Welcome to Hyperion Records, an independent British classical label devoted to presenting high-quality recordings of music of all styles and from all periods from the twelfth century to the twenty-first.
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A rollercoaster ride through twelve centuries and twenty new imaginative worlds—the 70-minute journey of Nineteen to the dozen takes us through an a cappella musical landscape forged by the creative processes of nineteen (twenty including one creative duo) living Australian composers and sound artists, on which are dotted the remains of Western musical structures erected and abandoned or restored over the last twelve centuries. You might want to put the dog out.
What excitement there was in a pre-COVID-19 world as each of the new pieces of sound, notated in many different ways, arrived at The Song Company to build up the patchwork quilt that is Nineteen to the dozen! In a bold attempt to paint the state of the current Australian compositional landscape, nineteen composers were asked to fill a segment of time with sounds that draw on the rich heritage of The Song Company’s past 35 years and look forward to the countless possibilities of the human voice. Generously supported by our donors, these nineteen (actually twenty) commissions are set against fragments of art music from each of the last 12 centuries, and together form an a cappella conversation without words—a dialogue about the nature of vocal music and the deepest form of musical expression.
Driving from Sydney to Canberra and back, as we regularly do on tour with The Song Company, watching the landscape go by, I have been struck by how the vista from the car window changes—sometimes rapidly, sometimes gradually—and how human artefacts and structures appear next to ancient geological formations in an apparently haphazard manner. But, of course, things are not totally random: the landscape is formed by water, wind, and other natural processes; human inhabitants have chosen places to work (foraging, hunting, etc.) and live (temporarily or permanently) because of the natural resources and the shelter that the land provides. And so, our 70-minute journey takes us through a musical landscape forged by the creative processes of nineteen living Australian composers and sound artists, on which are dotted the remains of Western musical structures erected and abandoned or restored over the last twelve centuries.
To use labels borrowed from architecture, our monuments of early music move from the Byzantine sounds of 9th-century Abbess Kassiani to the Romanesque polyphony of the 10th-century anonymous composer in the Winchester Troper, the music of 11th-century didact ‘Guido d’Arezzo’ (responsible for bequeathing us the Ut or Do–Re–Mi–Fa–So–La system of relative pitches), and the soaring melody of 12th-century Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. The Gothic structures of 13th-century super-troubadour Adam de la Halle and 14th-century poet-amant Guillaume de Machaut display the old and new art of building several parts on top of each other, and give way to the birth of new rich harmonies thanks to the godfather of the musical Renaissance, 15th-century Englishman John Dunstaple (or Dunstable), which are capped by the sublime canons of 16th-century William Byrd. 17th-century genius Henry Purcell takes us into the Baroque with eight independent voice parts, followed by the double-choir echoes of a little-known 18th-century motet (probably) by J S Bach. Bach, like many composers, looked back for inspiration, as did 19th-century Anton Bruckner with his beautiful a cappella writing, and even ‘Modernski’ (as rival Arnold Schoenberg called him), the 20th-century Igor Stravinsky in his Neo-classical setting of the Lord’s Prayer.
Each of these ‘old’ composers have set words for functional, ritual purposes. In contrast, each of our nineteen living Australian composers has created a miniature soundworld from scratch—without direct reference to anything. The brief for the commission was: no title, no words, and no explicit program note—i.e. to do without the usual handles for a composer of vocal or choral music. By eschewing words and language in their most direct and usual form, the actual notes on the page and sounds in the air become signifiers and carriers of no meaning other than what is imposed or associated. Our creative team is a (reasonably) representative sample of living Australian composers, slightly biased towards younger and East-coast musicians, with eleven women and nine men, including two First Nations composers. Some have clearly allowed the songs of birds and the melodies of the elements to inform their work; others have been influenced by mechanical processes, and some by musical allusions to older composers and compositional techniques. All have enthusiastically and uniquely responded to the call to compose.
And how to listen? Have open ears and let your mind and heart make the connections—make the piece yours as a listener. As someone once pointed out, if you see nothing but a horse and a telephone inside a room, your mind still tries to find a connection between them. And it’s the same with sound: what are we singing? What are we listening to? Are these the sounds of nature? Fragments of older composers, half-remembered nursery songs? It’s your journey. Make of it what you will.
Antony Pitts © 2022