In the company of song, we traverse an engaging a capella program, Burden of Truth, which includes two world premieres inspired by original works from the past. Its central concept is a phrase that is repeated in patterns of varying complexity and frequency. Artistic Director Antony Pitts directs the 10 core voices of The Song Company, expanded to include noted guests, further augmented by emerging voices from Sydney’s Conservatorium High School, Sydney Philharmonia VOX and The SongCo Chorale. The concert’s title plays on words, referring to the verities of contemporary life as well as to the musical meaning of the word “burden” which describes a repeated section or “chorus”, particularly in Medieval and Renaissance times (think: “His yoke is easy and His burthen is light” from Handel’s Messiah).

Antony Pitts conducts Burden of Truth. Photograph © Christopher Hayles Photography

Repetition risks monotony. However, Ravel’s Boléro, Pachelbel’s Canon and Adams’ Harmonium exploit repetition for effect. The second element of this program, the extraordinary number of single parts which comprise the whole, could easily become as tangled as a bowl of spaghetti. In the hands of Tallis and Striggio this is not necessarily so. The power of Burden of Truth is that it evades tedium and engages by embedding repetition in an ever-changing context of multiple lines and harmonies. It builds fervour, devotion and texture, like meditating with chant or mantra, focussing on a single notion to the exclusion of other distractions to reach a higher plane, perhaps even an altered state of being.

The ensemble opens with James Black’s His Love Never Failed Me Yet. Black was a prolific mid-19th-century American hymn composer. This devotional song is popularly performed in the American Country and Western-Gospel style. The Song Company presents it in a more traditional style of a ringing chorale, beginning off-stage, surrounding the audience in rich columns of harmony.

Out of this we hear the melody of Robert Wylkynson’s Jesus autem transiens, sung in ‘scrambled’ (voices are mixed up, not arranged in parts) formation, a harbinger of Pitts’ larger work to come.

The familiar strains of William Byrd’s four-part motet Ave verum corpus, are perfectly executed by the core ensemble. A piece which is moving in its plangent simplicity, Byrd’s masterpiece is amenable to singers of all levels, and so creates an opportunity to bridge the old and the new, and for these sophisticated singers to showcase their musicianship, milking the complex devices of the writing with polyphonic perfection.

The ensemble moves seamlessly to the world premiere of Gavin Bryars’ re-arrangement of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Bryars’ piece grows from acoustic out-takes of a 1971 documentary on homeless people in London. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the piece is a bespoke setting, reflecting a lengthy collaboration between ensemble and composer. The 32 voices sing around the loop of a homeless man crooning the title phrase in a voice that is frail, yet rings with the power of conviction. The hummed opening bars swell imperceptibly to entries from different configurations of voices, signalled by Pitts and underscored by the ‘choralography’ of the singers.

The piece builds in intensity through various iterations rising to a glistening soprano descant. The lower voices fade as the sopranos, ethereal in their simplicity, accompany the old man on his loop – an unwitting soloist, immortalised and endlessly re-incarnated in this piece.

Creation Window by David Wright, which features in the Burden of Truth film. Image courtesy of The Song Company

The power of repetition recurs in Transiens (2020), which Antony Pitts has composed from the fragment of Wylkynson’s melody (composed in the early 1500s). A complex motet in 25 parts, Transiens also receives its world premiere this night. Wylkynson’s work from the Eton Choirbook is a canon for 13 voices, corresponding to the 13 apostles. Pitts elaborates Wylkynson’s concept into a more complex and lengthy piece, which, we learn from the program notes, was composed by Pitts during a road trip in outback Australia. In it, I hear the sounds of the landscape – the flocks of birds, the sunrise over a red horizon, unforgiving mountains and dusty sweeping plains; individual parts make their point through the impossibly rich tapestry. Playing with innovative configurations and rapturous repetition, the final part of this triptych sees the voices separated into two flanks of upper and lower registers with the solo ensemble centred between them. The piece reaches its transcendental conclusion, ignited by sparks from the high sopranos, pulsating variations in rhythm, thick cluster harmonies and a reprise of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.

Burden of Truth is a challenging program, ably realised by the expanded company of experienced and emerging singers. The blend of voices, musicianship and elements of ensemble, with the added challenge of moving around the stage is faultless. Fascinating acoustically and visually, we see the attainment of purity through music.

The Song Company performs Burden of Truth at the Cellblock Theatre, National Art School, Darlinghurst on 29 May at 3pm and Albert Hall, Canberra on 10 June


Sign up to the Limelight newsletter