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29 October 2019

The Song Company: Nineteen to the Dozen

Sonya Holowell, Improviser and experimental vocalist and one of the Nineteen to the Dozen composers Image: Sonya Holowell, Improviser and experimental vocalist and one of the Nineteen to the Dozen composers  

The Song Company's Nineteen to the Dozen program premiered on Tuesday 22 October in Sydney, and this exciting mix of early music and the brand-new is touring nationally until 9 November. The brief to 19 participating composers was: no title, no words, and no explicit program note - i.e. to do without the usual handles for a composer of vocal or choral music. Each composer created a miniature soundworld from scratch, as a contrast to 'old' works in the same program. For this article, The Song Company's Margaret Koulaouzos has compiled thoughts by seven of the participating composers.

Our creative team is a (reasonably) representative sample of living Australian composers, slightly biased towards younger and East Coast musicians, with eleven women and nine men, including two First Nations composers. Some have clearly allowed the songs of birds and the melodies of the elements to inform their work; others have been influenced by mechanical processes, and some by musical allusions to older composers and compositional techniques. All have enthusiastically and uniquely responded to the call to compose.

Driving from Sydney to Canberra and back, as we regularly do on tour with The Song Company, watching the landscape go by, I have been struck by how the vista from the car window changes - sometimes rapidly, sometimes gradually - and how human artefacts and structures appear next to ancient geological formations in an apparently haphazard manner. But of course, things are not totally random: the landscape is formed by water, wind, and other natural processes; human inhabitants have chosen places to work (foraging, hunting, etc.) and live (temporarily or permanently) because of the natural resources and the shelter that the land provides.

The Song Company's artistic director, composer Antony Pitts sums our musical journey through a landscape like this: 'Our 70-minute journey takes us through a musical landscape forged by the creative processes of nineteen (actually twenty) living Australian composers and sound artists, on which are dotted the remains of Western musical structures erected and abandoned or restored over the last twelve centuries.'

Here are some of our participating composers' thoughts on writing their work, to be interspersed in the program with early music classics.

Lyle Chan

Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. Spiritual teachers and psychologists alike tell us this. We hunger for meaning, and when it's not supplied, we make it up. When we are offered only glimpses of the world, we construct maps. Things simply happen, but we explain them anyway. We rationalise. Justify. A sudden aroma and our minds fill with childhood. A sound and our thoughts are carried away with a memory that strikes without warning. Voices, and we think language must be present - because, surely, no person would utter a sound unless they were communicating, or would they.

Chris Williams

How do you write a vocal work without words?

For 'Nineteen to the Dozen' I began constructing elaborately 'clever' solutions to this somewhat illogical problem. I devised secret programs, invented syntax, and ciphers, but none of these lasted long, becoming convoluted and irrelevant very quickly.

Instead, unexpectedly, I did what I hope to do whenever I write music: I fell in love with a chord. From this, everything else seemed to fall into place and generate its own musical sense, free from linguistic sense. The invented languages were an add-on - extraneous - and so the piece was freed when I expunged them and just followed the music.

Composers might - and often do - obsess over choosing the right words for a vocal piece, but in the end words are not the only way that the voice expresses meaning. Sometimes they're not even the most important way it expresses meaning.

Natalie Maschmeyer

The challenge set by Antony Pitts was an intriguing one, as it required me to work within very tight boundaries. However, this can be an intrinsic source of creativity; in my case, I decided, upon reflection, to mirror the constraints and play off them - to convey form, substance and surprise in spite of and, in a sense, because of them.

Thus, I have based the work on a 5-note phrase and several simple motifs, weaving a relatively sparse texture. Restricting the singers to only one syllable ensures that the interest remains on the relationships between the notes and on the differing vocal sonorities.

Felicity Wilcox

In composing this new 'wordless' work for voices, I took inspiration from the country I live on. It is magnificent country, powerful and gentle at the same time. Most of all, it is pristine and inaccessible; as far as I and my local friends know, there are no walking tracks into the gullies or over the ridges I overlook. This country is Dharug country, and I continually give thanks for the wise guardianship, over millennia, of its traditional owners. Only they know its secrets.

The contours of my piece are inspired by this country, and, embedded in its structure, is an acknowledgement of its traditional owners. I have not been entirely true to the instruction of having no words- rather, I have deconstructed one word: Dharug. The singers pronounce it sound by sound, syllable by syllable, forwards, then backwards, then forwards again.

Naomi Crellin

When writing a piece with no lyrics, I was very conscious of still maintaining a sense of communication between parts, and between performers and audience. Being an alto, I have always been amused by the (over-generalised) difference between altos and sopranos, and the interpersonal dynamic between two sopranos within the one vocal group. So I decided to give them something to talk about, and played with the concept of competition versus collaboration - sometimes the two sopranos seem to be outdoing each other, and sometimes they need to work beautifully together to create a cohesive sound. So, really, I was aiming to challenge a stereotypical soprano's self-image, and provide a platform upon which to display both their talents and their psychological positions.

Sonya Holowell

Composing a piece without words was quite a natural thing for me to do. These days, most of my work as a vocalist involves composing in real time, using extended techniques, often without any pre-determined use of text. Sometimes words emerge, but they come from more of a subliminal place and are used for their phonetic qualities as much as for any narrative implication.

Composing for others for Nineteen To The Dozen, I opted for the most natural mode of transcription. Rather than using standard Western notation, which has never felt particularly natural for me, I used a combination of hand-drawing, with some strategically placed words. I had in mind to create a piece which could be translatable across disciplines, such as dance, and which could also provide greater accessibility for interpretation by so-called 'untrained' artists.

Abacus 1 is based around the concept of an abacus frame, which, for me, evokes concepts like gesture, layering, rhythm, individuality, co-operation and even colour. My aim was to create something which would provoke questions and enable possibilities, rather than dictate outcomes and provide the answers. While I did have a few visions in my head of how the piece could look or sound, I remained open to being surprised by the diversity of outcome that could only come from outside of myself. Making this extra room for chance, while also facilitating an experience of performer agency, is what most excited me.

Elizabeth Sheppard

For me, composing an untexted, untitled, unprogrammed choral piece for The Song Company was more an opportunity than a challenge. As a singer, I'm familiar with sacred chant, in which ornamented sound ultimately transcends the confines of language. Making this partially articulated, but not inarticulate, sonic sculpture, took me further down the compositional track I was on when I composed my Kooranginy suite in 2017.

Contemporary film scores display the awesome power of untexted choral sound, seamlessly linked to images. Language wedded to music is also powerful, in a culturally specific way that should never be dismissed or underrated. But in this case, treating voices as instruments with timbral ranges unshaped by preconceived linguistic structures, allowed Australian sounds to populate my piece. Bush sounds, with clamouring voices that clash or harmonise, and pregnant silences, have always inspired Australian composers.

So I listened to my country's voices, scored the themes I heard, and allowed them to flow into a ternary form that frames and expresses my country's voice as I hear it. Composing for eight voices allowed me to play with creating call-and-response textures and divisi, and display thematic variations. Of course, the way I hear and compose my country's voice, from the viewpoint of my Indigenous and immigrant heritage, and my generation, is mediated by cultural, historical, and musical factors.

With each piece, the gap between the Australian music I compose, and the score's performed sound, has narrowed. The interpretive flair that skilled musicians from many cultures bring to my works is amazing, and a cappella choral music offers a rich palette. For this commission, I used a compositional process matched to the performers' interpretive brilliance, and to the musical heritage of Australia.

> The Song Company: Nineteen to the Dozen - tour information 22 October - 9 November (The Song Company website)


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