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Giving voice to The Sound Barrier

The Sound Barrier : Blog

We have a very special relationship with vocal music. Unlike pianos and flutes and guitars and synthesisers, pretty well all of us have a voice and pretty well all of us use it daily, and most of those days we will, at some stage or other, use it to create music. Almost certainly the first music we ever created was with our voice.

It is perhaps fitting, then, that Melbourne composer Elliott Gyger, my studio guest on the latest edition of The Sound Barrier, used the early vocalisings of his then 20-month old daughter Sophia as the text of one of the songs for voice and instrumental ensemble, giving voice, which will form one half of a concert of vocal and instrumental music, A Child of Earth and Heaven, to be given at the Melbourne Recital Centre in a couple of weeks, and featuring Melbourne's Inventi Ensemble and Sydney's Halcyon.

Elliott's piece, with its musings on early childhood and parenthood, and Nigel Butterley's Orphei Mysteria, which will be performed with it at the concert and which draws on poetry based on some of the lesser known parts of the Orpheus myth, were composed only five years apart – the Gyger piece in 2012, the Butterley in 2007 – but belong to two different generations of Australian music. Nigel Butterley is now in his 80s and Orphei Mysteria was really the last of his major compositions, whereas Elltiott Gyger is still very much in the early part of an already rich and productive compositional life.

Both composers have written a lot for voice, both of them music that captures the voice's unending capacity to connect with the human experience, and perhaps something of the endless age and endless newness of that experience is reflected in these two very different, but infinitely connected, subjects that Inventi and Halcyon have chosen for the concert – early childhood and myth.

Elliott Gyger is, as well as a composer and conductor, also a hugely respected authority on Nigel Butterley, having written the authoritative text on his music. In my interview with him, Elliott described Nigel Butterley as the quieter, but no less significant, of the three pillars of Australian 20th-Century music from 1960s and 1970s, alongside the more popular Peter Sculthorpe and the more shape-shifting Richard Meale.

Butterley's music, and now Gyger's in its wake, is music that needs nothing but itself to lay claim to its place in Australia's musical story and, especially, to the story of its vocal music. It is music that takes hold of the human voice – its resonance, its rhythm, its intonation, but most of all its humanity - and repaints it with a stylised beauty which, even in its complexity, charms and fascinates us, perhaps because of what we recognise of ourselves within it.

The voice might always have been there, in our lives and in our music, and might always continue to be there – but capturing the bit of ourselves that it expresses, the bit of ourselves to which it gives voice, is really at the heart of what tonight's show was all about, and was what lay at the core of, and gave a name to, the music of Elliott Gyger that opened both this edition of The Sound Barrier and will open the Melbourne Recital Centre concert as well: giving voice.

And the show finished with the voice of the people too – the human quest to define love as captured in all the originality and complexity and structure and freedom that you might expect from Karlheinz Stockhausen, in his vision of the politics of the future with WELT-PARLAMENT (WORLD PARLIAMENT) for 12-part a capella choir, the first scene of his opera MITTWOCH aus LICHT (WEDNESDAY from LIGHT).

Of the seven LICHT operas, one for each day of the week, WEDNESDAY is the day of 'cosmic solidarity', the day of cooperation between LICHT's three core characters, Michael, Eve, and Lucifer. In its opening scene, the World Parliament is in session and they are debating the meaning of love. The text organises the vowels of the words such that they progress from the darker 'u' sounds to the light 'i' sounds, but each of the 12 layers of the music progress at different paces, built on different rhythms, which are themselves all derived from the rhythms of the 'formulas', the musical themes, of Michael, Eve, and Lucifer, that form the DNA of the entire LICHT opera cycle.

The music is sensationally rich in its polyphony, and its different rhythms, reaching a radiant chord of consensus about three quarters of the way in, as if the world really has come to a point of agreement, only to be interrupted in the most banal way imaginable – a janitor rushing in, shouting that a car in the car park (the President's car, as it turns out to be) is about to be towed away.

Once again the voice reminds us that, amongst all the complexities of its rhythms, the colours of its phonemes, the infinite store of sounds it can make, that it is ultimately an expression of being human – of being part of a humanity that is as much about the ordinary things as it is about the profound and that, at least on this earth, in this life, the banal will always be part of even our noblest ventures.

Humanity cycles its way, across generations, across ages, across nations, in its search for love and identity: just as Elliott Gyger's little child did as she learned to speak, and as Nigel Butterley's Orpheus did as he fashioned music, and as Karlheinz Stockhausen's World Parliament did as it sought to define love. Each of them, ultimately, gave voice to the eternally old, eternally new, story of being human.

Remember you can listen back to the show and check out its playlist right here on the website. Make sure you get along to A Child of Earth and Heaven on 15 November, and take time, too, to check out the website of the Stockhausen Foundation for Music, with whose permission I played tonight's recording of WELT-PARLAMENT, and from whom you can exclusively buy Stockhausen's recordings, scores, DVDs, and books.

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