Songs for Halcyon
Alison Morgan: soprano
Jenny Duck-Chong: mezzo soprano
Laura Chislett Jones: piccolo, flute, alto flute, bass flute
Jason Noble: clarinet, bass clarinet
Geoffrey Gartner: cello
William Jackson, Joshua Hill: percussion
$23 (Australian dollars)
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|This CD is the result of a daring project to commission 21 composers to write new works for Halcyon's two singers, Jenny Duck-Chong and Alison Morgan. Presented over 2 concerts in their 15th anniversary year, and then recorded at Trackdown, the works are now available to all. The music, commissioned from some of Australia's finest composers (all of whom have had involvement with Halcyon), is varied and intriguing and functions as a snapshot of recent Australian composition. |
The performances are electric. What more could one want? Oh yes, all the recordings are world premieres!
Halcyon is a dynamic exponent of new vocal music based in Sydney. Since 1998 this virtuosic ensemble has forged connections both in Australia and across the globe with composers, music centres and institutions in the search for the best of contemporary chamber music for voice.
|Andrew Ford||To My Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship|
|Stuart Greenbaum||Opalescence |
|Paul Stanhope||My Love in Her Attire|
|Elliott Gyger||The Pleiades at Midnight|
|Stephen Adams||Sometimes snow fell, sometimes darkness... |
|Jane Stanley||Round the Bay|
|Graham Hair||All About Anna|
|Rosalind Page||Aquila’s wing|
|Nicholas Vines||A King’s Manifesto|
|Katy Abbott||Follow Me Through the Shadow|
|Dan Walker||The Mystic Blue |
|Ross Edwards||The Tranquil Mind|
|Kevin March||Sea-blue Bird|
|Sharon Calcraft||Verathmende, Schillernde, Blitzende... |
|Andrew Schultz||Lake Moonrise, Op. 94|
|Gordon Kerry||Music (La Musique)|
|Raffaele Marcellino||Turbulent Passions Calm|
|John Peterson||See, the Prismatic Colours Glisten|
|Nigel Butterley||Nature Changes at the Speed of Life|
|Moya Henderson||I Lost a World the Other Day|
|Gillian Whitehead||All One Water|
|Alison Morgan, soprano, and Jenny Duck-Chong, mezzo soprano, formed Halcyon in 1998. They first set out to to perform rarely heard new works, particularly those by Australian composers, and also mounted projects to promote composition for vocal chamber ensemble. Their enterprising First Stonesproject of 2011 was a series of seminars and workshops where, under the mentorship of composer Elliott Gyger, emerging Australian composers were encouraged to develop their vocal writing skills. The project culminated in a memorable performance of the new works, as part of the New Music Network’s 2011 concert series. With this and their regular concerts over the past decade, they have built strong working relationships and friendships with many composers. Now theKingfisher project has made a further significant contribution to the body of vocal chamber works, and this CD will be an inspiring and useful resource for singers interested in exploring new works for singers and chamber ensemble.|
The background to the CD is as follows: Halcyon commissioned 21 Australasian composers to write short new chamber works suited to their voices, with accompaniment by various combinations of cello, percussion, flute and clarinet. It culminated in two concerts in 2014 and later, the release of the CD in November 2015 by Tall Poppies. Thus Kingfisher offers a valuable insight into the field of recent Australian composition for vocal chamber ensemble. It will remain an important legacy. All the composers gifted their pieces to Halcyon on the occasion of their 15th birthday, and in the introductory notes they all provided for the CD booklet, one finds many expressions of gratitude and admiration for Halcyon’s huge contribution over the years to contemporary art music in Australia. Visiting their web page http://www.halcyon.org.au reveals the extensive repertoire they have performed over the years.
The commissions requested that the works should be inspired in some way by the word “halcyon” with all its various meanings – the mythical bird which had the power to calm troubled seas, happy idyllic times, the Asian kingfisher. Some extended their inspiration to include the moods of the ocean, and some even to reflecting on their friendship with the ensemble itself (eg. Andrew Ford’s To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship, Katy Abbott’s Follow Me through the Shadow and Rosalind Page’sAquila’s Wing). Composers thus chose their own texts, usually poems, and wrote pieces of up to six minutes’ duration, with a good working knowledge of the highly developed musicianship skills of the two singers and the particular timbre of their voices.
As the choice of accompanying instruments was limited to percussion (vibraphone mainly used), flutes, clarinets and cello, there are similarities in the overall sound of the 21 tracks on the CD. Most pieces are composed for the two voices, and as they are so very well blended with a similar timbre and minimal vibrato, it is often hard to distinguish one voice from the other. Some composers used this blending to advantage, treating the two voices as one instrument with a huge range. So Stuart Greenbaum’s beautiful piece, Opalescence, uses their perfect unisons dissolving into harmonies to provide a wonderfully evocative expression of the play of light on water. In Page’sAquila’s Wing, the two unaccompanied singers sound as one, as if reflecting their close relationship.
Some of the compositions are extremely difficult (eg. Gyger’sThe Pleiades at Midnight and Graham Hair’s All about Anna), but Morgan and Duck-Chong negotiate demanding leaps and dissonances without problems. It sounds as though they revel in them in fact. They are extraordinary musicians with near perfect intonation and superb phrasing.
One of the delights of the CD was the discovery of some wonderful poetry including the verses written by three of the composers: Aquila’s Wing – Rosalind Page, A King’s Manifesto –Nicholas Vines, and Andrew Schultz – Lake Moonrise.
Some used words or fragments of words as musical elements in themselves, not as part of a meaningful sentence, or just chose significant phrases from the texts (eg. Jane Stanley’s Round the Bay). The comprehensive CD notes have explanations from the composers about each song and this is very helpful, though of course, the best works needed no explanations in order to enjoy them, but the composer’s intentions were always interesting to read. All the lyrics are included too and biographies of the composers and musicians.
With such variety of compositional techniques used, and so many different texts, it seemed appropriate to comment separately on each work to do justice to this important CD. The performances are very fine. Occasionally there was strain in Morgan’s voice in the upper register – perhaps some of the vowels used were not ideal for vocal lines sitting above the stave.
When the diction was totally obscured by the accompaniment or a very high tessitura, I thought the pieces lost an important element. Why not exploit the fact that voices can sing text? Instruments cannot. Why should the listener be forced to refer to the notes to find out what the songs are about? Surely a good vocal work would stand up on its own without notes to explain what was sung, except if the composer intentionally was using the voice like another instrument? The successful works for me were the ones which evoked feelings and ideas related to the text, and then reading the poem again separately confirmed and deepened what one had sensed or already heard. The works I thought were most successful are found on tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 12, 15, 17, 19 and 20.
1. Andrew Ford’s To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendshipuses a rhyming poem by Katherine Phillips (17th century) – a declaration of the boundless love between two souls. It is accompanied by percussion, vibraphone and clarinet. A steady slow beat, clear tonality, melodic repetition and absence of dissonance convey a sense of the strength of the lover’s bond. The blended timbres of the singers is a characteristic of Halcyon and here, it also suggests the joining of the two souls in this very satisfying piece.
2. Stuart Greenbaum’s Opalescence uses a beautiful impressionistic poem by Ross Baglin, suggesting the play of reflected light on a pool from stars and moon. Soft vibraphone sustained tones and glissandos in the vocal parts perfectly convey this watery phosphorescence. The voices join in unisons and then dissolve apart into gentle harmonies, and a cello joins in adding watery depth. It is well suited to the voices, and Greenbaum has made the wonderful text very clear in the vocal parts, which certainly adds to one’s enjoyment.
3. Paul Stanhope chose an anonymous witty Elizabethan poem called My Love in Her Attire and set it for soprano, clarinet and vibraphone. It is short, amusing and effective with the clarinet embellishing the soprano line with trills and rippling patterns.
4. Elliott Gyger uses his own translation of a wonderful Danish poem The Pleiades at Midnight by Johannes Carsten Hauch for this piece, which ‘is a meditation about differing perceptions of the passing of time, on vastly different scales… told from the point of view of the Pleiades themselves’ (Gyger’s own words). Its spikey atonal nature is reminiscent of the 12-tone techniques of Webern. Gyger worked closely with Halcyon in the First Stones project in 2011 and with his intimate knowledge of their vocal prowess and splendid musicianship, he has composed a really demanding work where they have to negotiate huge leaps, extreme high notes, and great dissonance. The words become another type of percussive sound. Initially I found it irritating that the text was so obscured, but with repeated hearings, the beauty and interesting structure of the composition revealed itself.
5. Stephen Adams: Sometimes snow fell, sometimes darkness… The text is a memorable line from a great Turkish Sufi poet (Şeyh Galip) and the two voices are accompanied by a single flute in a haunting and exquisitely beautiful piece that draws one into its sound world, where one is again reminded of the power of music to express the things that words cannot describe.
6. Jane Stanley’s Round the Bay uses key words and phrases from a poem by Judith Beveridge. It evokes the image of a bay reverberating with the echoes of its past. Flute, cello and vibraphone accompany the mezzo in a slow-moving opening, which gradually becomes denser and more rhythmic, but its atmospheric haunting tranquillity is never troubled – a lovely evocative work well sung by Duck-Chong. The voice becomes another instrument and part of a blended texture in this interesting piece.
7. Graham Hair contributed All about Anna, a setting of the 8th chapter of Finnigan’s Wake (James Joyce) with its characteristic onamatopoeic wordplay. The scene is of two gossiping washerwomen. This is brilliantly captured in a virtuosic piece for the two singers, flute and vibraphone, with fast angular phrases, alternating with slower melismatic passages.
8. Rosalind Page’s Aquila’s Wing is an unaccompanied duet celebrating the two singers’ long professional and personal friendship. Page wrote the text. The slow tempo and intertwining lines that merge and diverge seem to reflect this close relationship. However the diction is unclear and one needs to study the poem to fully enjoy this work.
9. Nicholas Vines too wrote a fine poem specially for the occasion. A Knight’s Manifesto (for soprano, cello and percussion) celebrates Halcyon’s courage and tenacity as wonderful performers and progenitors of new music over 15 long years. He describes a kingfisher as a King surveying his sandstone realm, as he imagines ways of creating a fertile land from sand. The music has clever word painting, but is very vocally demanding having many huge leaps, and while Morgan’s lower register is lovely, some of the high tones sound harsh.
10. Follow Me Through the Shadow by Katy Abbott is another gentle work written in a minor tonality with cello accompaniment, the two voices often in unison then gently separating in curving arcs interspersed with pregnant silences. Again this merging and diverging and the use of silence deepens the ideas in the text in this effective work: ‘Follow me through the shadow, Step through the other side’, which was originally graffitti on a wall in Melbourne!
11. Dan Walker contributed The Mystic Blue (poem of D. H. Lawrence) for mezzo soprano, alto flute and vibraphone. It sits very well in Jenny Duck-Chong’s voice and is attractive from first hearing, alternating between calm moments and energetic sections representing the idea of a great blue kingfisher emerging from a pool like the rising phoenix, a symbol of purity and beauty.
12. Ross Edwards’ A Tranquil Mind uses the two voices, clarinet and cello, and the text is from the Bhagavad Gita: ‘The tranquil mind is like a flame in a windless place’. Edwards enjoys music associated with contemplation and meditation and this stunning piece engenders a calm state with its low cello drone, slow- moving vocal lines that flow with small intervals and the gentle ripples of soft clarinet played to resemble a shakuhachi flute. This work is beautifully sung, very appealing indeed, and one of my favourites on the CD.
13. Kevin March’s Sea-blue Bird uses a short ancient Greek poem by Alcman, which refers to the legend that aged male kingfishers (halcyons) are carried by the female birds on their wings. The two voices are accompanied by fast passages from the flute and vibraphone, suggestive of flying. The many high tones in the long vocal lines sound strident unfortunately in this recording, marring one’s enjoyment.
14. Sharon Calcraft used as her lyrics a letter by Gustav Mahler where he describes the varying moods of the sea to explain his intense emotions when composing. The piece is calledVerathmende, Schillernde, Blitzende…(Breathtaking, Iridescent, Flashing…) and is for soprano, flute and cello. Sung in German, it is atonal with a disjoint melody and lots of sprechstimme. Despite repeated hearings I could not warm to this very cerebral piece and found the vocal tone often too shrill.
15. Andrew Schultz observed ‘a stunning moonrise over Lake Cootharaba in Queensland from a fire-wrecked palm valley where the burnt trees were adorned with red-slashed cockatoos’ (his words). He was awestruck. His very memorable and powerful contribution is a prelude and fugue for mezzo soprano, clarinet, vibraphone and cello called Lake Moonrise, Opus 94 with excellent lyrics of his own. The vocal line resembles a Bach chorale, moving stepwise slowly so every word carries weight, while the accompaniment has fast-moving, detached, syncopated phrases weaving an intricate pattern behind the voice.
16. Gordon Kerry wrote for the two voices with the same three instruments as Schultz, and set a poem by John Kinsella called Music (La Musique) about the changing moods of the ocean and the emotions they evoke. The vocal lines are closely intertwined in graceful arcs with a shimmering effect from the accompaniment. This beautiful piece works very well though there was again some shrillness in Morgan’s upper notes.
17. Raffaele Marcellino chose a splendid Walt Whitman poem,Halcyon Days, and his piece, Turbulent Passions Calm, does it full justice. The two voices, flute and vibraphone weave a magical feeling of calm in a gentle slow work that reflects the serenity that comes in old age. It concludes with a peaceful unison – beautiful!
18. See, the Prismatic Colours Glisten by John Petersen also has an evocative text from Walt Whitman. Accompaniment is cello, clarinet and vibraphone and both voices sing almost constantly in harmony, but unfortunately the vocal sound is often harsh, especially during loud passages where the dissonance grates on the ear. For me this composition did not reflect the intrinsic beauty of Whitman’s poetry at all.
19. Nature Changes at the Speed of Life is a fine contribution from Nigel Butterly for soprano and cello using poetry of Kathleen Raine, a twentieth century Northumbrian. Cello and voice are in canon in a soft gentle piece of great beauty that reflects the breathless awe felt by an observer of the miraculous small changes in nature such as the ‘dandelion’s evanescent sphere’ (Raine).
20. Moya Henderson composed I Lost a World the Other Day, using the powerful and enigmatic poem by Emily Dickinson. What struck me about the composition was just how well it sat in the voice and how beautifully the accompanying cello supported the vocal line throughout. Also how cleverly the song’s structure reflected the text. This is a superb piece and wonderfully performed by Duck-Chong and Gartner!
21. The final track, called All One Water, is a piece by Gillian Whitehead who has worked with Halcyon for years. Texts are Thin Ice – four lines by Dunedin artist and writer, Claire Beynon, and It Is All One Water, a much longer poem by the same poet written in collaboration with others. It describes the ocean from different viewpoints, including the idea that it connects us all. It starts with the two voices unaccompanied and intertwining in extended phrases. Sounds resembling ice melting appear before the vibraphone joins in, first with sustained notes, then a fast moving energetic section. Unfortunately this particular performance is marred by the obvious strain in the soprano’s upper register.
Congratulations to Halcyon for this very interesting and exciting CD – it is a great contribution to the contemporary art music scene and a must-have for all singers and music teachers!
© Inge Southcott
Loud Mouth November 2016
The word halcyon conjures up diverse meanings. Traditionally, the halcyon days are those we remember as our best. In ornithology, the word denotes a genus of kingfishers. In Greek mythology, that fabled bird calmed the winds and waves while nesting on the sea during the calm week of the winter solstice.
No doubt all these meanings were in the minds of Sydney-based singers Jenny DuckChong and Alison Morgan when they formed vocal-based chamber group Halcyon 15 years ago to propagate the work of emerging and established Australian composers.
This album celebrates those glistening years, with 21 composers (six of them women, a special consideration of Halcyon"s programming) contributing short pieces, none more than six minutes long, all of them premiere recordings. The two female voices (Duck-Chong and Morgan) are front and centre of most tracks; on several occasions they are joined by an ensemble of flutes (Laura Chislett Jones), clarinets (Jason Noble), cello (Geoffrey Gartner) and percussion (William Jackson and Joshua Hili). All pieces were written or rearranged primarily for the female voices and the composers have responded with little gems that caress the ear in beauteous, rhapsodic and reflective sounds.
The recording sound is mellifluous and lucid, the liner notes comprehensive. ln a sense, this is a beguiling sampler of recent Australian music and a testament to 15 years of Halcyon music-making.
The Australian February 20, 2016
The human voice — and some of the best harmonising you’re likely to hear anywhere — is at the centre of Kingfisher (TP236), 21 songs composed for Halcyon, soprano Alison Morgan and mezzo Jenny-Duck-Chong.
The list of composers reads like a who’s who of Australia’s current music scene with contributions from Andrew Ford, Stuart Greenbaum, Ross Edwards, Paul Stanhope, Elliott Gyger and Nigel Butterley among others.
As you would expect the subject matter, style and demands on the twin vocalists are diverse and often challenging. Morgan and Duck-Chong are accompanied by a skilful blend of woodwind multi-instrumentalists Laura Chislett Jones and Jason Noble, alongside cellist Geoffrey Gartner and percussionists William Jackson and Joshua Hill.
Steve Moffatt, NewsLocal
July 8, 2016
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