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6 October 2022

Songs of the Reef - Crouch End Festival Commission

Cassie To Image: Cassie To  
© Nikki To

Commissioned by the Crouch End Festival Chorus in London, Cassie To's new work, Songs of the Reef is due for its world premiere on 23 October 2022. Written for choir and children's choir, the work is programmed alongside works by Edward Elgar and John Adams in a concert exploring the life and sounds of the sea.

Here, Cassie writes about how the commission came about, and composing in collaboration with field recordings from marine biologist, Steve Simpson.

In 2019 I received an email from David Temple from Crouch End Festival Chorus enquiring about a piece I had written with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra about the Great Barrier Reef as part of their Cybec 21st Century Composers program. Little did I know this correspondence would lead to such an exciting opportunity!

Songs of the Reef is a sonic exploration of the Great Barrier Reef, combining actual recordings of the reef with choir, orchestra and children choir. The piece delves into vibrant ecosystems, the impacts of human made noises on these ecosystems and the rich Indigenous culture of the reef. It is both a celebration of beauty, but also message of awareness on how human sounds impact the ecosystems and hopefulness that we can change our ways.

I have always strived to include elements of our natural world into my compositions, and, where possible, a message of awareness on issues facing our natural world. Having received this opportunity to do just that from Crouch End Festival Chorus really was a dream come true and resonated with my intentions as a composer.

David Temple, conductor and director of Crouch End Festival Chorus, originally came to me with the idea to commission this piece through his connection to marine biologist Steve Simpson, whose work has been featured on David Attenborough's series Blue Planet 2. Steve Simpson has done incredible research on coral reefs and has collected an extraordinary library of sounds. The idea was born to create a piece that could bring the sonic world of the Reef to life with the voices of CEFC. Not a small task to say the least!

Steve's work specialises in studying the effects of human noises on the health of the coral ecosystems. The recordings range from crackling coral sounds, clown fish chatters, chirping fish and beautiful whale calls to the deafening and damaging sounds of boats and ships, pile driving and their devastating consequences - a much quieter reef. Chatting with Steve and discussing ideas on how these recordings can be implemented into a piece really opened up my mind to an area of environmental damage that I had no idea about. It was fascinating to hear about the different types of sounds of the underwater world and how they interact with each other (it's a lot noisier than you think!). As well as featuring throughout the piece, Steve's recordings provided a lot of inspiration to melodic and rhythmic ideas through transcribing both the natural and human made sounds, as well as structuring thematic ideas based on the way creatures sonically interact with each other.

Another important element of Songs of the Reef is the inclusion two texts by Cherissma Blackman-Costelloe. As there is a such a rich Indigenous culture intertwined with the Great Barrier Reef, it was important to me to be able to respectfully incorporate this into the piece. After doing some research, I reached out to Cherissma, a Gurang, Meeroni and Gooreng Gooreng woman, who is passionate about sharing the traditions of her family and the traditional custodians of the land. She is also a passionate advocate for the protection of the Reef and our natural world. Cherissma very kindly wrote two texts for me to be able to set to music. The first, 'Bhiral' explores the rich Yidinji Creation story of the Great Barrier Reef and celebrates Bhiral the Creator while second text Yailem-Burra Yawai is a welcome song to the great elders of the sea - the whales.

Throughout composing period I was also fortunate to have the support of David Temple and Genevieve Helsby from CEFC, who were able to guide me on composing for choir and children's choir and provided valuable feedback throughout the creative process.

Songs of the Reef really is an accumulation of the passions and expertise of these individuals and I am very grateful to have had access to this wealth of knowledge, materials and culture throughout the composing period. Ultimately the intention of this piece is to share the extraordinary world of the Great Barrier Reef, bringing awareness and hope for us to be able to live in harmony with the Reef.

The world premiere of Songs of the Reef will be performed at Crouch End Festival Chorus - Adams to Elgar on 23 October 2022 at Alexandra Palace Theatre, London, UK.

Cassie To's music is about producing emotional connections. Her sound is refined but textured, with each composition carefully crafted to appeal to the rawest elements of humanity – emotion, memory and feeling. 

Cassie is a devoted environmentalist and her passion for conservation and telling stories through nature is rippled through her work. 


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