More than 300 young singers will gather at UNSW in Kensington, Sydney next week when Gondwana Choirs presents the 2020 Festival of Summer Voices from January 16 – 19. The Grand Finale will feature all six Gondwana National Choirs in an evening of song including the world premiere of a work by Australian composer Lisa Young called Sacred Stepping Stones, written for the combined ensembles. Lisa Young spoke to Limelight about her new composition.

Lisa Young with some Gondwana Choristers. Photograph © Rainbow Chan, Gondwana Choirs

I believe your new work is a response to climate change? Is that right?

Yes. The piece is about the way the land shapes us and our planet being sacred and precious to us all. There’s a line in the chorus, “and we awaken to stand for the call’” which is written in support of the way the younger generation have so publicly and passionately voiced their concerns about climate change, demanding to be heard, and for action to be taken. In response to climate change, I wanted the interlude in the piece to evoke cool soothing places that I love. The lines “cold rocks and stepping stones”; “cool shaded olive groves”; and “hiking the Buffalo mountain” all allude to experiences of a cooler climate.

When did you begin writing it?

 I began exploring ideas in September and October, then worked solidly on it throughout November, finetuning the arrangement throughout December.

Have the recent bush fires had any impact on the composition?

The bushfires didn’t impact on the piece directly, as the essence of it was finished by early December. However, the fires will definitely influence the performance of the work, as we are all so deeply saddened by the current tragic events and the long-term effects of climate change.

Can you tell us about the piece, and how you have structured it?

 The work is in a 12/8 metre and integrates text and vocal sound-bank. It opens with a driving vocal percussion chant, then moves to text and structured harmonic sections. It includes some body percussion sounds, and moves that are physically strong, in line with wanting to be heard on this issue.

How long is the work? 

 It’s around five minutes long.

You have studied Konnakol and are now highly experienced in working with that South Indian vocal form. Are you using that here?

Yes, the opening vocal percussion chant integrates Konnakkol phrases with vocal sound-bank in a 12/8 polyrhythmic style to set up a driving layered vocal percussion groove.

Have you drawn on other musical references?

Not really. My background is in jazz, world music and a cappella. My compositions and performance practice are influenced by jazz harmonic and rhythmic language, and a variety of world music, such as African, Bulgarian and South Indian music and rhythms.

Did you talk with the students about climate change before you began composing the work?

 I didn’t talk specifically with the Gondwana singers, but it’s a well discussed topic among my family and community, and we were all inspired by Greta Thunberg’s now famous speech at the UN Climate Action Summit.

Who wrote the libretto?

Yes, I wrote the lyrics, which you can read here:

Sacred Stepping Stones

This land it shapes me
as I listen in and breathe
and the light enchants me
as I catch it on the breeze
and we awaken to stand for the call
that our planet is sacred and is precious to us all

What is the colour of the road that finds you?
does the bend in the river shape you?
we’re alive and breathing
still believing
dreaming …

Cold rocks and stepping-stones
Cool shaded olive groves
Hiking the Buffalo mountain
Ochres of desert clay
Acacias blue and grey
Under a rainbow sky and we’ll fly

When did you first work with Gondwana Choirs? And how many times have you collaborated with them?

In 2014, I was the guest composer at Gondwana Choirs’ National Choral School. I wrote Tha Thin Tha for the massed choir that year. Since then the piece has been performed by many, many choirs worldwide. It’s so wonderful to see these works travel and for choirs around the globe to be inspired by Gondwana’s work.

Do you enjoy writing for the young voices in Gondwana choirs?

It’s an absolute privilege writing for Gondwana Choirs choristers. They are highly skilled and inspirational. When I compose, I imagine the group I’m writing for and see what comes. I know that the Gondwana singers will engage with driving rhythmic energy and interlocking percussive phrases, so there’s plenty of them in this new work!