Music / Notes & Observations / Notes from the choir

4. From East to West: Where in hell or heaven am I?

By Nicholas M Tolhurst

Friday 14 November

If today is Monday, it must be Venice again. I’m writing these notes somewhat after the event and things are getting blurred. So here’s a summary:

Tuesday 27 October the Astra Choir meets at the Conservatorio Benedetto Marcello (named after a composer dear to young viola player’s hearts) to start work on the concert series there called Autumno caldo a Nord-Est (Hot autumn of the north-east … so confusingly like Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night tour, for those of us who can’t forget).

Thursday 30 November. By now we have dispatched the first couple of performances of Riccardo Vaglini’s Inventario and several Fluxus events with the Collettivo Rituale; interspersed with performances of Australian rainforest sounds and Javanese songs by the Astra Improvising Choir (directed by Joan Pollock with mesmerising effect on our audiences).

Our choral repertoire is large, cunningly programmed by the ineffable John McCaughey to bring: new(ish) Australian music to Italy; old music with references to journeying to the west; and premiere performances of Romanian music to the Romanians. I quote from the notes McCaughey has provided for our audiences (where they exist, Youtube links to works are given):

“TRAVEL: Music by its internal nature is fluid, a transient succession of tone frequencies. It flows uncontained in external domains too—a traveller through history and across geographies. It listens and lends and borrows and is intrigued by things over the horizon, none more so than that to the east, even if that be more literally north. It courses into and out of different ways of perceiving the world—the sacred, the profane, the political, the communal, the personal. It envies poetry its specificity and painting its immediacy, and eagerly enters into theatre and ritual. And yet within its sound it retains most clearly the local qualities of historical experience, the traces of particular places in an allegedly internationalized world. In search of a way of comprehending all its diversity, the Romanian composer Dan Dediu reveals some of his own country’s manner of thought, by imagining not one but three models of understanding—the progressive-vectorial, the labyrinthine, and a permanent state of parallel networks.


Dan Dediu, Romanian composer

“OCCIDENTATION: The Astra Choir’s concerts are always designed as a spatial and temporal journey, exploring a particular terrain between new works and those from other times and other places. The Choir travels to the Veneto, Friuli and Bucharest with music by contemporary composers of different generations from Italy, Romania and Australasia. They show distinctive ways of hearing musical sound and its new possibilities, growing from the traditions of the regions. Yet the concerts also log the travels that happen inside composers’ heads, now and in the past.  The Chinese-Australian composer Julian Yu visits a Transylvanian woodwind composition by Hungarian György Ligeti, and reimagines it as a choral scene with a Chinese text.  Arnold Schoenberg also turns to ancient Chinese poetry, for his first 12-tone choral work (note: no Youtube example, but this review addresses works of this composer also in Astra’s repertoire. The New Zealand composer Jack Body is inspired by post-Byzantine strotchny chant of early Russian music for his Hebrew Psalm setting of “By the Waters of Babylon”. The Australian Elliott Gyger creates three layers of language and style—in Greek, Latin and English—for a text from the Book of Revelation. Dan Dediu like other Romanian composers draws in Byzantine elements of his own culture, in combination with explorative techniques from two Italian masters, Gesualdo in the early seventeenth century and Verdi in the nineteenth. Riccardo Vaglini travelled from Venice to Australia to realize his ‘Inventarium’, plotting pathways through decades of musical materials and sketch-books. Heinrich Schütz travelled from Saxony to Venice to acquire a style of colour and theatre in music with which he influenced his own country for an entire century.”

The content and style of these notes is utterly consistent with the philosophy of music-making McCaughey has pursued with Astra for over 40 years. Our audiences are stayers and have been also engaged in this dialogue between composers and their worlds, enjoying the depth of learning we choristers have benefited from over the decades. Singing with Astra is like an ongoing post-graduate study.

Sunday 2 November, we leave for Camino al Tagliamento—ahh Camino.


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