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Would you describe yourself as a musical activist?
No! Just a musician. I believe that ‘activist music’ often falls flat. I’m interested in all sorts of music, including music about nothing in particular, and also music that speaks to the ‘now’. Robert Davidson’s treatments of speech melody for The Australian Voices and Topology do exactly this: they are firstly good pieces that happen to connect to contemporary events.
Robert Davidson’s Donald Trump-inspired composition Total Political Correctness was written last year but seems even more relevant right now. How did it come about?
Robert and I were talking about a new piece. He had just composed some pieces for us based on Australian Prime Ministers. At that time, Trump was excelling in the Republican Primary and we were both aware of his greasy rhetoric. I was thrilled when Robert chose some Trump quotes about women.
Would you call it a protest song?
Yes and no. I think the content of the song can be enjoyed both by Trump fans and those disgusted by his sexist remarks. His supporters probably would hear these quotes and be enthused by his disdain for ‘total political correctness’. On the other hand, these are emphatically disgusting comments about women including his own daughter. I welcome all in sharing my distaste for the man!
What kind of difference do you hope that this kind of music can make?
When Robert sets speeches to music, they grow a heightened, operatic sense of drama. Beyond allowing the listener to perceive the musical aspect of speech and feel the drama of the moment, I don’t know that these pieces can make any difference.
Now that you’ve lived through another nine months of Trump, how do you feel about him?
I’m glad that the Republican Party finally is showing its true heart and soul. For decades they have courted the racist vote, though not spoken openly about it. Now their chickens are roosting. They will have to re-invent themselves in, hopefully, a more modern and inclusive guise.
What was the inspiration behind the rest of the programme for the new album Reverie?
The album is a blend of transcendent music (for example the FS Kelly Elegy) and seemingly banal (even trivial) ideas such as Isabella Gerometta’s Words That Turn Into Other Words and Graham Lack’s use of found objects (including drink bottles and bubble wrap). Rob Davidson’s settings of verbatim political speeches tap into the unplanned, unrefined language of politicians under the spotlight. The two sides collide in my Dark Hour, a setting of PM Billy Hughes’ off-the-cuff remarks at the Savoy Hotel in London 1915 summing up the Australian experience at Gallipoli.
Were you surprised about the global attention that your recording of Not Now, Not Ever (using Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech) received?
I always believed Rob’s piece deserved attention because it’s really good composition, musicalising a great moment in our parliament. I think his music succeeds because it doesn’t trivialise the speaker but instead allows them to be themselves.
Do you have any plans for more political ‘music’?
With Rob and his group Topology we have created a whole show of music about Australian Prime Ministers. There is one important PM missing: Malcolm Turnbull. We are waiting for him to say something worthwhile.
Reverie, The Australian Voices' new album, is out now on ABC Classics