By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
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 members of Divisi are in their early twenties, and most are balancing university studies with jobs and other projects. It is 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 a 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, alongside 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
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 parts to that answer. The first one is, it was an opportunity for us to develop our own musical abilities and skills. While the Melbourne Conservatorium is great, and the teachers are sometimes walking encyclopedias of musical knowledge, 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 populace of the Conservatorium. And those things are obviously very, very important to your development as a musician. 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.
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 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. It 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 explore the repertoire in the same way that we get to explore solo repertoire through the Bachelor of Music.
We had noticed a rising of little independent ensembles like Luminescence Chamber Singers, run by our friends in Canberra. And we thought, there seems to be a market here that’s untapped. We knew the only way were going to be ready to start up our own ensemble was just to jump in, and make ourselves ready.
Sure enough, we’ve been chatting to some people like the Polyphonic Voices ensemble, and they’ve been saying that there hundred new vocal octets springing up. And they’re not really knowing how to run a marketing campaign. Because while our musical ability is still developing, we’ve 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.
And the third part of it was that we love it and really wanted to do it.
SJJ: Both of you 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 mean, 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 it’s very much a secondary instrument for me.
Sydney Children’s Choir, and by extension Gondwana, has provided the core of my singing world. Apart from forcing me to sing once a week for eleven years straight, the program exposed me to contemporary Australian music and mandated theory and aural training at a scale I’m only just starting to understand.
Choirs have always been my focus and in 2015 and 2016 I had the pleasure of touring with Gondwana Chorale as their youngest member. That ensemble 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 repertoire, and listening to groups like Luminescence and The Song Company, which helped me realise 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: 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: The biggest thing for me has been discovering the wonderful world of data. We can access certain analytics through our Facebook page for Divisi and the ticketing website Eventbrite. We can see when people are visiting our site, what posts are getting the most engagement, what social media activity is leading to sales… We use this data to refine our marketing strategy and more efficiently translate social media engagement into ticket sales.
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.
SJJ: How do you both approach time management? In regards to social media and having a regular posting schedule, how do you approach that in a sustainable way?
BM: That has actually been really difficult for us over the past few months, especially in the lead up to the last concert. We worked out recently that the method we’ve been following, aka splitting every job between Alex and I, and squeezing them into whatever time we don’t have assessments or work, just isn’t sustainable. It’s been causing us to miss things that we could be doing to maximize the efficiency of the choir and getting bums on seats…
So we had a meeting with the head of Ignite Lab to tackle this [Susan Eldridge, member of staff at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music]. Right now we’re in the process of delegating a couple of roles so we can have a coherent framework of who’s doing what.
Things like, having an operations manager, someone in charge of managing the finances, someone running marketing, those kinds of roles. Julia Krivoshev, one of our sopranos, will be taking over social media and marketing for us, which will be super useful.
While there have been challenges, the great thing at the moment is Alex and I are totally accountable to one another. 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-managing, while still actually managing.
AG: The more creative part of the planning is split. Often one of us will have an okay idea, and the other will run with it and turn it into a pretty good idea.
Deciding on repertoire is a very collaborative process. We go back and forth between the two of us to make sure the pieces aren’t unrealistically difficult and the right fit for the concerts. This is one of the more time-consuming steps of the preparation, but also one of the most enjoyable. It often involves a bottle of red, very loud choral music, hysterical laughter, and going off track into realms of repertoire we should definitely not attempt in the near future…
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. The Divisi in Recital program started with the concept of showcasing what the choir could do, and we also wanted to perform a specific set of pieces by Arvo Pärt.
Often it will emerge from either repertoire that we want to perform and we curate a theme around, or it’ll start with the theme and we’ll curate repertoire around that. The curation process can start from any one point. 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 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 was 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.
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 an 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, you have to completely rethink them. 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 world. And you 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.
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 in the world of 20th century composers.
SJJ: So what is up next for Divisi?
BM: Once we began programming our own programs, we started to recognize the problem with Western composition being dominated by straight white men. Even though we have geniuses like Hildegard and a bunch of interesting composers from the 20th and 21st century; female composers, composers of colour, queer composers…
Our next project involves 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 is called Compose Queer. We’re going to be commissioning a handful of queer composers, preferably young people who are from Melbourne or Sydney, and will be performing their works next year in concert. Sally Whitwell, one of the premier 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 the majority of her musical career. She’s kindly allowing us to premiere a piece of hers as well.
We want to do our part for the queer classical music community. It’s 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 the notoriety. And hopefully setting a precedent for other ensembles to not just program a bunch of dead white guys, basically.
We’re really keen to perform some new works. Our upcoming concert Cecilia features a new work by Max McConnell, a local composer from the Conservatorium.
SJJ: What is your favourite thing about being in a chamber music group?
AG: I love large choirs, they produce a fantastic sound, but it is often so safe. There isn’t the same sense of risk, and essentially there’s 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 produce unique and wonderful sounds with a versatility and agility you can’t get out of large choir. And there is something special about the trust you have between the eight of you. It becomes a very intimate experience.
BM: My favourite thing would be achieving 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 feeling is a little bit addictive. And so musically satisfying.
The development of ensemble skills is a big thing for me. One massive reason I like chamber vocal music is the ensemble communication aspect. Developing it in others is another important goal. 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. And the social-ness of it as well…. the reason so many people sing in choirs who aren’t necessarily serious singers, is because it’s a great social experience.