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18 December 2009

Unbearable beauty!

Two Australian choral classics: a conductor’s reflections

Carl Crossin Image: Carl Crossin  

Conductor Carl Crossin writes about two of his favourite Australian unaccompanied choral works, by Clare Maclean and Stephen Leek. In addition to some detailed analysis, he shares his invaluable practical experience about performing the works with different choirs under different circumstances.

Clare Maclean's Christ the King and Stephen Leek's Kondalilla (from Great Southern Spirits) are two of the great Australian unaccompanied choral works. Although drawn from spiritual traditions that are literally continents and eons apart, both works share a deep sense of spirituality that transcends historical and stylistic boundaries. Both works also share a richness of choral sonority that is derived essentially from seemingly irreconcilable manifestations of polyphony - canon and aleatory. For Maclean, canon (or similar imitative techniques) is an essential tool in the creation of a polyphonic fabric that draws both inspiration and technique from the polyphony of Dufay, Ockeghem and Josquin. Leek, on the other hand, uses a repeated, aleatoric overlay of a few melodic fragments in the soprano and alto parts above simple drones and phrases in the tenor and bass parts to create what sounds like a complex melodic web, but which, is in practice, astonishing in its simplicity.

Both works are accessible to good SATB choirs, but both require secure ensemble singing. The Maclean requires divisi in all four parts (SATB - up to 14 parts at one point!) whereas the Leek uses only the standard SATB division of the choir with minimal divisi in the male parts. Although Kondalilla can sound quite complex, the aleatoric nature of the music actually helps to make it much more accessible than it sounds.

Clare Maclean: Christ the King

Although Clare Maclean was born - and initially educated - in New Zealand, she moved to Sydney in 1979 at the age of 21 to study composition with Peter Sculthorpe. We in Australia have thus become presumptuously proud to call her one of ours! Maclean's strong affinity for writing for the voice was nourished when she became a member of the Sydney Chamber Choir, and her involvement with the choir also provided the opportunity to study the polyphonic music of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Christ the King manifests both Maclean's love of Gregorian chant and her passion for the music of such Renaissance masters as Ockeghem, Josquin and Victoria and, like the Estonian Arvo Pärt, Maclean draws on a substantial compendium of medieval and Renaissance techniques. In the words of Sydney Chamber Choir's conductor at the time, Nicholas Routley, Maclean, '…has translated the vocal purity and contrapuntal strength of Ockeghem and Josquin into twentieth-century terms. In so doing she has revitalised a somewhat intermittent tradition of a cappella choral composition in Sydney.'

Christ the King draws virtually all of its text from James K. Baxter's poem 'Song to the Father' (No. 4 of Five Sestinas). The work begins with a single vocal line that marries the opening lines of Baxter's poem ('Father, beyond the hills and water, beyond the city of the stars…') with the Gregorian plainsong for the Roman Catholic Feast of Christ the King. The first two stanzas of the poem then continue with the same plainsong set as two-part, and then three-part, canon. The beauty of this simple technique is heightened by the subtle use of word accents to define the chant-like rhythm of the phrases.

From a conductor's point of view, it is worth discussing the rhythmic element of this opening section because, stylistically, it can be one of the greatest challenges in the entire work. To successfully combine the rhythmic 'elasticity' of chant with the metrical strictness of canon is no mean feat, and a brief discussion of Maclean's compositional process can be illuminating. Maclean actually composed two versions of this first canonic section. Up until the first 'Alleluia', the original version used a variety of different time signatures (4/4, 5/4, 6/4, 7/4), presumably to align metrical accents with the natural 'The singers' own awareness of the natural word accents and the fluid combination of twos and threes, found in any plainsong, is the real key to the success of this music in performance.'accents of the words, and to take away the perceived regularity of one constant time signature - a regularity which is anathema to chant.

Maclean's second version greatly simplified these first two pages and, in doing so, actually made the music more accessible to the singers and thus more successful. The first two bars are still in 7/4 and 3/2 (for the words 'Father, beyond the hills and water…') but from there on, it is all 4/4. Most choral singers with the technical and ensemble skills to sing this piece will probably already have had experience with Renaissance music and will instinctively understand the type of phrasing required for this section of the work - both for the unison plainsong line at the opening and the canonic treatment of that line following. In essence, the time signature and barlines are simply a sign-posting of beats to help keep the singers together. The singers' own awareness of the natural word accents and the fluid combination of twos and threes, found in any plainsong, is the real key to the success of this music in performance. In essence, a score is simply the link between the composer and the performers. It is the musicians themselves who make the music 'work', so whatever translates the composer's wishes most clearly to the performers is therefore the best solution.

Structurally, Christ the King is both 'organically' through-composed, and yet linked throughout by the recurring use of the Christ the King Gregorian chant. The overall structure of the work is also articulated by the three statements of the 'Alleluia'. These glorious, ethereal utterances are slightly different from each other but all three are 'poly-modal' - that is, each of the three upper parts (SAT) sings in a different mode.

Although the drone or 'pedal' note sung by the basses in two of the 'Alleluias' is different on each occasion, the soprano part is G Mixolydian (G major with F natural); the alto, G Aeolian (just like G minor) and the tenor, G Dorian (like G minor but with E naturals). On paper, this sounds much more complicated than it actually is, but once the singers get used to the modality of their own 'key' or mode, the effect is both inspired and inspiring. These three ten-bar 'Alleluias' remain, for me, some of the most beautiful vignettes of 'Renaissance' polyphony composed in recent times.

Not only has Maclean made subtle changes in the forces required for each of the three 'Alleluias', she has also provided some minor variations in the word underlay. Given that the text is somewhat 'stretched' in these 'Alleluia' sections (with long melismas for each syllable) the individual vowels themselves are actually more obvious than the word itself. This modification of text underlay also changes which vowels are sung for various phrases in the 'Alleluia' section (the word 'Alleluia' has three different vowels - 'ah', eh' and 'oo'). For a choir, 'vowel colour' and 'tone colour' are inextricably linked, so an important element of the sound of a work is related to the composer's setting of the words in relation to their vowels. It is not unlike instrumental orchestration - giving a melody first to the flute and then to a clarinet doesn't change the actual melody but it does change its colour. Maclean's 'chorestration' is subtle but wonderfully effective.

I have conducted this piece many times with a number of different choirs - including a high school choir, a university choir and a professional chamber choir - and the singers never fail to be moved by the sheer beauty of the homophonic choral section set to the words 'Father, you know that it is so, that your kind prison makes me grieve…' Christ the King is not an easy work for a choir to memorise, but I have always made sure that my choirs memorise this particular section. The simplicity and directness of this portion of the work is enhanced immeasurably when the barrier of 'reading the score' is removed.

There is not the time or space in this article to explore every section of Christ the King in detail but even the briefest journey through the work must make mention of the beautifully translucent Alleluia/Adonai section at the end. It is scored essentially in 8 parts (with a couple of chords in 9), one of which is an alto section solo.

Maclean has given a melodic line (the Christ the King chant again) with the words 'The murmur of many voices will stay with me when the light has gone…' to the altos. The rest of the choir sings the words 'Alleluia' and 'Adonai', and the sopranos are asked to divide three ways to cover all of the other notes in the accompanying harmony in both the soprano and the alto range. I have performed it this way and, given that this is the way the composer intended, it naturally works superbly.

I have also performed the work using a soloist on the alto line while the rest of the choir (albeit a 16-voice chamber choir) sings the accompanying parts. Balance between the solo and the accompanying choir can be an issue here but it can also bring a wonderful intimacy to the text as well. If done this way, the rest of the choir needs to sing exceptionally quietly. I have distinct memories of one 'chamber' performance where the alto soloist was not well and began to lose her voice just as the solo started. There's not a great deal one can do in such circumstances but it became obvious to all that if the remaining fifteen singers didn't sing quietly enough she would be lost in the choral texture. They listened, they sang exquisitely softly, and the moment was even more powerful because of it. When musical intent meets human sensitivity, ensemble singing can provide some of the most sublime musical experiences - even by accident!

The end of work is one the most perfect plagal cadences you will ever hear! The final Alleluia is unmistakably G Dorian and yet the way that Maclean approaches the very end of the work - harmonically speaking - is such that we almost accept the C major (the penultimate harmony) as the final chord. Until, that is, the 'real' final chord reveals itself - a G with no 3rds. Neither major nor minor, just the stark, bare beauty of opens 5ths. If sung with delicacy and with a slight diminuendo as the choir settles onto the final chord, it can be almost unbearably beautiful.

Stephen Leek: Kondalilla

Stephen Leek's choral cycle Great Southern Spirits was composed for Graeme Morton and The Australian Voices youth choir. Like many of Leek's choral works, this extended choral cycle uses both aleatoric and conventionally notated material, and draws its inspiration from the Australian Aboriginal Dreaming.

Although composed as a choral cycle, each of the four movements (Wirindji, Mulga, Kondalilla and Uluru) can be performed as stand-alone pieces. Kondalilla, in particular, has been a tour favourite with my Adelaide Chamber Singers for many years, and we have very fond memories of expatriate audiences overseas being moved to nostalgic tears by this startlingly beautiful and distinctly Australian music.

Kondalilla is the most aleatoric of the four movements in the cycle and, as such, is the most variable in performance in terms of structure and 'interpretation'. Was it Forrest Gump who said that aleatoric music is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're 'A powerful characteristic of aleatoric music such as this is that, in a sense, the composer eventually transfers ownership of the music to the singers.'going to get?!

Like all aleatoric music, Kondalilla grows through the process of performance. A powerful characteristic of aleatoric music such as this is that, in a sense, the composer eventually transfers ownership of the music to the singers.

Leek's notation is quite specific about what each part sings in terms of notes, rhythmic relationships and expressive markings. In the case of the sopranos and altos however, the composer leaves the decision to the conductor and singers as to when each singer actually sings their line. Naturally, this means that no two performances will ever be the same. This is true of all music to an extent but with aleatory, the variations can be quite astounding. The early stages of learning aleatoric choral music are really workshops rather than rehearsals in the traditional sense because the singers must experiment and take ownership of the music in a different way.

This approach also means that the work will grow quite organically over time as the singers discover what works and what doesn't. In the early stages of preparing Kondalilla, I have usually determined which singers will begin the work, or have at least assigned a particular order of singers so that there can be a basic framework upon which the rest of the in situ decision-making can work. Musically speaking, total freedom often produces chaos, whereas freedom within even a loosely defined structure creates clarity, momentum and some quite illuminating results. As the choir becomes more familiar with the music and is able to take more responsibility for working independently of the conductor and other singers, some or all of these imposed structures can be removed. The process of learning aleatoric music is not unlike building an edifice by using scaffolds - medieval stone masons built the great Gothic cathedrals with wooden formwork which at first obscured but then liberated the lofty spaces within.

Although Kondalilla is expressive on a number of textual and musical levels, the symbolism of the work is simple but remarkably effective: Kondalilla is the spirit of falling water who, through the slowly cascading phrases of the sopranos and altos, feeds Ouyen, the spirit of still water, who is represented, in the opening section at least, by the calm sustained pedal of the tenors and basses.

The instructions at the end of Kondalilla and Uluru both ask for a range of whispered, 'environmental' sounds. When I first conducted the cycle, we made sure that the sounds at the end of Kondalilla were quite perfunctory so as not to detract from the effect of those at the end of Uluru. As I have continued to perform Kondalilla as a separate work, the extended 'bush' sounds have migrated from the end of Uluru to the end of Kondalilla. Singers can be remarkably creative when, within the right context, they are asked to imitate the sounds of nature. So as not to distract the audience, I usually ask the singers to turn away from the audience at the end of the piece so the audience hears the sounds around them but loses the sense of direction.

Using the spatial potential of a venue can also be an exciting way to present some music in concert, and the aleatoric nature of Kondalilla is further enhanced by such treatment. I have experimented over time with placing the sopranos and altos 'around' the venue - including amongst the audience - while the tenors and basses remain together on stage for their initial drone and subsequent tutti melodies. This can be particularly effective in any venue with galleries, and, even with only eight female singers, we use all of the available space. Singing with vast distances between the singers requires a considerable amount of confidence on the part of the singers. However, once the security and confidence is in place, the experience can be quite empowering for the singers, and certainly very moving for the audience.

Despite the level of independence and confidence required of the singers, Kondalilla is remarkably accessible to SATB choirs of all ages. In fact, it is a wonderful work for building independence and confidence in singers. The cycle Great Southern Spirits was originally composed for a youth choir, and it is through singing works such as this that singers gain the skills and confidence to step out of their musical comfort zones.

Further links

Clare Maclean - AMC profile
Stephen Leek - AMC profile
'It Can't Get Any Better Than This! Stephen Leek and a new culture of choral music' - a Journal article by Helen Lancaster
Adelaide Chamber Singers (http://www.adelaidechambersingers.com/)

Carl Crossin - conductor, educator, composer and arranger - is one of Australia’s most experienced and respected choral conductors. He is currently Acting Director of the Elder Conservatorium of Music at the University of Adelaide and is the Founder/Conductor of Adelaide Chamber Singers. Carl has conducted a wide variety of choirs at virtually all levels of education and professionally and, in addition to his international tours with ACS, has been a clinician and conductor at summer schools, festivals and conferences throughout Australia and internationally. In 2007, he was awarded an OAM for his services to music.


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