As Halcyon’s inaugural young composers project, First Stones was a wonderful opportunity for nine emerging Australian composers to explore the intimate realm of vocal chamber music under the guidance of one of Australia’s leading contemporary art music ensembles.
Throughout the year of 2011, nine young composers developed their new works under the mentorship of Halcyon and composer Elliott Gyger. With seminars and workshops in May and July and final performance in November, the project provided the tools and tutelage to compose, polish and have a new work performed in the space of a year as well as gain invaluable insights from both fellow composers and performers.
Starting with preliminary seminars and workshops over a weekend in May, the composers were given a crash course in writing for chamber ensembles and for the voice. After a day of seminars on the keys to vocal writing and examination of a range of contemporary scores and techniques presented by Halcyon and Elliott Gyger, the composers were given an overnight assignment to set a short text for solo voice. Listening to each other’s fledgling ideas the next day they were also able to absorb new approaches to the same source material. It was clear they would learn as much from each other through this process as from their own experiments.
In July, after the chance to work on their draft pieces for a number of months, a full week of workshops was held with composers, singers and instrumentalists. The lineup for each work was drawn from combinations of clarinet, cello, harp and piano alongside soprano and/or mezzo-soprano. During this time each composer had the chance to hear their material performed and critiqued in an interactive session between composers and performers, and had the opportunity to either rework material, expand upon ideas or bring new ideas. Some brought full draft works, others partially completed scores and others brought fragments of ideas to experiment with, but everyone came away with new ideas to develop. This process was filmed by Liz Duck-Chong and the composers were interviewed at the time about the experience. These short clips became part of the final concert presentation as, before each work, the composers themselves had the chance to explain something of their experience to the audience.
Advice was provided as requested via email to composers between each of the face-to-face sessions by both Halcyon and Gyger, enabling further developments to continue in the ensuing months.
After the nine final works were submitted, rehearsals took place in November and finally the composers had a chance to see their works come off the page. The players began to bring them to life and the gestures and nuances of performance came to the fore. The audience and the participants were able to see the work of nine unique voices and the result of many months of intensive work, set alongside a work by composer-mentor Elliott Gyger, which had also been written for Halcyon.
The introductory weekend was an invaluable time of information sharing and initial interaction which built relationships that carried through the project. Having a shorter time between this and the workshop process meant that ideas were still fresh between these processes and a longer time to submit the final work enabled more intensive work to be done in the crafting of the final works, with a long period of interactive learning taking place beforehand. From different cities and backgrounds, the composers were not only exposed to new ideas, but started new conversations, building on their experiences and learning from one another.
The chance to step beyond the theoretical and have your ideas tested in workshop by both a composer-mentor and a team of first rate new music performers is a steep learning curve in communicating ideas and how much or little you need to provide on the page. The chance to explore these ideas with exceptional solo singers, to learn the capabilities of the human voice as an ensemble instrument and the skills of language communication in your chosen context from performers of Halcyon’s calibre was an even rarer opportunity.
Pedro Oliveira Woolmer
Alison Morgan soprano
Jenny Duck-Chong mezzo-soprano
DIana Springford clarinet
Geoffrey Gartner cello
Jo Allan piano
Sally Whitwell piano
Genevieve Lang harp
In association with the Australian Music Centre
This project was assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.