Review: Compose Queer

April 19, 2021
Review Divisi Compose Queer

By Annalyce Wiebenga

Content warnings: identity crises, marriage equality “debate”, queerphobia

After four separate delays thanks to COVID I finally attended Compose Queer, a concert showcasing local queer composers. The Compose Queer initiative is a mentorship program headed by well-established queer Australian composer, Sally Whitwell. Whitwell mentors emerging queer composers, allowing them to write choral pieces that express their queerness. They are also paid, which is extremely important.

Divisi Chamber Singers was founded by Bailey Montgomerie and Alex Gorbatrov during their time as voice students at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (now part of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Melbourne). The ensemble provides professional experience to its members, on both the performance and administrative levels.

As a queer classical singer myself, I have been excited to watch since it was a baby crowdfunding project with the Australian Cultural Fund. Because of COVID, Compose Queer has been delayed four times, but finally the universe behaved itself for a few minutes so the concert could go ahead.

I was running late that day and completed a makeup speed-run. My housemate led me like a lost lamb to the restored 1920s church at 75 Reid St, Fiztroy. We arrived just in time.

The choir stepped onto the stage wearing typical concert blacks, accented by small rainbow accessories. The concert opened with an Acknowledgement of Country, as it damn well should.

While Divisi gorgeously performed several pre-established pieces by composers such as Joseph Twist, Caroline Shaw and Nico Muhly, the real highlights were the newly commissioned pieces and Whitwell’s song cycle “Spectrum”.

Spectrum Sally Whitwell

This song cycle was woven between the commissioned pieces. The first movement, “Red”, reminded me of a race car. Inspired by an animated video of red blood cells zooming down an artery, the piece was just as energetic as the colour. Divisi sometimes struggled to keep in time but, in fairness, many vocalists (for example, me) struggle to get their mouths around quick-fire syllables. The remainder of the song cycle was interspersed between the commissioned pieces.

The sixth movement, titled “Purple (The Aubergine Queen)”, was a new arrangement. This piece’s grandeur mimicked royal fanfare, where the composer and the choir produced a well-balanced and increasingly foreboding sound. Whitwell was “loosely inspired” by the pomp and circumstance (and lies) of USA presidential campaigns, connecting it to the fanfare of monarchy. The line “she doesn’t care how you live” sent a clear message about the self-serving reality of high-profile political races. It reminded me of Malcolm Turnbull patting himself on the back for arranging the Australian marriage equality postal survey despite the trauma of watching our human rights go up for debate.

Here is a Safe PlaceLore Burns

“Here is a Safe Place” was born of a desire to write a gentle piece for the queer community. Speaking of “love and safety in a world that is often absent of either”, I think Burns was successful. Adding “shh” sounds along with a tone chime that each singer rang out at different pitches.

As a singer who has attempted dance classes, I can attest to how hard it can be to get singers to do anything that involves synchronised physical movements, but they pulled it off! The gorgeous, warm tone of their voices, and the loving text made this piece sound like a warm hug. As queer people, we can feel like the world is against us, and often this is true. This piece was written by a queer person for other queer people and presents a calm in the storm.

After Burns’ vocal hug of a piece, we were asked at the request of the composer to turn to a person nearby and introduce ourselves with our pronouns. I was neck-deep in writing notes for this review, so my housemate turned to me and said, “My name is Srishti, I use they/them pronouns, and I identify as a gay-ass bitch.”

Are You the New Person Drawn Toward Me? Ariel Bonnel

“Are You the New Person Drawn Toward Me?” considers the stereotypes and expectations associated with the visual expression of queer identities. Bonnell notes in the programme that these markers can be useful for queer people looking to identify each other, but can also conflict with “one’s unique self-expression”. Bonnell suggests “these ideas must be challenged in order to freely express one’s own identity, and to connect with others beyond superficial traits.” Bonnel isn’t wrong, exactly, but I’m not sure her approach was sufficiently nuanced, as most of her nuance was in the programme notes instead of the piece itself. I’m not sure it engages sufficiently with the stereotypical presentations imposed upon queer people. This experience of cultural cringe can have us feel simultaneously pressured to conform to expectations and yet NOT conform if we want to be taken seriously. In any case, I can appreciate the intent.

As for the piece itself, the music is heavily jazz-inspired. It has a fun rhythm and the moment when the whole choir began singing together was like a slap in the face, but in a nice way. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the politics of borrowing from a predominately Black artform such as jazz when most of the singers, composers and audience  were white or white-passing, but that issue isn’t exclusive to this piece.

Syrup and Silicone Robert McIntyre and Savanna Wegman

The third commissioned piece was “Syrup and Silicone” with music by Robert McIntyre and lyrics by Savanna Wegman. This pensive piece was having to meet exacting standards among a community who is supposed to understand you. The vocals blended beautifully together in a series of held chords that gave plenty of room for the lyrics to grow and shine through. The music swelled beautifully and made great use of dynamics (volume) for dramatic effect. The word “suspended” stuck out to me, as the vocalists hung onto the “s” sound for a cool moment of word painting; this treatment of the text demonstrated its meaning perfectly.

(i)dentityMeta Cohen

The concert’s finale was the commissioned piece “(i)dentity” by Meta Cohen. The piece negotiates complex, multifaceted identities with aid of a Gertrude Stein text. Cohen stated that, although the negotiation of rigid identity labels can help create a sense of self and the acquisition of legal rights, this can consequently oversimplify one’s queerness. 

Cohen smartly captures both the pain and joy of figuring out one’s identity, turning the text inside out and tangling it up until it becomes hard to follow. “I am I because my little dog knows me” is a line that feels so personal to anybody who experiences that simple love of a small creature tethered to your soul. “I am I” is a repeated refrain throughout the piece, which Cohen gives different colours from the beautifully bright to the quietly sad and the stressfully dissonant. It is a piece that tangles and untangles itself a thousand times, surging and receding fragments of identity in joy and pain, carried gorgeously by Divisi. This piece showcases Divisi at their best, giving them a chance to shine in extremes. It was a powerful, energetic, well-rounded and perfect end to the concert.

After the concert ended, the audience and performers alike went down to the pub and we gushed over contralto Alexandra Amerides’ vibrant eyeshadow. As expected, I ran into a great deal of the music queers from the Conservatorium. My queer peers, if you will. I guess it’s true; we do, in fact, all know each other.

The fact I was surrounded by the queer community at this concert was hugely significant. Being in a classical music space is often awkward for a card-carrying queer feminist like me. Classical music lags very far behind in terms of inclusivity across all areas of the industry, but especially composers and high-level organisers. Like, program one cis white woman’s music and suddenly you’re a revolutionary. In contrast, Compose Queer was a space where I felt welcome and at peace, both as a classical singer and as a queer person. However, part of this is because I am white… which leads me to my next point, and my only real issue with the concert.

In general, I am highly supportive of any initiative that platforms queer creators and puts money in their pocket. However, it was impossible to ignore that the vast majority of the audience, vocalists and composers appeared to be white. This issue is not exclusive to Compose Queer. Classical music in general is not great with racial inclusivity, not to mention the constant infighting within the queer community about just not being racist for once. I would not expect a singular group to fix every problem in the classical music world. However, I hope that future measures can be taken to improve accessibility for People of Colour, both as creators and audience members. 

In all, Compose Queer is a wonderful initiative that has resulted in a beautiful concert. I felt more at home here than I do in most concerts, because they weren’t just programming the same dead white cisgender men over and over again. Divisi has made an important contribution to the industry, and to these individual queer composers, and I am excited to see what they do next.