In the lead-up to Sydney Chamber Choir’s concert this Saturday, 1st June, classikON chatted with one of the choir’s singers, Ria Andriani, who is preparing for this ambitious concert which showcases masterworks from two Masters of the Queen’s Music – including Australia’s Malcolm Williamson – plus two of Handel’s grandest royal works. Ria, a graduate of music from UNSW Sydney, is an expert on choral music and is the Choir’s copywriter. Born in Java, she is also blind, and works with Vision Australia to translate scores and texts to Braille.
classikON: Tell me a bit about how you got into singing seriously.
Ria: As a kid, my parents always encouraged me to learn music. In high school, back in Indonesia, I joined the high school choir. I was in a trio for a church as part of a blind Christian organisation. Then when I came to Australia, I got involved with the National Braille Music Camp and also the Schools Spectacular. Around that time, I had this moment of, ‘you know what? I really love this, I’m just going to pursue it and see what happens’.
In what ways do you think your musical education has been different to people without a vision impairment, if anything?
The greatest music lesson I’ve ever had was learning how to subdivide, because as someone who’s blind and sings in groups, you have to be able to independently subdivide the music to know when to come in – that’s one skill that I had to develop as someone who’s blind, because I can’t see the conductor.
Your auditory sense is obviously very strong; do you think you experience music in a different way than people without a vision impairment? For example, do you experience anything like synaesthesia?
My auditory skills are as good as anyone who’s been trained to use their ear; professional musicians are trained to listen as well as use their visual cues. I do have synaesthesia but it’s not to related to music – it’s more related to the words.
Oh, that’s interesting!
When using an auditory skill, you can appreciate the different sound qualities: for instance, when you’re listening to live concerts versus listening to a YouTube video at home within the limits of your own computer audio system!
A couple of months ago, I interviewed Sam Allchurch, and I’d be interested to get your viewpoint on a question I asked him: The Sydney Chamber Choir is ‘passionate about choral music and its unique ability to celebrate and reflect upon the stories of our past, present and future’. Do you attribute this ‘unique ability’ purely to being able to sing texts, or are there other factors?
In a lot of ways, choral music is very closely linked with text, especially in the upcoming concert. It’s not only the music, but it’s also very much about texts and what those words can mean to people at different times. Many members of the Sydney Chamber Choir, including myself, are very passionate about societal, political and environmental issues. And I think that is reflected in our performances.
How do you think that’s reflected?
A very concrete example is last year one of Sydney Chamber Choir’s members, Ed Suttle and his wife Jane Suttle, commissioned a new piece of music set to text by the late Indigenous slam poet, Alice Eather. The lyrics referred to ‘keep the flames burning’ because of all her advocacy around environmental and Indigenous issues. Those words, when they were set to music, were very powerful. Unfortunately Alice is no longer with us, so we strongly felt that the music was a legacy to her and that we were responsible for keeping her passion and the advocacy work that she did alive; to keep the fires burning. And her family actually came from Darwin to be with us for the première.
When you’re not rehearsing or transcribing music into braille in Vision Australia’s Braille music team, where are you most likely be?
Either at home or out in the bush doing some walks.
After you finish a concert, what is the first drink you want to have in your hand?
I usually either like white wine or cider. Either or – I like to keep my options open!
Sam’s immediate predecessor as Music Director of the Sydney Chamber Choir is obviously the late Richard Gill [AO], who was passionate about creating an inclusive and accessible environment in classical music. What are your thoughts on what it means to have an inclusive and accessible environment in classical music, in both a general sense and in respect to people with impairments or disabilities?
Richard was very passionate about music not just being for the elite; in a lot of ways, he was quite a maverick about music. So he adapted a lot of the music language to a level that we can all understand, and that’s a great gift that he has been able to pass on, and something that I’m also quite passionate about. Instead of using big words to describe music pieces, you can use normal words which people actually use in everyday language. I contacted Richard about a year ago to ask him for some advice about advocating for Braille music literacy, but unfortunately, he was too ill to help me out at that time. But music literacy was something he was quite passionate about; I personally think that Braille music literacy is just one step a bit further than that. Since Richard’s death I’ve realised that I could carry on a lot of that work myself: making people aware that Braille music is a thing, and that blindness or other disabilities are not a barrier to learning music – there are other paths that you can build on to do that. However, it does need a bit of a cultural shift from everyone, not just from people with disabilities who want to learn music, but also from the musical community itself.
What kind of things in terms of a cultural shift?
For instance, sight-reading is a big one: I always hear stories about people who view sight-reading as a stumbling block in auditioning people. I’m only talking about people who are blind because that’s what I have most experience with. I guess there are two ways to address this: either you sort it out with a transcriber beforehand, which means you need to know that it’s possible for the music to be transcribed and you have to work it out with enough notice! The other way is to realise that a lot of people’s abilities don’t just come down to sight-reading. We all prepare for a performance – sight-reading is only one of the pathways. There are other pathways as well, such as deciding on the music a few months in advance, or letting the person know, ‘hey, we’ll be doing this in two weeks, how would you feel?’ Instead of just bringing it upon them like, ‘hey, please sight-read this, we’re going to perform this tonight’; you can always communicate that beforehand.
Yes, that makes a lot of sense! And so, one final question: classikON is also passionate about contributing to an inclusive and accessible environment in classical music, so with this in mind: when should we clap?
I’m one of those people who thinks that you can clap whenever you feel like, as long as it doesn’t distract the performers. For me personally as a performer, if people are too quiet then I’m not sure whether I’m making an impact. I know silence can reflect an impact, but because I rely on my audio cues, I prefer if people clap rather than being silent all the way through. Take the hint from whoever is leading the room, so if a few works are introduced as a bracket and it feels like it’s flowing on, then maybe respect the wishes of the musicians. But in general, show your appreciation!
You can catch Ria in action this Saturday 1st June at Sydney Chamber Choir’s concert, entitled ‘A Royal Affair’. For more information and to buy tickets click here.