Ella Macens: “I’m learning to love every second of it”

Wisdom and experience from the young composer



Young composer Ella Macens participated in the Gondwana National Choral School Composer Program, with her work featured in the Song Company’s recent tour, Forward and Bach. Ella connected with classical soprano and CutCommon contributor Katie Miller-Crispe to share these experiences as a composer, her involvement in the Sydney Conservatorium of Music National Women Composers’ Development Program, and offer advice for aspiring composers.


In January this year, I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate in the Gondwana National Choral School composer program. Over the course of the two-week period, we, the composers, had the invaluable opportunity to work with the Gondwana choristers under the guidance of composer Paul Stanhope, and with four vocalists from the Song Company under the guidance of their incredible artistic director Antony Pitts.

These were two of the most challenging, inspirational, sleep-deprived, yet motivating weeks of my life, and I still can’t quite comprehend the path my music has taken since my time at Gondwana.

At first, writing for the Song Company was daunting and I felt quite overwhelmed. Over the three-day period given to compose the work, I almost had to block out who it was that I was writing for (whilst simultaneously embracing every unique quality about the group!) to remove the pressure of knowing that I was aiming to impress Antony Pitts and four of Australia’s most experienced and outstanding vocalists. But here was a real opportunity for me to explore the intricacies of working with and composing for a smaller vocal ensemble, as opposed to the larger choral settings with which I have become quite familiar.

Antony provided compositional feedback throughout the creative process, and we spent a lot of time at the piano playing through musical ideas. It felt like a real gift to have such an experienced composer and vocal director sit with me and explain why certain musical gestures would or wouldn’t be effective, and explain how to make my ideas stronger. Throughout the workshop and recording process, I was so humbled to receive so much encouragement from the ensemble and to see their dedication to bringing my new work Stāvi Stīvi, Ozoliņ (Stand Strong, Oak tree) to life.

At Gondwana, Antony explained that our task was to compose a new work for Song Company vocalists Anna Fraser, Susannah Lawergren, Richard Black and Mark Donnelly, that in some way referenced one of the five Martin Luther chorales presented to us. I was thrilled to discover that several renowned Australian composers had already been commissioned to take on this same challenge for the Song Company’s Forward and Bach program, one of whom was my Master’s supervisor Matthew Hindson! I got a real buzz out of knowing that we had been set the same compositional challenge that well-established composers were also working on.

Matthew and I definitely had a chuckle in our lesson about being involved in the same project. I can see he is proud and this just makes me feel even more honoured to be included in the Song Company’s repertoire. I have worked really, really hard to reach the opportunities I am now being presented with by various ensembles in both Australia and Europe. And whilst the creative wave has its ups and downs, I’m learning to love every second of it!

Ella Macens crafted music for the Song Company to perform

I spent hours trying to decide which chorale to choose, as they are all so beautiful! After much deliberation, I decided on Out of the Deep I Cry to Thee. I was primarily drawn to the minor tonality of the hymn and the message being communicated within the text, and found the melody and harmonic structure very moving. Upon listening and playing the chorale on repeat, I began to find it immensely meditative. The text is beautifully overwhelming – ‘Out of the deep I cry to Thee; O Lord God, hear my crying’.

Collaborating with such experienced vocalists meant that I could quite literally try anything, and so I embraced my Latvian heritage and explored setting the traditional Latvian folk text Stāvi Stīvi, Ozoliņ (Stand Strong, Oak Tree). This text seemed appropriate as it too is very prayer-like in its message, which was a quality that I wanted to transfer across from the original chorale. The text describes a big storm that boastfully threatens to break the boughs of an oak tree. The narrator pleads, ‘Stand strong my dear oak tree… Don’t be broken by the storm – let the wind pass through your branches’. To me, this verse is a beautiful metaphor for how I try to treat my own life. It emphasises the importance of being resilient and adaptive, and highlights the importance of acceptance and looking forward.

I was determined to communicate hope and light conquering darkness

As in Out of the Deep, I wanted to encapsulate the idea of a cry of desperation; in this setting, being directed to the oak tree – a plea to trust that everything will be okay; a cry to not be broken by that which threatens you. Just let it pass – let troubles or torment wash over you – and life will continue on the other side. I was determined to encapsulate these prayer-like qualities by creating a piece that had the same meditative effect that I had experienced whilst listening to Out of the Deep. I was determined to communicate hope and light conquering darkness.

A little while after Gondwana (just about enough time for the withdrawals to have almost passed), I received an invitation from Antony. He asked if I would like to expand my piece Stāvi Stīvi, Ozoliņ to accommodate a larger ensemble of eight voices for inclusion in the Song Company’s Forward and Bach program. As an emerging composer with a passion for vocal music, this invitation has left an unwavering smile on my face. I am truly honoured to have my work be valued so highly by one of Australia’s most prestigious ensembles!

I re-worked the piece to incorporate a double-choir effect, and was thrilled to see it come to life in its new form in the rehearsal prior to the preview performance. At this rehearsal, I was introduced to the extended ensemble which included vocalists Jessica O’Donoghue, Richard Butler, Tobias Cole, Andrew O’Connor and Owen Elsley. I was simply blown away by the emotional impact the ensemble created, and couldn’t wait to share it with the wider community. It has been a true pleasure watching the entire program flourish from performance to performance, and I feel grateful to have been able to witness four of the six concerts. The audiences were so responsive, and I am grateful for the smiles, tears, and the personal reflections they felt compelled to share with me.

Ella, second from left, is participating in the Sydney Conservatorium of Music National Women Composers’ Development Program. Also shown: Clare Johnston, Elizabeth Younan, Natalie Nicolas, captured by Mandy Campbell.

Under the National Women Composers’ Development Program, we receive a lot of guidance as to how best to conduct ourselves in rehearsal and workshop situations. This includes thing like how best to utilise our (often) limited time with the ensemble, and most importantly, how to communicate our ideas to the performers respectfully and efficiently as to achieve the desired outcome. The Song Company workshop at Gondwana was at that time the first rehearsal I had independently been a part of outside of the NWCDP, and it was a really exciting opportunity for me to put all I had learnt into practice. It really felt like a “real world composer experience”, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to work with esteemed musicians who value new music and work hard to bring it to life the way the composer imagined.

Another highlight of having my work included in Forward and Bach was being invited to chat with Andrew Ford and Antony Pitts on ABC Radio National’s Music Show. This was a great opportunity for me to extend my musical ideas to a broader audience, and introduce my music to new listeners.

Antony Pitts, Ella Macens, and Andrew Ford, at ABC Ultimo in June

Being a part of the NWCDP has truly been the most invaluable opportunity. A few years ago, I never imagined that I would be writing string quartets for the Goldner String Quartet, flying to Tassie to work with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, writing new works for the incredible Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ chamber choir, working closely with percussionist Claire Edwardes and writing a flute and harp piece for Alice Giles and Virginia Taylor…all in the space of a little over a year! When I heard about the Gondwana composer school, I thought it would be a nice way to keep active throughout January – I truly had no idea how the works I composed there would flourish soon after!

I wish I had learnt sooner how important it is to catch every opportunity you possibly can

All of these experiences have taught me a lot about professionalism, the importance of open communication, the importance of deadlines and about working towards multiple deadlines at once. I wish I had learnt sooner how important it is to catch every opportunity you possibly can. Now that my creative opportunity tanks are well and truly full, I have learnt how wonderful it is to reach a state of ‘flow’ with regards to creativity, inspiration and determination. I’ve learnt how important it is to be confident with self-promotion and maintaining an online presence. I’ve learnt that people are very curious about how artists work and how we create, and it has been a joy seeing my music reach broader and broader communities.

I think that I used to view such esteemed organisations as the Song Company as way out of my reach when it came to sharing my music with ensembles. I can’t quite articulate why it is that I felt there would be a barrier. It’s not that I didn’t think my music was worthy of their attention, but perhaps that my musical style wasn’t suitable for the ensemble, and I worried about how it would be received. I hadn’t written much for smaller vocal ensembles in the past; usually turning to larger ensembles and choirs. And so the initial stages of composing Stāvi Stīvi, Ozoliņ were really quite challenging.

I was tearing my hair out, realising that I wasn’t able to create the harmonies and dense cluster chords that I may usually employ in my larger choral works. It was a lot like writing for string quartet – every line is completely exposed. Every line needs purpose, character and direction, otherwise the music falls. All of my anxieties, however, washed away when the time came to both meet and work with Antony and the vocalists. I was so relieved that I had been true to myself and my musical voice during the compositional process, because it became clear during the rehearsal process that the vocalists really enjoyed the music I had gifted them.

This was a really significant moment for me, both at Gondwana and later in preparation for the Forward and Bach tour, because I realised that if you work hard enough and stay true to your musical voice, things that seemed completely unimaginable can become a reality.

Your mind flashes through all the late nights, the stress, perhaps even the tears, and you realise that it’s all been completely worth it

Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an easy climb to the bottom of the top, but let this be inspiration to drive you and make you work as hard as you possibly can. If only I could transfer the feeling I had at the opening of Forward and Bach into another aspiring composer – then they would know what I’m talking about and realise that it’s so worth the climb. Your social, physical and emotional character will be affected, and finding balance in these areas seems to become increasingly difficult to maintain. But then you go to a public concert where your music is being performed, open up a program and see your name. Your mind flashes through all the late nights, the stress, perhaps even the tears, and you realise that it’s all been completely worth it.

Share these stories with your online communities, as I’ve learnt that people really enjoy being on this journey with you. Be confident in promoting yourself. If you have an idea, share it. You never know what an organisation or ensemble thinks about your work until you show it to them. I didn’t expect my time with the Song Company at Gondwana to flourish the way that it has, and I definitely didn’t think that just a few months later, one of Australia’s most eminent ensembles would be touring Australia with one of my pieces! Take every opportunity you possibly can, and most importantly, apply to participate in opportunities like the Gondwana National Choral School composer program. You never know what may come from it!

Check out the music of Ella Macens on SoundCloud, and the Forward and Bach review by Harriet Cunningham.

The Song Company supports new Australian music, and its next concert tour Dreamers of the Day features Antony Pitts’ own composition Anna’s Rapid Eye Movement. Find out more.

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Images supplied. Ella’s headshots and cliff portrait captured by Darwin Gomez.

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