26 November 2012
Spiritus Australis and the Wayfarers
The spirit of Australia, as embodied in the Australian works performed by Wayfarers Australia during their world tour in 2012
Here I am, back in Canberra, which has been my home for most of my adult life. I have just returned from a two-month tour of eastern Australia followed by a five-month tour of the world, performing and workshopping Australian and other compositions, mostly choral, with Wayfarers Australia. Our tour took us to Taiwan, China, Russia, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, England, Orkney Islands and India.
Wayfarers Australia is a very loosely knit assemblage of performers, with different members in each project (some ongoing), drawn largely from the world of Steiner or Waldorf schools or communities. I began the group (then called Waldorf Wayfarers) in 1997 with students, teachers and parents from several such schools around Australia. Anyone was welcome who loved singing. As I work participants very hard, and expect them to improve their sight-singing daily, those who stay the pace are, or become, very able musicians. Every year since 1997 Wayfarers have toured, either in Australia or overseas, always with a large component of contemporary Australian repertoire. Some members are good instrumentalists, so I tailor repertoire choice to the skills available for each tour.
For 2012 I decided to ask those interested to put their study or employment plans on hold for a whole year and devote themselves entirely to rehearsals, fundraising, teaching or workshopping, and performing. I chose Bach's Jesu Meine Freude as my benchmark: interested people had to be prepared to sing their part in Bach's difficult masterpiece alone against other parts. I ended up with 24 people (including eight men), mostly under 35, from all over Australia. Two besides myself were professional musicians. Instrumental skills in the group included violins, viola, cello, piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, recorders, didjeridu, crumhorns, and percussion. Many were also excellent actors and dancers.
The Australian repertoire I chose included a great deal of my own music, some of which was written or arranged especially for the tour. Major pieces were:
• Kakadu, for SA(T)B choir, solo singers, didjeridu, hammered dulcimer, flute, clarinet, cello, recorders, percussion. I composed this work in 1990 for the Gaudeamus performing group of 20 people to take to an ISME conference in Finland. The 2012 group comprised very similar skills. Pianist Renate Turrini took on the hammered dulcimer part. We developed possible movement sequences to teach in workshop situations, and assembled a series of images to show with the performance.
• Spiritus Sanctus Australis - a work I composed in 2002 for the large Wayfarers choir, soprano soloist and wind quartet. I rewrote it for our 2012 tour for unaccompanied SATB choir.
• As a music theatre piece for either performance or workshops, we took my Songs of Middle Earth, settings of Tolkien's poems from The Lord of the Rings, which I wrote in the late '60s and added to in 1993. In 1993 I turned the three novels into a script entitled The Ring Bearer, and wrote an additional eight songs, bringing my Songs of Middle Earth up to 16. Gaudeamus, the performance group I directed at that time, and the Canberra Youth Orchestra performed the whole thing as a three-hour epic. For our 2012 performances of The Ring Bearer, I had to reorchestrate most of the songs.
Other major pieces of Australian repertoire in our tour program included three pieces by Stephen Leek: Ngana, for unaccompanied SSAATB choir, Kondalilla (from Great Southern Spirits), for unaccompanied SATB choir and Eurunderee Creek, for unaccompanied TTB choir, two works by Liam Waterford: Missa Brevis for unaccompanied SSATB choir (2002) and The Wattle Tree for unaccompanied SSATB choir (2008), as well as Past Life Melodies by Sarah Hopkins (12 voice parts, unaccompanied SATB).
In addition to 20th and 21st-century Australian works, we selected a repertoire covering a thousand years of European and English choral music, including a very recent Dutch piece for TTB choir, and many short, workshop-style pieces from all over the world. I also wrote especially for the tour a series of music theatre works for children. My hope was that we could give a performance or a workshop of choral music or music theatre, of any length, suitable for a very wide range of audiences varying in age and musical understanding.
As a result, we performed in schools, theatres, churches and cathedrals, community centres, museums, markets and festivals. Most of our contacts were pre-arranged; some were spontaneous. Almost always, audiences, when given a choice, wanted to hear our Australian pieces. And of our Australian pieces, they related most easily to music which conjured up the ancient land of Australia, and traditional ways of life in Australia. Pieces falling into this category are my Kakadu, and Leek's Ngana and Kondalilla. These three all made an immediate impact on audiences. Neither Ngana nor Kondalilla relies on text; Kakadu, in which the text is important, is helped by a short verbal explanation before the performance of the six seasons, telling the audience their traditional names, and describing the dry/wet reality.
I asked all the Wayfarers to put some thought into our Australian repertoire, and to try to put into words what they felt made the pieces work (or not - as they saw it). Unfortunately, our schedule was so hectic, with almost no free time, that only four members of the group managed to transfer their thoughts to paper. Of these, Renate Turrini expressed her thoughts so succinctly that it is worth quoting her at length about the Australian works in our tour program:
In Kakadu (1990) by Judith Clingan, the listener is invited to experience the six seasons of Kakadu in Northern Australia, as well as to learn about the lives and some of the customs of its original inhabitants. In addition to SATB voices, the score calls for an imaginative (but adaptable) palette of orchestral colour. A dulcimer, didjeridu and generous percussion, as well as the more traditional orchestral instruments are called upon to evoke storms, unrelenting tropical rains, dry heat and bitter winds. The score achieves a clever blend of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic complexity that makes it challenging to perform, yet the work is simultaneously sufficiently adaptable for less experienced musicians to contribute to in a variety of vocal and instrumental roles. Several sections of the work are ideal for student workshops. International audiences (in China for example) have been particularly fascinated by this work's unique 'Australian-ness' realised both by the text and by the particularly 'Australian' soundscape the composition evokes.
The considerable challenges that need to be overcome in order to successfully perform Stephen Leek's Ngana (1990) lie in its rhythmic complexity. Though most audience members would not be aware of the piece's exacting compositional techniques, the tension and excitement generated by their successful execution is palpable. Ngana's text uses as its source four Indigenous words (ngana - shark; mangana - fish; yah - welcome; lina - blue waters). Yet, like Leek's Kondalilla, it is arguably not the text that gives Ngana its identifiable 'Australian' quality, but rather the above-mentioned purely musical devices. These include the significant use of vocal 'drones'; 'melodic' material consisting of short rhythmic fragments with a limited range; the juxtaposition of these fragments in a tight rhythmic counterpoint, and the use of syncopation and shifting metre. Leek's instruction to perform this piece using a nasal sound is reminiscent of Indigenous cultures and further contributes to the piece's feeling of 'Australian-ness'.
Kondalilla from Great Southern Spirits (1991) by Stephen Leek has that difficult-to-define yet readily identifiable 'Australian' quality; a quality that overseas audiences find eternally fascinating. Kondalilla, in South Eastern Queensland is a place of great geographical beauty. In his score Leek seeks to evoke the sounds of Kondalilla, in particular its waterfalls and birds. Leek instructs the performers to place themselves strategically around the auditorium, thereby surrounding the audience with sound and heightening the listeners' sensory experience. The resultant evocative soundscape never fails to engage audiences. The work's success is in no small part due to its accessibility; the audience's enjoyment is not contingent on prerequisite musical knowledge but rather on an ability and desire to surrender to the aural experience. From a performer's perspective the 'free' and somewhat random nature of the vocal entries that the score demands ensures that no two performances are ever alike. The piece works especially well in workshops with young adults, though the requirement to make unusual solo vocalisations while standing next to an audience member can be somewhat daunting to the uninitiated!
Waterford's The Wattle Tree and my Spiritus Sanctus Australis, both of which are among the choir's favourite pieces, are harder for an average audience with no text in a program note to relate the sounds to - but a discerning audience, especially one equipped with the text, loves them.The Wattle Tree is a glorious setting of a splendid Judith Wright poem. Again, I quote Renate:
Melodic lines in The Wattle Tree (2008) by Liam Waterford are satisfyingly singable and these, unfolding within a rich five-part contrapuntal texture, betray an obvious wealth of knowledge of, and deep love of the European choral tradition. The influence of Judith Clingan, Waterford's teacher and mentor, can be clearly seen in Waterford's liberal use of dissonance within the texture, in particular seconds, sevenths and tritones, and the effective use of rhythmic devices such as polyrhythm and frequent metre change. The rich choral tapestry that Waterford weaves deservedly place his works within the growing canon of Australian choral music.
While the opening of my own work Spiritus Sanctus Australis is atmospheric, most of the piece is conceptual, dealing with the urgent need for white Australians to put more effort into redressing the wrongs suffered by Indigenous people. To gain the full impact audiences really need the text in the program. To quote Renate again:
Spiritus Sanctus Australis (2002) by Judith Clingan is a powerful work depicting the story of the white invasion of the Australian continent seen from an Aboriginal perspective. The whispers and cluster chords emanating from performers surrounding the audience and the modal, pounding sound of the opening passages evoke a distant, timeless quality. With insistent chorale-like refrains framing the chillingly discordant episodes depicting 'loss', 'greed' and 'death', the piece presents considerable challenges of pitch and intonation and requires significant rehearsal for each new performance. A memorable performance on this tour was for our demonstrably appreciative St Petersburg audience where we offered an all Australian concert including Spiritus Sanctus Australis.'
It is almost impossible for a choir to sing interesting choral music in such a way as to make every word clear, so text in hand really enhances the choral experience for audiences. Unfortunately, when touring, it is not always possible to organise the creation of programs complete with texts and notes. My verbal introductions did, however, help. Audiences became visibly engaged and moved.
And so it became apparent to us that, on the whole, 'Australian-ness' is linked to a work's sonic appeal to an audience's preconceived notions about the Great South Land. Both Leek and I on occasion reference Indigenous chant (Ngana and parts of Kakadu). The opening of Spiritus Sanctus Australis aims to create the timelessness and immensity of open space found in the heart of Australia. And Kondalilla and other parts of Kakadu use evocative vocal sounds to conjure up a beautiful rainforest wilderness, replete with multicoloured birds and luxuriant waterfalls.
How, then, should we look at an Australian composer's setting of the ancient words of the Catholic Mass? Is it possible for any quality of 'Australian-ness' to be felt in such a work? Perhaps. I love Waterford's Missa Brevis. And it could be that what I love about it is its freshness, its use of stasis laced with intricate rhythmic play, its openness of texture. All of these qualities could be said to be true of things Australian. But probably the work could equally have been written by a contemporary Finnish composer. However, I don't feel, as perhaps Stephen Leek might feel, that a contemporary Australian composer has no business setting those words.
One of our performers is also a young Melbourne composer, Gawain Davey, who wrote several pieces for us en route, which enlivened us considerably. We gave a good premiere performance of his pieces in our Australian choral music concert in York, UK. Gawain's recollection of the performances and especially the premiere of his new works is worth recording here:
Having my choir piece Night Walk premiered by Wayfarers Australia undoubtedly ranks as one of my personal highlights as a composer. Initially, I was tentative: would people enjoy my piece? I had written it without a piano or a computer, just using pencil, paper and a tuning fork. I'd only tried it with a few devoted singers. Would it sound okay in a choir context? Then finally, a sense of satisfaction: all of the sounds in my head coming to life in rehearsals as I'd hoped they would, all the interesting chords coming together at the right moments, singers enjoying the piece, basses dealing with impossible leaps. It was everything a composer could wish for. It felt odd that my piece, which was really about a walk in Canberra, should be premiered in York, England. But the audience were very appreciative, and didn't seem to mind a concert of unknown Australian choral music.
Even more exciting for me (and more personal): in the same concert, Wayfarers premiered four short works of mine. These pieces were each written about a different member of the choir; for example one was titled 'Gill', and another 'Rohan'. This time, only eight singers were involved, as there had been no time on our world tour (!) to rehearse these songs with the whole choir. Thus I had eight excellent singers to sing four intricate miniature portraits. My idea for the 'name pieces' was that they should be short (enabling me to get through twenty choir members!) and should be representative of that person - the text might tell something about them, and the music would hopefully suit their personality or their quirks. These pieces were received very favourably; perhaps it was the fact that we pointed out each chorister before their piece was sung, or the intimacy of singing songs specifically made for certain people, or maybe it was their easily digestible size. Perhaps it was the music itself. I do know that the whole concert made everyone involved, including me, very happy. Such inspiring experiences make me determined to continue composing interesting, accessible, challenging music that people enjoy.'
Our tour was challenging and satisfying. We have left strong impressions in many listeners' memories in many parts of the world. And clearly, this sort of thing could happen more - the rest of the world is very keen to hear more from Australians and I would love to have suggestions about Australian choral compositions which could suit a future Wayfarers world tour.
© Australian Music Centre (2012) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Judith Clingan AM has been a professional composer, performer, conductor and music/music theatre educator for 45 years. She founded the Wayfarers Australia (formerly Waldorf Wayfarers) in 1997.
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