Sydney Chamber Choir is this month premiering An Australian Song Cycle by Joe Twist.
ClassikON talks to the eclectic composer about writing for so many mediums and why this new choral work is so special.
ClassikON: Let’s jump right in with the obligatory ‘What was your inspiration for this new work?’ question…
Your press release says “Twist’s inspiration are the rainforests and beaches of his upbringing”, so where was that and what aspects of this landscape in particular have you drawn on for this new work?
Twist: I’m originally from the Gold Coast where, despite the commercialised areas people associated with the place, there’s so much beauty in the stunning beaches and rainforests in the hinterland from Mount Tambourine to Springbrook National Park and beyond. My parents live in beautiful Burleigh Heads, where rainforest meets the beach. In fact, their apartment sits amongst the trees, facing towards the wonderful Burleigh Bluff rainforest, and just around the bend, Talleebudera creek.
After spending eight years living and working in the USA, I decided to pack up my life at the very beginning of the COVID pandemic, and get the last Qantas flight out from LA. I was so lucky to have those early months of lockdown in Burleigh Heads with rainbow lorikeets and kookaburras always visiting my balcony, king parrots visible through the trees from my window, daily swims and frequent rainforest walks. But there were lots of all-nighters writing music for new commissions and working on music for Season 2 of the ABC animation, Bluey.
An Australian Song Cycle was to be a new choral work of roughly 35 minutes. After some months discussing various ideas with Sydney Chamber Choir artistic director Sam Allchurch, I eventually arrived at celebrating the uniqueness and beauty of Australia’s ecological wonders but, more importantly, drawing attention to the urgent need for action on climate change in order to preserve our natural beauty and leave future generations with the environment they deserve.
This allowed us to focus on poetry that might suit this theme. While the poetry I chose obviously influenced musical ideas as the work unfolds, the natural beauty I fell in love while growing up amongst it, was always in my mind. And while I left during COVID, I had earlier visited home for Christmas in the midst of the terrible bushfires of 2019-20. Watching such an immense disaster unfold in those weeks on television, people’s anger and horror was palpable, which also inspired the concept behind my new Australian Song Cycle.
How did you choose the poetry that you have selected for the Song Cycle? Is there a definite ‘story’ that unfolds or are they 7 individual works in their own right?
Moving back in with Mum and Dad after 20 years was certainly a little strange, but it provided a great inspiration for the new work, and not just from the beautiful surrounds of Burleigh Heads. My Dad, Jack, spent decades teaching high school English and is an author and literature expert himself, so together we searched for poetry. I went on-line but it was nice to search through my parents’ collection of old poetry books and pick Dad’s brain. Ultimately, I chose celebrated poetry from different Australian voices from the last 150 years, beginning with Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson and Judith Wright, and continuing to Michael Leunig, Les Murray and Peter Skrzynecki for the middle movements, and concluding with Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
For Banjo Paterson’s Sunrise on the Coast, I’ve created calm waves of sustained singing, while Henry Lawson’s Andy’s Gone With Cattle is more intimate and impassioned, a tribute to the life of the drover and the struggles of drought. I dedicate this movement to those in towns and communities still reeling from the effects of the 2019-20 bushfires. Judith Wright’s Wonga Vine is more mysterious in its description of flowers, leading to bursts of colour and driving rhythms from rapid piano flourishes and florid vocal writing for Michael Leunig’s Magpie and Les Murray’s Jellyfish.
Following all of this exploration and celebration of Australian ecology, the final two movements provide the gravitas of the work. I felt that something new and specific was needed to reflect the devastating effects of climate change, and specifically the recent bushfires. So I asked Dad to write something, and his work Ashes creates the imagery of a burning landscape, the plight of an animal suffering in the fires and a lament for the destruction of an animal’s habitat. Driving the message home further, this moment concludes with the choir rhythmically chanting some of the startling statistics of wildlife killed: “143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds, and 51 million frogs”.
The work reaches its climax with Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s Time is Running Out. Noonuccal’s poem expresses anger at the destruction of the sacred land of First Nations people with dramatic words like “the miner rapes the heart of hearth.” It was important for me that the work conclude with Noonuccal’s words so that we are left with the poignant and resounding words of an Indigenous voice to convey the Cycle’s message.
We hear you returned to Australia from the USA in March 2020. Was the timing coincidental? How has your world changed over the past year?
It wasn’t planned at all, but I have been very fortunate. I still remember my parent’s calling me to alert me that Virgin had cancelled most flights, and Qantas followed soon after. I was working in the States on film, TV and game scores, mostly as an orchestrator, but I had never really left Australia as a composer, given the many commissions for choral and orchestral works, orchestra arrangements for pop artists, and working with Joff Bush on episodes of Bluey. I decided that I would rather be stuck in Australia than the USA and that I could try to continue my work in the USA remotely, particularly as infection numbers there rose and everyone was working from home.
But in Australia, in lockdown in beautiful Burleigh Heads, I continued writing music for season 2 of Bluey while receiving numerous commissions for ‘virtual’ arrangements from various orchestras and choirs, all while continuing my regular orchestration work from my old bedroom in my parent’s apartment. And I orchestrated music cues for the recently released Hollywood animation movie Tom and Jerry from the Gold Coast. Also, to my surprise, now that I had returned to Australia, offers of work on all sorts of projects started coming in. I’m extremely lucky to have had no decrease in work while so many in the arts have lost so much work.
Sounds busy! What else can we look forward to from Joe Twist in 2021?
I’ve now moved back to Brisbane to be closer to the Bluey music team. And I’m writing a lot of music for season 2 of another animated series, produced by the same studio, The Strange Chores, which airs on ABC Kids. I’ve been juggling this with commissions for new concert works. I’m currently in creative development for a long and serious dramatic vocal work with the Adelaide Festival next year, and I’m soon to finish a new chamber work for Southern Cross Soloists to be performed at an art exhibition in the Gold Coast Hub of the Arts (HOTA). This chamber work is a reflection of the mystical and evocative rainforest paintings of Will Robinson. Robinson’s works are skewed-perspective impressionist depictions of rainforest from where he is located in the Springbrook National park region. Having just finished my new nature-inspired work for Sydney Chamber Choir, it’s been wonderful to continue writing with inspiration from natural wonders from the same area.
And it’s also wonderful to be involved in such a variety of projects. It can be exhausting, but it’s refreshing to move from the fun and whimsicalness of Strange Chores and Bluey one moment, then working on serious vocal works the next.
Joe Twist’s An Australian Song Cycle will be premiered by Sydney Chamber Choir in an evocative program, Garden of the Soul, at Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Sunday June 27 at 3pm.
Bookings on www.sydneychamber choir.org