22 February 2011
Young composers at the Gondwana National Choral School
In January, 284 young and talented choristers, composers and conductors from all over Australia came to Sydney for a fortnight of rehearsals, workshops and performances at the Gondwana Choirs 2011 National Choral School, under the direction of Artistic Director Lyn Williams OAM, with the assistance of several other leading Australian choral conductors. In tandem with the National Choral School, the Gondwana Composer School gave 18 young composers the opportunity to work with internationally acclaimed Australian choral composer Stephen Leek for a week. 18-year-old Leighton Triplow gives a first-hand account of his time at the Gondwana Composer School.
One would expect a composition school to be a time of writing music in the usual way - a peaceful environment, sipping tea with time for contemplation and reflection. The Gondwana Composer School was definitely different. Under the direction of composer/conductor Stephen Leek, 18 young composers aged between 15 and 21, from across Australia, quickly discovered that this was going to be a week that would significantly challenge their musical reality and reveal to them a new spectrum of compositional possibilities.
In daily seminar-style workshops given by Stephen, we explored tools and techniques which helped us become more skilled in writing choral music. We sang. We studied the effects of vowels and the colours they make in a choral sound. We analysed and discussed choral works from Australia - Atherton, Gyger, Walker - and from abroad - Miskinis, Whitacre, Vasks and Macmillan. We quickly realised that there was much to discover about writing choral music.
Throughout the week we had guest speakers who were working within the Gondwana Choral School - Artistic Director Lyn Williams, Carl Crossin, Paul Holley, Sally Whitwell and Dan Walker. Leading figures in Australian choral music, each gave us unique insights into writing for choirs and enlightened us on composer-conductor collaborations through their experience. Sally Whitwell, pianist and composer, had recently been writing children's music and shared with us her interesting challenges of writing effectively for young singers. All presenters generously shared their own experiences with us in these valuable sessions.
Every day we found ourselves at the manuscript paper, or at laptops, creating new compositions. In other sessions we focused on bringing the music to life. The week aimed at giving us a taste of a composer's life in the 'real world', so our usual slow methods of writing needed to be reconsidered in light of deadlines imposed on us. This intensive process helped us connect intuitively with our musical ideas, and, at the same time, enabled us to utilise our new-found choral knowledge in more spontaneous ways. On several days our compositions were workshopped in small groups by the Gondwana Conductor Interns. We sang through each piece and learned by discussing constructive possibilities as to how these could be developed.
One activity during the week was to write choral music for young children. We soon discovered that creating music for this specialist area can be extremely rewarding but somewhat challenging. This activity highlighted the importance of communicating ideas clearly and simply, and showed us different ways of getting a composition 'off the paper'. Other activities involved us collaborating with different groups of the school - each time demanding that we take responsibility for our ideas, communicating them clearly through the score. The major task of the week involved writing a new work for the acclaimed Gondwana Voices or the Gondwana Chorale. Writing for such amazingly beautiful, complex and skilled choirs was exciting, yet daunting for all composers. Everyone rose to the challenge and all composers were more than happy with the results.
Under Stephen Leek's direction, the Gondwana Composer School was a demanding, yet life-changing experience. At the end of each day we were exhausted but we all felt as if we had made significant advances. I still can't believe we achieved so much in a week. All composers came away with a valuable network of composer-friends, different perspectives on the life of a composer, and skills in choral writing that will sustain us into our compositional futures.
Applications for the 2012 program will open in mid-2011. For further information, please visit the Gondwana Choirs website.
Gondwana Choirs (www.gondwanachoirs.com.au)
© Australian Music Centre (2011) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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Leighton Triplow studies composition at the Victorian College of the Arts.
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