The Australia Council’s announcement in April that some 49 arts organisations around Australia were to lose four-year funding came as a shock to many. Two that were unsuccessful were Ensemble Offspring and The Song Company, being two of the country’s most well respected and high achieving music groups. Arts budgets are especially tight right now, but with the added difficulty of trying to survive under COVID-19 restrictions, it makes times exceedingly tough right now.
In the second of two articles, we asked Antony Pitts, Artistic Director of The Song Company, about how the group is dealing with the present circumstances.
What does it mean for The Song Company to be moving from four-year to one-year funding as a result of the Australia Council funding decision, and what are your thoughts as regards its decision?
Obviously we are very disappointed that, as Australia’s only national professional vocal ensemble, we are not going to receive multi-year Federal government funding for 2021-2024. Our last major performances before the lockdown were alongside The Tallis Scholars and other leading international groups at this year’s Adelaide Festival with our ensemble of Principal, Ensemble, and Associate Artists drawn from right across Australia – this level of music-making is simply not possible without major financial input, as the time needed for preparation and rehearsal, and the travel costs involved are substantial. We currently have to rely partly but very significantly on government funding to be in a position both to perform at a world-class level and to mentor the next generation of Australian singers. This loss of Federal funding will therefore mean a fundamental change to our performing and touring model. In our case, however, we have known for some time that we weren’t being considered for this funding round after our Expression of Interest was rejected last year. To some extent we have already come to terms with this blow and have developed a new strategic model that takes into account this level of setback. But at the same time we very much share the pain and incredulity of our colleagues at other ensembles and organisations around the country.
How have things changed for The Song Company as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
The Song Company is in the same deeply challenging position as arts organisations throughout the country and abroad. This is an existential crisis for the Arts in Australia and will require extraordinary help for many, many organisations to survive and for artists to be able to pay for essentials over the coming months. We have had to rethink how we operate and how we can continue to create beautiful and original music when our singers are scattered across the country. It’s also been a time to discover who is prepared to support us and other small arts organisations in what is already a very changed landscape for all our artists. We’re very grateful that so many of our donors have pledged their ongoing backing for what we do. In practical terms, we are reworking our forthcoming Main Stage programs – Burden of Truth and Arms of Love – for digital release and rescheduled live performances later this year or next, and at the same time preparing our Close-Up and Salon programs – Dichterliebe Reimagined, Bach to the Future, Chant d’amour et de mort, Dances of Passion/Madrigalesque – to be ready for when concert-halls do reopen. At this stage we’re hoping that the later programs in our 2020 Clear Blue Sky season, including our production of Hildegard of Bingen’s music drama Ordo Virtutum in Circle of Virtue, will be able to go ahead as planned.
Can you tell us about the group’s recording projects and your recomposition of the 13-part canon in the Eton Choirbook?
Our major recording projects right now are – remixed from the archive – last season’s Power Chords Attached with Melbourne metal band The Omnific, and – brand-new with 33 singers recording remotely from across the country and beyond – a world première of Gavin Bryars’s infamous setting of a homeless man’s singing, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and a multichoral reworking of the Eton Choirbook canon, Jesus autem transiens. Both these large-scale pieces have allowed us to support and bring together all of our eight Principal Artists, four Ensemble Artists, ten Associate Artists, our most recent Emeriti Artists, plus one or two special Guest Artists for our digital Burden of Truth project. Matching everyone’s recordings in the studio at home has been an invigorating task and I hope that many people will be really moved by these magnificent harmonies and incredible layering of uplifting voices in visionary song! Of course we’re missing our live performing enormously, but this is also an opportunity to lay down a significant part of our recorded legacy and hopefully reach a wider audience than ever.