Two Australian composers have drawn on true stories of family violence to create a new song suite. Titled No Excuses!, the piece will premiere at the 2015 Big West Festival, where it will be performed by a massed choir of more than one hundred women. Singers of all levels are invited to participate.
“We collected stories – in the form of poetry, prose, song lyrics or live interviews – from women affiliated with Melbourne’s western suburbs,” said Dr Kathleen McGuire, who co-composed No Excuses! with Christina Green. “We were staggered by the number and scope of stories we received. They are full of heartache and inspirational resilience … The title arose from conversations with victims, who found they repeatedly made excuses for those who abused them. It is also a general statement about society – we feel we should no longer tolerate anyone’s excuses for the existence of family violence.”
Rather than focusing on a single narrative, the suite tells a variety of stories from a range of viewpoints. Its structure reflects this pluralism, through the inclusion of unison and harmonised choral singing, vocal solos, instrumental accompaniment, spoken word and audience participation. Dr Mc Guire said, “By telling these specific stories, we are also telling everyone’s story … We worked closely with the women during the song writing process, to make sure the songs accurately reflect their emotions authentically.”
For some victims, sharing stories was cathartic. Dr McGuire said, “One woman said she thought she had dealt with the pain of her past. Her father had abused her mother for many years, to the point where she had attempted suicide at the young age of sixteen. And now, close to retirement age, she was surprised to find how cathartic it was to write down her story. She said, ‘I thought I had dealt with all of that a long time ago, but it all came bubbling to the surface.’”
Others found the process empowering. “Another victim said she wanted the music to encourage and empower victims to be brave and speak out about their situations. She experienced liberation after leaving her abuser and felt that No Excuses! might encourage women to ‘escape’ as she had. Even while she was a victim, she sang in choirs as a way of getting out of the house and finding some solace away from her daily struggles,” Dr McGuire said.
Meanwhile, for women who haven’t experienced family violence, joining the choir is a way of showing support. “Music conveys powerful messages in unique ways: expressing emotions, providing healing, touching hearts and changing minds … There is enormous power in standing and singing together,” Dr McGuire said.
Rehearsals for No Excuses! are held at Footscray Hospital every Sunday between 4pm and 6pm from 27 September. Dr McGuire said, “Singers of all levels are encouraged to participate … There will be seasoned choir singers and trained vocalists singing alongside ‘shower’ singers, who have little or no former experience singing in groups. We will present the music in a number of ways, including via lyric sheets and sheet music, plus there will be rehearsal tracks, to allow practising at home between rehearsals.” Interested vocalists can register here.
No Excuses! is presented by Big West Festival, in conjunction with the School of Hard Knocks, an arts and culture institute that encourages disadvantaged Australians to participate in mainstream life, of which Dr McGuire is co-artistic director. Creative Victoria is also providing support.
Following the premiere, the project will continue to evolve, through the addition of new stories and songs. The next performance is planned for the Melbourne International Singers Festival, held during the 2016 June long weekend.