could imagine her singing; composing the vocal lines for this piece often felt more like transcription than invention.

For The Pleiades at Midnight I happened upon a delightful metaphor for the ensemble as a whole. Halcyon (in its Latinised form, Alcyone) is the name of the brightest star in the Pleiades - not a single star, as it happens, but an eclipsing binary orbited by three smaller stars. My piece therefore places Alison and Jenny - as joint soloists and co-directors - at the centre, orbited by a constellation of three instrumentalists.

Writing pieces which focus so much on the skills and traits of a particular group of performers has its drawbacks: none of these works has been (or will be) quick to find other interpreters. However, I would see it as a missed opportunity not to take advantage of their abilities - and the better it allows them to sound, the more incentive there is for others to master the challenges…

Certainly my long-term collaboration with Halcyon has played an extremely important part in my career. It has enabled me to bring together previously separate strands of interest in multilayered treatment of text and sophisticated timbral/gestural detailing, in a medium well suited to both; and re-established my connection to my Sydney roots, even though I have lived elsewhere for the last 17 years. Perhaps above all, in working with Alison and Jenny I feel a shared sense of purpose and understanding, which carries across from each project to the next to create both a body of work and a performance tradition.

AMC resources

Elliott Gyger - AMC profile
A blog article by Halcyon's Alison Morgan about the Kingfisher project.
A blog article by Gordon Kerry
Event details: Kingfisher - Songs for Halcyon, 23 October 2013 (AMC Calendar)

The 23 composers of the Kingfisher project are: Katy Abbott, Stephen Adams, Gerard Brophy, Nigel Butterley, Sharon Calcraft, Ross Edwards, Andrew Ford, Stuart Greenbaum, Elliott Gyger, Graham Hair, Moya Henderson, Gordon Kerry, Raffaele Marcellino, Kevin March, Ruth Lee Martin, Rosalind Page, John Peterson, Andrew Schultz, Paul Stanhope, Jane Stanley, Nicholas Vines, Dan Walker and Gillian Whitehead.

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