With stages dark around Australia and the world, The Australian Voices (TAV) has commissioned 22 composers to each write a piece using the theme of ‘Far and Near’.

“At TAV we had raised a significant commissioning fund which we had been planning to roll out over the course of this year and next. In response to recent events we have decided to proceed immediately,” Artistic Director Gordon Hamilton tells Limelight.

The ensemble has now created a Patreon page so that donors can help support further commissions (details below).

The Australian Voices. Photo © Dave Collins

The 22 composers for the current project include 21 Australians as well as US composer Nico Muhly, who has developed a strong connection with Australia. Last year, Muhly composed three new pieces for Australian ensembles – the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Gondwana Choirs and Omega Ensemble (which Hamilton conducted).

The Australian composers are Lyle Chan, Joe Chindamo, Jaret Choolun, Melody Eötvös, Isabella Gerometta, Callum Kennedy, Christina Mairs, Jamie Moffatt, Katie Noonan and her husband Zac Hurren, who are composing a piece together, Audrey Ormella, Blake Petersen, Alys Rayner, John Rotar, Christopher Sainsbury, Olivia Swift, Margaret Tesch-Muller, Tom Thum, Jessica Wells, Sally Whitwell and Lisa Young.

Hamilton describes the group as “a brilliant horde of composers, across a spread of geography, gender and age”. They comprise 10 men, 11 women and one non-binary artist (Moffatt), and include well-established artists and emerging voices. The youngest is 17-year old Ormella who works with electronics, while Sainsbury is a Dharug man descended from the Indigenous people of the Sydney and Central Coast regions. They work across a broad range of styles including jazz, electronic, hip hop and South Indian konnakol (vocal percussion).

“I’m personally very proud that TAV is able to give some financial commitment to musicians who are especially hard hit by the current crisis enveloping the world and to face this moment head on,” says Hamilton, who brainstormed who should be commissioned with the singers of The Australian Voices.

“I’m really interested in people who don’t normally write for choir. I think composers, of course, tend to find ensembles that they write for a lot and that suit them, and they develop a voice, but I think it’s so exciting when a composer who is very skilled in one area tries their hand at something new. For example, Joe Chindamo has not written any choral music before. I really wanted those sorts of voices, so I asked the singers, and there were some unusual experimental people [suggested]. At a time like this I think we all want to reach out and I thought it was really nice that the singers had ideas,” says Hamilton.

Gordon Hamilton. Photograph © Pat O’Neil

Hamilton recommended a short deadline of one month to the composers – “the reason being that because we have no opportunity to perform or rehearse, we are investigating what we can do from our separate homes, and if some of these pieces are suitable for remote recording then we will do it or make videos.”

“And also we know that a lot of these composers have time on their hands and so we invited them to submit them as soon as they want to and can. It gives us something to do with our down time,” he says.

As part of the brief, Hamilton gave the composers the theme of Far and Near. “That is a sentiment that has been borne out of the current circumstance, it speaks to our feelings right now. I suggested that they don’t specifically write a piece about COVID-19 but something more uplifting, or something that has a universal appeal and lifetime, something that we can still sing in 200 years.”

“Already people have suggested interesting ways of addressing that. For example, the beat boxer Tom Thum is writing a piece called Celestial Navigation and so that is a totally left-field idea. He is using samples of a professor describing celestial navigation, and that will be mapped onto a synthesiser and the choir will sing along with it. Tom Thum is another artist who has never composed for a choir but he is a genius in his own right at manipulating his own voice and using it for all sorts of inhuman possibilities, so it is really exciting to let him loose on a choir. They can’t do all the things he can do but he has a different way of thinking about voices that maybe we haven’t encountered before.”

Established in 1993, The Australian Voices commission and perform the work of Australian composers. Hamilton has been Artistic Director since 2009. In 2014, they made international headlines with Rob Davidson’s Not Now, Not Ever!, a musicalisation of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s famous ‘misogyny’ speech. Their recent albums include Reverie released by ABC Classic in 2016, and Elsewhere released by TAV in 2019.

Hamilton says that TAV plans to record all of the 22 commissions in time. “We want to turn it into an album hopefully, definitely a concert. I don’t know when or how we will record it. Some of it can probably be recorded remotely but there are limitations on that. We will do our best, but the thing is the rest of the year – who knows – could be cancelled for performing organisations and we need to do something. And if this is all we can do this year, I feel like it’s a contribution, a statement, and a way for us to support composers so the year is not just a sad event but also a creative event.”

Details of The Australian Voices’ Far and Near project can be found here

Information about the Patreon page can be found here