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CLASSIKON – Songs From The Heart 'The Song Company’s sacred oratorio for our time and place'

During his seven years as Artistic Director of The Song Company Antony Pitts has been trying to find his own authentic way of collaborating artistically with the First Nations people of Australia. He says, particularly as a relative newcomer to Australia from Great Britain, that doing this “without simply paying the artistic equivalent of lip service was a real challenge.” This admission, which I read in the concert program notes before the performance somewhat allayed my slight trepidation about this newly commissioned a cappella program described as a musical reaction to, and exploration of, the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart.

When I first heard about this project I recalled the words of my first choral conductor, esteemed music educator Michelle Leonard OAM (words perhaps borrowed from Richard Gill?) that, “Music should be good, not simply just good for you.” I had a feeling this would be music that would be good for me... but it turned out to be good too, excellent in fact. Songs From The Heart is entirely penned by First Nations’ composers Sonya Holowell and Elizabeth Sheppard (with two songs co-written by another Indigenous woman Rhubee Neale). It sets the actual text of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and other reflective and powerful lyrics from the composers to create, as Pitts describes it, “a kind of sacred oratorio for our time and place”. Emerging Holowell and established Sheppard are completely stylistically diverse and unique in their approach but this somehow adds to both the poignance and the stark relevance of the work, reflecting as it does different First Nations’ voices and resisting a tendency for homogenisation of cultural groups.

Simple choreography and interaction between the eight barefoot performers, enhances the work’s meaning, as Sheppard says, “The Song Company engages with the Statement intellectually and spiritually, the singers model [literally and figuratively] how to walk respectfully and rigorously, as committed colleagues and allies, alongside Australia’s First Nations, by reflecting truthfully and empathetically in song, on Australia’s past, present and future.”

The work begins with ...calling... where I was struck in particular by the Sheppard’s Kaouwi Two Children Cooee. Using childish English and indigenous language the work, to me, embodied the innocence and freedom from bias of children who see no colour, no history but simply wish to play together. This moves to the hymn-like As I Walk in which I felt strongly the stylistic imposition of white, Christian music, intentionally or not. I think this is the beauty of this program, it gets you thinking, engaging with the Uluru Statement on your own terms through various interpretations and reflections. The songs in the next set ...(be)longing... (what perfect placing of parentheses) emphasised gathering, sovereignty, and sovereign nations and juxtaposed Sheppard’s regal, ye olde English-sounding choral music against the later repeating languid phrases of Holowell’s We Here – the words “how long,” and, “have we been here,” gave a distinct feeling of time ... stretching out ... for thousands of years. ...beating... began with Ngaala Maaman (The Noongar Prayer) followed by Noonakoort Karnya Respect evoking the ever-popular, “What do we want...?, When do we want it?” protest chant and an echoing percussive response “Treaty. Treaty. Treaty”.

The set ended with Holowell’s urgent yet beautifully complex polyphonic setting of the text direct from the Uluru Statement “This is the torment of our powerlessness”. Emotive stuff. ...changing... was a set of uplifting songs ranging from the anthemic Australia’s Nationhood to the modern soulful Like You Can complete with funky finger clicking and spoken word including a plaintive tenor “I’m Sorry” ringing out occasionally. This set incorporated the final words of the Uluru Statement “We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.” The set culminated in an inspiring final major chord. Finally we reach ...(be)coming... Whistles, birdcalls, cooees, chattering, moans and giggles emerge as though we are catching glimpses of the future.

This challenging yet ultimately joyful soundscape serves to top and tail this set in which the striking Land of Sunshine features. To my ears this song, steeped in the Australian folk tradition, could easily be put forth as an alternative national anthem. The final song, Become Like Children refers to the Uluru Statement from the Heart text, “When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.” This performance was indeed a gift. To quote Sheppard, “The music simply invokes and enables audience responses to the Uluru Statement, opening the way to this, without undue demands.” To the composers and performers, I thank you for sharing your voices and allowing us to walk the track together with you. This is an important work that deserves to become part of all Australians’ shared history." (Pepe Newton)

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SYDNEY ARTS GUIDE – Songs From The Heart

The latest work, Songs From The Heart by the wonderful The Song Company is currently on tour. The performance was filmed at the Cell Block Theatre, the National Art School in Darlinghurst and was streamed by the Australian Digital Concert Hall. It is a creative collaboration between The Song Company and Indigenous composers and singers Elizabeth Sheppard and Sonya Holowell, with two songs co-written by another Indigenous woman, Rhubee Neale. Sheppard and Holowell worked together with Artistic Director, Antony Pitts, and seven of The Song Company’s Principal and Ensemble Artists to create a powerful, moving a cappella presentation and musical response to The Uluru Statement from the Heart. Hollowell and Sheppard’s music is incredibly energised and concentrated on the principles and text underlying the 2017 Uluru Statement.

The voices are assured, accomplished, resounding and radiant. It is divided into five parts – ...calling..., ...(be)longing..., ...beating..., ...changing..., and ...(be)coming.... Directed and conducted energetically and enthusiastically by Artistic Director Antony Pitts, the cast were barefoot in their own concert blacks and wore a scarf that featured a design that Sheppard created. The group features two cast members with Indigenous backgrounds – the composer Hollowell herself, a Dharawal/Inuit woman, who is a fine mezzo-soprano, and tenor Elias Wilson, a Biripi man. Music stands are used, and the group, at intervals, form a circle around Pitts, or stand in an assertive, questioning line. Sometimes the voices are strong, rich and have quite complex interwoven structure and rhythms. Or they bubble and have a sort of question-and-answer animated discussion. At other points they seem sorrowful and exhausted, demanding acknowledgement and recognition (‘how long have we been here?’). Other segments soar and tumble, or in contrast are sharp and spiky. The sounds of the land and environment are also caught. For one piece there is a vibrant snapping of fingers and swaying. The Noongar Prayer is flowing,ebbing and pensive. The striking concert full of profound refinement and harsh passion concludes on a possibly hopeful note, looking towards the future." (Lynne Lancaster)

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CITY NEWS – Songs From The Heart ‘Glorious’ performance demands a bigger audience

Songs from the Heart is a suite of songs composed by two female First Nations composers, Elizabeth Sheppard and Sonya Holowell, with the texts of the songs partially based on excerpts from the Uluru Statement from the Heart... Sheppard’s music is more melodic, with suggestions of modern liturgical music, while Holowell’s work is decidedly more modern with semitone dissonances and abrupt shifts of tempo. The first three of the five sections used Sheppard’s gentler music for the first parts, then ending with Holowell’s confrontational music... The composers had the advantage of writing for eight very skilled singers, with Holowell as part of the performance group. Having eight voices allows for some wondrously complex chords over several octaves, with the high soprano of Susannah Lawergren soaring above the ensemble in many of the songs.

Singling Lawergren out is perhaps unfair, as the singing was superb from all the singers with the scoring allowing all a chance to be heard with tenor Elias Wilson and soprano Holowell taking many of the leads... For Artistic Director Antony Pitts, this is his last tour leading the ensemble after seven years at the helm. He has certainly changed the course of The Song Company over that time and there have been some memorable performances, this one included. They have all been different and always intriguing. Whether or not a suite of songs can influence the upcoming referendum around the Uluru Statement’s request for a Voice can be discussed, but you would like to think it might. It is a powerful artistic comment on, and reaction to, the Uluru Statement and deserves to heard more widely... It needs a larger, more reverberant space and a larger audience to be immersed in this glorious work. (Graham McDonald)

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