Composer-in-Residence Strikes the Match

Talented musician and composer Alice Chance is in residence at Moorambilla Voices 2013.

Alice Chance and Michelle Leonard teach the Moorambilla boys their new music

Alice Chance (right) and Michelle Leonard teach the Moorambilla boys her new music, just written

Alice took one of the themes of this year’s Moorambilla – Fire – to write a new work. On Wednesday night, Alice burnt the candle at both ends in her hotel room and wrote the music, which on Thursday was duplicated, handed out and rehearsed with the boys. Artistic Director Michelle Leonard and Alice worked together to teach the music to the children in a very short period of time. The piece is called “It’s Bonfire Season”. Alice has taken the words that describe all the things we have to do when we light a bonfire and created some body percussion to accompany it as well.

Sticks n leaves n trunks of trees

Go on go on gather it up

Go on go on gather it up

Build it higher build it stronger

Make this fire burn til dawn and longer

Light the match and set the fire alight

Sparks will rise, like raindrops in reverse

Falling from the earth

The boys must learn the music quickly - they only have a few days

The boys must learn the music quickly – they only have a few days.

“It’s Bonfire Season” will receive its world premiere at the Moorambilla Festival in September. Along with this piece, Alice’s other piece Star Gazer will be performed, as well as Sally Whitwell’s Tread Softly and Ben Burton’s Tiddalik the Frog.

Alice says her favourite composer would have to be Nigel Westlake, the Australian composer of film and concert music. “I was also influenced by a lot of inspiring Australian composers like Paul Stanhope, James Humberstone, Ross Edwards and Anne Boyd, who is now my composition teacher. Yes they are mostly men – but they began their careers in a different time. I am so lucky to have been born in this time period. I’m not worried about a glass ceiling – that’s old! The Australian female composer Elena Kats-Chernin is a great role model for me.”

Alice conducts the boys and sings them the new music

Alice conducts the boys and sings them the new music

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“When people ask me what kind of music I write I say, “I try to write nice music.” When you graduate you can choose between super alternative underground new music and mainstream classical music. I am aiming to write music that can be appreciated equally by both a composition professor and my grandma.”

Alice says that she loves writing for voice. “I love writing for instruments that I can play. I strive to write idiomatic music that is specifically designed for the voice, and for an appropriate age group. Singing is a very spiritual exercise – it engages your body and your brain. If I am able to cause a whole room to be engaged physically and mentally then I have achieved something. There is something about the sound coming from somebody’s mouth – which is the way we all communicate.”

“I really like the sense of community in a choir – the sense of friendship and mutual aspiration to a shared goal. I love a whole lot of people breathing together. When they blend into one they become part of a greater voice.

“When I am writing for choirs I don’t like the music to be homophonic – I like to shine the spotlight on different parts of the choir, particularly to make sure the altos are treated fairly! Most men can almost get down to a bottom C which is the lowest cello string – and the soprano range goes up onto the violin’s E string – so it’s an expansive range to work with. You have a lot of colour to work with in choirs – low soprano voices can be dark and murky and high altos can be really bright – male falsetto is a beautiful colour – there is a huge range in pitch but enormous possibility.

“The idea for the Bonfire piece came from the musical structure.  Michelle said to come up with some musical “cells” and not structure it too much. These musical building blocks are pieces that pile on top of each other – and that reminded me of building a bonfire. So the music structure actually determined what the subject of the piece was. “It was meant to be!” I wanted to write about the excitement and anticipation of lighting the match. The piece is about anticipation – and the cells build up musically as it develops as well.

“Cells of music are not my idea – they are an established minimalist idea – it happens a lot in the music of Steve Reich, Arvo Part, Michael Nyman and Philip Glass, and Australian composer Stephen Leek where the score doesn’t follow lineally from one bar to the next, but it has a cell or a few bars that are instructed to be repeated at a set number of times. Terry Reilly did it in his piece ‘In C’.

“At the Moorambilla Voices boys rehearsals I could see they were really good at latching onto something, memorising it and getting it right time after time. I tried to write music that would play to their strengths.”

Alice was under pressure of a deadline to write the music – less than 24 hours! “I loved writing under that deadline. It was awesome! It could be that I am really lazy and need a kick up the bum to do some work! But that urgency and adrenalin can be really inspiring!

“I sketched the ideas out onto paper and brought them to rehearsal and played around with Michelle about how we could layer them. Then Michelle said “construct them into a piece and I want a printed piece of music we can sing by this afternoon!” That was the hard part. At that point I had to edit and bring it together and think about who was doing what at that time. After a brisk jog to the Pilliga Discovery Centre (which holds the only photocopier in town!) I had it just in time to hand them out at rehearsal.

My main aspiration is to be a composer, but that is rare for a musician to do. I would also like to lead an ensemble or conduct my own music. So I will keep up my singing. I always sing alto – I can sing high notes but I am not comfy up there. I also want to continue performing on viola de gamba as well.”

After a day spent dancing, learning and singing the piece, the children went home to Camp Cypress where, lucky for them, Camp Manager Dot Thompson had organised bonfire night.

It's Bonfire Season - the boys at Camp Cypress sing around the fire

It’s Bonfire Season – the boys at Camp Cypress sing around the fire

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Built by Glenn Lambert, one of the Moorambilla supervisors, using wood from his property nearby, the fire was shaped like a tepee. “Glen was most offended when I offered him fire lighters!” says Dot. ”He told me he was a boy scout”. The fire was about a metre tall and was set up at the campfire circle at Baradine’s Camp Cypress. The kids were seated on chairs in a circle right around the fire, except where the wind was blowing. Glen lit the fire before the children arrived so it would burn down and be safe. The fire was spectacular.

Did the kids love it? “I’m not prepared to brag,” says Dot. The cooks kindly served the bedtime hot milo outside so the children could have marshmallows with it if they chose.

“We also told some stories around the campfire and Kayden led us in a song with Paddy McGintie’s Goat and did a great job. Then we went to bed quietly to our cabins and had a really good sleep ready for the next day’s activities.”

Along with works commissioned and performed by the Sydney Youth Orchestra, Australian Youth Choir, Leichhardt Espresso Chorus and Sydney Children’s Choir, Alice is currently studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music undertaking a Bachelor of Music (Composition). She is also a talented singer, and has been performing with Gondwana Chorale and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs Vox.

Thank you to Liz Cutts and Jacqui Smith for photographs.

Moorambilla Boys

Moorambilla Boys: Mlik Dennis from Walgett Primary School

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