The Tenor, the Actress & the Sea

Sea Song was written by Australian contemporary composer Timothy Collins and is set to a poem by New Zealander Katherine Mansfield, performed beautifully by Conceptus. Tenor, Scott Robert Shaw (the driving force behind Conceptus) arrived with a strong concept and ambition to develop a music film that would enhance the music.

Making story-led film for a classical piece which furthers the creative work already in place, is a challenge. When we began discussions with Scott (aka The English Tenor) on how to make this film for his ensemble’s recording, the first thing was to avoid the usual cheese. Nothing worse than watching a musician carry their instrument through a wafting field of wheat that has nothing to do with the music.

We ended up with our crew on the beach in Black Rock Sands, Wales. While we were warm in our coats, Actress Patricia Aragon had to brave the cold in her flowing dress. Interestingly Scott Robert Shaw managed to engineer a winter coat for his costume…

Below is our Q&A with Scott – Sea Song is released as a single for digital download or streaming and the video is on Apple Music from 8th September 2023.

Clip from Sea Song 

Clip from Sea Song 

You strike me as someone who doesn’t wait for permission. Your career has moved around Australia, Britain and Europe, you’ve surrounded yourself with fantastic musicians and also made brave creative decisions, investing heavily in your music. What drives this – have you always had a grand plan?

I wouldn’t say I had a grand plan, no – not beyond living and working as a musician in Europe.  Beyond that it was a fairly open book; I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be in opera, oratorio/early music, professional choral work, or even a mix of everything at once, which I actually did for quite awhile.  Specific plans to specialise in English music and chamber music came around in the Pandemic when opportunities were limited.  Thankfully that gave me a focus that I hadn’t had previously, and provided the first steps towards producing the album.   

You have a single, music video and solo album out all in one month, plus a launch concert in Germany. This is quite the schedule. How do you balance building a career in music with life?

It’s actually quite difficult, and more difficult than I anticipated!  The constant admin has taken me a little off guard, and I never know whether I can go away for a few days or make plans without getting an SOS email from someone who needs something fifteen minutes ago.  I’ve certainly come to appreciate that in many ways I’m running a small business rather than being a freelancer like I was before.  It’s been an interesting transition.  

You have two incarnations, The English Tenor (your solo persona) and your ensemble, Conceptus. Did you create these two as vehicles for a reason?

Yes; both are designed to platform my singing and provide performances opportunities, but I would say that Conceptus provides more opportunity for innovation.  With my solo work I focus mostly on established repertoire in a more established setting, whereas everything that Conceptus does is new and unique, with newly-commissioned works, arrangements and the film.  I enjoy both approaches equally, and appreciate the contrast.            

The Sea Song single is a beautiful piece by Timothy Collins, set to a haunting poem by Katherine Mansfield. How did this piece end up in your hands?

I have a very close professional relationship with Tim through my singing teacher who has acted as a broker and liaison for us.  To this point Tim has composed or arranged Conceptus’ entire catalogue, and he has written multiple song cycles for my solo work.  His Sea Song was the first piece we spoke about before Conceptus had been formed, and then provided the basis for the group’s genesis.         

Sea Song is also being released as a video – more of a music film than a video, which you produced. What made you want to create a film and how did you find the process?

Making a film for Sea Song was always part of our plans, from the first moment we started rehearsing and recording it.  It’s a beautiful, atmospheric piece that I think works very well on film, and we thought that it would be a good way to announce our arrival on the scene.  It took awhile to find the right person to work with though; there were two failed attempts at doing it which were frustrating.  Working with you was like a dream come true though, we were on a good wave-length from the very start and I think the results speak for themselves.   

We had a small, but excellent team on the shoot for Sea Song. Bringing in actress Patricia Aragon was clearly the right choice and she really worked hard on the shoot. What surprised me as director was how game you were to get stuck into my somewhat abstract choreography. There must be some acting and drama in your background, or does that kind of confidence come with being a performing musician?

 I have a strong theatre background and it was touch and go at one point whether I would go into singing or acting.  I trained formally at school and have done various courses and classes as an adult, most notably with the English National Opera.  There are some pretty fundamental lessons I’ve learnt that have stuck with me; don’t resist or say no to dramatic ideas when they’re given to you, and commit 100%.  I only wish I’d done more dance training!  But it was certainly fun going places I hadn’t been before in our film.      

Anecdotally, what was it like creating a film like this, from your point of view?

It was fun!  There’s a reason why making films is seen as glamorous.  I also enjoyed the opportunity to perform without singing.  Working with the team was great, too – I think we all really enjoyed it. 

What’s been the best and worst moments of your career so far?

 The best moment?  Something that has stuck with me was my first performance of the Evangelist in the Bach St Matthew Passion in Amsterdam.  The Dutch know that work backwards, and so it was a daunting task singing it there for the first time.  I wasn’t sure what response I’d get, but I got a very generous reception and the first wave of applause was a really special moment. 

The worst?  Eurgh.  You try to forget these situations!  Also in Amsterdam and around the same time I was asked to sing some operatic arias for a radio broadcast with two soprano colleagues.  I chose three arias that were safe and I knew would go well, but got a phone call the day before the concert to say that one of the sopranos was sick and would I mind performing more pieces.  I said yes, chose repertoire that wasn’t quite as secure and then over-prepared and over-sang it to get it up to standard in time.  It culminated in a horror-show of tired and bad singing where nothing went to plan.  I avoided eye-contact with everyone, slunk out the back door and hoped they forgot my name.  It was a horrible experience!        

Conceptus will have their debut album out on Divine Art Records in 2024. Is this still being recorded and what can we expect from the program?

We first began recording the album with Sea Song at the end of 2021 and have slowly added more works since then.  We have one more cycle to go, which I hope we’ll complete before the end of the year.  There is meta-physical, supernatural, at times quite dark atmosphere that connects the pieces, so I decided to call the album “Gods, Ghosts and Monsters”.  It will contain works from Timothy Collins, Peter Warlock, George Butterworth, Gustav Holst and Frank Bridge, and as before, Tim has either composed or arranged all the material for piano trio and voice.          

You’re signed up for a four album deal with Divine Art Records. Tell us what we’ve got to look forward to?

 For my next solo album I’ll be recording a song cycle by Timothy Collins set to Australian poetry, plus works for tenor, piano and viola by Vaughan Williams and Frank Bridge.  For the next Conceptus album I’ll be doing something a little different and have commissioned a Requiem by German composer Chrisoph Ritter, which I’m really looking forward to getting my teeth into.  

We’ve focussed on Sea Song, just as importantly – The English Tenor, your solo debut, is out on 8th September. It’s a fantastic who’s who of English song and a very approachable album. I believe it could create some new fans of the genre. Give us an insight into your song choices and what it means to be the English Tenor.

 Producing and recording this album has been a home-coming for me in many ways.  My first experiences as a musician were as a boy soprano in the Cathedral choir in Perth, Western Australia, and I sang works by the composers on the album every week for five and a half years.  I then went long periods in Europe where I was singing entirely different repertoire and it really has been a great thing to come back to it.  I’ve realised where my cultural and spiritual roots lie, and that first steps are often the most important ones.  It’s been very rewarding, and I’m really glad I’ve done it. 

Scott Robert Shaw has his ensemble’s single and video ‘Sea Song‘ as well as his debut solo album ‘The English Tenor‘ out on Divine Art Records from 8th September 2023.

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