The Melbourne-based composer Katy Abbott describes herself as being “forensically curious about what makes us tick”.  Using contemporary sounds in traditional formats, she explores the passions, fears and motivations that explore and explain the human condition.

The parts of her ‘trade-marked project’ Hidden Voices give voice to those who do not have voices, in public or in private.

Composer Katy Abbott at the end of the performance. Photograph © Peter Hislop

The first part of this project Do I Matter? (2017) was awarded the $15,000 Paul Lowin Prize in the song cycle category for 2019. Scored for six voices and mixed instrumental media, it was premiered in Adelaide as an ABC New Waves Podcast by The Song Company and Syzygy Ensemble and has now received several airings in live performance. The hour-long work, which the Lowin jury described as “an inclusive and interactive work for the audience”, sets to music the ‘hidden thoughts’ of women.

The second part of the project Return to Sender comprised settings of letters compiled by Julian Burnside who had invited people to write in support of asylum seekers on Nauru. It was intended to be performed at CIMF 2020, but the pandemic caused the festival to be abandoned. Instead, it was performed in the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall on 23 July 2020 with narrator Richard Piper, mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd, and the Flinders String Quartet.

Wisely, CIMF 2021 opted to present the first part of Abbott’s project, Do I Matter? The springboard for this work arose from an anonymous online survey of four questions which the composer put to nearly 200 women:

  1. Do you have any hidden thoughts and feelings? Tell me what they are.
  2. What have you learned to be brave about?
  3. What would you like to be braver about?
  4. Would you like to say anything more about hidden thoughts and/or courage?

Their responses were collated into 16 distinct sections, each scored for a variety of singers and instrumentalists. The general tenor of these ‘night thoughts’ was one of life-out-of-control. “With passport secretly in my handbag,” one admitted, “I simply wanted to run away”. Here was a kind of verbatim theatre (texts derived from letters, private sources and specially conducted interviews) but with a musical underlay.

The opening section, taking chances, was an electrifying drum-kit solo by percussionist Claire Edwardes, leader of Ensemble Offspring (here, the Pierrot line-up of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, percussion and piano, played by CIMF director Roland Peelman). The vocal sextet was, in essence, the former line-up of The Song Company, and it was wonderful to see them back together again, relishing in their longstanding camaraderie and their theatrical histrionics. Some of the sections of the work were blood-curdling in their intensity, others downright hilarious, eliciting laughter from the audience whose response was decidedly mixed; many were bemused, confused and even disturbed. Their tepid applause was drowned by shouts of approval from others, cheering with their standing ovation. One can only imagine the pillow-talk that preceded the sleep of some couples after the performance.

The piece itself could do with more light theatrical touches, perhaps more visual interplay between singers and players, even encouraging the instrumentalists to verbalise and sing. From time to time, the clarinettist gets to join the word-play; there could be more moments like that, helping to break down the traditional barriers between singers and instrumentalists. The moment where a box of responses – fortune-cookie-like aphorisms – is passed down the line of singers is an inspired stroke and invites similar theatrical subtleties.

I think of Do I Matter? as something of a hybrid cantata (think Berio’s Laborintus 2) and part Broadway (think Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music). The comparison with Sondheim is not made lightly: the American master (now 91!) creates his own texts and light, breezy music, made up of tailor-made speech-melodies and catchy rhythms. Throughout Abbott’s piece, I found myself constantly transported to Sondheim-land (yes, I admit I am an ardent fan and my own music occasionally genuflects to his art, as, I suspect, does Abbott, although less overtly). There were references to other pop icons of recent years too: a section entitled cigarettes on the ground could have come straight from a Manhattan Transfer collection.

In this CIMF performance at the Fitter’s Workshop, there were a few demurrings. Sometimes the instrumental ensemble overpowered the vocal soloists. The text projections did not always align with the performance, and the note in the printed program was largely irrelevant and off-putting. It was a mistake to add a Freudian over-lay to the work; I’d prefer to see it as an entertaining and sophisticated piece of musical theatre, in the best traditions of small-scale off-off-off-Broadway.

With such wonderful performers so familiar with and committed to a sometimes demanding score, this was another triumph for Katy Abbott and CIMF programming. I can’t wait to witness more Hidden Voices brought to life,  in the second part of the series, and more.

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