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Luminescence sees female vocal virtuosity casting its magic spell

Features - Classical Music | Vocal & Choral

Luminescence sees female vocal virtuosity casting its magic spell

by Alice Chance on August 25, 2016 (August 25, 2016) filed under Classical Music | Vocal & Choral | Comment Now
Alice Chance explains why witchery, rather than madness, is the focus of her latest composition.

Work Infernal Women
Composer Alice Chance
Scored for Chamber choir 
Premiere September 20, 2016
Performers Luminescence Chamber Singers, Gordon Hamilton


When I found out I’d be writing for a concert entitled Descent into Madness, my brain was initially flooded with possibilities. The piece would be theatrical, ridiculous, ‘madness’ would give me an excuse to write everything I secretly wanted to write without admitting I secretly wanted to. Just filling a brief! 

However, with more thought about the word, I grew more uncomfortable with my ideas. Whilst we could normally expect to hear the word ‘madness’ from a parent describing their toddler-ridden household or a professional referencing their diary, it’s unfortunately still true that a person with mental illness might hear the word in reference to them. With a fragile but steady growth of mental health awareness in Australia, was my contribution really going to be one of trivialisation?

No. Well, not on purpose. Titles like Requiem for the mad or If you’re mad and you know it, clap your hands never had a good ring to them anyway. So I looked into the past, back to a practice that was worldwide, spanned centuries and affected women in the overwhelming majority. Horrifyingly, I found out that in some remote regions it still takes place: the murder of 'witches'. Looking through several accounts, my focus has been not on the supposed madness and wickedness of those killed, but the absolutely mad attitudes towards them. In 16th to 18th-century Scotland, women who provided medical assistance for other women, particularly with contraception, abortion or childbirth were targeted as witches. As you will hear in the piece, to cure is to be learned, to be learned is to be male. At Salem, children fell down in hysterical fits around particular women, thereby sending them to unfair trials and eventual burning at the stake.

Thus, in Infernal Women, as the piece is now called, my aim has been to use female vocal virtuosity to mirror the mysterious magic associated with females who have been accused of witchery. The male vocal lines articulate some of the documented attitudes toward these women, along with an evocation of power and mercilessness demonstrated against them. The cliché cackle associated with witches is something I’ve translated into a musical idea, the harmony is volatile and there is a distinct presence of a haunting sharp fourth scale degree within a minor key. It is a darkly comical piece which aims to invoke serious thought about the persecution of innocent, clever and intuitive women throughout history.


Luminescence Chamber Singers presents Descent into Madness with guest conductor Gordon Hamilton, September 20-24

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