The Sydney Conservatorium of Music is well-known for its classical and jazz programs. But last Saturday’s Tomorrow Tonight concert at the Seymour Centre featured an emerging crop of student musicians who are bringing contemporary music into the hallowed halls of the Con. The concert, funded by a NSW Government grant, displayed inventive songwriting in several styles, under the somewhat elusive classification of “contemporary music”.
Musician and producer AnSo was a standout. A vocalist by training, she blends vocals with brooding electronic production, often digitally manipulating her voice so that it flits around the song like an instrument (sometimes twangy, sometimes crystal-clear). It was captivating to watch her carefully construct layers of reverberant harmonies in real-time with her loop pedal — adding atmospheric breaths and sighs, travelling across high notes with ease and precision.
AnSo is soft-spoken and thoughtful as she reflects on her musical influences, including Rainbow Chan, Marcus Whale, Yaeji and Kimbra, and describes the importance of integrating Korean lyrics into her music. “I wrote my debut EP, Farrago of Emotions, when I felt a lot of cultural confusion,” she said. Impactful tracks include “Diaspora”, about feeling caught between cultures, and “Jang Hwa Soon”, named after her grandmother (who sings a church hymn on the track; AnSo describes her as a major musical inspiration).
“I feel way more connected when I sing in Korean … I see my music as an extension of myself,” she says. Her creative process is strongly linked to her family – the animal sounds on her track “Farrago”, set against harsh electronic noises, are taken from videos from relatives in Korea walking through local parks.
Tomorrow Tonight’s performers were brought together through the Bachelor of Contemporary Music. Lecturer Jadey O’Regan says the course, which has grown to 64 first-year students since it started in 2015, teaches varied skills including songwriting, recording and production, and emphasises regular collaboration. Students often throw listening parties to hear each other’s original songs. “We see many students find their “people” and start to create bands and production teams,” says O’Regan. “That’s really exciting for the staff to see!”
All the performers had distinct musical identities. Chelsea Warner, an alt-R&B singer, wowed the audience with her smooth, sultry vocals. Her jazzy live arrangements, such as on her latest track “Drama” (which was released last Wednesday), were delightfully accentuated by her backing band (especially her piano player), whereas her recorded tracks lean towards slick R&B beats. It was a shame that the mixing tended to drown out her voice, but Warner displayed effortless vocal riffs reminiscent of Yebba or Victoria Monet, without ever showing off or doing too much.
Matt Landi was a likeable and intriguing performer, overcoming initial nerves to win over the audience. His lyrics favoured the imaginative and surreal, with titles like “Galaxy” and “UFO Fever” from his upcoming EP Dimensions on 9 July. Landi particularly shone as a saxophonist, and his songs are the kind of fun, poppy earworms that would blow up on TikTok.
Finally, indie singer-songwriter Oscar Joe charmed the audience, with the Rex Orange County-esque “Safe for the Workplace” full of cheeky and clever office-themed innuendos. Joe, who has lined up a supporting set at The Vanguard in Newtown on 22 June, displayed a knack for warm, intimate prose (“Waiting Outside”, a Jack Johnson-style ditty written to cheer up a friend in self-isolation, was almost unbearably cute), well-constructed chord progressions, and impressive proficiency in guitar, piano and kazoo.
With a diversity of genres, the concert left me wondering how one might pin down what “contemporary music” entails, or whether it’s futile to even think in terms of genre. AnSo, who has a headline show at the Chippo Hotel on 5 August and a single, “So Damn Loud,” at the end of July, describes her debut EP as a “journey” rooted in experimental electronic pop, and is currently branching out into hyperpop. She feels that the “broad” nature of contemporary music is “exciting”.
For O’Regan, she aims to “champion whatever style the students would like to explore … We want them to be able to say “yes!” to all kinds of opportunities.” One thing’s for certain, though — talented Conservatorium students are creating an exciting, diverse future for contemporary music.