It’s very difficult to imagine the conversation one could have with a person from the 12th century. What do you say to someone who spoke in the language of Chaucer, who had visions of the apocalypse and believed the earth was flat?
In this light, the Sydney Chamber Choir’s (SCC) upcoming tour Cross Sections does something quite extraordinary. In the space of a couple of hours, the SCC journeys from the music of 12th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen to that of the Renaissance’s Thomas Tallis right through to the contemporary work of Australian composer Clare Maclean. As if that weren’t ambitious enough, woven into the program are compositions inspired by traditional Chinese and Torres Strait Islander songs.
Paul Stanhope, the SCC Musical Director, has wrangled this disparate music and cultures together by virtue of the intersecting themes that emerge across these pieces of music, whether it’s a shared fascination with the sacred or a reverence for the natural world. Helping to stich this kaleidoscopic program together is the work of contemporary Australian composers – Ross Edwards, Julian Yu, Clare Maclean, and Paul himself – who have either arranged or recomposed several of the pieces for the 28 member choir. In the case of the Chinese folksongs, they have incorporated traditional instruments like the Erhu and Guzheng.
“Whereas most classical music groups might base their musical activities around the well-known classics, we approach the diversity of output as our mainstay, including the weird and wonderful,” says Paul. “The Sydney Chamber Choir has a faithful audience. They’re willing to go on an adventure.”
Paul is looking to bring more people along for the SCC adventure during his upcoming tour to Taiwan and Hong Kong, which is being supported by an International Pathways grant from the Australia Council’s Music Board.
“A large, burgeoning audience is ready to be built in countries around Asia. Given our geographical proximity, it makes sense!” he says. “We’d also like to learn about the choral scene in the region.”
Before they leave, they will be taking Cross Sections to The Concourse in Chatswood, a suburb in northern Sydney. It’s no accident that the SCC chose Chatswood to launch this tour. One in four of its residents boast either Cantonese or Mandarin as their first language and Paul hopes that Cross Sections will pique the interest of the locals.
“By performing this program in Chatswood,” says Paul “We hope to engage with Chinese-speaking Australians who would like to hear these lovely Chinese folksongs alongside a diverse array of other music.”
In one respect, conducting a conversation over 850 years and across the diverse cultures of Europe, the Torres Strait and China area is a tall order. But perhaps that’s underestimating the profound elasticity of music and, indeed, the shared humanity of all peoples. It’s through music that – together with highlighting our differences – the SCC shines a light on the things that make us alike.