BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
A woman trapped in the mechanical cycles of working life. A nun’s devotion and sacrifice. A migrant who tries to change.
These are some of the stories shared in The Oculus Sonic Suite – each unique to the individual’s real-life experience. But they all have one thing in common – and that’s that they are all as passers-through at the Abbotsford Convent. The composition was written by violist Biddy Connor and lyricist Maria Zajkowski, telling human tales through music and words.
The Letter String Quartet will present this work with vocalist Marita Dyson (The Orbweavers), who owns the voice for which the lyrics were crafted. Biddy enlightens us as to the creation of this composition, ahead of the concert at the Leaps and Bounds Music Festival.
Biddy, thanks for taking the time to chat about The Oculus Sonic Suite. I have to say – the name is incredible. What’s it all about?
Thank you! The name comes from the round window that is above the altar in The Oratory at Abbotsford Convent. In 2015, The Letter String Quartet received a small grant from the convent to put on some concerts in The Oratory. For the first one, I wrote the song cycle Oculus Sonic Suite with poet Maria Zajkoswki. We sat underneath the Oculus window a lot, listening to the birds and the resonant space of The Oratory.
You’ve written this work for the vocals of Marita Dyson. What does it take to compose a work with a specific voice in mind?
As well as writing with Marita in mind, I was also writing with the sound of The Oratory in mind. It’s a very resonant space, so Maria Zajkowski – the lyricist – and I had to think about how the words would be heard and how they would sound there.
I know the sound of Marita’s voice quite well from hearing her perform live and listening to The Orbweaver recordings. When I was writing the melodies, I could picture in my mind how Marita would sing the lines. When it came to rehearsing the songs, I was very open to having Marita interpret and change phrasing. I think this was a good approach, because voices are so individual in nature. And even though I am familiar with Marita’s voice, there are always things that you can’t know until you hear it sung by that particular voice. Having Marita add her own flavour really grounded the songs for me.
So, why Marita?
I have been a fan of The Orbweavers for a long time. They write and perform beautiful songs. Marita has always captivated me with her singing voice and her on-stage presence. She has a fascination with local history and will often talk about the history of the venue that she is performing in or the local area. Her passion in this knowledge is infectious. I knew that Marita would find some interesting facts and stories about the history of the convent, and that this would tie up the performance of the song cycle there nicely.
Now that we are performing the songs elsewhere, it is amazing to listen to Marita talking about the new spaces we are inhabiting, and finding more historical goodies to relate to the song cycle.
What’s it like to collaborate with a lyricist in composition?
Many years ago, on a recording of mine under the moniker Sailor Days, I used some of Maria’s poetry as lyrics for two songs. Maria gave me a whole lot of her poems, and I picked some out and set them to music.
For this song cycle, we worked more in tandem. I would send Maria musical ideas and she would send me lyrical ideas. There was no set way of working, and now that the songs exist as whole thing, it is actually quite hard to remember how each one formed! I know there was a lot of back-and-forth with sketches and rough edits. In fact, we still have some left over bits that didn’t quite make it in.
Your initial academic studies were in vocal improvisation. How do you use your studies in your real-world vocal compositions?
Improvisation is always a part of writing music. So even though I don’t perform or write as an improvising vocalist, it definitely plays a part in my curly path as a musician.
Each song that Marita will sing shares the perspective of individuals who venture through the Abbotsford Convent. Who are these people and what are their stories?
Maria has given lovely descriptions of some of the people depicted in the songs. You can read them here. They are impressionistic stories; there is room for making your own interpretations. But I really like the way Maria approached finding material for the lyrics. She is reacting to the convent on a very personal level.
What advice would you give to other young composers breaking onto the scene in Australia?
The most important thing for me has been a sense of community. I am also an active viola player and performer, so I do have a community of people that I play with in various situations, but I think writing and practising can be very isolating. It is really important to have like-minded and unlike-minded musicians to share ideas and struggles with. Otherwise, you can end up ricocheting around your own head in an exhausting way.
The Letter String Quartet has received funding from Creative Victoria to record this suite, and it will be released in 2018. Follow the group on Facebook or visit its website to keep updated. The group will perform at Leaps and Bounds in Collingwood on 21 July.