3 Shades Black: Homophonic

Three Shades of Black.
3 Shades Black. Photo by Nick Moulton

3 Shades Black
La Mama Theatre, Carlton
Midsumma Festival
24–25 January, 2014

Melbourne-based ensemble 3 Shades Black are presenting Homophonic, a programme of music by queer composers as part of the Midsumma Festival. Now in its third year, director Miranda Hill and composer David Chisholm spoke to Partial Durations about the concert’s origins and inspirations.

After researching the history of LGBT composers, Hill was struck by the elision of queer identities in the classical canon. “I read a lot about Tchaikovsky, Poulenc, Britten and Copland, all of these big names that have been straight-washed by the establishment. You can’t go and hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 10—with those big chords because he found out his wife was cheating—without seeing a reference to Alma, but I’ve never seen a reference to the young boy to whom Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 was dedicated to.”

From this historical base, 3 Shades Black struck out to discover living LGBT composers. “We have a policy of always including at least one local and one woman composer. The programme this year is a watershed for having so many fabulous local composers. We’ve had two new pieces written for the show by Wally Gunn and Naima Fine, who also wrote for us in the first concert. It’s nice to come back and build a relationship with composers.”

As well as building relationships with composers, the concerts have enabled 3 Shades Black to engage with a broader audience than the usual art music crowd. “The concerts are an ‘in’ for many people who wouldn’t normally go out of their way to hear New Music, but who come and love it. Who couldn’t love Luke Paulding’s quartet Her Sparkling Flesh in Saecular Ectstasy?”

If one isn’t immediately enraptured by Paulding’s rich timbral cascades, the lives and circumstances of the composers can help audiences relate to the music. 3 Shades Black will play The March of the Women by turn-of-the-century composer Ethel Smyth. “She was a suffragette rabble-rouser,” explains Hill. “She’s the only female composer to have had an opera performed at the Met. But we couldn’t find much of her music. I think you have to know someone who knows someone. We are performing March of the Women, a suffragette anthem, because it has a great story: She was arrested for smashing windows as part of a suffragette protest. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham turned up to see how she was doing in prison. The warden said ‘Oh yes, she’s doing fine, go and have a look.’ All the suffragettes who were in the prison at the time were marching around the parade yard singing March of the Women and she was upstairs in her cell conducting them with her toothbrush. Everyone has stories like that. There are stories like that about Tchaikovsky and his letters to his brother Modest. Virgil Thomson once said something like ‘You can be a twelve-tone composer and you can be gay, but you can’t be both.'”

While the anecdotal lives of composers may appear a flippant or secondary interest, they dispel essentialist notions of a “queer” musical style. For instance, we can assume Thomson was being ironic when he said that you can’t be both a twelve-tone composer and gay, as he was speaking to Ben Weber, a gay twelve-tone composer. The “queerness” of a composition is understood, rather, by the way in which it affirms or contradicts gendered and sexualised tropes such as Thomson’s cliché about the straightness of twelve-tone music. The composer David Chisholm, who is also contributing to Homophonic, said as much in the comments of his interview published in the Australian Music Centre’s Resonate magazine in 2007. The composer Matthew Hindson pressed Chisholm to identify characteristics of “queer” and “postcolonial” music, presumably sensing the fallibility of any attempt to find musical universals that fall under either label. Chisholm clarified that “queer” and “postcolonial” were labels for strategies more than immutable musical qualities. At one point, for Chisholm, this meant introducing the music of the club scene into his “classical” compositions, though for many years Chisholm has been more interested in exploring the bonds of community in the face of death.

Chisholm’s The Arrival is a memorial piece commissioned by a member of the ensemble. “A lot of work I have done since very early on has been memorial-based, looking at requiem forms and the idea of memory, as well as remembering particular people. I lost my mum when I was twenty-three, followed by a string of deaths very close to me. You have to become adept at that in some way.”

While Chisholm explores the tropes and forms of memorial pieces, he reimagines them from a secular perspective. “I was struck that in all of the experiences I had with death, people were always commemorating with the vestiges of Catholicism or Christianity more broadly, but in very secular spaces like crematoriums. People modified and created their own rituals without really knowing the original rituals. These rituals were as much for the living as they were for the dead.”

Chisholm’s memorial will be only one sound among many, as Hill explains, “If you come to the concert you will find that every piece sounds different, from some things that are traditionally beautiful to some things that are quite hard to access. But one thing I can say is that there is a real sense of fun in a lot of this music and a sense maybe even of rebellion. There is a a sense of levity and thinking outside of the box. Wuorinen’s piece for double bass, violin and congas is crazy. It is extreme, contemporary music where my part changes clef four times every bar, but it has a real groove to it.”

Homophonic is on at La Mama, Carlton, at 7:30pm on the 24th and 25th of January.

Partial Durations is a RealTime/Matthew Lorenzon joint project.

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