|From the hungry waiting country is a 2018 release on the Tall Poppies label featuring masterful performances by Halcyon of three vocal chamber works by one of Australia’s most well-respected composers, Elliott Gyger.|
Gyger has contributed a considerable body of work to the canon of vocal music which includes the recent critically acclaimed chamber opera on David Malouf’s novel Fly Away Peter. His newest opera Oscar and Lucinda premieres in 2020, a co-production and co-commission of Sydney Chamber Opera, Opera Queensland and Victorian Opera.
Elliott Gyger’s writing is florid, beautifully lyrical and imbued with a sense of long descriptive musical lines, even when they exist within fractured and complex textures.
This album opens with giving voice (2012), the only work of the three featured on this disc that I struggled a little to connect with. Various authors of texts on the theme of early childhood are featured, but I found myself hoping for less of a macabre approach to such immediately powerful subject matter.
The work is impressively crafted and the performance demands an equal level of respect. A particularly interesting facet of the composition is its use of silence and the juxtaposition of active and passive textures as a device for employing both drama and repose.
Petit Testament (2008) for soprano, mezzo-soprano and piano is the briefest work on this album and perhaps the most immediately lyrical. Australian poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart’s collaborative writings under the fictional pen-name of ‘Ern Malley’ are the source of the text for Petit Testament.
On reading the poem, there is a strong sense of abstraction and of mirage. The protagonist journeys peripatetically and is seemingly suspended from time and reality with an all-encompassing vision of past-present-future.
Gyger’s use of two female voices to represent the dual authorial presence inherent in the text is powerfully portrayed by Alison Morgan and Jenny Duck-Chong. The paradox of duality within the discourse of a singular character allows the music to texturally butterfly between unified lines and subtle heterophony, projecting a dialogue of both an internal and external experience.
This work has a charming sense of lilt with a lyrically infused sense of ‘song’ as we traditionally understand it. In the same way that the two voices interact and intertwine, the role of the piano in this work (impressively rendered by Sally Whitwell) weaves in and out of prominence, sometimes playing a purely accompanimental role and at other times propelling the music in new directions. As the poem transcends the physical plane in its final verse, the music too wafts into in the infinite with a final subtle flourish on the words “I have split the infinite. Beyond is anything”.
The final work on this album From the hungry waiting country (2006) is scored for four female voices (Alison Morgan, Belinda Montgomery, Jo Burton and Jenny Duck-Chong) and harp (Genevieve Lang), conducted on this recording by Matthew Coorey. Extracts of fifteen different texts feature and are interwoven throughout, overlaid in intricate patterns over the course of this monumental half-hour work.
Eight ancient religious texts in a variety of languages are set alongside seven poems in English by Australian authors. The linking threads within the disparate components of the libretto are a commentary on ethics and nature, with a specific focus on environmental occurrences and the Australian landscape. As such, the image of water in the desert is often used as a metaphor for divine grace.
There are two sections in From the hungry waiting country. The composer says of the work that “Both parts start in more or less the same place – waiting for rain – but in Part I (Wet) the prayer is answered, whereas in Part II (Dry) it is not”.
The chorus of four voices often move in close pitch proximity, creating a densely weaving halo of counterpoint. The voices seem to mostly operate as a unit throughout the work. I was curious as to whether there might be moments where voices breakaway and gain a sense of independence, but greater emphasis is invested into the textural tapestry of the work and the fascinating dimensions of how the multiple texts interact with one another.
In overlaying texts, there is an inevitability in losing the coherence of narrative. Certain words and phrases certainly do pop out of the texture but the details of the texts are somewhat submerged within the overall texture. This is not a negative comment. Gyger draws the listener as much to the spoken word as he does to the purely musical discourse of the work, allowing music and text to co-exist without hierarchy.
A totally bizarre incantational, quasi-barbershop ending took me totally by surprise. The music morphs into a ghostly sine-tone game of musical snakes and ladders, making me imagine a sonic snake-charmer reminiscent of the vocal writing in Morton Feldman’s Three Voices and certain choral works by Thomas Tallis. From the hungry waiting country pulled me deeper into its universe as it reached its apex, leaving me hoping and wanting for more, much more!
This work is a unique and important contribution to the canon of Australian chamber music. It is my hope that performers, audiences and presenters alike invest energies into ensuring that this piece sees a life far into the future.
My experience with this album was highly rewarding and engaging. I would encourage even those disinclined to engage with unfamiliar contemporary work to challenge yourselves with this strikingly lush collection of vocal chamber works by Elliott Gyger, performed masterfully by Halcyon.
© Alex Raineri
Loudmouth May 2019
Singers Jenny Duck-Chong and Alison Morgan, aka Halcyon, have been quietly getting on with making tricky and beautiful things for two decades now. For this, their latest CD, they return to the music of Elliott Gyger, a composer, colleague and co-creator who has been with them throughout their journey. It is a potent combination: Gyger juggles words, notes, jokes and observations, meanings and warnings with uncanny skill, creating something at once complex and as clear as still water; Duck-Chong and Morgan take his ideas and make them dance with deceptive ease. In fact, there's so much going on, so much to delight in, to be moved by, that, in spite of its clarity (and a superb recording), it's hard to listen to the whole album in one go. The mood ranges from playful – setting words favoured by Gyger's daughter, aged 20 months – to ominous, in his bleak and unblinking setting of A. D. Hope's Australia. Like the finely crafted poetry Gyger sets to music, each track is a musical poem warranting close listening and contemplation. So now I'm going to go back and re-listen, one track a day, reading the evocative words and basking in a Halcyon daze.
Sydney Morning Herald 19 January 2019
For the past 20 years, Halcyon has commissioned and recorded an array of music from composers at the edgy end of the spectrum. Among the Sydney-based ensemble’s recent releases are pieces by Elliott Gyger, who has had a luminous career in Sydney, Boston and, since 2008, at Melbourne University. Hailing from a literary family, Gyger brings an acute sense and understanding of text, its meanings and sonic nuances. These qualities illuminate the works on this album, three of the six he has written for Halcyon. The first work on this intriguing disc, giving voice (2012) emerges as an intimate song cycle on the theme of childhood, and the acquisition of speech as a symbol of emerging identity. In this recording, it is the virtuosic playing of an instrumental quintet which carries the 26-minute work to its somewhat equivocal conclusion. Settings of that notorious spoof poet Ern Malley for two female voices and piano, Petit Testament (2008), meander for nearly 10 minutes. But it is the final work and title track which lifts the spirits. Scored for four female voices with harp accompaniment, the 30-minute piece from 2006 reflects on the devastating effects of climate change on this continent. Hardly surprising for the composer of the acclaimed chamber opera version of David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter (2015), this album presents some of the most virtuosic and uplifting vocal music ever created by an Australian composer.
VINCENT PLUSH, The Australian 29 December 2018
From the Hungry Waiting Country is a new release by Halcyon, performing the music of contemporary Australian composer, Elliot Gyger. Released on the Tall Poppies label, it contains three works by Gyger, Giving Voice (2012), Petit Testament (2008) and the cycle from which the disc takes its title, From the Hungry Waiting Country (2006).
Halcyon’s core voices, soprano Alison Morgan and mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong are joined by regular collaborators, conductors Roland Peelman and Matthew Coorey, pianist Sally Whitwell, harpist Genevieve Lang, soprano Belinda Montgomery, mezzo-soprano Jo Burton, Sally Walker playing alto flute and piccolo, cellist Geoffrey Gartner, Alexandre Oguey playing oboe and cor anglais, violist Ewan Foster, and guitarist Vladimir Gorbach.
Giving Voice (2012) is an eight-movement song cycle for mezzo-soprano and instrumental ensemble comprising alto flute and piccolo, oboe and cor anglais, cello, viola and guitar. It sets the words of Australian poets, Alison Croggon, Elizabeth Riddell, A. Frances Johnson, Sophia Gyger, Morgan Yasbincek, Gine Mercer and Judith Beveridge. Themed around early childhood and parenting, it was written for Jenny Duck-Chong and Halcyon and won the Paul Lowin song cycle prize in 2013.
Giving Voice is a personal reaction to the relentless joys and responsibilities, doubts and uncertainties of parenthood. It reflects real life, rather than the fantasy, mythology or stories that are often the topics of Art Song. Where Art Song uses highly developed language in its story-telling, Giving Voice takes us back to infancy and childhood, whilst also delving into the very origins of speech.
The first song, Dawn, opens with an attention-grabbing squeal from voice and oboe. The two are almost indistinguishable and presage Gyger’s athletic writing for the voice. Large leaps are met with laser like accuracy of pitch and consistency of tone by Jenny Duck-Chong. There is little tonal support offered by the instruments which join in for News of a Baby, engaging in a variety of cross rhythms and counter-melodies. Fontanelle and Unfractured Light, an intimate dialogue on motherhood, both celebrate the lower register with alto flute, viola and cello.
Word list is an inventive piece that turns the babble of a toddler into song. Jenny Duck-Chong makes music from the syllabic sounds of the pre-verbal infant. The recording misses out on the visual aspects of the song (described in the liner notes), but the concept is interesting, as it again eschews the traditionally sophisticated language of Art Song and turns instead to the building blocks of speech. Hurdy Gurdy, named after the medieval stringed instrument that is played by turning a hand-cranked wheel, is in a similar vein. A gritty depiction of the day-to-day interaction between parent and child, like the hurdy gurdy, the song evokes images of frenzied, circular repetition – a monotonously recurring daily routine. Yet, it is a reminder in song of how the precious qualities of the parent- child relationship can be compromised by the “daily grind.”
Jenny Duck-Chong creates a gentle lyricism in the remaining two songs of this collection, the stars (no. 6) and Girl Swinging (no. 8), both onomatopoeic pieces, the latter sounding intensely modal with extended vocal lines.
Petit Testament is witty duet for soprano and mezzo-soprano with piano. Derived from Australian literary history, with text by the fictitious Ern Malley and influenced by the Gamelan, the piece contains musical ciphers and is structured to mirror the story of Malley. The unison between the two voices in the opening bars couldn’t be more perfect. The voices then diverge pursuing each other in canon, cross rhythms and other devices, exploring the limits of their range and a spectrum of colours. Sally Whitwell plays a crisp third voice sometimes in monophony and at others, a rich combination of chords and rhythms.
From the hungry waiting country speaks a new musical language. Written in two parts, (Part 1: Wet, Part 2: Dry), for two sopranos, two altos and harp, words, music and voice create music that ventures into new territory. Gyger observes that he wrote this piece as an expatriate Australian in response to the 2004 water crisis in Sydney.
His strategy has been to set 15 different texts derived from 20th-century Australian poems and ancient Near Eastern religions. The languages include English, Hebrew, Syrian, Coptic and Latin, unified by the common theme of water in the desert. Here too, the text is more than a mere hook on which to hang a melody. Its purpose is to also draw attention to what Gyger describes as “the emerging ecological crises – an increasing awareness that they are the consequences of our own actions, in more direct ways than could have been imagined 2000 years ago.” The performance of From the hungry waiting country by Halcyon was a finalist in the 2011 Art Music Awards Performance of the Year. The piece was Highly Commended in the 2006 Paul Lowin Song Cycle Prize.
As a recording, From the hungry waiting country makes Gyger’s music accessible beyond the concert setting. As a collection of contemporary compositions, it is a testament to the substantial history of collaborative performances by Halcyon and their colleagues. The voices blend beautifully, with a purity of tone and little vibrato, well matched in timbre and style. The vocal writing is adventurous; the complex rhythms with explorations of tonality and harmony are formidable and are ably achieved by the performers who make up an experienced and tightly knit ensemble, exploring 21st century music, its ability to engage and the power of its messages.
© Shamistha de Soysa