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24 September 2019

Songs for a Day

Aristea Mellos Image: Aristea Mellos  

Aristea Mellos writes about her fascination with the human voice and about composing art songs - a recital of her art songs will take place in Sydney on 13 October, with guest artists soprano Helen Zhibing Huang (Deutsche Oper Berlin) and pianist Ada Arumeh Kim Lowery (New York). An album of this repertoire will be released later in 2019.

I can remember the first time a voice sent chills down my spine. I was eight years old and waiting backstage in the dark silence of the Dame Joan Sutherland Theatre. In front of me, Puccini's Mimi and Rodolfo were in a complete vocal embrace, their dovetailing lines rising to dizzying heights for the duet finale of the first act of La Bohème. I had no idea what they were singing about, but it didn't matter. The sheer power of that sound hit me, and suddenly, I too had fallen hopelessly in love.

The human voice is arguably the ultimate musical instrument. No two are the same, it matures with age, and it connects us all to shared ancient and primitive practices1. In Western music history, the human voice acts as an unbroken line, leading us from plain chant and chanson, to the dawn of opera in Renaissance Italy, past the Lutheran chorales of the Protestant Reformation, into the golden age of German Lieder of the 19th century, all the way to the Sprechstimme gasps of the Second Viennese School, and the experimental electronic works of the postwar era. The human voice is endlessly pliant, simultaneously intimate and epic, and wonderfully direct.

Whilst my love of the voice was established in early childhood, it took another decade before I came into contact with the vast treasure trove of art song literature. As a young composer, I was hungry for collaborative experiences that could inform my development. It's a challenge to collaborate with an entire orchestra, but much easier to forge a working relationship with the humble forces required for art song. Art song also provides the young composer with a compositional scaffold through its poetic source. As I first began actively composing, the daunting prospect of the blank page was ameliorated by poetry, which acted as a wellspring for musical inspiration.

I first arrived at the Eastman School of Music, NY, in the Northern summer of 2010, and one of the few books I'd packed with me, was a heavy volume of Frank O'Hara's poetry. My first substantial composition for the year was a song set to O'Hara's 'October' for mezzo-soprano and piano. This song was the catalyst for a six-year collaboration between various pianists and singers from the Eastman vocal and accompanying departments, who volunteered their time to read, rehearse, and perform my works.

Young composers, much like plants, require nurturing care. And in those late night rehearsals, I found a network of colleagues who shared with me the knowledge of their art and craft so that my own might be enriched. 'October' later become one of eight songs from the cycle Aubade (2011) which was premiered by Ossia New Music.

My second cycle of songs Songs for a Day was also born from a single song: 'Suddenly', named after a poem by the Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos. In 2014, having returned to Eastman to commence my doctoral studies, I established a fine arts festival named the Ritsos Project. The project took Eastman students to Greece at the height of the economic collapse to work with Greek artists in remote and rural communities. Our shoestring budget for the 2014 festival meant that we could only afford to bring a small band of musicians to Greece. Art song was the obvious medium as it was easily portable, and it enabled us to connect with a local audience by celebrating their poetry and language.

Our 2014 concert in the Karlovasi Town Hall on the island of Samos presented 10 new art songs of Ritsos's poetry in English translation. Before each song was performed, two local actors, trained in Greek classical theatre, recited the poems in the original demotic Greek. As their last words slowly reverberated in the marble-clad hall, the flowering tone of the piano swelled into life, and the art songs commenced. Just as the sweeping nature of Puccini's music had overridden any language barrier for me as a child, here too, the music was able to leap over the logistics of language and tell a story through sound.

My song 'Suddenly' was later expanded into a set of three songs for soprano, flute, cello and piano, entitled Songs for A Day. The completed cycle was performed at Eastman and at Cornell University in 2015, and the cycle will form the backbone of my forthcoming album of art songs.

By the time I graduated from Eastman in 2017, I had completed almost 30 art songs for soprano, mezzo, tenor, and baritone. More importantly, I had forged a deep bond with the school's singers and pianists, many of whom have gone on to grace some of the world's most prestigious stages.

This October, two Eastman alumni are flying into Sydney to bring my art songs to life. Pianist Ada Arumeh Kim Lowery and soprano Helen Zhibing Huang are two wonderful artists that I met whilst I was a student. Together, we're undertaking a recording project to document my work as a song composer. To mark the conclusion of the project, we'll be celebrating with a portrait recital of my art songs on 13 October. The concert will be a fundraiser for the SCEGGS Darlinghurst Music Scholarship program, a cause that is close to my heart.

AMC resources

Aristea Mellos - AMC profile

Songs for a Day - concert on 13 October at 3:30pm; SCEGGS Great Hall, Darlinghurst, NSW


1 The ancient historian Herodotus describes the laments of the Egyptians in the 5th century BC: 'The Egyptians told me that he was the only son of him who first became king of Egypt, and that he died before his time and was honoured with these lamentations by the Egyptians, and that this was their first and only song.' Herodotus: An Account of Egypt (English translation by G C Macaulay).

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