26 November 2018
Halcyon and the poetry of voices
'In conversation with' video series documents Australian composers
For a relatively young ensemble, the now 20-year-old Halcyon has a powerful legacy in the numerous Australian works commissioned by the ensemble or dedicated to them. Some of this legacy has now taken the form of an oral history project - a growing series of videos where prominent Australian composers talk about their work, about composing for voice, and about setting words. These videos are being made available via Halcyon's Youtube channel, and also linked to composer and work pages on the AMC website, with more in the making. Artistic director, mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong gives us some insight into the videos available so far and these composers' relationship with Halcyon.
Halcyon's next concert on 1 December concludes the ensemble's 20th birthday celebrations, with works by Gillian Whitehead, Rosalind Page, Sadie Harrison, Gordon Kerry and Ross Edwards, who is celebrating his 75th birthday later in December.
As Halcyon celebrates its 20th birthday this year, it has been an opportunity to look back on some of the many relationships formed over the years and projects that have developed from them. Our history is interwoven with many relationships with institutions, composers, performers, ensembles and other helpers and supporters without whom we would not still exist. The Australian Music Centre and its staff have been one such important connection, providing years of invaluable advice and assistance from our formative years to today, and collaborating with us on a number of projects such as our 'First Stones' and 'Kingfisher' composers projects. We continue this collaboration with the new video series, In Conversation With….
In Conversation With… is a labour-of-love project that started because I felt it was important to capture composers' insights, especially about writing for the voice, and have an archive of these conversations to share into the future. As an ensemble, talking with and working alongside Australian composers of vocal music - whether embryonic, emerging or well-established - has been a key part of our work for many years. It has been fascinating to get to know what makes them tick, how individual their ideas and pieces are and getting to understand each unique voice and to now capture some of this on camera.
So we meet in homes, offices and studios and these conversations become a series of bite-size clips collected on Halcyon's YouTube channel - the videos also being embedded into the AMC's database so you can find them online on their website, too. So far the playlist has insights from four composers - Ross Edwards, Raffaele Marcellino, Elliott Gyger and Matthew Hindson - but we're looking forward to seeing this collection at least double in the coming year (including starting to represent some of the many female composers who have always been part of our programming). We already have several more in the production phase, and have just been interstate to film a whole new series of interviews.
I've regularly performed the vocal music of Ross Edwards, ever since my university years, with Halcyon, Cantillation and The Song Company, amongst others, and I keep returning to it. It is now a decades-long shared history, and many hours have been spent discussing his works. In fact his Maninya I is probably Halcyon's most frequently performed piece (and is featured on our Waves II album). Though he is often noted for devising his own syllabically constructed 'text' for these Maninya works, the early song cycle, The Hermit of Green Light (1979), set to the poetry of Michael Dransfield, was the first piece of his I really got to know. I loved the different musical 'landscapes' he created and the aptly shaped vocal phrases in each of the four movements.
Many years later, for our 15th-birthday 'Kingfisher' project, he wrote us The Tranquil Mind (see video of this year's performance - or watch it on Youtube). But I was still drawn to his early song cycle with its sensitive and immediate response to more substantial poetry and I wanted to see what another poet would inspire him to do. So, for several years, I talked to him intermittently about writing another song cycle. In his own words: 'I was encouraged to compose the cycle by Jenny Duck-Chong who, having sung all of my vocal music within her range, asked for more.'
This finally led to Five Senses: Five Poems of Judith Wright (2012/2013). I gave a work-in-progress preview of the work in May 2012 in the retrospective concert of his music, and then performed in full, with pianist Bernadette Harvey and percussionist Claire Edwardes, in a Halcyon concert in June 2015. Now recorded, it is due for release on Waves IV before the end of the year.
Once again the poetry affected him deeply and directly. He writes in the preface: 'Sometimes deceptively simple and spontaneous, Wright's poems engage with a diversity of philosophical ideas that range between the abstract, symbolic, metaphysical, and the personal and immediate. Forming my own relationship to each poem was a profoundly enriching experience.'
Our working relationship with Elliott Gyger dates back more than three decades, when I studied alongside Elliott at University and we all performed together in various contexts. In the years following, we have run composer projects for Halcyon and the University of Melbourne and have collaborated on many other occasions, many of which have produced significant new works for Halcyon: The Pleiades at Midnight (for 'Kingfisher'), Un poilu australien (for our 'War Letters' project), giving voice (winner of the 2013 Paul Lowin Song Cycle Prize) and This Kind of Life, premiered earlier this year.
Petit testament is an interesting addition as it was written specifically with us in mind (which you can certainly hear when you listen to it), though for a project instigated by the University of Melbourne, around the time Elliott first arrived back in Australia, featuring the poetry of Ern Malley (watch a video of our 2011 performance). It was, in fact, a fellow composer Matthew Hindson, then the Artistic Director of the inaugural Aurora Festival in 2006, who actually commissioned Elliott's first work for us, the brilliantly complex From the hungry waiting country which was released this year on our CD of the same name), while he was still living overseas.
The signficance of this relationship for both composer and performer is described in the liner notes to the recent CD as follows: 'Elliott's distinctive and uncompromising music has been a pivotal presence in Halcyon's musical journey and the works written for us have been formative in his own compositional path. Looking back, it has been a fortuitous and wonderful collaboration between artists; we have all been distinctively shaped by the experience over the passage of time.'
I first met and worked with Raffaele Marcellino as part of The Song Company's MODART composer development program where he was the composer-mentor in 2003 (I think it was the year a young Katy Abbott took part!) and since then we have met for coffee and chats about music, education and ideas (and the odd game of cards!). The 'Sirens' concert of 2004 was also an inspiration for him, and his work for us, A Strange Kind Of Paradise, inspired by the myth of Ariadne, grew out of that first encounter. Many years in gestation, the first movement was performed in 2010, but the whole work only completed in 2013 and staged in a beautiful outdoor setting at NIDA's Parade Theatre (watch a video of this performance). Passionate about vocal writing, and having worked with many of the major vocal ensembles in Sydney, he also knew all of us individually and our voices. That level of familiarity and trust can make the process so much more interactive as he discusses in the video, On A Strange Kind of Paradise.
Matthew Hindson and I have also known each other since University. I had even kept a score of his Insect Songs for mezzo and guitar on my shelf, waiting for the just right opportunity, almost since that time, but it was only in 2015 that I first performed (and later recorded) it. Written at the request of guitarist Ken Murray and singer Jeannie Marsh in 1998, the texts about ants and cicadas set in an unmistakably Australian landscape spring to life in this energetic work. Interestingly, even though it was not written for me, it just feels like it could have been, and reinforces for me why pieces need to continue to have lives past their first performances. As performers, we all bring our own voices, brains and psyches to the presentation of new works and, hopefully, they just grow richer and reach greater audiences with these new interpretations. This early work was really worth re-discovering and I hope the soon-to-be-released recording will make the piece much more widely known.
'Shining Shores' on 1 December 2018 at 8pm at the Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music - more event details in the AMC Calendar
Resources about Halcyon (AMC Online): commissioned works, articles, events, premieres, albums
Halcyon - homepage (https://www.halcyon.org.au/)
© Australian Music Centre (2018) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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