Plenty of solo moments in this Australian pop supergroup

Written by Surya Subramanian, CNN

The ARC Ensemble is a beautiful, living, breathing portrait of a pioneering pop group.

The Australian group formed in 2009 as a project in collaboration with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the ARC Scholars Project. Now playing in Britain, they engage with the world through something they call ‘connecting compositions’ – which do not necessarily conform to any one genre.

While they admit that no single album will ever showcase their extensive discography, the variety of music represented in their recent shows reveals a unique personality, which ranges from the experimental to the straight-up folk-rock.

These are the works that have the most impact on you – the pieces that get your ears humming.

1 / 10 ‘Tree Rain’ – 2015 ARC Ensemble Playbook, Vol. 1, including site-specific The Final Ascension, ‘Symphonic The Fields’, ‘Dead,’ ‘Sing @ Stanford’. Credit: ARC Ensemble

From sea to shining sea

Something they’ve never failed to say is how appreciative they are of their strong Sydney audience.

“Our mantra is, ‘Perform for each individual person and let the audience come to us,'” said pianist Rebecca Stokes, seated in front of a piano in the home dressing room of the ARC Ensemble’s studio space.

Stokes, 37, began playing piano aged six.

“In my family, where we’d go away to perform, we’d all perform together,” she said. “So for me, it’s always felt like a family.”

Choosing to represent her Australian upbringing with a set of jazz arrangements of local tunes rather than regional bhajans, Stokes’ sense of harmony is matched by composer Nathan Leeks.

When they founded ARC Ensemble as a pop-based project, Leeks, born in Melbourne, brought with him a creative vision. “I grew up in a jazz house in Melbourne, so that really kind of imbued my musical upbringing, so I wanted to bring some of that to the recording.”

Lees has always found space for imaginative thought and introspection in modern society. He describes his music as “evocative, philosophical and conversational.”

“I’ve always been trying to let words and stories get in the way and open things up for people, that way you don’t just get stuck in words and songs, it’s something that you could engage in,” he said.

New horizons

Stokes always embraced the challenge of experimentation and her performer background.

“I started out in pop, and I would often get very scared, because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to combine elements of jazz with pop in a way that was meaningful,” she said.

“As an artist I love thinking about the process of making a piece of music, but if I don’t get to fully explore that, I get really bored.”

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For Leeks, pieces are equally well-served if they are incorporated in line with the notion of genre and are not traditional box-set structures.

“I’d find it very frustrating if I were to write a new piece of music for guitar and piano and it just had the same music on the cover of a box,” he said.

“It’s very helpful for me if I can work with other people and make it very collaborative, because I can pick what elements I want to include and what I don’t want to include, but generally as a composer I like to keep it on brand and say ‘I’ll write a solo piece in this genre’ or ‘I’ll write a group piece in this genre’.”

Awarded the Merlyn Johnson award for Best International Work and Best Classical Work at the 2015 ANTIAM 2013 Awards, the ARC Ensemble is currently playing at the National Music Centre for Young Audiences in York.

As well as playing together for audiences of all ages, the ensemble works in collaboration with the local community, schools and charities.

“We hope to share our music and hopefully continue to develop as musicians,” Stokes said.

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