Alice Chance and AJ America talk wild women

Luminescence Chamber Singers this month



What composition throughout history do you feel has represented women wildly, absurdly, accurately, or powerfully?

We pose the question to two artists who are powering through Australia’s music scene: Luminescence Chamber Singers founding member AJ America, and acclaimed young composer Alice Chance. AJ and Alice are set for a Descent into Madness this month with the upcoming Luminescence tour from September 20-24.

Based in Sydney, Alice’s works have been performed by groups including the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Australian Youth Choir, and Sydney Youth Orchestras among others. She performed her own composition at the Sydney Opera House in 2011 and the following year was awarded the 2012 Ignaz Friedman Memorial Prize for academic merit in composition.

AJ America started young, singing with the Sydney Children’s Choir and Gondwana Voices. Her voice has been preserved through solos in Australian film soundtracks including PJ Hogan’s Mental and Baz Luhrman’s Australia. In 2012, her performances and choral composition were both nominated for Encore.

AJ will sing for us when Luminescence presents the world premiere of new composition Infernal Women by Alice, under the direction of acclaimed conductor Gordon Hamilton. Also on the program for Descent into Madness are works by Katy Abbott, Gesualdo, Elliot Gyger, and Rob Davidson.


What composition throughout history do you feel has represented women wildly, absurdly, accurately, or powerfully?


AJ America, founding member of Luminescence Chamber Singers, and artistic director and founder of Luminescence Children’s Choir

Answer: Rob Davidson’s Not Now, Not Ever!


I have had the enormous pleasure of singing many of Rob Davidson’s settings of speeches from Australian political history, but Not Now, Not Ever! was the first I had heard, and I heard it long before I got the opportunity to sing it myself.

Davidson’s piece is based on Julia Gillard’s 2012 ‘misogyny speech’, and the vocal lines mimic and accompany a recording of Gillard’s voice. Gillard’s speech was a rare instance in which a parliamentary speech seemed to resonate deeply with the public. It was moving, inspiring, and made waves well beyond Australian shores, and Davidson’s choral interpretation of her words harnesses and heightens this moment in an enormously potent way.

The musical material is almost all based on Gillard’s own inflections and tone. This is novel, entertaining and it is a fascinating study of speech as inherently musical, but moreover, it captures so excellently the intensity of the moment. Davidson has commented that what he found compelling in Gillard’s speech was that ‘behind the politics, there was a lot of personal feeling being communicated’; that ‘we hear the Prime Minister as a woman experiencing very real emotions’. I admire Davidson and his music enormously, but I’ll admit I cringed a little the first time I read that, because women are well accustomed to having their experiences and opinions dismissed with accusations that they are being excessively emotional. When it comes to political life, ’emotional’ has been a well-rehearsed and deeply gendered trope that has been consistently used to lock women out of power. However, Not Now, Not Ever! does not paint Gillard as hysterical, and the emphasis on personal feeling doesn’t portray her as in any way vulnerable. What I love about Davidson’s setting is that Gillard’s voice (literally and figuratively!) is retained. The composition doesn’t usurp her words for the sake of a musical product; the music preserves her agency, her personality and her power.

Gillard had commented on her delivery of the speech and said that she ‘did not feel heated or angry’, she felt ‘powerful’ and ‘forceful’. For me, this is precisely what Davidson’s composition captures. In Not Now, Not Ever! I hear strength, conviction and an unapologetic insistence that the personal is political (and indeed, the political is personal). As the piece progresses, Davidson develops short motifs into beautiful, transcendent musical moments, but when Gillard’s own voice enters again, she (and the choir) re-enter with an increased forcefulness and, at times, an audibly rising sense of frustration inspiring a renewed rhythmic momentum. In the final section, the choir withdraws to become accompaniment, letting Gillard’s voice ring out alone as she demands: ‘we are entitled to a better standard than this’.



Alice Chance, leading Australian composer

Answer: Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices

alice chance pic supplied

There is a woman over in the United States whom I’ve admired for quite a while. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning singer, violinist and composer named Caroline Shaw. On her old website, she listed her favourite coffee and favourite colour (a certain shade of yellow) but alas, these details were scrapped in a website update (embracing more of the black and white minimalism of our times) before I could note them. I planned to be able to quote these when we eventually become friends, but perhaps the fewer personal details I know the better for Caroline’s and my first meeting. I’ll let it be an organic, predestined composer-friendship.

Her most famous work is the one that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize: Partita for 8 Voices. This work is overflowing with wildness and absurdity, yet makes so much sense. So much has been written on this piece. I was lucky to read most of it after my first listen. If this is your first listen, I encourage you to wait until it’s over before reading the weighty words of important people.

At the premiere of the complete Partita for 8 Voices, Justin Davidson of New York wrote that Shaw had “discovered a lode of the rarest commodity in contemporary music: joy”. Further, the Pulitzer Jury citation claims it to be “a highly polished and inventive a cappella work uniquely embracing speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects”.

It is true that there is chaotic and pure joy in this work. You can tell that Caroline Shaw is a singer, indeed her voice is on the Roomful of Teeth recording of this work, and you can guess that a lot of the material here was born from improvisation. Improvisation is one of the most passionate and organic ways to dream up a piece. To harness an improvised feel in a notated, complete work is commendable and inspiring. Shaw unashamedly uses big resonant triads that ring and slide around. They give you cheeky, glistening smiles. Using human breath as an expressive technique is not new, but where Shaw uses it, it feels like it has to be there. This is the dream and a real achievement with any expressive technique in my opinion. I know that Shaw has gone on to refine her style and continues to write and play great music, yet this piece is a shining, eternal beacon. I can’t wait to confirm my suspicions that much of her personality resides in this work. Hopefully, the beginning of our organic,  predestined composer-friendship is not far away.


See Luminescence Chamber Singers perform in Canberra, Sydney, Port Macquarie, and Newcastle with its Descent into Madness tour this September. CutCommon subscribers can receive a discount when booking their tickets.


Images supplied.

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