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24 July 2009


Melbourne // VIC // 18.07.2009

MODART2009 composers with The Song Company's Roland Peelman Image: MODART2009 composers with The Song Company's Roland Peelman  

It is not often that a composer has the opportunity to test out their ideas and receive extensive feedback on their work during the composition process, which can sometimes be a lonely business. MODART09 has allowed nine emerging composers to do exactly this. MODART is a biennial program which began in 2003 as an initiative of the Australian Music Centre and The Song Company. This year, seven young Australian composers were chosen to participate, as well as one from New Zealand and another from Hong Kong.

During two intensive workshopping periods, the composers worked with members of The Song Company and its Artistic Director Roland Peelman to flesh out their initial musical ideas and improve their works both technically and expressively. The nine composers evidently had a great deal of respect for Peelman and The Song Company. Perth-born and now Sydney-based participant Lachlan Skipworth wrote of Peelman's 'wonderful ability to look at a score and immediately discern the composer's intention', while Anthony Dunstan found that 'the performers not only wanted to present my score as genuinely as possible ... but in fact put themselves in the music they were singing, bringing a depth of musical expression you rarely find'.

The culmination of this program was two performances by The Song Company, in Melbourne and in Sydney. The Melbourne concert, held at the Salon in the Melbourne Recital Centre, began with Wellington-based Alexandra Hay's work Dream Logic on a text by Branwen Miller. Opening with eerie, sliding chromatics, the music developed into complex, weaving counterpoint that built up to a climax and then finished quietly, perhaps suggesting the 'aloneness' in the last line of the text. The six members of The Song Company sang with impressive accuracy and sensitivity from the very beginning, and it soon became clear that they were deeply committed to bringing out the best in all of the new music heard that afternoon.

Hay's piece was followed by Amy Bastow's composition "It's Organic ... With Soy". Bastow's inspiration was a joke made with friends while completing the Australian Youth Orchestra's Composition program. It was a joke worth making, as this work was the highlight of the concert for me. Not only did Bastow infuse her work with a wonderful sense of humour through the juxtaposition of banal (and ridiculous) lyrics and 'serious' music; she also used a number of vocal and compositional techniques and styles that were quite different from the other music performed in the concert. By isolating the vowel sounds of the title phrase, she created an opening which seemed to envelop the audience in shifting, floating sound. The music soon changed to become strongly rhythmic as the singers switched from vowels to consonants. Bastow's use of comical dialogue, plainchant-like harmonies, vocal sound effects and even beatboxing combined to create a diverse but unified work which made me laugh, listen and think, all at the same time.

Rae Howell's piece Goodness Gracious! similarly used humour to create a lively work which exploited The Song Company's dramatic and comic skills. The syncopation and repetition used by Howell suited Phil Cummings's text perfectly, and the singers took on the childlike humour of the work with great gusto, which was a pleasure to watch.

Three of the composers used texts in languages other than English, which allowed them (and the singers) to work with sounds that simply don't occur in the English language. Mark Oliveiro's piece was based on a Malay Creole text which depicts an interaction between a witch doctor of the Singaporean jungle, sung with striking intensity by baritone Mark Donnelly, and an 'ensemble of four spirits' who accompanied and responded to the witch doctor's cries.

Lachlan Skipworth's study of shakuhachi in recent years evidently influenced him to choose a Japanese text. In his composition Aida, Skipworth somehow managed to make an ensemble of six voices recall the sounds of the instrument.

King Pan Ng, a Hong Kong-based composer who has studied in Melbourne, chose a Chinese text which inspired a piece about a personal religious struggle between an ancient ritual performed by his father, and his own Christian faith. The Song Company seemed to have an impressive mastery of the sounds of the Chinese language and Mark Donnelly once again performed a sustained, tension-filled solo to which the ensemble responded with busy, argumentative music. Ng's addition of the zhong-hu (a traditional Chinese string instrument) to the score added a distressed, animal-like quality to the increasing anguish in the work. The 'Amen' coda was a total contrast to the main part of the piece, finishing the work with a sense of certainty and acceptance.

Melody Eötvös and Anthony Dunstan both chose to restrict their compositions to three vocal parts. Eötvös's The Intoxicated Poet takes a text by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings the composer (who is also a philosophy student) finds 'dark, but strangely positive'. The work is for three female voices which hum and echo around each other - supported by live electronics - to create a sense of profound loneliness. Dunstan wrote his work for three male voices, mainly as a way of developing his compositional skills for the male voice in light of a chamber opera project he is working on. After rejecting a text written by himself, Dunstan found a poem by Fiona Wright called Thin Skin. The repetition of these two words, often dwelling on the awkward consonant 'n', combined with fine ornamentation and the closeness in pitch of the three voices at many points in the work created an effective sense of claustrophobia and frustration, offset by a strange beauty in the purity of the voices.

Melburnian James Rushford closed the program with his work Mirrors, on a text by Jessica Pinney, with whom Rushford had collaborated before. An atmospheric piece of music full of stillness, Mirrors touches on two types of reflections: what we see when we gaze into still water, and what we experience through personal contemplation. Ripples in a pond could almost be heard in between the humming, clicking and crackling in this work, which incorporated the use of kazoos.

Roland Peelman and The Song Company should be commended, not only for their musical intelligence and artistry, but also for their enthusiasm and commitment to young composers and new music in Australia. All of these nine young people appear to have a bright future ahead of them and the opportunity to take part in programs such as MODART provides them with invaluable musical experiences.

Event details

MODART09 - The Song Company
The Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne, VIC
Saturday 18 July, 2009 (Sydney event 19 July 2009)

Further links

Australian Music Centre - MODART09 (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/about/modart)
MODART and 25 years of The Song Company - a feature on Resonate
The Modart Diaries, part I - Lachlan Skipworth
The Modart Diaries, part II - Amy Bastow
The Modart Diaries, part III - Melody Eötvös
The Modart Diaries, part IV - Rae Howell
The Modart Diaries, part V - Mark Oliveiro
The Modart Diaries, part VI - Alexandra Hay
The Modart Diaries, part VII - Anthony Dunstan
The Song Company (www.songcompany.com.au)

Rachel Orzech is a Melbourne-based writer, teacher, musician and dancer. This year she is undertaking a music journalism internship in Sydney, and she plans to continue her studies in musicology in 2010.


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