Sustaining artist-alumni: Sonya Holowell & Elia Bosshard

Keith Gallasch

The SAM Alumni Residency Program at the University of New South Wales offers recent graduates the opportunity to stay in touch with the institution where they were taught and trained by supporting them in the making of new work. At a time, not least in Sydney, where equipped and serviced workshop spaces are a rarity, this is a welcome development from the School of the Arts & Media (SAM) in the Arts & Social Sciences Faculty, one that provides academic advice, the resources of the UNSW Creative Practice Lab and the Arts & Social Sciences Technical Resource Centre.

This year’s recipients include the duo Sonya Holowell and Elia Bosshard, UNSW Music graduates who are working on an experimental staging of American composer Morton Feldman’s Three Voices (1982), a work that to this day still feels vitally new when heard, let alone seen. Holowell and Bosshard’s production will also, as our interview with the artist reveals, implicitly engage with Holowell’s Aboriginality.

In Three Voices, a live soprano voice is ‘shadowed’ by two recorded voices (the same singer) in a haunting weave of floating vowels until the late entry of a line from Frank O’Hara’s poem “Wind,” the words forming, mutating and dissolving in a rippling reverie (hear an excerpt of Holowell in performance). Written in memory of O’Hara and painter Philip Guston and dedicated to experimental singer Joan La Barbara, the 50-minute work is about to be performed at this year’s Sydney Fringe Festival by Holowell in the event’s newly-adapted industrial warehouse space which offers the singer and her designer collaborator Bosshard some wonderful acoustic and spatial possibilities. Holowell and Bosshard plan to subsequently tour this rarely experienced piece, seeing their account as the foundation for their company, Cache in Point.

Both artists have furthered their learning. Holowell, who has a Bachelor of Music Performance degree (UNSW, 2012), majoring in classical voice performance, recently completed a second degree in Electronic Sound Production at Sydney TAFE. Bosshard too has a Bachelor of Music Performance degree from UNSW (2011) as well as Honours in Music Performance from ANU (2012) a TAFE Certificate IV Design (2014), and for a time studied Design for Performance at NIDA (2015-16), “but withdrew before completing the degree to follow my own artistic inquiries.”

In an email exchange, I asked Holowell and Bosshard about the importance of their education and training, the value of the residency and what motivated them to take on Feldman’s Three Voices, not least in terms of Holowell’s indigeneity. Their account of the work in terms of hypnagogia is particularly interesting.


How important were those years at UNSW to you and in what ways did they endure in your careers?

SH       Those were crucial years! Firstly, they disproved the misconception I had that not finishing high school disqualified a person from tertiary studies and academia. It was also during my studies that I became exposed to the genres of music I now love and specialise in — new, early and experimental music. I met Elia, and our collaboration has proven to be the most fulfilling, complementary and exciting partnership I could have imagined! I fell in love with UNSW, with its music faculty and its progressive, embracing attitude towards music and education, its nurturing of students and its genuine commitment towards supporting Indigenous Australia, closing gaps and striving for reconciliation.

I was invited back to lecture at UNSW in new music performance, which has been an honour and an inspiration. My second degree in electronic sound production at TAFE has given me skills to be self-sufficient with music software, empowering me with sound-making and shaping tools to realise all kinds of visions. I would love to do postgraduate work in the near future. I’ve been brewing some ideas of how I can bring together (or at least prioritise) the broad range of interests that I have and want to explore, but for now, post-genre music and reconciliation are the two stand-out areas I’m drawn to pursuing in research and practice.

EB       Studying at various institutions really provided a deep understanding of the traditions and lineage of classical music, theatre and arts, and the sets of rules or expectations that develop in parallel with various artistic perspectives of a period. Particularly important in my studies was getting to know the “repertoire” — works that are regularly in performance somewhere in the world. For me the most interesting aspect has been exploring ways to extend or subvert these standards. At times I feel it’s led me to have quite a cynical perspective, but then why study or build anything if not to be challenged and ask questions? I’ve worked with many people I also studied with and was very fortunate to cross paths with Sonya again after I studied at ANU. It’s been a fantastic partnership and friendship since then.


Why did you apply for the SAM Alumni Residency program?

SH & EB         We already had Three Voices in motion for the Sydney Fringe Festival and knowing that UNSW was offering resources such as a studio space, equipment, technical support and funding, really provided an amazing opportunity for us to refine and fully realise the vision we have. UNSW is also close to both of our hearts, having had really positive experiences in our undergraduate studies, and so we were excited to deepen our connection with, represent and make a contribution in turn to the arts culture of UNSW.


What does the residency allow you to do?

We have the black box Studio One space for three weeks and full access to sound and lighting facilities, workshop costumes and props, research facilities, all kinds of assistance from staff and the freedom to use our space as we wish. We will be constructing and testing ideas around the set design, sound and lighting for Three Voices, conducting a lecture for music students and holding a promotional event. In our final week we will have an open workshop-performance for anyone who would like to attend. The residency also provides funding towards the costs of artist fees and production.


What drew you to Feldman’s Three voices musically?

SH       Elia introduced me to the piece a couple of years ago and I instantly knew it was something I could translate. I realised I had a real affinity, not just for Three Voices but for much of Feldman’s general ideology and aesthetic. The spotlight it shone on sound, tone and interval felt to be offering me a platform to explore those things I too am naturally drawn to exploring in music. This work would provide both a great challenge in focus and endurance, but also an opportunity for restfulness and, in a sense, improvisation. I like it that vowel-shape (and therefore colour) is left to the performer’s discretion, as is tempo. What Feldman does with rhythm in the piece is amazing; there is a real implicit groove at times that I love dropping into. The grooves provide reprieve, almost like oasis points for me to stop and drink, or rest, in the piece’s long journey. It’s a relentless piece, so any means of finding rest (or a sense of it) is both necessary and really potentially quite enjoyable. I love that, because the piece is soft and un-striving, I have the opportunity to co-experience the meditation and the moment with the audience; it’s an experience I find fairly rare in the world of pre-composed music performance, but often more achievable in improvisation.


What theatrical and design opportunities did Three Voices suggest to you?

EB       The complexity of this piece is that it appears to be quite simple to the listener and yet is full of meticulously notated contradictions. An example would be repeated, energetic rhythms that create a feeling of pause or freeze. Listening to it I’m constantly shifting focus from following one voice to embracing the effect of the ensemble of three. The design is based on shapes inspired by the phrasing, rhythmic material and construction of the voicing, particularly how the three voices are arranged individually, as an ensemble or a one-against-two structure.

Morton Feldman was very much integrated in the visual arts scene of his time and had a long friendship with the painter Mark Rothko, so we were naturally drawn to his large paintings in the Rothko Chapel. In the design I’m striving to find a delicate balance between a monolithic monument and afragile and intricate structure. It’s similar to framing a painting for display, in exploring how to give space and simple context to view the central work within. So the design will be spatially and sonically immersive, with the audience surrounded by three sound sources and seated within a circular set structure of thin vertical threads. A fluid lighting design will liven this space and challenge how we perceive the live performer and surroundings.

SH     The work exists in a transitory sort of space, where time is suspended. It is constructed of shifting material, of dualities of conceal and reveal, community and isolation, harmony and discord. These dualities imply a need, or search, for reconciling and balance. We noticed a lot of parallels between the shifts and evocations of mood in the work and the way that I have felt, both in reconciling my conscious knowledge of my indigeneity but also in living with the unconscious lifelong spiritual knowledge of it.

There is also a certain experience that is unique to those affected by the Stolen Generations, particularly as the complexities of effects are passed down generationally. A dissociated, dislocated trauma. A restrained confusion. An arrested development. A subdued and subverted intensity. A quiet storm. Of the fight, flight and freeze responses to trauma, it is the freeze. Even in the lyrics of Three Voices — “who’d have thought that snow falls” — we realised that this work provided a strangely perfect vehicle for embodying the quiet reconciling we attempt in varying states of conflict, freedom and consciousness.

We liken this hidden space to hypnagogia, the state of consciousness between waking and sleep. It’s an interesting analogy for the de-realisation experience in trauma, which causes us to shift out of reality as a coping mechanism. Our account of Three Voices is not an explicit narrative or representation of any of this, but it is breathed with it. While heavily informed by experience and psychology, the result is far removed and abstracted from those influences while remaining fortified by them, becoming a narrative of identity as it journeys through obscurity and assertion.


Dancer Anya McKee was the residency recipient in 2015 and performance-maker Mish Grigor in 2016. The other 2017 recipient is the political theatre company Filibuster (Nick Atkins, Kevin Ng, Ryan McGoldrick). They’ll make a new show drawing on their hosting four Long Table performances from August to November at Customs House as part of City of Sydney’s Late Night Library series, addressing the mess that democracy’s in.

Thanks to Peter Nelson of Fine Music FM for the recording of a Sonya Holowell concert performance of Three Voices.

The SAM Alumni Residency Program. Grants of up to $5,000 are available. The next applications will open early 2018.

Sydney Fringe Festival sydneyfringe.com, Cache in Point, Three Voices, HPG Festival Hub Stage One, 225 Euston Rd. Alexandria, 12, 13 Sept10.30pm

Top image credit: Sonya Holowell, Elia Bosshard

9 August 2017