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11 October 2013

MODART13 final concerts - a composer's perspective

MODART13 final concerts - a composer's perspective

New Zealand-based composer Celeste Oram reports from the final concert of MODART13 composer development program. After an intense week of rehearsals, five emerging composers from Australia and three from overseas heard their new works performed by the Song Company in Sydney (27 September) and in Canberra (28 September).

MODART13 participants were: Michael Bakrnčev, Adam Cook, Owen Salome, Dylan Sheridan and Marcus Whale (all from Australia), Daniel Lo (Hong Kong), Yeo Chow (Malaysia) and Celeste Oram (New Zealand). Read also: Michael Bakrnčev's article about MODART.

The voice offers one of the most limitless palettes to a composer. Not only is it capable of producing a dizzying array of sounds, but the inherent theatricality of this most human of instruments means that different combinations of the similar sounds can have radically diverse effects. Get together six voices, as The Song Company does, and possibility soars exponentially.

MODART participants and members of the Song Company in a group shot after the Canberra performance.
MODART13 - composers in a group shot with The Song Company after the Canberra event.
Celeste Oram 4th from the left, front row. Photo © Peter Hislop.

Parallels and opposites bounced around energetically between the eight works of this year's MODART program: musical pictures of icy and watery landscapes; soul-bearing panic and grief; furiously spouted confessions of disaster and discrimination; expanse and claustrophobia; the sacred and the profane; textures both subsumingly dense and tantalisingly sparse. And yet, each work was highly distinctive and individuated by the composer's clarity of vision for their respective works.

The icy sibilance of white noise - the germ of all sonic possibility - perhaps the most fitting opening to a program from which a vast arsenal of vocal colours and textures would explode. But first, desolate emptiness: the Antarctic, where all-over whiteness eschews any sense of direction, and the landscape of eternal sameness gives way to glorious hallucinations of colour and shape. This was the scene of Adam Cook's The Final Days of Arthur Gordon Pym, set to text abridged from Edgar Allan Poe's novel of an ill-fated Antarctic expedition. Mounting wordless swells of expansive, stacked-fifth harmony floated like icebergs in an ocean of gossamer vocal layers. Their spacious, austere voicings evoked majestically inhuman structures, while their jazz-influenced chromaticism hinted at a quiet wonder in beholding their strangeness.

From this disembodied landscape, an avalanche of parallel harmony settled to reveal the first words of the concert: a single narrator's voice, recounting the lonely explorer's last days in this desert landscape. A radiophonic texture of gale-force sibilance and luminous humming heightened the narrator's sense of isolation in an alien place. One final musical gesture - angelic, almost anachronistic in its gentle suspensions - had all the icy-but-feverish glow of the lost explorer basking in a last delirium of warmth as he freezes to death.

Moving closer to the equator, Chow Shern Yeo presented a work deeply rooted in the eclectic migrant culture of his native Melaka, Malaysia: Poing! The simple children's rhyme used to kick-start a game of paper-scissors-rock - la ta-li lat ta-li tam poing! - is extrapolated into a lively and light-hearted vocal interplay which laced together musical strands from Melaka's many ethnic communities: the clear, translucent gong of the gamelan, the complex rhythms of the tabla, and the elaborately ornamented melody of the Chinese folk song. The game of paper-scissors-rock has a simple premise, but requires quick thinking and shrewd tactics to succeed; so too did the intricately hocketing voices weave simple sounds into a playful but sophisticated shape. Bookended by sections of breathless energy from the heat of play, a calmer middle section showcased The Song Company's female voices. Jenny Duck-Chong's mellifluous melody was counterpointed by Anna Fraser and Susannah Lawergren, whose parallel fourths swooped gracefully and elegantly like a fragrant sub-tropical breeze.

The next work existed beyond any sense of physical setting, transforming the vocal landscape into an intensely psychological space. In Bluebeard's Egg, Owen Salome chose text from a Margaret Atwood short story which tells of a woman plagued with panic as her surety in her own perception of reality steadily erodes. Written for just the three female voices, the music's breathlessly repeated notes, and compulsively repeating text, evoked a neurotic stutter and circular panic. The harmony's obsessing over intervals of semitones, major sevenths and minor ninths evoked a powerful claustrophobia, the clarity of the octave always warping just beyond recognition. Each voice was given a chance to perform soloistically: operatic phrases drenched in pent-up expressionism were accompanied by slowly dissolving chromaticism, melting the vocal textures like Dali's clocks. At the piece's end, the alto voice, now firmly earthed in its lowest register, sang a haunting and menacing warning that one day, this egg of doubt and anxiety will hatch.

My work also drew on a sense of anxiety - but a collective, rather than individual one. I am fascinated by the vividly eschatological language present-day news media and eyewitnesses use to describe recent events of meteorological disaster. In this work, I wanted to parallel recent accounts of flooding events with the ancient and frequently occurring mythological motif of the Deluge - the title of my piece. What appears to be the sound of advancing rain at the piece's opening is revealed as rainfall data: a quantifiable measure of the status quo. Soon, however, the slightly neurotic sing-song of the weather announcer's voice starts to tell of possible rain, of unsettled conditions, and then of flood warnings and unprecedented rainfall. All the while, trickles of sung text from the mythological narrative start to seep through the cracks. And so begins a sort of battle between the two narratives, played out in dense vocal textures: the latent anxiety of controlled, dispassionate news reports is thrown into high relief by the severe, moralistic tone of the mythological texts. As the floodwaters in the narrative reach their height, the vocal lines become waterlogged with an opaque chromaticism that carries both a threat of complete destruction, and yet also a sense of its riveting beauty.

In lieu of an interval, Dylan Sheridan's pithy settings of three haiku provided a perfect palate-cleanser in the middle of the program. A side venture to each composer's main MODART work was to create a short and simple piece for children; Dylan's three soprano duets were child-like in their guileless diatonic lyricism, but also, in their brevity, possessed a wide-eyed spirit of the child who understands more than they let on.

Dylan's main event captured a similar poetry of things just beyond the bounds of perception. La Musica Callada, based on a medieval text by St John of the Cross, tells of a woman searching for her love - an allegory for the quest for the divine. Pervading the musical texture were the tiny, tantalising squeaks of a trundling rusty wheelbarrow: the remnant, sonic shards of some great hurdy-gurdy in the celestial firmament, whose eternal revolution emits a 'silent music' perceptible not as sound but as divine harmony. The voices spun diaphanous sounds so soft as to be almost imagined, gestures fragmented but perfect in their incompleteness, and whispers so soft they seem to have seeped in through the thin places of time and space. But the sounds were not all microscopic: the texture was enlivened by yearning cries from the male voices and brightly burning but ephemeral hockets across all the voices. One single foot-stomp had the effect, in the cavernous Sydney Grammar School auditorium, of echoing some cataclysmic explosion in a parallel universe. It was a work in which sounds featured intermittently between loaded silences - not the other way around - and it was the sounds unsung that were left ringing in our ears.

Another work of silence and spaciousness followed, but of a more earthly, human quality. Daniel Lo's Shall I Call it Merely Grief? used the text of a medieval Chinese poem which describes the grief of losing a lover through images of autumnal desolation. The three female voices remained onstage, while the male voices sang from the back of the auditorium stalls: a simple but moving evocation of separation. Spartan, spacious gestures were repeated meditatively, opening up between them a sense of aching hollowness. Haunting, nebulous whole-tone melodies conveyed a grief-stricken sense of directionlessness and numbness. From time to time, a solo male voice would speak a verse of the Chinese text in a slow and stoic delivery. The work reached a climax with an elaborate escalation of winding contrapuntal threads which exploded into colour like a flurry of autumn leaves, but once again subsiding to leave behind the rustle of emptiness.

The second work of the evening with text that explored a socio-political issue was Marcus Whale's My Body is a Cage. Marcus had taken lines of dialogue from the Canadian TV show Degrassi: The Next Generation spoken by the character Adam Torres - perhaps the only transgender character on mainstream popular television. The singing voice is one of the most strongly gendered markers of identity; and so, after the literal separation of male and female voices in Daniel's piece, Marcus sought to bind them back together again, wrenching open the spaces between the usual male/female vocal binaries. This was a piece that opened not with an organic build-up from silence, but with the startling flick of an on-switch. At full throttle the female voices sang ruthlessly sustained notes on uncomfortably close intervals, slowly cycling through the simple phrase 'I don't want your pity' - a text which became a sort of mantra as it continued relentlessly and hypnotically. The crunchy clusters of pitches powerfully captured the title's sense of captivity, as huge amounts of vocal energy were squeezed through rigidly claustrophobic intervals, squirming up and down by semitones as if pressing against prison bars. After a time, the male voices joined the female voices; singing exclusively in falsetto, their voices bled uncannily into the sound of the women's voices. In this context, the richly colourful, operatic tone of the male falsetto came across as a kind of performed hyper-femininity: not unlike the glorious campness of the drag queen's get-up which is somehow more convincingly 'feminine' in its grotesquery than the female form itself.

And it was a piece that literally started with the flick of a switch, for all this time, that old-school tool for confession and interrogation, the dictaphone, was recording this penetrating wall of sound. Once rewound and played back as warped and strangled, the electrified simulacra seemed to enact the violence of both reproducing a deeply personal confession, and of a physical body hostile to the voice's attempts at professing identity. Over the dictaphones' disembodied tinniness, the male voices began a series of slow glissandi on each brutally syllabised fragment of text, from the depths of their chest voice to the top of their falsetto: a shrewd vocal rendition of the fluid continuum of gender identity. But try as the singer might to exercise 'good' vocal technique and make imperceptible the break between chest and head voice, there will inevitably be a 'flick': a single point where the natural male voice flips past its comfort threshold and into falsetto; where listener no longer registers the voice as male but as camp-ly feminine; where human perception divides even a continuum into two distinct poles.

Michael Bakrnčev's three Macedonian songs, A Tapestry of Folklore from Macedonia, provided a viscerally energetic close to the concert with their Eastern European folk influence. Michael noted the typically Macedonian spirit of the three short texts, in their revealing of hard-earned and sometimes bitter life lessons. The first, Tri Godini se Libejme, is a dialogue between a woman and her lover: she chastises him for not returning home to her after going off to battle; he laments that he cannot, for the cold black earth lies over him and worms have drunk his eyes. The piece's opening is the kind that hits you right between the eyes: the three women's voices piercing the air with a chesty, nasal drone and rock-solid open fifths. The female voices and then the male voices each in turn launched into a robustly strophic melody, pulsing vigorously in 7/8, before concluding with a fiery tutti.

In the second song, Promises and Instructions, the three female voices incanted a simple prayer for protection and guidance. Hovering between suspensions like frozen fog, the harmony had a Pärtian simplicity, made beautifully vulnerable by microtonal inflections.

And from the sacred to the profane, the final helter-skelter Oj More Vino warns of the pitfalls of liberal wine consumption. Another dazzling opening featured the female voices winding an elaborate counterpoint of ornamented lines over the male voices' drone. And then the male voices took off at a rate of knots, charging through the text on a rousing monotone like charismatic auctioneers, before screeching to a halt with a final flourish of the gavel.

AMC resources

MODART - more information about the program and its participants; links to blog articles from MODART
'From quarter tones to Dictaphones' - a report from MODART13 by Michael Bakrnčev (Resonate, 30 September 2013)

Further links

Celeste Oram - biography (SOUNZ)


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