In conversation with… Bailey and Alex, directors of chamber vocal ensemble Divisi Chamber Singers

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki

I recently had the chance to chat to Bailey Montgomerie and Alex Gorbatov, two enterprising and passionate music students who established chamber vocal ensemble Divisi Chamber Singers in the early months of 2019. All the singers in Divisi are under the age of 23, and most of them are balancing studies at university with other jobs and projects. It is so fabulous to see young musicians boldly create opportunities for themselves and upcoming composers, so I wanted to quiz these two on all the things they have learnt over the year of running the ensemble.

If you like what you read in the interview below, please consider reading more about Divisi’s upcoming Compose Queer project, currently fundraising on the Australia Cultural Fund page. Divisi will be commissioning pieces from four young queer composers and premiering them in concert in 2020, along with a premiere of a piece by composer Sally Whitwell. Find out more here

Divisi’s upcoming concert Cecilia will take place on the 22nd of November at Christ Church Brunswick. Entry is by donation and all proceeds will go towards the upkeep of the ensemble and their future projects. The concert will include a new work by young Melbourne composer Max McConnell. Facebook event linked here

Divisi’s website can be found here, and Facebook page here

SJJ: Why did you both start up Divisi ensemble? Why did you feel like the world needed another chamber vocal ensemble?

BM: There are two prongs to that answer. The first one is, it was a project for us to develop our own musical abilities and skills. The Melbourne Conservatorium is great, the teachers there are sometimes like walking encyclopaedias of musical knowledge. Especially now there’s the new building, there are a lot of great resources, like-minded people… It’s great, but it doesn’t give you everything.

Things like industry experience and industry placement, which the Ignite Lab program at uni is trying to provide to an extent, generally get missed out on by the general populace of the conservatorium. And those things are obviously very, very important to your development as a musician. Like you can have all the technique and interpretation training you want, but if you don’t have any industry experience, you may as well not be doing it.

Bailey Montgomerie (left) and Alex Gorbatov (right. Photo credit: Julia Krivoshev)

SJJ: You can’t be a performer in theory, you have to actually get out there. And it’s scary to get out there, because most of us performers are perfectionists. You don’t want to go out there and do something that’s crap. But I don’t think you’ll ever feel ready.

BM: Exactly. It was also because there was no chamber choral music program at the uni outside of Chamber Choir and Early Voices. And that was something that we thought we could create for ourselves… not only would we get experience in managing it, but we’d be able to sort of explore the repertoire in the same way that we would be able to explore, you know, solo repertoire like operatic pieces and lieder.

Divisi after singing at the official opening of the new Melbourne Conservatorium of Music building in Southbank. From left to right: Sam Rowe, Bailey Montgomerie, Alex Owens, Julia Krivoshev, Syrah Torii, Lisha Ooi, Alex Gorbatov, Breanna Stuart

Also we noticed a bit of a rising of little independent groups and ensembles throughout the country, like in Sydney where Alex and I used to live, in Canberra, with our friends who run Luminescence Chamber Singers, and a couple of groups here as well. And we thought well, there seems to be a market here that’s untapped, ready to be filled. And we thought “We might not be ready to do that now, but the only way we’re going to be ready to do that is if we start something, and make ourselves ready for it.”

And now sure enough, we’ve been chatting to some people like the Polyphonic Voices ensemble, and they’ve been saying, oh there’s a hundred new vocal octets that are springing up now, so you guys came in at the right time. And they’re not really knowing how to run a marketing campaign. Because while our music musical ability is still developing, we’re still young and only training, we’ve really learned how to market the crap out of a concert. And in that sense, we’re actually well ahead of a lot of the other chamber singing ensembles, who may be well ahead of us in musical capabilities.

So it was sort of like wanting to become part of that new tradition that was still developing. And it was something that we sort of intuitively knew because of our experience. Both Alex and I are Gondwana boys, and Gondwana’s been going on for 25 years now, so the first generation of quite serious singers that it has produced are starting to graduate, become musicians and go study overseas.

And the third prong of it, is that we love it and really wanted to do it.

SJJ: So you both took part in the Gondwana choir program… can you tell me little about how you ended up singing chamber music?

AG: I was very fortunate to have a principal in primary school who noticed I could sing and pointed me in the direction of Lyn Williams and the fantastic Sydney Children’s choir, which is under the Gondwana banner, and a mum who really wanted me to have a strong musical education even if at times it involved literally (and I don’t mean literally as in figuratively, I literally as in, quite literally) dragging me to rehearsals. So I’ve been singing in choirs since I was six years old. I also started playing piano at around that time but that is very much a secondary instrument for me.

Sydney Children’s Choir, and by extension Gondwana, has provided the chore of my singing world. Apart from just forcing me to sing once a week for eleven years straight, the program exposed me to contemporary Australian music at a scale I’m only starting to understand now and mandated theory and aural training. This in combination with a school that provided an incredible music education in theory, history, and gave me practice in a huge range of historical music developed my love of music to where it is at now.

Rehearsing for Tallis To Tavener. From left to right: Julia Krivoshev, Breanna Stuart, Lisha Ooi, Bailey Montgomerie, Syrah Torii, Sam Rowe, Alex Gorbatov

Choirs have always been my focus and in 2015 and 2016 I got the pleasure of singing and touring with Gondwana Chorale as their youngest member. This group showed me a new standard of choral music that I had not appreciated before and also that Australia had the ability to produce the absolute pinnacle of music of this type. It was also in 2016 that I started doing some barbershop, and properly listened to groups like Luminescence and The Song Company, and realised that I wanted to sing this music. It was also through Gondwana choirs that Bailey and I (and a few other members of Divisi) really got to know each other.

SJJ: So with social media and marketing, what are some things that you’ve picked up through the process of throwing yourself in the deep end, about putting on concerts, marketing concerts, and actually getting people to come?

BM: Yep, like I would say the biggest thing for me, was discovering the wonderful world of data. So for example, our Facebook page for Divisi, and Eventbrite the ticketing website, allow us to access certain analytics. It tells us things like when people are visiting our site what posts are getting the most engagement and from what people, what social media activity is leading to sales and from who.

Using Facebook and Eventbrite analytics, we’re able to refine our marketing strategy, and learn how to more efficiently translate social media engagement into ticket sales.

And it’s a bit scary how much data we actually give away… It gives you some perspective, if Alex and I can run this page out of our bedroom and have the ability to so directly target individuals on social media to make them buy tickets, what must the larger scale operations be doing!

So we’ve definitely learned a lot about how to translate marketing social media to ticket sales through direct targeting of particular audience. Obviously there’s no substitute for just posting and harassing people but you don’t actually have to do that as much produce the same results, if you are able to target people more directly. And analytics and data have been a super wonderful way of doing that.

Rehearsing for Cecilia. From left to right: Bailey Montgomerie, Andre Sasalu, Alex Ritter, Lisha Ooi, Marjorie Butcher

SJJ: It’s the future. No one moving forward trying to do anything project-wise, is looking away from data or social media. It’s actually scary, sometimes…

BM: I mean, I sometimes have to do a double take, I’m thinking like how much people don’t know how much information we have about them… and even if they do I’m not sure they recognize how that information allows us to get them to buy tickets. Actually, I’m pretty sure people are aware of how much information they giving, they just don’t know how much it helps us to target them as a demographic. It’s really cool, from an intellectual standpoint. I think that’s the world we live in now, and if you’re starting up a small business it’s just something you’re going to have to take into account.

SJJ: How do you both approach time management? In regards to social media, and having a regular posting schedule to get your name out there, how do you actually approach that in a sustainable way so that you’re not having breakdowns every five minutes?

BM: That has actually been really difficult for us over the past few months, especially in the lead up to the last concert.

We’ve discovered that the kind of division of labour that we’re doing, which is basically everything between me and Alex that we can do it respective times when we don’t have assessments and other gigs, and work, is causing us to miss the things that we could be done to maximize the efficiency of the choir and the events that we have coming up, in terms of getting bums on seats…

So we actually had a meeting with the head of Ignite Lab [Susan Eldridge, member of staff at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music] about this recently because we’ve realised we need some kind of division of labour. So right now we’re in the process of delegating a couple of roles so that we can have a coherent framework of who’s doing what… But, generally speaking, because we don’t want to micro-manage. My father was in management and he always taught me the value of macro-managing, not micro-managing.

Performing in Tallis to Tavener. From left to right: Julia Krivoshev, Bailey Montgomerie, Alex Gorbatov

SJJ: Showing people you trust them.

BM: Yeah, that you trust them to the job, to the best of their ability, in their own way.

So things like, having an operations manager, people doing finance, people during marketing, dividing those kinds of roles. We’ve definitely got one friend who’s been in Divisi with us from the beginning who is going to be stepping in and doing social media and marketing for us, which is going to be super useful.

But yeah in response to a question about how do we manage? Yeah, the simple answer is we don’t. And we’ve had to devise strategies to fix that. Historically, what we have been doing is just doing what we can when we can… but you know, it’s not really been too much of an issue simply because it is a passion project and it’s something that we can even procrastinate doing other things to as well! We end up filling our spare time with it because we don’t mind. And the great thing at the moment is that Alex and I are totally accountable to one another. And we know we’ll get the jobs done. But with delegating tasks and creating a framework, we’ve become aware that it is a fine line, of working out how to avoid micro-manage, while still actually managing.

AG: Yeah, it is very much an evolving process. At the moment it’s a bit of a rag tag combination of whoever has more time to tackle a program or project tends to take charge and delegate and ask for help when needed. This works by necessity but not by system. In other words, it works, but not in the best away.

As Bailey mentioned, the scale is huge, which was a bit of surprise to both of us. The other thing about the scale is that in efforts to get the most out of a concert, we are spending more time scaling up the process. This comes in the form of marketing, creating and maintain a website, a mailing list, Facebook, Instagram etc. This is not at a point where it is going to stop especially as we start to commercialize the enterprise properly. All this has been a worthwhile training experience and good for us as people, but the future of the group depends on our ability to delegate and manage tasks better.

The more creative part of the planning is split. Often one of us will have an okay idea then the other one will take it and run with and make it into a pretty good idea. Then with repertoire it becomes a very collaborative process. We will go back between the two of us and check to make sure something isn’t unrealistically difficult or not really the right fit for the concert. This is one of the more time-consuming parts of the preparation but also one of the most enjoyable. It often involves a bottle of red, very loud choral music, lots of hysterical laughter, and lots of going off track into realms of repertoire that we should not at all attempt and concerts far in the future of the group.

After opening for Candlelight VOX’s concert ‘Ascension’, held in May 2019. Top row from left to right: Julia Krivoshev, James Emerson, Sam Rowe, Alex Gorbatov. Bottom row from left to right: Bailey Montgomerie, Lisha Ooi, Breanna Stuart, Syrah Torii

SJJ: How do you and Alex approach the curatorship of your programs?

BM: Aside from the actual rehearsal process, the curatorship is probably the most creative part of the project. Sometimes it’s a name, like Tallis to Tavener, which had such a nice ring to it that we just had to do it. It’s a pretty name which actually created a coherent theme that we could explore. Divisi in Recital, that program started with the concept of like showcasing what the choir could do, and we also wanted to perform a specific set of music, which was Arvo Pärt.

Often it will emerge from either repertoire that we want to perform and we curate a theme around yeah, or it’ll start with the theme and we curate repertoire around a theme. So it can actually emerge like the curation process can start from any one point in creating a program. You work backwards, forwards, sideways, two steps forward, two steps down… It’s very creative. We’ve got so many ideas written down now, it’s frankly crazy.

SJJ: Who are some composers who inspire you both?

AG: That’s a hard question! Firstly, our good friend Johann Sebastian Bach. His vocal music is terribly difficult to actually sing because he was a bit mean to vocalists, but the result is incredible. If you listen to his motets, although he didn’t really care about them too much, he was doing all this incredibly interesting word painting and textural stuff that is a few hundred years ahead of his time.

Out of the renaissance basket I love singing William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. The masses for three, four, five voices have this incredible rhythmic feel to them which make them so fun to sing.  I had the opportunity to sing some of the Eton song book a few months ago and it is like Byrd on crack. More complex, more interesting, more clash, and we know even less about how it was performed.

Performing in Tallis to Tavener. Top row from left to right: Syrah Torii, Julia Krivoshev, Alex Owens, Sam Rowe. Bottom row from left to right: Breanna Stuart, Lisha Ooi, Alex Gorbatov, Bailey Montgomerie

While we are in the British Isles, I’ve been loving Henry Purcell lately. He is so expressive in his use of dissonance. I won’t keep going, because every times I say the name a Baroque or Renaissance composer, another one pops into my head…

On the contemporary side, I’ve just become addicted to Gavin Bryars and have been recently singing a bunch of Arvo Pärt.

Essentially, anything with a good deal of clashy-ness and some genius and thought apparent in the writing will make me pretty happy.

BM: Yep, Johann Sebastian Bach. He reminds me every day exactly why I love singing so much. His music is just so pleasant to sing, and there’s also this sort of implicit goal. One of the reasons we created Divisi was because we want to perform the Bach motets in concert one day. So that is a future project that we will take on when we’re ready.

I would also name Arvo Pärt. His music is fascinating, in that experimental style. It’s almost like the music was conceived in a slightly different way. Those natural instincts you have about phrasing and dynamics, basically your musical intuition, it’s not all wrong, but you have to completely rethink it.

Because his style is informed by a very particular set of factors. Tintinnabuli, the ringing of the bell, is a central idea to his entire musical style. And you basically have to curate the performance style around that… you try to avoid bringing in your general musical intuition and really approach it from the ground up rather than bringing in outside knowledge.

I would expand that comment to a lot of other 20th century composers. The composers pushing boundaries, rethinking music, those composers definitely make me feel personally like I’m in the right profession. The music is so much fun and very intellectually engaging, even if their music isn’t as consonant as I might like.

And Baroque and Renaissance composers generally! Alex and I are early music nerds. For the same reason that we like 20th century composers, those composers were pushing the boundaries of music during their time as well. They actually thought about music in a very different way, in a way that that was in a sense developing the tradition that we have today. It’s really cool to step outside of our own shoes in today’s musical world and almost pretend like we’re with those composers how to do music, almost figuring out how they figured it out…

Renaissance composers discovered a whole lot of chromatic music theory, hundreds of years before anyone else did. Because the ways there were conceiving music were so fundamentally different and strange.

And it’s really interesting to discover those sort of divergent ways of thinking in the same vein as you know, 20th century composers as well.

Julia Krivoshev (left) and Breanna Stuart (right) performing in Tallis To Tavener.

SJJ: Monteverdi sounds to me incredibly fresh and beautiful… I’m astounded when I listen to his stuff, because I didn’t even realize how much I liked that kind of music until I listened to his music. It’s just so colourful and passionate and intense and gorgeous.

So what is up next for Divisi?

BM: As we started programming our own music, we’ve started to recognize the problems with Western composition being dominated primarily by straight white men and nothing else, even though we’ve got geniuses like Hildegard and a lot of 20th century and 21st century female composers, composers of colour, queer composers… Composers who are doing a lot of stuff and it’s not really being talked about by other people.

What’s up next for Divisi is something that we are really passionate about- programming composers whose work may not be getting heard, because of social factors that have lasted as long as music has in the western tradition.

The project we are so excited for is called Compose Queer. We’re going to be commissioning a few queer composers, preferably young people who are from Melbourne or Sydney, and we’ll be performing their works next year in concert. And Sally Whitwell, one of the premiere queer classical composers in Australia, is going to come down and headline the concert for us… and hopefully work with the young composers as well! She’s very experienced at choral writing because she’s worked with choirs pretty much the majority of her musical career. She’s kindly allowing us to premiere a piece that she’s written as well.

Expressed succinctly, we want to do our part for the queer classical music community. A community which is very sparse, because it’s such a niche area. And naturally that’s going to turn a lot of people away. Especially people that might have particular barriers to getting into the profession in the first place… generally speaking, those who aren’t expressly fitting in the heteronormative model of personhood in Western society today. And we want it to be more than just an awareness campaign. It’s actually putting money into the pockets, and giving notoriety to, the people who need the money and need the notoriety. And hopefully setting a precedent for other ensembles to not just program a bunch of dead white guys, basically.

We also want to have an opportunity to perform some new works and get some stuff commissioned for us. Our upcoming concert Cecilia features a new work by Max McConnell, a local composer from the Con.

Then we’re going to be focusing mainly on Compose Queer which will definitely be a really, really interesting project.

SJJ: What is your favourite thing about being in a chamber music group?

After Tallis To Tavener. From left to right: Julia Krivoshev, Breanna Stuart, Syrah Torii, Sam Rowe, Bailey Montgomerie, Alex Owens, Lisha Ooi, Alex Gorbatov

AG: I love large choirs, they produce a fantastic sound, but it is often so safe. There is no adrenaline and risk in performance and there is essentially one uniform sound. If you compare the sound of the world’s best large choirs, the differences are minor. If you listen to Voces 8, The Song Company, Fieri Consort, etc, they are all produce unique, wonderful and diverse sounds with a versatility and agility you can’t get out of large choir. There is also something special about the trust you have between the eight of you. It becomes a very intimate experience but never has the magnitude of what you get in large choirs.

BM: Probably my favourite thing would be achieving like that level of ensemble, where you approach a cadence point in a piece of music, and the chord is so perfectly in tune that you just feel it in your bones. And you can hear upper partials as well in the room when the acoustics are good, and you know that that is the exact resonant frequency of the chord and you did it… That kind of feeling, it’s a little bit addictive. That whole feeling of being so together and in tune with one another, it’s a really satisfying feeling like musically.

The development of ensemble skills is a big thing for me and one massive reason why I like chamber vocal music is the ensemble communication aspect. Developing it in others is another theme. We’ve had a couple of members of the choir who have just come leaps and bounds in terms of their ensemble skills reading skills, and it’s been really rewarding to see them grow in that way as well. And the social-ness of it as well…. the reason so many people who aren’t necessarily even singers sing in choirs, because it’s a great social thing singing in the choir.

If you liked what you read in the interview above, please consider reading more about Divisi’s upcoming Compose Queer project, currently fundraising on the Australia Cultural Fund page. Divisi will be commissioning pieces from four young queer composers and premiering them in concert in 2020, along with a premiere of a piece by composer Sally Whitwell. Find out more here

Divisi’s upcoming concert Cecilia will take place on the 22nd of November at Christ Church Brunswick. Entry is by donation and all proceeds will go towards the upkeep of the ensemble and their future projects. The concert will include a new work by young Melbourne composer Max McConnell. Facebook event linked here

Divisi’s website can be found here, and Facebook page here

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