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19 June 2023

Creating choral collages: Three Night Songs

Heather Percy Image: Heather Percy  

Recently named an AMC Associate Artist, Heather Percy's choral work Three Night Songs will soon be presented in its world premiere performance by the Sydney Chamber Choir at The Neilson, ACO Pier 2/3. With guest director Naomi Crellin, the work will be performed in an enchanting program of French song, from ballads by cabaret legends Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel to Ravel's Trois Chansons.

Our interview with the composer reveals how she approached the composition of Three Night Songs, from musical gestures to the textual 'collage' of poetry texts. Read more below.

Congratulations on the world performance premiere of Three Night Songs! This piece received the ABC Classic and ABC Jazz Composer Commissioning Fund in 2021 as a collaboration with the Sydney Chamber Choir and Sam Allchurch. Can you tell us about how the idea for the work came about, and how the collaboration came to fruition?

A large portion of my choral music is sacred, so I wanted to write a choral work on a different theme. The idea of nature offered interesting possibilities and I thought the journey of night, from dusk until dawn offered great musical scope. I had already been an admirer of the work of Sam Allchurch and the Sydney Chamber Choir and had engaged them to record works of mine for my Masters of Music composition portfolio, so I presented Sam with this concept and asked if he and the SCC would be interested in collaborating with me. Through the support of ABC Classic FM and ABC Jazz the project came to fruition.

Interestingly, our collaboration up until March 2022 was conducted remotely. My family and I were holidaying in New Zealand in July 2021 when the whole Delta fiasco started and culminated in the closure of the trans-Tasman bubble. With NZ going into lockdown, we were unable to return to Australia, so I completed the work in NZ and Sam and I collaborated remotely. Only on the day of recording were we actually in the same place at the same time.

Three Night Songs sets music to poetry from six female poets. Can you tell us about the selection of poets and poems and why they resonated with you?

I specifically wanted to set the poetry of women, both past and contemporary.

I admire the poetry of Sara Teasdale and Christina Rosetti, so I initially searched for poetry on a night theme by these two women but expanded this to find other female poets who were their contemporaries. I was searching for texts that captured night from different perspectives with beautiful imagery, but that also contained a natural lyricism that would lend themselves to a musical setting. I narrowed this down to four poets from the 18th and 19th centuries, with the addition of Emma Lazarus and Phyllis Wheatley.

The first night song is a setting of Christina Rossetti's poem 'Holy Innocents'. It seemed a perfect way to begin the night journey from the perspective of a mother lulling her child to sleep.

As I had previously collaborated with Melbourne poet Emilie Zoey Baker, I commissioned her to write a poem for the project. 'Pink Swallows Blue' depicts the evolving colours at sunset and was perfect for the second song.

I found it difficult to narrow down a single poem for the final song, so I collaged lines and ideas from poems by Teasdale, Rosetti, Lazarus and Wheatley. I especially liked the work of 18th century poet Phyllis Wheatley and was drawn in by her remarkable story. Wheatley is considered the first African American author of a published book of poetry. She was captured in West Africa as a child of around seven and sold as a domestic slave to a prominent Boston family. The Wheatley family recognised the talent and ability of their young slave and taught her to read and write, encouraging and nurturing her talent for writing, and arranging for Wheatley's poetry to be published. In the context of the time, it's a remarkable story of achievement. Some of my favourite lines in the third night song come from Wheatley's 'A Hymn to the Evening', including the final line: 'Let placid slumbers soothe each weary mind, at morn to wake more heav'nly, more refined'.

What was your approach to setting the poetry as choral music? What emotions were you looking to draw from each text?

One of my initial aims was to musically unite the three songs and I chose to achieve this through a recurring theme. First introduced as a four-note motif by the sopranos at the start of 'Holy Innocents', this theme is then developed and disguised through embellishment, extension, fragmentation and re-harmonisation and woven through the musical fabric of all three songs.

When setting text, I always consider how I can best communicate its meaning and sentiment in the music. The text guides and informs my creative decisions and like so many other composers, I use musical metaphors and gestures as a means of textual expression. For example, at the start of 'Hymn to the Evening', I gesture the meaning of the opening line of text, 'One by one the flowers close', through the texture. The song begins with the parts voiced across two octaves with the parts moving closer together across the phrase until they come to rest on a unison B on the word 'close'. In 'Holy Innocents', 'Until thou wake to light' is set as an ascending scale symbolising the rising sun at dawn. As this phrase ascends through the voices, a diatonic chord cluster emerges, suggesting the shimmer of colours at dawn.

In "Hymn to the Evening", you've women together a 'collage' of poems by Sara Teasdale, Phyllis Wheatley, Emma Lazarus, and Christina Rosetti. How did you go about selecting the texts from each poet, and what new meaning did you want to convey?

The title of the final song is taken from the Phyllis Wheatley poem 'A Hymn to the Evening' though I think this song is more like an ode rather than a hymn. I chose texts that presented night within a forest setting, such as flowers closing their petals, the wind at night, the rising moon, the sound of the stream, the arrival of the first star, the sound of the first bird call at dawn. I also chose phrases and lines that were elegant and refined with many of the lyrics in 'Hymn to the Evening' coming from Wheatley: 'soft pearls the stream', 'shutting their tender petals from the moon', and I especially loved 'the zephyr's wing exhales the incense of the blooming spring' which I found a rather exotic image and also aromatic!

Three Night Songs is imbued with early music sensibilities - can you tell us more about these influences and their significance for this work?

I did not intend Three Night Songs to be a religious work, though there are religious overtones within the poetry, particularly 'Holy Innocents', but I did want to create a work that would evoke an ethereal quality and gesture the spirituality of night. In Three Night Songs I drew on compositional techniques and sensibilities from early vocal music which, through their association with the foundations of the early Church, gestured a sense of the sacred. Early music influences can be heard in the prevailing modality and chant-like melodies, and the texture is predominantly polyphonic, with techniques such as canon and points of imitation exploited. However, the music inhabits a contemporary sound-world, and these ancient techniques are embedded within a contemporary harmonic palate.

This work has already been recorded by the Sydney Chamber Choir and released on the ABC's Women of Note album earlier this year. What aspect of the premiere live performance are you most excited about?

I'm not sure I can single out one thing that I am most excited about with the premiere. I am clearly very excited about hearing the whole work performed live and in an intimate setting at the Neilson… I'm really interested to hear how this work sits within this acoustic. But I am also excited about the whole concert in general and the cabaret style setting. It's all a bit groovy really, and I feel very honoured and privileged to have Three Night Songs performed within a program that includes arrangements of French ballads by the fabulous Naomi Crellin as well as works by some of my most admired composers: Poulenc, Debussy and Ravel.

Do you have any other projects you're currently working on that we can look forward to?

I have recently completed a composition for cello and guitar. Titled Reverie, the work is composed for legendary cellist David Pereira and guitarist Steve Allen. Reverie will be included on 'Time for Calm Volume 3' which is due for release in late 2023/early 2024. 'Time for Calm' is the initiative of Steve Allen's and the series champions new Australian music that inspires calm and a restful state for the listener. The 'Time for Calm series' features Steve on guitar and a soloist: Riley Lee on shakuhachi (Vol. 1) and William Barton on didgeridoo (Vol. 2).

As well as my work as a composer, I'm passionate about music education. I have recently completed a teacher resource book linked to the song cycle In the Garden that I composed for children's choir. Drawing on my years in the classroom, the book is aimed at middle to upper primary students and contains a variety of musical activities for the classroom that develop skills in aural, composition, performance, and musicology, using the songs from In the Garden as the source material. The book is currently being 'road tested' by Jenny Moon (Associate Artistic Director, Voices of Birralee) with the primary aged choristers at Voices of Birralee, Brisbane. I'm looking forward to publishing this later in the year.

Sydney Chamber Choir will perform Three Night Songs at Winter Nights, Saturday 24 June, at The Neilson, ACO Pier 2/3.

Three Night Songs can be heard on Women of Note: A Century of Australian Composers, vol. 5.

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