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16 August 2011

Sublime notes out of the air (First Stones)

Peggy Polias Image: Peggy Polias  

In July, Halcyon and Elliott Gyger brought together a group of young composers, along with the drafts of new vocal works, for an intensive four days of rehearsal and discussion. Peggy Polias writes about her involvement - for more First Stones blog articles, please see the Resonate blog. The First Stones workshops are organised with the AMC as a supporting partner. (See also: First Stones concert 19 November.)

'Come back at Easter time.' While it was on pitch, my whispery, introverted rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star as a 5-year-old didn't impress, and I wasn't admitted into the school choir. I was to spend the rest of my school years not really singing: miming or whispering the national anthem at school assembly, avoiding all choirs, labouring through sight-singing exercises when absolutely necessary.

To this day I remain vocally untrained. I have dabbled in recent years with singing in the context of home studio experiments, but it's difficult, painful even. Despite this, I love the possibilities of song, as a composer and as a listener, of text combined with music. Alongside the avoidance, I have so many positive memories of song: the joy of listening to The Cure's song 'Love Cats' in a stereo triangle. Sneaking a cheeky acrostic into a little 6-line lyric of my own. The time I wept in the Sydney University library listening to Mahler's Kindertotenlieder. The journey and adrenaline of watching and hearing people's live vocal interpretations, across a variety of musical genres.

As such, I have embarked on the First Stones project with Halcyon with some gravity in my approach to a person's vocal ability. During the First Stones workshops, Alison and Jenny apologised for their sight-reading, and confessed how confronting this can be for a singer. Despite this, I was surprised by the seeming effortlessness with which seasoned professionals use their body to pick sublime notes out of the air. It was illuminating to discuss which musical fragments might be a treat while others were a strain, and what kinds of compositional devices might optimise a singer's part.

Both workshop sessions in May and in July have, for me, been a crash course in how a vocalist thinks and feels their way through a composition. Spending time in the workshop process with Alison and Jenny, as well as the instrumentalists who will be performing our works, has helped to cultivate personality, and also persona, in the composition.

Elliott Gyger's input as mentor has been invaluable - much of our workshopping has been based on Elliott's on-the-spot creative and practical suggestions for solving musical issues, with a knack for preserving our creative intent.

It's been wonderful getting to know the work of the eight other composers involved, and see how our contributions will come together in the November concert. Having enjoyed countless cups of tea as we have sat in on all workshops as a group and discussed the goings on, this project has a really nice communal vibe; such a contrast to the usual solitude of composing.

Further links

'First Stones - compositions taking shape' (blog article on Resonate by Alison Morgan)
Halcyon - First Stones 2011 (http://www.halcyon.org.au/page/first_stones_2011.html)

Peggy Polias is a Sydney-based composer and music copyist who also works at the Australian Music Centre.


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