The Voice Alone 1: Ellen Winhall, My Sister’s Song

This review begins a series on the solo voice that weave together themes from contemporary performances with recent debate on the music, language and physicality of the voice.

Ellen Winhall at the Richmond Uniting Church. Photo by Michael Hooper.
Ellen Winhall at the Richmond Uniting Church. Photo by Michael Hooper.

Ellen Winhall
My Sister’s Song
Richmond Uniting Church
Thursday 11 July

Ellen Winhall’s recital for solo voice was an object lesson in the seamless integration of finely-honed classical musicianship with extended vocal techniques. The concert was also an opportunity to hear a remarkable body of repertoire for solo voice stemming from the English choral tradition including Australian premières of works by James Weeks, David Lumsdaine and Nicola LeFanu.

Aptly sung beneath the starry vault of the Richmond United Church, the concert was centred upon the nocturnal ruminations of David Lumsdaine’s 1974 composition My Sister’s Song. Based on love poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology translated by A. K. Ramanujan as The Interior Landscape, My Sister’s Song features a refrain evoking the calm passage of late-night hours:

The still drone of the time past midnight,
all words put out.
Men are sunk into the sweetness of sleep …

As a blogger has recently argued, the Tamil word originally used for “night” in this second–third century AD poem is related not just to the late night, but to a specific three-hour period, a midnight “watch.” The passage connotes not only the lucid quality of this period, but its quantity, a quantity that is developed throughout the poem in relation to the narrator’s singular loneliness. The author might be thinking of the period of reflective wakefulness some scholars believe divided the night in two before the invention of urban and electric lighting. As Roger Ekirch argues in At Day’s Close, Night in Times Past, long, dark nights encouraged people to go to bed early for a “first sleep” and rise for an hour or so to study, pray, or even visit neighbours before their “second sleep.” I can imagine David Lumsdaine composing the long, ruminative work during such a midnight “watch,” spinning out the slow, disjunct phrases like constellations on the page. So can I imagine Winhall, only the third soprano to perform the work since its composition for Jane Manning in 1974, humming the work’s melismatic decorations to herself during a period of nocturnal wakefulness. Every twist and turn of the atonal piece—part chant, part unaccompanied recitative, part expressive solo aria—was thoroughly internalised by Winhall, whose considered and precise execution was simply astonishing.

In her remarkable performance notes published as the two-volume New Vocal Repertory, Jane Manning writes that Nicola LeFanu’s But Stars Remaining is to be “sung as from a high rock, the voice flung across a spacious valley.” Winhall evokes the kestrel and the dove of Cecil Day-Lewis’ poem with all the exhilaration of the freely-soaring animals described, before retreating to the intimacy of whispers and half-spoken text.

Winhall’s dynamism and character as a performer blazed through the technical demands of Berio’s Sequenza III, where rapid sequences of phonemes are juxtaposed with hums, vowel-shifting tones, sighs and laughter. A similar carefree virtuosity marked Georges Aperghis’ Récitation 13, which concluded the concert with a playful series of mimicked percussion sounds. The only feature impeding the audience’s enjoyment of Winhall’s performance was perhaps the ABC Classic FM microphone stand limiting the audience’s view and Winhall’s physical mobility.

With their roots in the English choral tradition, the compositions of Weeks, Lumsdaine and LeFanu present an inversion of the usual emotional dynamics of contemporary repertoire. Winhall’s programme oscilllates between troubled, inward reflection and outward jubilation. It is such a pleasure to hear music where “loud” does not immediately connote “wrathful” and “quiet” “sensual.”

Winhall’s concert was recorded for ABC Classic FM. When we hear about a broadcast date we’ll keep you posted.

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