By Millie Bull
On the 20th of April, the world watched as heartbreaking images of Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral, licked in flames, were broadcast around the world. The Song Company’s latest show, Power Chords Attached, pays homage to the historic cathedral by honouring its musical legacy. Composed during the twelfth century, as Notre-Dame was still under construction, the polyphonic music of Léonin and Pérotin was specifically arranged to celebrate the cathedral’s unique acoustics. The soaring vaults of the Gothic cathedral create distinct acoustic reverberations, which magnify the choir and add a haunting echo to their voices (rather like a Medieval loop pedal).
In their twenty-first century reimagining of these Gothic compositions, The Song Company have taken advantage of modern amps to replicate the effect. Donning Madonna-esque microphones, the company’s five voices are transformed into hundreds, layering echo upon echo to create extraordinarily complex ribbons of sounds.
For those who are not musically literate, like me, polyphony refers to a specific style of composition where multiple voices, singing individual melodies, lock together to form a cohesive harmony. It’s magical to watch, especially from the second row, because even as you watch the lips of each singer, it is impossible to differentiate the voice of one singer from another. Every voice blends together to produce a single, honeyed sound.
The Song Company have added an extra element by inviting Matthew Fackrell and Toby Peterson-Stewart, two twenty-something bassists, to join their troupe. These guitar virtuosos provide a metallic clang to an otherwise conventional iteration of Gregorian chant. It’s an unexpected choice. Talking to one of the performers, Antony Pitt, after the show, he explained that he approached the bassists (both members of Melbourne-based metal band The Omnific) after observing how their guitar sounds lock together in the same way as these choral compositions.
As the performers took to the stage, there was a beautiful incongruence between the grungy bassists, in black t-shirts and jeans, and their singing peers, in collared shirts and suit trousers. I had hoped this would be a nod to The Song Company’s new irreverent spirit, but they were less brave than I expected. By and large, the music sounded faithful to the Gregorian tradition. Although there were moments in which the bassists showed off their talent (their fingers gliding effortlessly along the frets) they were largely subservient to the original score. Instead of challenging the sung harmonies, the bassists’ blended into the overall composition, each guitar treated like metallic voices rather than a source of textural interest. At times I felt sorry for Fackrell and Peterson-Stewart, who looked almost bored on stage, denied the opportunity to let loose and demonstrate the extent of their prowess.
The music was its most dynamic when it combined the maximum number of elements, including the female vocals of Susannah Lawergren. Like the bassists, Lawergren would periodically exit, leaving the four male vocalists to sing four part harmonies. This decision clearly valued the original composition over the chance to create something new. Whilst I respect The Song Company’s reverence for the traditional compositions, I think their choices were too conservative. Lawergren’s solo was one of the most searing moments of the night. I would have liked to have seen her more. The combination of her falsetto and her stunning presence was siren-like. For three bars, the sound of beatboxing emerged beneath her as she performed a stunning aria. It was a fantastic moment that offered a glimpse of what The Song Company could do if they had the bravery to radically reimagine.
All in all, Power Chords Attached was performed in the spirit of homage rather than iconoclasm. I spent the night waiting for a big face-off between the bassists and vocalists which never occurred. The experience was, nonetheless, edifying. In the wake of the Notre-Dame fire it is valuable to realise that the legacy of the cathedral lives on not just in stone but in sound.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.