It’s a body-conscious world out there – social media filters, sculpted influencers, injectables and Botox proliferate. But nothing is really new – the 16th century was just as obsessed with the body as we are.
Canberra’s Luminescence vocal ensemble is about to present Of the Body, a lush, fascinating mix of music from the 1500s, all the way to Bon Iver, all focused on the body and its many roles.
Ensemble director AJ America says the Renaissance music reflects a major change in understanding about how the body functions. Physicians were challenging long-established orthodoxy, human dissection was taking place for the first time and artists such as Durer and da Vinci were fascinated by how the body works.
At the same time, creative expression was exploding and moving away from its focus on religion.
“There’s still lots of music about the body of Christ, but then you get Orlando di Lasso’s five-minute piece about noses. It’s rich and humorous and totally unexpected,” AJ says.
Composer (and ensemble member) Dan Walker has taken inspiration from a beloved work by Dutch composer Dieterich Buxtehude about the body of Christ. He’s written a modern meditation where every movement reflects on parts of the body and their roles in our lives (including periods).
“It’s easy to make a sentimental pastiche about the hands or the heart, for example, but Dan’s done some beautiful things with the music. He’s used a 17th-century Japanese poem about the quiet work of women’s hands, their dye stains. The last movement is about how to hold a heart, a surgeon’s guide to the interplay between the scientific and the emotional,” AJ adds.
Luminescence is a six-voice ensemble that AJ says is best thought of as a chamber music group, two trios of female and male voices. AJ leads the group, which is often directed by the Canberra International Music Festival’s Roland Peelman.
“Consort singing is not choral singing,” she explains. “It’s more like a string quartet but with singers. Each person brings their own vocal and musical qualities. While we’re very collaborative and make a beautiful sonorous sound, we’re also six individual singers with distinct sounds.”
Dan Walker is the group’s tenor, joined by two new members. Baritone Lucien Fischer has been a familiar figure as a guest and is now permanent, joined by the group’s “brand-new bass”, Alistair Stretch.
Soprano Veronica Milroy provides the clear, crystalline sound with “lungs in her legs”, while American-born soprano Rachel Mink brings the full gamut of singer-songwriter skills to her work. Trained as an opera singer, she also inflects a pop sensibility into the Luminescence sound.
AJ grounds the female voices with her mezzo, and believes communication between the six is the key to results.
“You’ve got to like each other,” she says.
“We rehearse really collaboratively. It’s important that we don’t impose our sounds on each other – each voice needs to be individual but we need a shared sense of what we’re doing with the piece, a shared artistic vision.
“The individual voices always need to do their thing. It can be easy or it can take a lot of debate or discussion. In the best of days we all agree, and sometimes we make a compromise.”
There’s never a compromise on the quality of the work, though. Of the Body is playing in Canberra on 30 and 31 March before moving to Sydney and Wollongong. You can find out more about the Luminescence season and book here.