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18 December 2009

It can't get any better than this!

Stephen Leek and a new culture of choral music

Stephen Leek Image: Stephen Leek  
© www.stephenleek.com

Helen Lancaster traces Stephen Leek's career at a time when the composer-conductor has made a significant move by stepping down as the Artistic Director of The Australian Voices in order to concentrate on composing and freelance projects. This is not the first, nor is it likely to be the last, such move in a career characterised by a bold imagination and leaps of faith.

Seventeen of the world's best composers of choral music were sitting in an auditorium, listening to a choir rehearse their commissioned works. Among them was Australian composer Stephen Leek who encapsulates the experience in these words: 'Each of us [was] so nervous about our music, but as they sang the pieces one by one, our jaws dropped. It was extraordinary!'

It was 2008, and Leek was in Latvia at the invitation of World Sun Songs, a project which commissioned each of these seventeen hand-picked composers to write for Kamer, one of the world's finest chamber choirs. Directed by Maris Sirmais, they were performing the music extremely well. 'The sixty singers were working so hard on these pieces to make them perfect,' Leek explains. 'In one concert of more than three and a half hours, they premiered seventeen new works!' The works were not only celebrated in performance, they were documented, broadcast, and recorded to CD. For a week, the composers were feted as celebrities, respected in press conferences, and even dined with the President of Latvia. As Leek cheerfully comments, 'I thought, well, it can't get any better than this!'

The experience was such a high point that it caused Leek to consider bowing out while he was ahead. 'It was one of those fabulous musical moments,' he explains. 'We had such camaraderie among these composers from sixteen different countries. We shared not only the music, but our stories, and our thoughts. It was fantastic!'

Seen in this context, Leek's recent decision to move beyond his current professional situation hardly surprising. Back home, the media didn't want to hear about any of it, and consequently, Australia heard none of it. Despite being celebrated internationally as 'His language pinpoints something which an Australian listener immediately recognises… perhaps he is defining a sense of spiritual home, an unmistakable Australian identity.'composer, conductor and jurist, and being widely known in Australia among schools and communities, Stephen Leek is one of those musical luminaries largely ignored by Australian media and authors.

Luminary is not an exaggeration when applied to Stephen Leek. His music is published, performed and recorded in many countries of the world. His name is well-known among many thousands of people, not all of them seasoned musicians. He has influenced the lives of many hundreds of young Australians. He and his music have been recognised by many awards, among them the prestigious Robert Edler International Prize for Choral Music which cited his 'decisive influence' on the international choral community as both composer and conductor. He represented Australia at the 2006 UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers in Paris. He is a recipient of the Sounds Australian National Award for the Most Distinguished Contribution to Fine Music by an Individual and the 2008 APRA-AMC Classical Music Award for Best Composition by an Australian Composer. He is a composer, an Australian composer. More than that, he is also a conductor, educator and publisher.

Only a relatively small percentage of Australia's many composers might boast such a profile, yet books on Australian music - even the more recent ones - have ignored Leek's work, or at best, passed it off in one or two sentences. CEO of the Australian Music Centre, John Davis suggests that Leek's career has perhaps suffered because he has chosen to focus on music for young people, music that is generally performed in schools and communities.

Leek himself acknowledges that there is a particular stigma associated with being a composer of choral music, saying that 'if you're a composer who works in the community you're somehow a lesser composer, a lesser musician, lesser artist, and that's certainly not the case.' Yet, the reality is very different from this perception. 'My experience around the world has been that [choral music] is quite a significantly difficult area to work in,' Leek explains, suggesting that 'there are some composers who are really great at it and some really great composers who are really terrible at it.'

Leek's reference to the stigma of working in community settings (including schools) aligns with the view that work done among amateurs is less significant work. Not so, says Leek. 'Writing for amateurs, you're able to do much more - amateur singers are much braver, much more willing to have a go at different things than I have found with professional musicians generally. And that to me is very exciting.'

He denies 'writing down' to amateurs, insisting instead that it is 'giving them a voice that's just as artistically credible as writing a symphony for an orchestra - it's just a different way of doing it.' Leek believes that an important aspect of the amateur experience is that 'We all grow - my music changes through working with them.'

John Davis recalls a young Stephen Leek at the Composers' Conference in Sydney in 1988, issuing a passionate plea for composers to write music for young people. Davis remembers Leek lamenting the fact that many young people in concert bands around the country were performing music from publishers of American and Japanese catalogues of concert band music. Leek suggested that because this repertoire was so well-graded for varying levels of difficulty, music directors found it easy to use it straight from the shelf. As Davis tells it, Leek challenged the composers with the question 'Where was the Australian repertoire that could do this?'

According to Leek, that impassioned plea was looking to the future of contemporary music, suggesting to composers 'that they had to take responsibility for its present state of disinterest by a younger generation and also prepare the way for the next generations of musicians and audiences.'

Leek is not the first to bewail a lack of truly Australian music among Australian school music repertoire, but he is one of the few composers who have deliberately set out to do something about it. He was then in a good position to comment on the capacity for Australian music to meet the needs of schools and communities. Even before his fervent speech, Leek had decided he needed lists of Australian works that he could suggest for students, and in order to make them, buried himself in the Australian Music Centre catalogues for schools and communities. Then Director of the AMC, Richard Letts, said that it was at that time that Leek really took things into his own hands. 'He saw a need and possibility in new choral music,' explains Letts, 'and committed himself to building an Australian choral tradition.'

What began as a labour of necessity was to become a formative action for this young composer. Sitting on the hard, wooden floor of the AMC library, pulling works from the shelves, opening up scores that had never been opened, searching for technical difficulties and general suitability for players of different ages and standards, Leek compiled lists with basic gradings and instrumentations. 'It was a great time for me,' Leek says. 'Apart from working on the lists, I was meeting lots of Australian composers.' But this labour of necessity had an even more significant legacy: the AMC's catalogue continues to assists users in identifying suitable repertory according to level of difficulty. This is very useful for students preparing for their Higher School Certificate and other educational syllabi, and as a consequence of Leek's example and advocacy, many composers who write primarily for young or amateur players are an integral part of the community of represented composers at the AMC.

But Stephen Leek didn't spend all his time on that wooden floor. He was freelancing as composer in residence, putting into practice what he had been preaching at that composers' conference. In 1989, he formed Australia's first improvisation choir, vOiCeArT, an ensemble which gave him a platform for developing a new approach to choral music, one which continues to resonate around the world.

Most significantly, his 1988 residency with St Peter's Chorale in Brisbane sparked a musical relationship with Queensland conductor and composer Graeme Morton, a partnership which was to change the nature of choral singing in Australia. Morton had commissioned Leek to create a challenging multi-movement work for unaccompanied SATB choir. The outcome, Once on a Mountain, became a landmark in Australian choral repertoire, i attracting numerous awards, including the Sounds Australian National Awards for the Most Distinguished Contribution to the Presentation of Australian Music and for the Best Australian Vocal or Choral Work.

Sensing the potential before him, Leek relocated to Queensland. Together, he and Morton conceived a mission to ensure the survival of Australian choral music, establishing Morton Music to publish Australian works and their organisation for community arts activities, ArtsNOW Australia. In 1993 this organisation became The Australian Voices, the ensemble which has taken Leek's music and that of many Australian composers to the world, through tours, performances and recordings.

Australian composer Vincent Plush recalls hearing The Australian Voices on the fourth of July 1994 in Patterson, New Jersey. 'The irony of a group of young Aussies presenting an all-Australian concert on this holiest of American holy days was not lost on any of us,' he wrote. 'Such vibrant repertory, such lusty delivery, such total commitment, such joy and pride in their collective achievement, the total experience was mesmerising and humbling.' Plush describes going backstage after the concert, 'so moved, I could barely speak. I was so proud of them, so proud of our shared nationality, so proud of the fact that these youngsters were every bit the equal of our much-lauded and over-prominent sports and movie stars.' For Plush, the experience suggested that 'clearly, there was something wonderful happening in Australia.'

Through The Australian Voices, clearly something wonderful has happened: this vision of Leek and Morton has changed the choral soundscape internationally. Morton's early work as conductor began the long journey toward the creation of a new Australian choral voice. From 1996, when Leek moved from the role of founding manager to conductor and artistic director, he brought renewed vigour to the mission 'to nurture, commission, perform and promote the work of Australian composers at the highest international standards possible.'

When considering the work of Stephen Leek, it is very easy to become distracted by the success of The Australian Voices. Indeed, their combined international achievements are extraordinary. More than meeting their stated mission, together they have been daring in their commitment to new repertoire, and have put new Australian music on the world stage - by demonstration rather than in catalogues. Travelling the globe, they have received the highest international accolades, including major prizes in the 'Choir of the World' Competition, at the Belá Bartók International Choral Competition in Hungary and the International Choral Eisteddfod in Wales. In 2006, they were multiple gold medallists at the Olympic Games of the choral world - the World Choir Games - in China. From war-torn Bosnia to the Taipei International Choral Festival, The Australian Voices have performed works by many of Australia's best-known and emerging composers.

It is not implausible to suggest that is the combined contribution of Leek and The Australian Voices which has made it common for choirs - local and international, professional and amateur - to sing Australian works in many countries of the world. 'We are pushing boundaries,' says Andrew Pennay, member of TAV, 'and that is what we are there to do.' Also on the TAV Board, Pennay sees this purpose as artistic and necessary. 'Our role is to stimulate 'new music' which may or may not work,' he explains. 'We do this to help composers and to refine the national choral 'voice' of our composers.' Indeed, conductor and broadcaster Graham Abbott acknowledged the scale of their national achievement in his tribute to the fifteenth anniversary of the choir: 'The fact that choral organisations all over Australia now regard it as core activity to promote, commission and perform Australian repertoire is in no small part due to the commitment and expertise of this wonderful organisation.'

But to consider Leek's contribution to Australian music only in the light of his work with The Australian Voices is to do him a great disservice. The Australian Voices has without doubt been a very successful vehicle for Leek's transformation of choral music internationally. The ensemble has also broadcast to audiences everywhere the indisputable Australian identity in Leek's music. 'Stephen has wrought a unique and distinctive musical vocabulary and grammar,' explains fellow composer Stephen Cronin. 'His language pinpoints something which an Australian listener immediately recognises… perhaps he is defining a sense of spiritual home, an unmistakable Australian identity. His music deals with places we know, landscapes we have visited, bush sounds that can only be from here. Stephen's work reminds us of things that are tantalising and familiar and makes us think, 'Yes, I must visit there again.''

Leek doesn't analyse it, but he does think it special to watch the young people of The Australian Voices perform Australian music overseas. 'They experience that feeling, they see how people are transported by that feeling of experiencing something Australian,' he explains. 'If people label me as 'uniquely Australian', I hope it's because I have some emotional journey with the people and places,' says Leek.

Having undertaken a number of projects in collaboration with Indigenous people, Leek notes that 'there is something quite special in that relationship - you do share an artistic journey with Indigenous people.' He describes having absorbed Indigenous influence from these collaborations, believing it brings 'grittiness' to his work, 'grittiness of the texts, and the grittiness of the sound, and the grittiness of the earth.'

Whatever the secret, Leek's work has delivered a new role model to the next generation of composers in ways which extend beyond the musical. As Leek tells it, 'many have seen that choral music doesn't just happen once and then get put on the shelf!' Honoured that his music is being performed regularly and frequently all around the world, Leek is passing on the message to young composers that there is a market for those who have the talent and the necessary 'specific and specialised composition skills' to write choral music. He reminds them that there are more people singing in choirs than participating in any other musical activity, providing untapped potential.

Because, in this country at least, most choral music (even the very best of it) happens at non-professional level, that brings us back to the suggestion that working among I've poured my heart and soul into it over the years and so I wanted to leave when it was good.non-professionals is not real composition. Tell that to Ross Edwards whose most recent and remarkable work, the Missa Alchera (Mass of the Dreaming) was commissioned for the Queensland 150 celebrations by the choirs of St John's and St Stephen's Cathedrals in Brisbane!

Professional or not, the sheer number of young people with whom Leek has worked is likely to be the key to his enduring recognition among audiences and musicians alike, in Australia and overseas. In conversation, I suggest to Stephen that maybe Andrew Ford was right on the money when he said that this next generation will show the extent of Leek's influence because many of them know his work better than that of other composers. Stephen laughs. 'It's already here. That next generation of young composers are here,' he responds. 'They've labelled it 'Leekisms', or the 'Leeky bits'!'

As Leek moves away from Queensland, from The Australian Voices, and from the Queensland Conservatorium, he is taking another of those brave steps which have shaped his life. In 1984, having just established himself in Sydney, he took a brave leap into the position of composer/musician to the Tasmanian Dance Company, a role which was to develop not only his compositional craft but also collaborative and workshop skills, and a commitment to residencies. That experience gave him the courage to return to Sydney as a freelance practitioner in 1986, and in one of his subsequent residencies, he met Graeme Morton. The move to Queensland was another leap of faith, and with his strong leadership of The Australian Voices, it would be easy to say, the rest is history. But not for Stephen Leek. He says 'it's time' for TAV. 'I wanted to leave TAV at a high point,' he muses. 'It's a really special organisation to me - I've poured my heart and soul into it over the years and so I wanted to leave when it was good.' Having just completed another successful Asian tour, and with international invitations coming in for the ensemble, Leek considered the time was right to hand it over.

He acknowledges that this new 'brave leap' is not without risk. 'But I can take the risk, and I think I need to,' he affirms. 'I think as soon as I stop taking risks, I'll get too comfortable.' He may be moving away from Queensland (and the Queensland Conservatorium which has benefited from his teaching for some sixteen years), but Leek insists he will still be able to keep contact with young composers and young musicians in other ways. He believes his contribution can come in 'non-formal ways, not in the formal ways where I think the passion has gone out of it for them.' Leek wants also to work with young people overseas 'who are absolutely passionate about what they do. There are people like that in Australia too, and I'd like to do more with them.'

Insisting 'it's not better or worse, it's just going to be different,' Leek confirms that 'One of my regrets is that I could never see us rivalling sport like I see in other countries.'he will still be working as a musician. There are many - John Davis among them - who express the hope that Leek will find more time for composition. With The Australian Voices out of the way, will it be more choral music? 'I love choral music and being part of that community, making art with lots of people, where the communication is flowing, and there is total commitment from everyone,' he answers. 'That's real artistry. It's about communication in the art form.' But at the same time, it is worth remembering that Leek also writes orchestral music, and has twelve operas under his belt, and chamber music as well. And didn't he begin his life as a professional composer with a dance company, just like Carl Vine?

Nonetheless, with operas, music theatre and choral theatre among his repertoire, it is likely that Leek will continue to write for voices. 'Working for the vocal media is such an exciting and relatively untapped medium in terms of contemporary music,' he explains. Besides, he will have the opportunity to influence his favourite medium at a high level, having just accepted a non-remunerative position to represent the South Pacific Region on the Board of the International Federation of Choral Music.

Leek leaves The Australian Voices with few regrets, none of them related to the ensemble itself. His great disappointment lies in that common nemesis of unrealised corporate support. 'One of my regrets is that I could never see us rivalling sport like I see in other countries,' he says. 'In Latvia, the choir is supported by a huge telecommunications company, allowing them to travel around the world and promote excellence. I could never see that happening in this country.'

But surely, the original mission is more than accomplished? 'When Graeme and I started TAV it was to address those issues - the composers, the standard of singing, the Australian repertoire, getting singing into all levels of the community,' he recalls. 'And I think to a great degree we achieved those things, but there is always that big hurdle [of adequate sponsorship] that we could not achieve.' Unlike brave leaps, big hurdles are beyond most in this country, even Stephen Leek.

His disappointment is not personal, but felt on behalf of those singers in The Australian Voices (and many other choirs of high quality) who 'not only commit their time but also their money' to the cause. As Andrew Pennay describes the TAV experience, 'we are a friendly bunch who gives up our nights, weekends, public holidays, and annual leave to pay our own way to share new music with the world.'

Leek may have been a late starter in music, but his great leaps have served him, and Australian music, very well. He has done for Australian Choral music what Sculthorpe did for Australian instrumental music.ii But he certainly hasn't finished yet. Apart from having decided that he needs to do some sailing before he gets too much older, Stephen Leek is likely to influence that next generation in ways we dare not even imagine for some time yet. 'It can't get any better than this?' Who knows? With each leap he has taken thus far, it always has.

A companion article by the same author 'Lifting the Bar - Stephen Leek, composer' was published in the MCA Music Forum Vol.16 No.2, February 2010.´


i Lee Fraser Crockford, '"Place" in the Choral Music of Stephen Leek - The contextualization of a current composer and his style.' Diss. Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, 2005, p.8
ii op.cit. p.20

Further links

'Unbearable beauty! Two Australian choral classics: a conductor's reflections' - a Journal article by Carl Crossin (on Leek's Kondalilla)
'One man's dream continues in song' - a Journal article by Jocelyn Wolfe (Clocked Out and TAV collaboration)
Stephen Leek - AMC profile (http://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/leek-stephen)
Stephen Leek - homepage (http://www.stephenleek.com)
The Australian Voices (http://www.theaustralianvoices.com/)

Subjects discussed by this article:

A freelance consultant, Dr Helen Lancaster is Chair of the Music Council of Australia and Research Fellow of Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, currently working on 'Places for Art' which explores the relationship between performance and place. She was Founding Director of Central Queensland Conservatorium and the International Academy of Music (Bangkok). Her research examining challenges confronting conservatorium leaders generated considerable interest. As guest editor of Sounds Australian No. 64 (2004) she reported on post-secondary music education and training - this study is being updated in 2009-2010.


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