Voices weave around me as I sit at a table with a group of singers in a pristine rehearsal room in Wharf 4/5, where vocal ensemble The Song Company now has a permanent home, the Renaissance harmonies ringing in my head. The singers – Ensemble Artists, from the company’s young artist program – are singing from partbooks written by the English composer Robert Dow. There’s no complete score, so each singer reads their part with only ears and instincts to indicate what their colleagues might be doing, while I follow along as best I can with the obscure (to my eyes) 16th-century notation.
Antony Pitts and The Song Company. Photo courtesy of The Song Company
“I’ve also done this with my British group Tonus Peregrinus,” Artistic Director Antony Pitts tells me later over coffee at the end of the wharf, past Sydney Theatre Company’s refurbished digs. “We did it in a chateau in France a year and a half ago, just with ourselves and families and friends, and it was extraordinary. And I want to take that experience, which obviously involves having good musicians who can sing, to people’s houses.”
“It’s obviously quite an exclusive thing for small numbers of people around a table, with wine, because the whole point of those books is that they were part of a table music-making tradition. At the beginning of the books it says ‘Vinum et Musica Lætificant Corda’, wine and music make glad the hearts. And it also points to the level of education in those days, that people could turn up to a dinner party and have to sing together and sightread it. So we’re thinking, well, you can’t expect everybody to sightread it, but you can give people the experience of sitting, in a more cosy setting, amongst the sound.”
The concerts could take place in private homes but also – particularly while there might be concerns about singing in close quarters during the pandemic – larger gallery spaces, The Song Company’s General Manager and Associate Artistic Director Francis Greep explains. “So bigger acoustics but still intimate,” he says.
These ‘Salon’ concerts are just one of the activities The Song Company will be undertaking as it navigates a world still in flux due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and state borders could be closed at any time. “We have to think much more locally,” Greep says. “Do we have the singers around? [If we have to cancel something], do we have something to replace it with in a much smaller way?”
“Although we are doing digital projects, digital can never capture that same excitement that a live voice has,” he says. “So it’s trying to work out what sort of range of projects we can do, continually on the boil.”
The potential of closed borders has added complexity to the puzzle. “We’re Australia’s national vocal ensemble – there’s no other ensemble that fits into that space in the way that we do,” Pitts says. “It’s always been our mission to develop and find the best singers, who are more experienced, from the country. Our eight Principal Artists are in different states – which is not so easy – so we have a number of alternative plans.”
Antony Pitts conducting The Song Company with Francis Greep at the piano in a ‘Salon’ version of Handel’s Messiah.
Despite the lockdowns, the company had a busy 2020, with Close-Up recitals and Salon concerts – including a live-streamed Salon version of Handel’s Messiah in December – and plenty of online activity, including a new web app. “We’ve done quite a lot of digital work in the last nine months, several new albums,” says Pitts.
One of the albums, which is available on The Song Company website for members who have signed up, is called Burden of Truth and pairs the premiere of a new choral version of Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet with a 25-part motet written by Pitts based on a piece from the Eton Choirbook. “We had, I think, in the end 33 or 34 professional singers from right around the country, so all our eight Principal Artists, four Ensemble Artists (because one of them is stuck in Perth), I think eight or nine Associate Artists, four of the singers who were in the ensemble when I came and a couple of other guests as well, so it was an incredible line-up.”
The project drew on Pitts’ experience as a producer for the BBC as he edited together all of the parts while in lockdown. “The result’s great, it actually sounds kind of like they’re singing together, which is extraordinary,” he says.
“The thing that makes us slightly different from just a choir,” he says, “is that the overall sound is one thing in itself and the individuals have a colour and a sound, and you don’t lose that. I like blend and all those things, but we’re not going for a homogeneity that loses individuality.”
The 2021 season is also well underway, and while The Song Company has favoured smaller, more agile projects at the start of the year its ‘MainStage’ program will kick off in May with the Burden of Truth tour, bringing live performances of Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and Pitts’ motet Transiens to Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.
The Arms of Love tour, which goes to Wollongong, Casula, Newcastle, Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne in August, pairs Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri – “an extraordinary cycle of seven baroque cantatas, really, really beautiful music,” Pitts says – with the world premiere of a new commission by Chris Williams, I Pray the Sea, which sets, amongst other texts, words from Behrouz Boochani’s award-winning No Friend but the Mountain.
“Chris has written it knowing it was going to be programmed with the Buxtehude, so there’s going to be fragments of his piece sung throughout the Buxtehude,” Greep says.
Robert Macfarlane will direct the performance, which includes movement and dance, choreographed by Thomas E.S. Kelly of contemporary Indigenous dance company Karul Projects.
The third MainStage concert, which plays in Sydney, Parramatta, Wollongong, Newcastle and Canberra, is titled Songs from the Heart, and will see The Song Company collaborate with First Nations composers Elizabeth Sheppard and Sonya Holowell to create a musical response to the Uluru Statement From the Heart.
The season title, Into the Heart, Pitts says, “is really a reflection of what we’re trying to do artistically, in terms of community, in terms of our collaborations with people. To really make our music-making as central and as useful – it’s a very funny word for music – but something that actually regenerates the country and the culture.”
“I always say that music resets the brain and, when it’s good, it helps you think about things in a different way – and that’s something we can give to our audiences and the public at large.”
The Song Company itself has undergone something of a reset. In addition to the upheaval of the pandemic, the 2021 season follows a turbulent period for the company, after it was placed into voluntary administration in 2019 before the intervention of a donor allowed it to recommence trading. The company has also been restructured, with the ensemble being expanded to a wider circle of regular Principal and Associate Artists engaged for individual projects. The company’s new early-career development program employs a number of Ensemble Artists on full-time seasonal contracts, with Greep joining the company from Gondwana Choirs as General Manager and Associate Artistic Director.
Greep sees his skillset as a complement to those of Pitts. “My background as a coach and someone who has really prepared singers at the ground level, getting them physically ready to sing whatever they needed to do, and also work with all the difficulties, and Antony coming from the other side of this is what the whole project should sound like,” he says. “I don’t think The Song Company probably has had that sort of multi-faceted approach before, and I think it’s really positive. In an organisation this small, we all do so much.”
“It’s a unique collaboration, I think,” says Pitts. “I obviously do a lot of admin, and always have, and I just think it’s very special to have both of us at this level having both hats – it’s working really well.”
Greep says the restructure following the administration period ultimately gave The Song Company more flexibility to navigate the pandemic period. “I think what we’ve seen across the board is that companies with very high fixed costs and rigid structures have been the ones that are least able to cope with the COVID shutdown,” he says.
Greep says the company now has “the opportunity to work with this bigger group of people and so artistically we can spread our wings much wider”.
“The programming of what we want to do can come first,” he says, explaining that under the former structure, “if you want to do a smaller project with only one or two singers, then you’ve got four people on salary not doing anything. So the new structure allows us to be much more flexible in our programming, also in our scalability – we can choose to do something much larger and then balance that with a couple of smaller projects.”
“To balance that we try whenever we can to bring together as many of our Principal Artists [as we can],” says Pitts, noting that pre-COVID in 2020, seven of the eight Principal Artists performed together at the Adelaide Festival. “We try to get them all to work together as often as we can.”
“Sixty percent of our income last year was spent on artist fees, and that’s something we’re really proud of,” Greep says. “It’s hard enough for companies, but for individual artists it’s the worst. They’re in a precarious situation. We’re projected to spend that 60 percent again of this year’s budget on artists, because by not having a big administrative side, we can do that.”
Greep and Pitts also acknowledge the importance of training up the next generation of singers across the country, particularly as closed borders might mean they have to pull singers for projects from individual states. “I feel all arts companies should be involved in the training of the next generation,” says Greep. “I think there’s quite a few young artists programs, especially in the opera world, that actually don’t have much programming.”
“We view the Ensemble Artists as a real apprenticeship, it’s not a scholarly examination-based thing, it’s really getting out there singing from day one,” he says. “Part of the apprenticeship is our larger projects, when they will perform alongside our Principal Aartists, and that’s one of the best ways of getting to know the craft, working with the best people in the country.”
If the enchanting sound of the Ensemble Artists navigating the interweaving lines of the Dow Partbooks is anything to go by, the future of Australian singing is in good hands.
Find out more about The Song Company’s 2021 season here