WHAT WE’VE BEEN UP TO | This series, introduced in our classikON What’s ON (subscribe here), shares our Ambassadors thoughts at this time. They are voices of the audience, with a range of knowledge and history with music, for some music is their life and others it is an escape from their life.
Alan Holley writes…
At the beginning of March this year I was looking forward to an extraordinary couple months of performances in Australia, Asia and Europe. The Melbourne flute wonder Peter Sheridan was to premiere a work he’d commissioned for alto flute, bass flute and piano at a festival in Japan, and I had several works programmed in festivals and concerts in Europe, as well as numerous performances of chamber works in Australia. Harriet Channon had organised the premiere of The Sky is Brass, my new sonata for solo trumpet, and it also was shelved for the foreseeable future.
Then the COVID pandemic struck. As with all my colleagues in composition and performance, most performances of my works scheduled for this year were cancelled. From March till the end of August that totalled 26 performances. New ideas had to be found to carry on cultural activity.
I had come across the young soprano Amelia Jones when I heard her singing with the Melbourne-based Australian Chamber Choir a few years back. I wanted to write a work for her to sing unaccompanied, and I found the perfect text, First Light, in a collection of poems (A Gathered Distance) by my favourite Australian poet, Mark Tredinnick, published in February this year. Over the last three years, I have composed several works—choral and voice with instruments—to texts by Mark. His words not only ring out as amazing lyrical statements but, to my way of thinking, demand to be sung. First Light is one of these texts.
Amelia also had numerous engagements cancelled and when a concert where she was to sing some of my music from the 1980’s also suffered the same fate, we came up with the idea of a work for soprano alone and the premiere would be on YouTube.
Writing for singer alone means that you must have a performer who is confident in their own pitch and you must also look at creating not only melodic and rhythmic interest but hopefully harmonic invention. In a strange way Mark’s text helped with the idea of moving through harmonic fields as the 14 lines themselves traversed not only seasons but times of the day – for me harmonic colours were inferred. Some were bright whilst others were tinged with soft hues. Amelia not only has a beautiful voice; she is that singular delight to a composer — a musician who wants to take on new work and to stretch her musical boundaries.
Over the last thirty or more years I have written numerous solos for instrumentalists, but nearly all of them were based in Sydney, where I live. It is easy when you live close by to get together to share ideas and test technical issues. Amelia lives in Melbourne, and the country was in lockdown, so we had to come up with a way to proceed. We worked by speaking (and singing) over the phone and sending sound recordings and scores between cities, in hard copy and by email. In the end, neither of us felt our isolation and it was no different to working with a musician here in my hometown Sydney. I was able to test a few ideas and check tempi and range ideas that suited her voice without leaving the warmth of my house. The work was fun, and Amelia was a joy to work with. Her recording, made on her phone in the warmth of her Melbourne home, is a thing of beauty. I want to start a companion song for her in the very near future.
Youtube recording of First Light premiered by Amelia Jones
Amelia Jones writes
I’ve always been drawn to art song. I relish the opportunity to explore music and poetry, discover what it means to me, and have the freedom to tell a story without the requirement to portray a specific character. It’s an exhilarating experience where I feel I’m able to combine my passion and knowledge from studying classical singing, English literature and humanities. In April of this year, I was to perform two solo recitals within three days of each other, one in Sydney, and one in Melbourne. In the first recital I was due to present a world premiere by Australian composer Andrian Pertout alongside music by Alan Holley. In the second recital, I was excited to premiere to an Australian audience select works by Carlo G, a recently discovered virtuoso liturgical composer from the early C17th. This repertoire, as I excitedly remarked to many people, was ‘fuelling my existence’. It wasn’t easy to find that motivation again when those opportunities and more fell through. Alan approached me with the concept of First Light and I was over the moon; a short unaccompanied piece spanning a wide vocal range, including Brittenesque whole tone scales, running passages in Lydian mode, and bold intervals – yes please! And to have Mark Tredinnick on board providing the beautiful text was a great pleasure.
Performing a cappella has always felt like a very safe thing for me as I am usually cushioned, and warmly so, by several other voices, or when singing a simple folk song. First Light didn’t feel safe – it was a huge exercise in trust. I’ve never sung anything quite like it. Alan’s approach of treating it as a collaboration by checking in with me along the way was a rare experience for a singer, a great privilege and undeniably beneficial to the end result. First Light is something I intend on keeping close to my heart for as long as I sing, and I’m excited to observe its inevitable evolution alongside my musical and life experiences.
Reproduction of First Light on the YouTube video courtesy of Mark Tredinnick and Bird Fish books.
(The text of Mark’s sonnet appears in the text below the recording. Click ‘Show More’ below the video on Youtube)
for solo soprano (2020)
Mark Tredinnick – Text
Alan Holley – music