For a period of nine months across 2020 and 2021, composer Jessie Leov and community group Nelson Bays Harmony Chorus worked together to create a new piece for a capella upper voices, Call of the Ocean. The work was premiered by the chorus on 19 June 2021 at the Nelson Centre of Musical Arts. Here is a look back at their collaboration, which was made possible thanks to the 2020 SOUNZ Community Commission.
Tell us a bit about you.
Jessie Leov: I am a composer, performer and music educator based in Tāmaki Makaurau, and a recent graduate of the University of Auckland with a Masters degree in Composition. My work in the music world is pretty varied – composing, songwriting, arranging, teaching, live gigs, theatre and more. I had the privilege of collaborating with Nelson Bays Harmony Chorus to create Call of the Ocean after we were selected as the recipients of the 2020 SOUNZ Community Commission.
Kathy Jamieson: Ensemble singing has always been a joy for me, since discovering choir at school, and I revel in the synergy and magic created by many voices together – the whole is more than the sum of the parts. After 15 years as a Sweet Adeline singer in Auckland and then later in Nelson, I became the Musical Director of Nelson Bays Harmony Chorus in 2015. I am much more used to the barbershop style of performing and directing, so this collaboration on a modern a capella piece, was a learning curve for both me and the Chorus.
Ruth Townsend: I am a member of Nelson Bays Harmony Chorus and have sung in choirs most of my life. For the past 10 years this has been mostly barbershop, which I love for its harmonies and interdependence. I had never been part of a collaboration like Call of the Ocean before but knew as soon as we heard about Jessie’s offer that this would be something exciting, and challenging, for us as a group.
Carole Brown: I too am a member of Nelson Bays Harmony Chorus. I’ve always enjoyed listening to barbershop and vowed I would join a group when I had time. As soon as I heard Nelson Bays Harmony at a concert, I knew that time had arrived. My only regret is that I did not join a Sweet Adelines group sooner. I have relished the wonderful opportunities to sing for audiences and in competitions that have been presented to us. Being part of Call of the Ocean was a special highlight.
How did this collaboration come about and what was your reaction to being selected for the commission?
Jessie: I think I came across this opportunity in one of the SOUNZ newsletters which I receive regularly via email. When I saw that the commission enabled a composer and community group to collaborate on a new piece of music, I immediately thought of Nelson Bays Harmony Chorus. I grew up in Nelson and had the pleasure of singing with this group during my high school years, and they have followed and supported me on my musical journey ever since. The opportunity to work together in a professional capacity was pretty exciting. I asked Kathy if she would be keen and between her and their music team I got the green light to send in the application.
Kathy: I knew immediately when Jessie contacted me about this that I would say YES! It was a wonderful chance to learn, grow, get outside our comfort zone, and do something our Chorus doesn’t usually do. A very appealing part of the challenge was the idea of being part of the creative process, as well as learning and performing the finished piece of music. We are thrilled that Jessie wanted to work with us, as we have a huge affection for her, and have followed her musical progress since she was 13 years old!
Carole: Our chorus thrives on challenges so it is not surprising that as soon as Jessie invited us to be part of her collaboration we did not hesitate. The entire process was exciting for us. Jessie made sure we were included in all stages of the planning and what an excellent planner she is. Initially, her ideas were so different from our usual style of singing that I worried for Jessie in case she met with some negativity but in fact it was the opposite. We were keen to be involved from the very first session. It was as if we had been waiting for a chance to step outside the usual barbershop comfort zone.
At the outset, what was your vision for the collaboration?
Jessie: Having a fair idea of the musical background of the chorus, I knew they didn’t have much experience in the area of choral music. For this collaboration I was excited to introduce them to this other side of a cappella music, to work with them to shape this piece of music to their abilities, and to work together to create a piece we could all take ownership over and feel connected to. This project was also a chance for us to explore improvisation and incorporate some improvisatory elements where the singers would take charge of building the texture and dynamic – I knew this would be a very new experience for the chorus but also totally within their capabilities.
Kathy: I think we all visualised a ‘wow’ performance, where the audience would feel moved by what we were singing about, and that was the goal we were aiming for. We had never been involved in a collaboration with a musician before so we were guided by Jessie in this respect, especially during the creative stages. We knew there would be a phase where we could contribute to the theme and text for the music, and then we were in Jessie’s hands while she wrote the score that would carry those ideas, and trust that she would create music that we were capable of performing.
Ruth: I think my initial reaction was to wonder whether we would be able to do this justice! However we were guided at every step by Jessie who had a clear idea of where she was going and included us and coached us through every step. The collaborative approach she used was refreshing and empowering and we felt that this piece truly was ‘ours’.
Carole: We appreciated being involved at every step and shared Jessie’s vision from the outset. She encouraged us to express our ideas and thoughts. This made us feel as if were part of the creative team with a goal in mind and as a result our enthusiasm never waned. Living in the Nelson/Tasman region we of course appreciated having the ocean as our theme.
How did the logistics of the collaborative process work?
Jessie: With me in Auckland/Waikato and the chorus in Nelson, we kept in touch via email throughout the process. I had the pleasure of travelling down to work with the chorus in person several times between our first creative session in October 2020 and the concert in June 2021. We started off with a lot of brainstorming around lyrical ideas and themes, and the theme of the ocean was the one that resonated most with the chorus. Chorus members came up with different phrases and chunks of text that reflected their connection to the ocean and what it meant to them, and I put these together to form the text for the piece.
We did some musical brainstorming and the chorus came up with different musical ideas (short melodies, vocalisations, rhythms, etc). From here it was a matter of putting together bits and pieces of these different ideas, workshopping material with the chorus, and keeping an open mind to the possibilities as we continue to shape the piece. Towards the end of the project when the piece was done and dusted and the chorus was rehearsing it, I tuned in to some of their rehearsal live-streams and was able to contribute from afar.
Kathy: Jessie and I have always communicated well, so the physical distance apart didn’t become a barrier at all. We talked on email about all aspects of the process as it unfolded, and Jessie was able to watch our rehearsals on live-stream and offer feedback, and more importantly, work with us in person on the few occasions when she was able to travel to Nelson. Her coaching was invaluable, and we were also able to modify some of the sound effects and correct some balance issues with Jessie in the room – we would have struggled to do that by ourselves.
Carole: We are fortunate to have knowledgeable and skilled leaders in our group so we were able to meet in smaller groups to focus on learning our parts. This is something Nelson Bays Harmony always does willingly (and happily). I think we regarded Call of the Ocean as warranting special attention, maybe because Jessie had imbued us with a sense of ownership.
What were some of the more challenging aspects of the collaboration?
Jessie: Some of the technical elements of the piece were more of a challenge for the chorus to master such as the 6/8 rhythm and the divisi moments, when a voice part would split into two parts. My challenge was to find the balance between what we wanted to achieve with this piece – the magic that we wanted to create – and the technical capabilities of this group of singers. The chorus also had a national competition they were preparing for which was in May, the month before the premiere of Call of the Ocean, so there were some challenges balancing these two projects, but the chorus put in so much time and effort and everything turned out wonderfully.
Kathy: I would say the most challenging thing musically, was the contrasting patterns in each voice part. For a Chorus largely used to singing synchronised chords, the constant variation in what each voice part was singing, and the overall (exciting, contemporary) sound that created, felt strange to some of the singers and really challenged them to learn their part off-paper. I am so proud of their determination to master the piece, and we all learned a lot along the way.
Ruth: We met several challenges along the way. Rhythm and timing on certain sections were different from what we were used to, along with the ad lib element of the climax of the piece.
Carole: I can remember when I first looked at the music ‘on paper’ I thought it would be almost impossible to perform without clutching that paper. But we did it! Also – we were accustomed to singing in a particular style so to be expected to make unscripted sounds was a little daunting at first. In fact we enjoyed being given the freedom to stray from our usual barbershop harmony.
What were the highlights of the collaboration?
Jessie: My sessions working with the chorus in person were the real highlight for me. It was so rewarding being able to try out different ideas in real-time, to see what worked and what didn’t, and to see the piece slowly come together from start to finish. The chorus were so willing to try out new ideas and to make changes to what they’d already learned – everyone was passionate about the story that we wanted to tell with Call of the Ocean.
Kathy: Seeing the ocean theme emerge so clearly from the first workshops, hearing our own words appear in the text, working with Jessie and experimenting with different effects as the music came alive, seeing the chorus embrace and enjoy the project so wholeheartedly, and being able to direct the ‘world first’ performance in the lovely Theatre Royal here in Nelson. It was hard work, alongside our preparation for our national contest, but so worthwhile.
Ruth: It was a highlight that Jessie had chosen us to work with on such a project which was a completely different genre from what we normally sang. Once we had got used to the way the collaboration worked people responded with enthusiasm and this truly became our piece. We were increasingly proud to be involved in this way and excited to be able to present it to the public.
Carole: From the outset, it was exciting to be part of this collaboration. For most of us it was a completely new experience. We felt quite honoured to be able to contribute ideas and suggestions. With Jessie at the helm we became fully involved in the planning stages and then moved on to the actual learning process. When we first saw the near-completed composition on paper we felt proud of what we had helped to achieve. We were keen to bring the lyrics and music to life – and prepared to work hard to complete the journey.
What was the response to the premiere of the work?
Kathy: I think the audience loved it. They could feel the ocean and its many moods, thanks to Jessie’s clever composition and our personal connection to the music. It probably wasn’t the most in-tune performance that we had wished for, but the engagement and energy made up for it!
Ruth: Great enthusiasm from the audience and many compliments particularly from those who appreciated the amount of effort put in by all those involved. It was a highlight in the chorus’ history.
Carole: Judging from the applause and chatter it was very well received. The show had been advertised as a premiere and accompanying publicity gave a little background information on Jessie and SOUNZ. So the audience knew it was going to be different from our usual performance and I think appreciated seeing us on stage with such an imaginative piece.
What did you take away from this experience?
Jessie: Before this I had never had the opportunity to work closely with a group over a prolonged period of time and it was an experience that I really enjoyed. There’s something so special about creating with other people and its something I hope will continue to be core to my practice as a composer.
Kathy: This was the first time I had conducted a contemporary a cappella piece, and it definitely extended my teaching/rehearsing and directing skills. I felt like I had an orchestra in front of me rather than a choir, and my job was to bring the various instruments in and out of the complex whole.
Carole: I learned, as I think we all did, that I am capable of working on a piece which presents as being hugely challenging. We had to grasp a few new concepts. Being given the freedom to make special sound effects. Having to rely on our director to lead us on our voyage through the ocean with just a nod or a gesture. Being aware that we were telling the story of the call of the ocean. But oh, that feeling of pride and satisfaction when the last wave melted into the sand…. Wonderful!
What would you say to another musical group interested in collaborating with a composer or trying out a new style of music?
Kathy: Go for it! Your singers will love the challenge of working in a different style, and having the opportunity to be part of the development of the music. Just be flexible, be prepared to change things as you go along depending on what works.
Carole: I’d say ‘do it’. Don’t be deterred if at first it appears to be too difficult. Take it step by step rather than looking at the entirety too early in the learning process. Suddenly it all falls into place.
Any final words?
Jessie: Thank you to SOUNZ and the anonymous donor who made this collaboration possible! Thank you to Kathy and the chorus for coming on board with such creative and open minds – I’m really proud of what we explored together.
Kathy: This has been a really positive experience and a special highlight of my time as a musical director.
Carole: Being involved in the creation and performing of Call of the Ocean was an unforgettable experience. I think in a way it showed us that we can break away from our traditional way of singing and still do it well. We are indebted to Jessie for inviting us to join her on this rewarding journey.