World of Wonder

In October 2022, PLC Sydney commissioned the school’s Composer-in-Residence, Ella Macens, to write a large-scale musical work to be premiered at the 135 Year Anniversary Concert.

This original piece would serve as an impressive showcase of our combined musical ensembles and a celebration of our school. Conceived from a student perspective, World of Wonder proved to be an extraordinary musical gift and an invaluable opportunity for learning and collaboration.

When reflecting on the work’s intentions Ella Macens says, “It was important that this work came to life through direct collaboration with the students. I wanted to get a sense of their connection and relationship with PLC Sydney so that in performing the work, they felt a sense of ownership and were communicating their collective experience and story.”

Ella Macens and William Barton at the Premier of 'World of Wonder', Sydney Town Hall, 2023.

Once the themes of belonging, connection and community were established, Year 3 met with Ella to brainstorm their unique perspectives about PLC Sydney. Prompted by the keywords of beauty, wonder, passion, contribution, hope and inspiration, these sessions involved meaningful, creative and heartfelt student conversations. Their insightful reflections served as inspiration for the lyric writing to follow.

Hayley Chung Lee (Year 4) recalls her excitement about being involved. “During rehearsals, we often discuss how composers create their music and what their music is about. It was really exciting to work with a real composer and to see how Ella gathered her ideas to compose a song. It was also fun to hear and sing our ideas in the performance.”

Year 12 Elective Music students were critical to the next stage of the piece’s development. In a series of workshop sessions, they used the Year 3 reflections as the basis for creating more formalised lyrics which informed a clear path for how the text would meet the music.

With such valuable contributions from our students, the tone and musical vision were explicit. Ella Macens began work on composing music that captured the nuance and sentiment of each verse. “I knew that this music needed to shimmer and glow, to reach for the heavens, to be delicate and graceful as well as bold and triumphant. I wanted each vocal and instrumental line to have their moment to shine, and to amplify the sense of wonder with which the students seemed to reflect on their experiences at school. I worked through the piece in a linear way, starting with the opening bells which slowly invite the surrounding instruments to join in a reverberating, shimmering sound world. From here the composition unfolded naturally and with ease, in part due to the fantastic lyrics and story provided by the students.”

In addition to the opportunity for our students to learn and contribute from this process, World of Wonder allowed us to experience the mesmerising beauty of the Didgeridoo. Stitched cleverly into the seams of the work, William Barton’s extraordinary Didgeridoo improvisation magnified the sheer beauty of this piece. It provided a meaningful connection to country and an emotive reminder of our rich indigenous history. Ella felt that William’s playing added an unimaginable level of beauty, sensitivity and reverence to the music.

As the final notes were penned, the Music Faculty commenced individual choir, bell and orchestral rehearsals. The learning process was incredibly rewarding for students as they grappled with and mastered the sophisticated rhythms and harmonies captured in the work. Following this, a series of combined rehearsals brought the creative vision to life.

The process of working alongside the students was incredibly rewarding. It was really special to compose a brand new work in response to their ideas and their lyrics in real-time.

Ella Macens

World of Wonder premiered at the Sydney Town Hall on Wednesday 17 May 2023. Featuring over 300 students across campuses, the result was an inspiring tapestry of sounds and a moving affirmation of our school values. When reflecting on the experience Ella says, “The completion of this work has confirmed the collaboration so fiercely alive between students and staff at PLC Sydney. The process of working alongside the students was incredibly rewarding. In my role as Composer in Residence, I introduce the Elective Music students to a wide range of compositional techniques and approaches to songwriting through the analysis of my own works and the works of surrounding composers and songwriters. It was really special to compose a brand new work in response to their ideas and their lyrics in real-time. In light of this, the conversations were changing and deepening. We were no longer talking about works created in the past, but music being created right now. “Why did you choose to use this instrument here?” or “How did you know to do this here?” became questions in our one-on-one composition lessons. Students would then go to rehearsals and physically bring these lines to life.”

For Evelyn Cahill (composer, Year 10 Music), World of Wonder proved to be an invaluable real time learning tool, an incredible exploration of structure, texture and motivic development. “I was extremely privileged to observe the process of composition and perform in a piece of such magnitude. The scale of the piece and Ella Macen’s ability to seamlessly incorporate so many different ensembles from across the school was truly admirable. I am very grateful to have been a part of this experience.”

World of Wonder was performed again at the 2023 Presbyterian Ladies’ College Speech Day held at the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday 5 December. The performance featured the PLC Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Combined Choirs and Bells, with special guest William Barton on Didgeridoo.

Article written by: Casey Allen, Head of Music Faculty