Queer ❤ Songs

Quick concert! The Lieder Society of Victoria and Chapel off Chapel has presented us with an opportunity to present two world premiere’s at their incredible venue by Naarm (Melbourne based) composers.

Firstly, Meta Cohen’s queer song cycle A Love Is A Love Is A Love. We recorded this at the ABC to go on classic FM in May and gave you a little hint of this at our March concert. Come hear all four movements of this ground-breaking work.

Secondly, Cameron Lam’s new vocal cycle The Splendour of Lying Naked in the Sun. Taking text from Salvatore Scibona’s short story by the same name, this multi-movement work explores themes of self-identify and ones relationship with your body. Most importantly, the peace of lying naked in the sun.

These two premieres will be interspersed by works by Caerwen Martin, Joseph Twist and Gavin Bryars for an exciting reflection on what art song can be!

Reminder that you can claim 25% on your tickets through the Victorian Dining and Entertainment program!

Spectrum: Lyrics and more information

Spectrum (2020)

Music by Sally Whitwell (she/her), Text by Sally Whitwell and Monique Duval (she/her)

As a composer, I feel I always need to be working. I like to work on my skills, on my composing craft, on keeping the creative ideas flowing. So occasionally I set myself assignments, which is how this song cycle Spectrum came to be. The first song I composed, Yellow, was originally commissioned by Annie Kwok for her students at Brighton Secondary School, Adelaide. I loved the way their chosen text by Monique Duval actually sounded like the colour yellow. I’m synaesthetic and D major sounds yellow to me, so I set the text in that key. It then occurred to me that setting myself a composing assignment of interpreting the colours of the rainbow flag might be a nice idea. Because, I am so gay. The cycle is not actually LGBTQ+ themed in subject matter, the flag was just a kind of framework for my creativity.

The first movement, Red was inspired by an animated video of red blood-cells coursing down an Artery. Orange (Torch Song) was loosely inspired by my love of TV screenwriter Denis Potter’s magic realism, and heralds the sudden arrival of a 1930’s redhead femme fatale. It’s since been reworked for my second stage musical Fairytale Derail. Yellow is a setting of a joyous poem by Monique Duval about getting caught in a sun shower on the beach. Green was inspired by a beautiful day spent with my partner Glennda and our excellent friend, and composer Stephen Leek. He took us to see the centuries old trees in the rainforest of Liffey Falls, Tasmania. Blue was inspired by an early summer walk around the cliffs surrounding Sydney’s Coogee Beach. Purple (The Aubergine Queen) was loosely inspired by the pageantry and downright lies of the USA presidential campaigns. I get the feeling that many Americans secretly love the idea of monarchy, so they attempt to recreate the grandeur of those traditions and kind of, well, fail​. 

  – Sally Whitwell

1. Red

Text and music by Sally Whitwell
Red river of life
Red runs in the veins
Red turns the mill that pumps the heart
Red river it flows
Red beneath the skin
Red turns the mill that pumps the heart
And the fire and the spark
And the fire and the zip zap zoom!
Red liquid energy
Red runs in the veins
Red pulse is powered through the limbs
Red liquid energy
Red feeding the core
Red pulse is powered through the limbs
And the fire and the spark
And the fire and the zip zap zoom!
You know the one
The one with the Xray vision
Sees straight through your position
Despite all your protestation
They know you.

2. Orange (torch song)

Text and music by Sally Whitwell
Down the twisting staircase
Cascading auburn curls
Fire in the eyes
Penetrates your disguise
Russet fur unfurled.
Ochre road to burning sun
Does not lead where you think.
Are you thirsting for the new,
A sour, acidic drink,
So piquant you salivate
For it’s acrid ginger bite?
This glowing sphere absorbed the sun.
Go on, sip that burning light!

I’m fast falling into flames
Can’t you hear me scream?
Scorching, blistering
I didn’t know it was her scheme
To send me to this purgatory
My very soul combusts
For one delicious moment
Of lewd luxurious lust.
But don’t think her self destructive
For the Phoenix legend’s true
She’ll be kindled in the ashes
A spirit thus renewed.

3. Yellow Rain

Text by Monique Duval, Music by Sally Whitwell
That’s when the rain came down
And we ran, laughing hard, sides hurting
And there was no shelter for miles
So we just sat down on the sand
And watched the ocean swallow the sky.

4. Green

Text and music by Sally Whitwell
Fingers stretching out, unfurling into air
Curls from a head of shining emerald hair
Electric jade neon throbs against the sky
Reaching for the sun although she cannot fly
From under the crust through thickening air
Navigating currents where breathing is rare
Shield of protection, crisp slow flaking skin
Falls silent to earth, reveals soft flesh within.

5. Blue
Text and music by Sally Whitwell
What could pierce this azure dome?
Dare it interrupt this perfection?
Not a cloud upon the endless blue
Above a sapphire sea
It’s the gentlest ebb and flow
Fingers of foam caress the shoreline
The haze on the horizon
Speaks of mystery unknown
One lone swimmer negotiates undulations
In turquoise blue

6. Purple (The Aubergine Queen)
Text and music by Sally Whitwell
All hail the aubergine queen
Bow down as she advances
Do you see her smile so benevolent?
Her Imperial Highness so resplendent.
Plush deep purple velvet o’er a shimmering lilac gown.
Sharply glints an amethyst atop her golden crown.
All hail!
Rise up and follow, don’t be left behind
By the procession so majestic down the boulevardes so fine.
Loyal subjects, left and right, violet flags they wave
Proud palominos pull the golden carriages of fools and knaves
Do you blithely believe she cares for how you live?
You brainwashed Pollyannas! She has so much to give
But she’ll not share a penny with the vast plebeian throng.
Perhaps it’s time to recognise that you were always wrong?
All hail!

Are You The New Person Drawn Towards Me? (2021)

Music by Ariel Bonnell (she/her), Text by Walt Whitman and Ariel Bonnell

“Are You the New Person Drawn Toward Me?” considers stereotypical expectations of how queer people should present their identity – ideas held by both queer and non-queer people. These physical markers can be useful within the LGBTQ+ community as concise indicators of someone’s sexuality, but may also conflict with one’s unique self-expression. These ideas must be challenged in order to freely experience one’s own identity, and to connect with others beyond superficial traits. 

Are You the New Person Drawn Toward Me?” (1860) – Walt Whitman with additional text by Ariel Bonnell
Are you the new person drawn toward me?
To begin with, take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose;
Do you support you will find me in your ideal?
Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?
Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy’d satisfaction?
Do you think I am trusty and faithful?
Do you see no further than this façade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?
Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?
Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?

Flannel
Hot shorts
Undercuts
Rainbow hair
Right ear piercing
Lisp
Loose wrists
Vests
Button ups

Here Is A Safe Place (2021)

Music by Lore Burns (they/them), Text by Lore Burns
Here is a Safe Place began as a desire to write something gentle and enveloping for the queer community – a bespoke choral piece speaking of love and safety in a world that is often absent of either. The melody is therefore mostly a simple journey with some suspensions and bittersweet moments alluding to where the listener may have come from before entering the piece. The tone chimes and 3/4 time signature are intended to soothe the audience and create the impression of safety, with the bell-like sound also contributing to an ethereal atmosphere reinforced with breath and a warm singing tone.

Come all you weary warriors
Here is a safe place
Rest with both eyes closed
Without judgement, without fear
You broken-hearted, aching souls
Put down your heavy burdens
Here is a safe place

Syrup and Silicone (2021)

Music by Robert McIntyre (he/him), Text by Savanna Wegman (she/her)

Syrup And Silicone is centred on the narrative of internal standards within the queer community – reflecting on past experiences of being told “you’re not gay enough”, “you’re not really gay” and so on. 

The queer community is a beautiful, vibrant one with so much diversity – like a rich, sweet syrup. Yet, what can also foster an internal marginalisation, and a certain adhesive, plastic fakeness – like silicone. The work is highly personal, questioning the irony of such an accepting community creating such a need to conform to a set of criteria, instead of thriving in our individuality. For me, my sexuality as a gay man is a part of my identity, but by no means my whole identity and I believe it is paramount to let anyone within the queer community freely determine that themselves.

The work sets a commissioned poem by Naarm (Melbourne, Aus) based artist, writer and theatre practitioner Savanna Wegman, a close colleague and friend.

My Hands are wide open

They read soft perfumed palms, primed for an encounter.

Searchlights that look too closely, (for) too long

Smooth me into marble, a figure I can’t recognise

I wait for calm and comfort in the dawn,

Suspended in syrup and silicone

(i)dentity (2021)

Music by Meta Cohen (she/they), Text by Gertrude Stein

What makes you you?

I’m Meta. You can call me Meta or M. You can call me she/her or they/them. You can callme Austrian or Australian. You can call me a composer, or a theatre-maker, or something in between. 

I’m not very often just one thing – I’m not sure many of us are. So I wrote this piece as a wayof unpacking my own queer hybridity. And for me there is no better writer to choose for this than Gertrude Stein, a lesbian modernist writing in the 30s who exploded everything. For this piece, I have chosen a text that is another hybrid thing – somewhere in between a poem and a play.

(i)dentity explores some of my questions about rigid identities and labels, and above all, the language we use to talk about other people. On the one hand, defining identity is very important strategically for us as queer people for civil rights, and a sense of self, in a world that rendered us invisible for a long time (and still punishes a failure to conform). But on the other hand, I wanted to explore my own resistance to rigid categories that simplify the complexities of my particular queerness.

(i)dentity questions the set of assumptions we bring into any interaction, as soon as someone walks into a room. It acknowledges the seriousness and difficulty of (not) knowing who you are, but also, ultimately, the joy and playfulness in subverting expectations and thinking about the vast spectrum of identities that might be available to us.

I am I because my little dog knows me.

I am I yes sir I am I.

I am I yes madame am I I.

When I am I am I I.

And my little dog is not the same thing as I am I.

Chorus: Oh is it.

With tears in my eyes oh is it.

Yes madame or am I I.

I am I because my little dog knows me.

Which one is there I am I or another one.

Who is one and one or one is one.

I am I because my little dog knows me, but perhaps he does not and if he did I would not be

I.

And here we have the whole thing

Am I I.

Yes sir am I I.

I am I yes sir I am I.

I am I yes madame am I I.

But not I.

Without tears but not I.

I Am Who I Am (2021)

Music by Caerwen Martin (she/her), Text by Yvonne Sillett 

(Arr. Alex Gorbatov)

Commissioned by Miranda Hill for Homophonic!, and reorchestrated by Alexander Gorbatov for Divisi Chamber Singers, is based on conversations with career soldier, Yvonne Sillett, about her profound experience of discrimination in the Australian Army. Yvonne was demoted and vilified in her profession specifically because she was gay. This discrimination impacted Yvonne’s career outcomes, her mental health, her relationships, and the course of her life but, by telling her story publicly, Yvonne has helped and empowered countless other people in the LGBTIQ+ community to deal with their own experiences of discrimination and oppression. I am who I am focuses on our self-respect, and the decisions we make under duress that uphold the value we have for ourselves and who we are, even in the face of adversity. The lyrics, written by Gail, speak to my own discovery of self-respect.

I am what I am,

I love who I love.

Oh, I want me, 

I’ll have my life thank you!

I am what I am, 

I’ll feel what I have to.

Oh, I choose love,

I’ll take passion.

“Where have you been?”

“Who have you been with?”

“Where have you hidden?”

“Who did you lie with?”

I choose love.

Or I’ll take my life. 

I choose love.

Let me be with who I want to.

Who I want to.

Who I care for.

Who I dream of.

Let me be who I always was,

I choose love!

I am who I am,

I love who I love.

Oh, I want me,

I’ll have my life, thank you!

I am who I am,

I’ll feel what I have to.

I want love.

I’ll take passion.

I am who I am,

I am love.

I live.

Take back what I need to live my life,

Thank you!

Pre-order Divisi’s debut album today!

We have been keeping something a little bit exciting under wraps, the success of the Compose Queer concert and commissioning initiative we have been granting generous funding from the Sustaining Creative Workers Initiative to produce Australia’s first album of queer classical music. With a planned launch date of 18 March, order your Album today to receive your copy as soon as possible.

Spectrum Album Pre-order

Pre-order a copy of Divisi’s debut album, Spectrum, today. Recorded in late January 2022 The album is Australia’s firs album of queer classical music. Alongside acclaimed pianist Coady Green, Divisi has recorded a ground-breaking album with works by Sally Whitwell, Caerwen Martin, and our four commissioned composers from the 2021 Compose Queer initiative Meta Cohen, Robert McIntyre, Lore Burns, and Ariel Bonnell.

A$35.00

We received a grant?

We have some fantastic news, Divisi has been granted funding from ABC Classic FM to record and commission and new song-cycle by, Compose Queer composer, Meta Cohen with four new texts by Leona Cohen, Savanna Wegman, Christopher Healy, and Victor Hu. Bailey and I are so excited to be able to continue the work started at Compose Queer to bring Queer experiences into the mainstream of classical music. We owe so much to the generous donors who took a chance on us in our Australian Cultural Fund campaign for Compose Queer. It was the success of that program and the confidence it gave us as a choir that directly lead to this success. We are so thankful for the chance you took on us and we are so excited to show you even more fantastic music by local, emerging, queer composers.

Check out the article and the other winners here.

Review: Diverse Spectrum of Talent on Show

“Compose Queer” performed by Divisi

Friday, 26 February 2021, 75 Reid St, Fitzroy North

Review by Peter Campbell

Concert day photo. From top to bottom, left to right: Alex Owens, Julia Krivoshev, Alex Ritter, Steven Hodgson, Monika Harris, Alex Gorbatov, Coady Green-Smith, Max McConnel, Bailey Montgomerie, Alexandra Amerides

Attending any live vocal performance under COVID restrictions is a liberating experience, but to hear one so well presented was uplifting and affirming. Founded in 2018 by students at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Divisi exists to provide experience in consort singing and artistic management as well as an avenue for new music, especially by Australian composers.

The program had high social as well as music aims, being at once a forum for experimentation and a safe place for personal expression. “Compose Queer” was designed to expand the current “limited opportunity for composers to express their queerness at a professional level” and at the same time help raise awareness of “queer issues in classical music”.

Conceived two years ago, four emerging queer-identifying composers were commissioned to write for the ensemble, and they would be mentored by Sydney-based composer/performer Sally Whitwell and Melbourne-based conductor/composer Steven Hodgson. The new works were workshopped in March 2020 before COVID put a stop to performances. Rescheduled to 2021, the concert was again delayed by Melbourne’s latest lockdown but finally took place on 26 February.

Not only was the music new, but so, to many, was the venue. The hall, a converted community centre-cum-church, proved extremely supportive to live acoustic music, with a beautifully sculpted curved wooden ceiling and space appropriate for a socially distanced audience.

The program was carefully curated, with the new works scattered amongst others by well-known Australian and American choral composers. The new was thus heard and seen as natural and normal. The audience itself was drawn into this powerful reinforcement of music as an inclusive and accepting medium. The opportunity here was to enable queer composers to take the main stage and to convey a personal message and the large and supportive crowd approved.

The concert came just a week before the Sydney Mardi Gras and the ABC’s Festival of Female Composers. These are important events in the process of acceptance and equality and recognise our past failures to acknowledge the worth of individuals regardless of their background or personal characteristics. This was the essence of “Composer Queer”, encapsulated in the new composition by Robert McIntyre, “Syrup and Silicone”, in which he unpacks the “irony of such an accepting community creating a need to conform to a set of criteria, instead of thriving in our individuality”.

The works presented were certainly varied and individual. The program opened with two pieces by Queensland composer Joseph Twist, recently returned from several years in the US. They were sonorous and atmospheric, showing off the excellent technical and musical skills of the eight young singers. Works by Americans Caroline Shaw and Nico Muhly, leaders of the under-40 generation of choral composers extending the trail blazed by Eric Whitacre, followed. There was some beautiful, soft and high singing, but the challenges of one-voice-per-part in this repertoire were not always met in Shaw’s “And the Swallow”, while the dramatic piano accompaniment in Muhly’s “Set me as a Seal” provided more support for the vocalists.

The first of the commissioned works was Lore Burns’s “Here is a Safe Place”. A setting of the composer’s own text, the piece employs tone chimes (similar to hand bells) to create a comforting and meditative atmosphere. Its simple melodies emerge from and return to unisons in a work that is largely tonal such that the momentary dissonances and suspensions always retreat back to safety and peace.

Walt Whitman’s 1860s poem “Are you the New Person Drawn Toward me?” provided the base text for Ariel Bonnell’s composition, to which she has added her own set of words commonly thought of as queer “identity markers”. Her work makes us question judgement purely on appearance through a loungey jazz idiom in the piano accompaniment and successful close-harmony writing for the voices.

In fact, the rest of the program was with piano, sensitively and expressively contributed by Coady Green. This consisted of Sally Whitwell’s six-movement “Spectrum” and the remaining two commissioned works. Whitwell’s texts, largely by her, are not gender inspired, but the form of the work is, the movements illustrating, in order, the colours of the rainbow flag. Whitwell wrote it as a song cycle in 2015 and arranged it for piano and vocal ensemble for this project. There is again an underlying jazz idiom, working through a variety of moods to suit the colours and featuring a number of excellently presented vocal solos. Perhaps the rippling piano in “Blue” was at times a little too insistent, but the march-like finale, “The Aubergine Queen” (Purple), was an appropriately light-hearted way to finish the sequence.

McIntyre’s “Syrup and Silicone” is a highly personal work, setting a commissioned text by Savanna Wegman. The fight for identity without judgement or assumption is constant for the queer community, and McIntyre gave us delicate clouds of dissonance above the piano, clearly evoking the penetrating “searchlights” in the text.

The concert conclude with Meta Cohen’s “(I)dentity”, perhaps the most ambitious and complex work on the program and requiring the support of conductor Steven Hodgson. Cohen introduced the work, saying “no one is just one thing”, and the piece played on the word “I” throughout Gertrude Stein’s poem. The rhythmic drive through the piece underpinned an excellent grasp of independent lines anchored by a repeated refrain.

The masked audience was somehow fitting: able to express individuality through choice of pattern or style, but at the same time blinding us to some of the features behind them. It was an unlikely metaphor for the experience of the concert. Navigating the complex world identity and acceptance was central to Divisi’s purpose in presenting “Compose Queer” and the result was a night of impassioned music from both experienced and emerging artists, all of whom should be praised for their bravery and self-belief.

There were occasional moments of hesitancy in performance, and of musical ideas that did not quite “work”, but nothing can be achieved without making that valiant, first attempt. This was an outstanding concert by a young group of talented musicians still exploring their potential. I look forward to their next endeavour and their next confident step.

Peter Cambell is a singer, composer and musicologist specialising in Australian choral history. He is Registrar, Trinity College Theological School, University of Divinity, and Honorary Research Fellow, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne.

WHO ARE WE?

Divisi is a volunteer chamber choir specialising in unaccompanied chamber choral music. As a group of developing young professionals, the primary aim of Divisi is to develop the skill and ability of its members and artistic staff – musical and otherwise – through the performance and preparation of ensemble vocal music. The group’s members are sourced from the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Gondwana Choirs, and other premiere musical institutions and organisations from around Australia.