When I sat down on a quiet Sunday evening in lockdown to view Lotte Betts-Dean’s solo online concert I was not intending to write about it, I just wanted to listen to something beautiful and having heard Betts-Dean’s voice live in the past I knew I would probably not be disappointed on that front. The programme of works (listed below) was certainly interesting to me, spanning centuries, and, according to the programme notes, exploring western repertoire for solo voice and multi-tracked choral works, from Hildegard von Bingen and Claude Debussy to contemporary works by British composer Tansy Davies and Australian composers Brett Dean, Andrew Ford and Alice Chance, via the work of 20th century American composer-pioneer Morton Feldman. I was prepared for an agreeable evening of pretty tunes, but from the opening chords of Brett Dean’s eerie, multi-layered Four White Walls I realised this was going to be something quite out of the box.
Single words of the text in formal times new roman font are stamped onto a blurred, white, shadowy background demanding attention as Betts-Dean’s multi-tracked voice forms all the parts of Four White Walls, one of 4 songs from Tracks and Traces, originally written for Gondwana Children’s Choir in 2002 and premiered that same year (interestingly Betts-Dean herself was a chorister for its world premiere). The work sets a series of powerful texts by indigenous Australian poets, exploring the experience of being members of the Australian Stolen Generation and this particular text, by Debby Barben, is evocative of being imprisoned, trapped within four white walls. In a video interview I watched later Betts-Dean draws the comparison to the ongoing lockdown situation we find ourselves in, and also to that feeling of being ‘stuck’ inside ones’s own head. The advertising material for Four White Walls describes it as “an intimate experience, delving into the inner language and emotional landscape of solitude; of searching for and finding the calmness and joy of being alone with oneself, yet also of yearning for the outside world and mourning lost connections”. This first track certainly made that point.
The use of multi-tracking techniques in the film was extremely effective, as Betts-Dean explains, as a solo singer she doesn’t often have an opportunity perform a whole concert without accompaniment, so the idea of becoming her own vocal chamber ensemble was very exciting to her. This is the first time she has used multi-tracking as part of a more formal recital experience and judging by the successful result I hope for future audiences that she continues to experiment with the format.
The film and video aspect is also a bit of a departure from the ‘live’ performance Lotte has done before but under the direction of Victoria Pham and Daniel Pini of Fable Arts (producers of the video art element) each multi-track becomes a sound track to a visual experience of some sort. These are interspersed with performance footage of solo works recorded in a beautifully resonant space resembling a concrete bunker, dramatic lighting casting smokey shadowy shapes on the walls behind the soloist.
A highlight for me was Alice Chance’s Fiat Lux, a work I have heard in many different venues and arrangements but never as ‘one voice’ which highlighted the wonderful versatility of Betts-Dean’s vocal range from velvety deep alto sounds to bell-like soprano notes. Betts-Dean spoke about her experience of exploring her own voice in the process of making this film, “The voice alone feels incredibly ancient somehow, the beginning of music in a way, and I wanted to tap into that a little bit which is why I incorporated a chant by Hildegard von Bingen to connect these more contemporary works to really early work for solo voice and to hear the similarities.”
While the whole program was beautifully and expressively performed, another favourite of mine came from contemporary composer, a legend in the Australian music scene, Andrew Ford. Ford has begun writing songs during lockdown which are intended for small groups or voice alone which Betts-Deans says ties in well with the ethos of this project. Each song has words by a different Australian poet, and individual songs have different and variable instrumentation. Two songs from the still-growing cycle received their online world premiere performance in this film – Between Birds for three voices, with text by Merlinda Bobis, and dark cloud for solo voice, with text by Ellen van Neerven. Both evocatively filmed these are worthy additions to the Australian contemporary vocal repertoire.
In her interview Betts-Dean says she wanted to create a calm space of reflection to think about the last 18 months, and to give the audience a sense of feeling like they are alone with themselves, with their own voice. She says she has enjoyed this time of getting to know her own voice as an instrument in and of itself, I’m glad she did because otherwise we would not have this extraordinary film of unaccompanied vocal repertoire.
Claude Debussy: Il était une fée (1899)
Hildegard Von Bingen: O viridissima virga (12th century)
Brett Dean: To Look Yet Not Find & Four White Walls from Tracks and Traces (2002)
Tansy Davies: Beloved Friend & Secret Wishes from Troubairitz (2011)
Alice Chance: And the Lord said Fiat Lux (2017)
Andrew Ford: Between Birds & dark cloud from Red Dirt Hymns (2020) *
Morton Feldman: Only (1947)
Anon Scottish: In A Garden So Green
*online world premiere
Lotte is a versatile mezzo soprano whose performance experience encompasses contemporary repertoire, early music, art song, opera, experimental music and non-classical collaborations. She is a vocalist with ensemble x.y, an Associate Artist with the Southbank Sinfonia, and has appeared with several major ensembles and orchestras in the UK and Australia. She is also a Yeoman of the Musician’s Company, a City Music Foundation Artist, a Tait Memorial Trust Awardee. Lotte won the 2019 Oxford Lieder Young Artist Platform and both the 2020 Overseas Prize as well as the Audrey Strange Prize for an outstanding singer at the Royal Over-Seas League Competition.
Lotte is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music (Master of Arts- 2016) and the Conservatorium of Music at Melbourne University (Bachelor of Music- 2012), and is an Australian National Academy of Music Fellowship Alumnus (2014).