a queer song cycle for vocal ensemble and piano
a love is a love is a love was commissioned by ABC Classic as part of the 2021 (inaugural) ABC Classic and Jazz commissioning series. Premiered by Divisi Chamber Singers and pianist Coady Green-Smith; recording to be broadcast on ABC in late 2022.
This song cycle is a love letter to queerness and the LGBTQIA+ community.
In writing a cycle of queer love songs, it was very important to me that the pieces explore different kinds of love. Queerness has historically been censored or relegated to the margins, so I wanted to insist on queer sexual desire and romantic love being present, centred and witnessed. Equally important, however, are other kinds of queer connections: platonic love; friendships; kinship between queer people; and perhaps more deeply a love of queerness itself and the experience of navigating the world as a queer person.
In a sense, perhaps these are more songs on love than ‘love songs’ – I was reluctant to write a set of ballads, and wanted instead to challenge what you might expect from a love song. The result is four songs that are stylistically quite diverse but share common threads and bleed across each other. I worked with four amazing queer Australian poets to explore these different intersections of queerness and love and encouraged them not to shy away from the complexities these might raise.
The cycle’s title – an homage to the wonderful lesbian modernist writer Gertrude Stein – reflects these intricate and complex relationships. Riffing off ‘love is love’ – a phrase often crucially used in equal rights campaigns as a strategy to make adversaries of queerness see our love as equivalent (or perhaps equally ‘worthy’ of the term) – this cycle instead looks to position queer love as not ‘equivalent’ to straight love, but rather its own rich world.
One queer love is not another; queer love cannot be flattened into one homogenous group, so while these songs might share the common thread of queerness, each one can only evoke the particular experience of its makers. These pieces are not made to be a monolithic representation of queer love: they are an invitation to continue exploring its infinite different facets.
This project could go on endlessly. My deepest thanks to Divisi Chamber Singers and Coady Green-Smith for their championing of new queer work and their insistence of the place of queerness in the classical music canon. My thanks also to the ABC for the opportunity to create this piece.
COMPOSER / Meta Cohen
TEXT / Nikki Viveca, Vi Hu, Savanna Wegman, Leona Cohen
PERFORMERS / Divisi Chamber Singers and Coady Green-Smith
Score available through the Australian Music Centre
Text by Nikki Viveca
Some of the deepest queer encounters and friendships begin online.
you – the first song in the cycle – evokes the intimacy of midnight messenger windows, screen glows and keyboard clicks. Nikki Viveca’s text explores sharing a queer experience with someone you’ve never met in person, and the ways in which we choose to disclose queerness to those we trust. These people might not always be the people around us, so I was very interested in the bespoke intimacy of being close with someone far away.
you explores the specific type of love and understanding between queer people who might share common experiences, whether this be of lost dreams by day, or by the trusting of a secret name not yet known to anyone else by night.
Text by Vi Hu
The second song in the cycle – they – is about the buzzing of anonymous encounters and the different faces one might meet (and take on) across a queer life. Where the first song dealt with intimacy between people known to each other (if only online), Vi Hu’s text explores connection found among the anonymous many, evoking a flurry of night-time activity, heat and sex that dissolves at daybreak. To some listeners, this might conjure the world of cruising, saunas and hookups, and others might find very different resonances – eye contact made across a room at a queer event, brief overlaps between queer people. What is common is the fluttering excitement – and sometimes overwhelm – of these queer encounters, be these sexual or otherwise. Within the tapestry of different faces are also the ones we take on ourselves, presenting differently in each different encounter.
Amongst this throbbing energy, there are also quiet moments of connection – in this case, in a love duet sung between the bass and baritone voices. I hope these moments of contemplation, where norms are challenged, might allow us to see the world around us differently – if only for an instant.
The song places us in a world known only to the community experiencing it, and completely inscrutable to the outside world. In this sense, they is an ode to lives lived outside of heteronormative expectations.
Text by Savanna Wegman
she is the third song in the cycle. It might be the most sapphic thing I have ever written.
Set to text by Savanna Wegman, she is about intimacy: the intimacy of breath and the little things you notice about someone when you feel something for them. But while it is undoubtedly about these small details, I also wanted it to feel elemental and sublime, and guide us to unexpected places.
In a sense, she is an incantation that might hark back to Sappho – one of the earliest queer women we know of – and the thing I love most about her writing: the beautiful balance of reverence, awe and desire.
Text by Leona Cohen
we is about queer kinship, visibility and finding yourself. Leona Cohen’s text explores the different ways in which we might look around as queer people: in fear; to search for those like us; in realisation; and then – hopefully – in ecstatic awe and delight at the queer people surrounding us. At the heart of this song is visibility: the importance of being seen – rather than looked at – and seeing people like you.
we is an expression of love for the experience of finding queer ways of existing in the world, while not ignoring their challenges. In this final song of the cycle, fragments of melodies found in other movements make their way back into the music. I wanted to end with the utopian joy of discovering queerness – a potential ‘at the edges of perception’, barely imaginable, and then abundantly, joyfully present.