“Compose Queer” performed by Divisi
Friday, 26 February 2021, 75 Reid St, Fitzroy North
Review by Peter Campbell
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.