BY MICHAEL HAMMELMANN
Works by Berio, Feldman and Boulez will be part of Justine Anderson’s Australian National Academy of Music Fellowship project Giving Voice. Doubling as curator and soprano, Justine gives us a taste of her first concert Giving Voice: Signs & Symbols, which focuses on music from the post-war era. With costumes by ethical clothing designer New Model Beauty Queen, and direction by Barking Spider Visual Theatre’s Penelope Bartlau, it’s set to be a theatrical event.
What was the inspiration for you to perform works of the post-war era?
Post-WW2 heralded an explosion of creativity and experimentation in composition. Composers from this era started to challenge our understanding of harmony, melody and performance. It was at this exciting point in music history that singers were asked to use their voice in a way they never had before, challenging the understanding of expression, tone, technique and performance. While musical heritage is important, I find the concept of performing material written by composers in the modern age – including the 21st Century – exciting, challenging and exhilarating.
How was the program for Giving Voice: Signs & Symbols chosen?
I created a theme around works that I’d always wanted to perform and I chose works that are rarely performed in Australia.The idea behind the program is centred on the thoughts and visions of the subconscious mind or dream-like state, with each works linking to either fantastical poetry, non-delineated abstract images, or non-reality inspired musical symbols or instructions. In addition, I chose this repertoire because it extends my performance practice and vocal technique, and allows me to work with high level musicians from ANAM and guest musicians as well.
How do you approach performances of the post-war era compared to previous periods of music, such as 18th and 19th Century music?
I approach this ‘new music’ in quite a different way. I often start by pinning down the rhythm in small sections first, then I learn the pitch material in an un-metricated way, and then I put them together. When I feel that I can comfortably sing the material accurately, I then add dynamics and expression and examine in detail the text. Depending on the difficulty of finding the pitch during rehearsal, I will then listen to several recordings. While learning Boulez’s ‘Le Marteau Sans Maitre’, for example, I would often play the part of the other instrument on the piano and sing against it, however the colours of the different instruments in the ensemble setting can throw your sense of harmony. The presentations of these works and their context is also important to me – on this project, I’m working with a director Penelope Bartlau to create a sense of drama and narrative.
In your opinion, what are the most appealing features of post-war compositions?
Often these works are adventurous and extend the limits of an instrument. Listening to these compositions can be sometimes challenging, often unexpected, surprising, and usually very rewarding. Like most works of art from any period, there are often many layers of meaning. For example, even after many listenings of the Boulez, I still make many discoveries. New sounds, textures and colours present themselves to me that I had previously missed.
What are the challenges of performing compositions of this era?
I found that learning these type of works often requires an enormous amount of practice time. Rhythmically, the works can often be very complex and often don’t have much harmonic support for the singer. At times, finding starting notes in a phrase seems near impossible. You can often spend months on a work and then have the opportunity to perform it only once, maybe twice if you’re lucky.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to perform post-war music?
There are a few terrific books by Jane Manning about new vocal repertoire, which are a great resource for those starting out. Also seeing lots of performances is inspiring and YouTube is always a great listening resource, too. Don’t be afraid of it – it feels like flying when you successfully create what the composer has set out on the page. The rewards can be enormous and your ears and eyes are opened to whole new dimension of musical beauty.
See Justine Anderson’s ANAM Fellowship concert Giving Voice: Signs & Symbols tomorrow night at 6pm, South Melbourne Town Hall, tickets $15 at the door.