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Composers of Today's Australian Choral Landscape

Updated: Apr 11

The composers included in this article are just a handful of the composers that mould Australia’s choral landscape. I leave it to the reader to immerse yourself into each composers’ world. Individual website are included, along with three sites for more information: Australian Music Centre, Australian Choral Conductors Education and Training website, Morton Music, and SingScore.

 

Dr. Lisa Cheney

Go Back and Start Again (2019) was commissioned by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Chorus, which uses a mix of singing and speaking in each voice section. The desired effect is for the audience to feel as if the choir are one connected brain, offerings glimpses into their inner hidden thoughts. This piece began as an anonymous survey of questions to the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Lisa asked the singers to share their thoughts on what they would do with unlimited time and what they feared most about losing time.  Each response possessed an undercurrent sense of learning from past experiences and the fear that time would run out before they could once again savour the most meaningful moments in their lives.

 

In Drought (2012), Cheney sets the poem of the same name by late Brisbane poet, Judith Wright to music for soprano solo and SSAATTB choir. The music, text and voices work together to sculpt beautiful, haunting soundscapes and images of an ever-changing Australian landscape, perched beneath an unforgiving sun.

 

Dr. Gerardo Dirié

Pomegranate Friends (2011) is a three-movement work for SATB choir, improvising saxophone and 4-channel sinewaves. The poem and sonic designs are inspired by Chinese aphorisms tersely translated by the Renaissance Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in his Essay On Friendship. Pithy expressions about the values of friendship are presented through a layering of Pythagorean tuning sine waves that smoothly shift into 12-tones equal tempered tuning. An improvising saxophonist highlights the tuning qualities of both contexts in order to prepare for the entrance of the choral section. Two Hands or Wings explores emotional and physical nuances of adaptation to shifting sonic contexts –an allusion to experiencing in the soul agreements and imbalances.

 

War Within (2018)

Collective conflicts, as much as the individual, private and quotidian traumas, can send us

into the darkest places. The harrowing accounts told by Major General (Ret.) John Cantwell in his “Exit Wounds” offered a powerful account of how participation in extremely dangerous and cruel conflicts can go on to affect a person’s core. When invited to create a music composition for the 2018 ANZAC Day in Brisbane, Gerardo sought to contribute with a blended perspective: Cantwell’s story, passages from Dante’s Inferno, words from 13th-century Persian Muslim Sunni poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī, and experiences and perspective from current army officers. Gerardo also chose to design a subjective arch starting the music with the foreboding sound of a Hercules C-130 aircraft and the reassuring culminating verses from Dante’s Inferno.  The combination of these sounds with the choir and soloist singing, are presented through the 13 minute composition in an inspirited trajectory out of darkness through the four movements. The composition is scored for two narrators, baritone soloist, French horn, alto saxophone, organ, piano, SATB chorus, and at least two loudspeakers for the sound effects.



Paul Jarman

Rise in Song (2022) for SSATB was a commission for the Watu Choral Festival in Adelaide. With the COVID pandemic in mind, Paul felt compelled to write a powerful, uplifting, protest style work from the singers perspective, returning as a united global community after years of being cancelled. Watu (wah-doo) is the Kaurna name for a communal shout at the end of a gathering. To acknowledge the Watu Choral festival’s philosophy, Paul wanted the piece to shout out to the world that we as singers are back and that nothing can ever take away the desire to sing together. The music is raw and powerful and as each singer joins in song, the piece is a celebration of what singing does for the mind, body, and spirit. Paul wrote the piece also to acknowledge the many styles of music around the world. However, the finale of the work is a strong, forward leaning Gospel style chant, similar to the communal sound of massed singing in American churches.

 

And Will He Not Come Again (2016)

Asked by Oxford University Press to be a part of a select group to honour the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Paul was given the text of the grief stricken song of Ophelia from Act 4, scene 6 Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Written for treble voices, the opening melody keeps the listener on edge with its ambiguous tonal and rhythmic setting.  Yet once the choir and piano join, the result is a very strong melody that seems so obvious within that setting. In the second section, Paul introduces a subtle key change to explore the change of time, a reflection to the past and a girls memory of her father. The ending takes place in the chapel with the final chords resembling the first two chords from Gabriel Faure’s In Paradisum. The piece ends with a long and deeply moving setting of ‘God have mercy on his soul’. Polonius and Ophelia are innocent victims in the story of Hamlet and I hope that my piece brings out the tragedy of these characters.

 

Stephen Leek

Ngana (1994), available in various voice settings, takes the indigenous Australian word for shark “Ngana,” and immerses it into a textural wash with the word "Lina,” (water), "Mangana” (fish), and "Yah" which is a welcome greeting. The piece strikingly captures the driving energies, rhythms and vivid colours of the island seascape found around the North-eastern tip of Australia.

 

A Gibber Plains Noel (1991) and Wurundjeri Song (2004) are pieces that are indicative of the many pieces that Stephen has written working with young people around Australia. A Gibber Plains Noel was written in Alice Springs in the centre of Australia and captures the sounds of the birds and animals and the heat of the bush in an Australian summer Christmas. Wurundjeri Song was written with young singers who live on Wurundjeri Country (the area of Melbourne). Here, they discovered together the traditional heritage of the area and the beauty of the local parklands that were full of native birds and animals with the students writing the texts and Stephen providing the musical setting.

 

Ruth McCall

Waltzing Matilda (multiple voice versions) sets the text of this well-known folksong, long regarded as Australia's unofficial National Anthem, and is reworked in this new version. There is the option of adding clapsticks and a drone, using a didgeridoo, or whirly-whirlies for example. The piece presents some vocal challenges in the form of different vocal techniques in each section and is certainly not easy, but there is a real sense of achievement when a choir masters the different layers. There is a sung drone of Indigenous words describing the plants around the water-hole, along with a mixture of tunes: my own melody, the well-known tune, and the Queensland tune. These melodies all combine to make an energetic piece with a triumphant end. 



Bound for South Australia (SSATBarB) is an arrangement of the folksong and is like-wise challenging for singers as it moves at a fair clip! It finishes off with a jazz riff involving all the singers. It is a showy piece, the performance of which won gold in the World Choir Games last year but watch out that you don't speed up! 

 

Andrew Schultz

As Wave Drives Wave, Opus 115 (2021, commissioned by the Brisbane Chamber Choir) is an unaccompanied setting of memorable lines from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which he in turn drew from Pythagoras’ The Eternal Flux. The motion of the waves and their restless renewal is used as a metaphor for the certainty of perpetual change in the universe. The imagery in Ovid’s text is very beautiful and possibly even a little melancholy – or maybe granitic and philosophical and hence, sadness is irrelevant. This six-minute piece (SATB divisi) is based on slow-moving harmony with sequences of overlapping and interlocking chords – as if unresolved suspensions were waves pushing waves.



Magnificat, Opus 79 (2009) begins hesitantly with the plainsong-like melody unfolding from the bare interval of a fourth like the petals of a flower. Once in bloom, however, the parts fall away again and the music returns to the purity of single lines. Despite the delicacy of the writing and the softness of the singing, there is a sense of quiet determination which echoes the epigram that Schultz has inscribed at the head of the score: “No coward soul is mine” (Emily Brontë, Last Lines). Schultz’s Mary may be small, but she has strength and courage as she faces a future beyond her imagining. Schultz takes a different approach in the closing moments of this work. Time seems to slow down or even come to a halt as single vocal lines arch out over the stillness; the tower of bare open fifths on which the music finally comes to rest is balanced not on the tonic but on the fifth of the chord, leaving us suspended as the voices fade to silence.



 

Paul Stanhope

In Paul’s New Requiem (2024), which gradually evolved over 20 years, Paul spent much time thinking about re-inventing the medium, personalising the narrative and relocating it in a sensibility which he felt could be embraced by the present era. Requiem is written for the intimate forces of a chamber choir with a small instrumental ensemble of four wind instruments, harp and percussion with soprano and tenor soloists. The nine-movement piece uses a hand-picked selection from the original Requiem Mass. Musical setting of English poetic texts – some spiritual, some secular – are substituted to the sections of the omitted Requiem text, to further personalise the narrative. The English language texts are all by female poets: Neela Nath Das (Indian), Mary Elizabeth Frye and Emily Dickinson (both American) and Australian Indigenous poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal. These texts convey messages that shed light on the texts from the Mass, some of which might represent the paternal and authoritarian tradition of the Catholic Church. Requiem has been recorded by the Sydney Chamber Choir which will be released in 2024.

 

Lisa Young

Sacred Stepping Stones (2020, commissioned by the Gondwana National Choral School) speaks about the way the land shapes us, and how the planet is sacred and precious. It is an invocation that celebrates the beauty of the earth and is a call to stand for its care. Performance of the piece involves a distinct vocal ‘sound-bank’, integrating pitched konnakkol with scat sounds to add rhythmic drive to this message. The English text, combined with Young’s vocal sound-bank and scat syllables creates polyrhythmic vocal textures that speaks of this time and place.



 

The original theme composed by Lisa and Ben Robertson of Tha Thin Tha (2014, commissioned by Gondwana Choirs) also uses the ‘vocal sound-bank’, South Indian konnakkol language, and scat syllables.  The tala of the music is outlined using cyclic hand gestures. The marking of the tala in this way is an integral part of the performance of Carnatic music. The Coco’s Lunch version:



 

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