Kate Tribe had a wonderful Q&A with Halcyon’s co-founder and Artistic Director, mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong.
Kate: Twenty years is a wonderful milestone for an organisation. When my Market Research business was at that point, I remember looking back and thinking about what I had started with, and the journey it had been.
In those 20 years, what has been different to what you had originally envisioned?
Halcyon has moved over the years from just focusing on curated performance to a more broad scope of recording, online media, education and mentoring, as well as being involved in advocacy for new music through roles in NMN, judging and conversation panels and other broader connections.
There is no one-size-fits-all path for development. You have to forge one for yourself, based on your skill sets, your opportunities and your own stamina and drive. I’d not thought I’d end up running the ensemble on my own. It was created by two singers – soprano Alison Morgan and myself – from the outset with complementary skills and like-minds and sustained by that partnership for 16 years. Since then I have had to find out what Halcyon is for me as sole artistic director and how I want to see it continue.
I’d not originally seen that as singers we often have less obvious opportunities to grow networks than many of our instrumental colleagues who are connected through other ensemble or orchestral work. Singing, especially this end of the spectrum of classical music, is an often solitary pursuit and, especially when we started, there were few others alongside us and even fewer pursuing a path that looked like ours. At the same time, the number and depth of connections that have developed with composers, with institutions and publishers and music centres both here and abroad and with our fellow artists and the new music community is so much greater and richer than we could have envisaged.
There is also the difference in the ‘doing’:
- How much effort it takes to not only survive but keep thriving and being creative as a small ensemble. How much time and energy you need to commit to driving even a very small machine. How much the government funding resources have diminished and how much more we are competing with a wider range of genres for smaller amounts of funds.
- How many hats we would have to wear – we’ve been roadies, tea ladies, graphic designers, data entry operators, librarians, PR and grant writers as well as administrators, curators and performers. And that’s just the top of the list!
What do you wish you could have told your 20 year younger self?
I’ve never been very good at taking advice from myself! But if I had to …passion and vision are great motivators to begin something but you need more to last the distance – apart from being excellent at what you do you need unlimited persistence and patience, a positive outlook, a high degree of resourcefulness and problem-solving and good friends and colleagues.
You also should not be surprised at the jobs you may find yourself doing as the Artistic Director. Scouring Sydney to source seven sets of crotales for a performance is one example that springs to mind!
What has stayed with you those 20 years?
- The passion for the music, the thrill of new discoveries and of sharing this rich and wonderful world of vocal chamber music with audiences.
- The desire to craft excellent programs and perform the best music we can find without compromise.
- The joy of excellent music making with great musicians is still just as rewarding as is bringing new pieces off the page and shaping them into life.
- The challenge of testing my brain and instrument to its limits (I’ll never have to worry about mental plasticity – we engage our brains in so many directions with every new score)
- The thrill of being an instrument in the ensemble (not just the diva out the front) and respond constantly to the different timbres we hear around us, bringing our own unique colours into this sonic mix.
- When it comes to new music, like any other art form, to presume that audiences are capable of making up their own minds about what they like. But also that delivering text can be a very engaging way for audiences to connect to a sound world that may be outside their usual spectrum. We don’t need to tell them how they should view any piece as they are as capable of a personal response as the next person. Music is a powerful medium which speaks to people very directly, whatever the actual language may be. They just need the opportunity to experience it!
Kate: There is a theme in the concert about celebrating friendships and connections, as much as the music. I love the passionate connections I’ve made in business with people who ‘get it’ in the same way as what my businesses are about.
What are some of the stories behind the friendships you are celebrating in this concert?
Firstly there are the composers, without whom we wouldn’t have a reason to exist. Working alongside living composers, getting inside their heads as you explore their music and being an interpreter of these new works is such a privilege. In this program, all the composers have an association with Halcyon but of very different durations.
- With Elliott Gyger our relationship goes back around 30 years to our University days and it’s a working relationship which has been formative for us both. It has seen six works written for us (including the premiere in on July 21), several young composers projects and shortly a new CD of his vocal music.
- With Ross Edwards, I first performed his music while at University but didn’t get to meet and work with him until sometime near the start of Halcyon. Since that point we have had a regular working relationship and he has featured on many programs, especially his Maninya I for voice and cello (on our Waves II CD) which is one of my favourite pieces to perform.
- The international composer relationships are also represented in this program, one dating from 2004 and the other from only a few years ago. It is this diversity that is something we have always reflected – established composers alongside less familiar names and relationships that may extend back decades through to new acquaintances. There is so much music to explore…
- Rosalind Page featured in our very first concert series in 2001 when she wrote a movement of Apollinairesongs, her ‘perpetual song-cycle’, for me. This was early in the ensemble’s life and having pieces created for you was a very new experience. Over the next few years we performed three substantial song cycles of hers, which we then jointly recorded and produced in 2008 as the CD Cool Black. This was our first studio album and our first composer-collaboration CD. The opportunity to spend time in the studio crafting a version of the work that best represented what we wanted to say was so satisfying, and lead to us deciding that recording was to be an integral part of what Halcyon was to do.
This brings me to other important relationships – those who have worked alongside us and assisted us in various ways over the years. In the studio, through the skilful work and extraordinary ears of Daniel Brown and Trackdown’s generous acoustic space we discovered the joys of recording (and post-production) and we were hooked! We have gone on to create a substantial body of recordings with Dan as we know that there is only a limited number who will ever hear these works live and we want them to be able to be heard by as wide as audience as we can. Institutions have provided significant support too but none more than the Australian Music Centre whose staff have been alongside us since our earliest days providing support and encouragement as we developed and grew. There have also been some especially generous donors along the way who have made it possible for us to continue to work with the vigour we have. Then there are the performers (more than 120 at last count) who have shared in these performances and recordings. And lastly there is the audience that has come along to experience new work, time and again, even when the pieces or composers were new to them. All of these connections are worth celebrating as without them, we wouldn’t still be here doing what we love 20 years on.
Hear Halcyon Live:
This Kind of Life | Saturday 21 July, 8pm | Sydney