Ecstatic audiences hungry for a juxtaposition of music cultures.

Brisbane Powerhouse
Saturday 16, 2015

I was entertained by both the performance and the audience’s reactions in Thum Prints – a concert that was a bold step towards integration between the often-times stifling classical concert culture with a dynamic contemporary beat-boxing context, featuring music by Australian composer Gordon Hamilton and beatboxer Tom Thum.

Both performances held at Brisbane Powerhouse were sold out – and it is little wonder. Tom Thum is a very well-known personality, with over 115,000 facebook likes, appearances on TED, Big Day Out, Melbourne International Arts Festival, Singapore Cultural Festival, Goodvibes, Edinburgh Fringe Festival – he is celebrated as a top beat-boxing talent. Gordon Hamilton is a highly acclaimed composer and conductor in Australia, conducting The Australian Voices, with international recognition for his compositions including by the Luxembourg Sinfonietta. Although Gordon’s general public profile may not be as magnanimous as that of Tom’s, there is no doubt that here was an exquisite match of talent and approaches to music. Coupled with the performance abilities of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the production capabilities available to the event from the Powerhouse, audiences were in for a treat.

When I heard of the collaboration, I immediately drew a comparison with British composer Anna Meredith and beatbox virtuoso Shlomo’s collaboration for Meredith’s Beatbox Concerto, premiered at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in February 2010, which was of a more classical concerto format. Thum Prints was divided into 11 smaller works bridged by comedic interludes – original compositions or arrangements of known works (such as Tchaikovsky’s Danse Russe from the Nutcracker) and works of Tom Thum’s own creation (Ratchet Face).

I felt there was a lost opportunity with the Tom Thum and Gordon Hamilton collaboration to present an extended concerto-like composition that would have had opportunity for extensive compositional exploration of Tom’s unique talents and Gordon’s compositional prowess. Although the comedic aspect of Thum Prints was pleasing to the audience, I found myself anxious for more music and serious explorations of extreme timbre capabilities possible within such a collaboration.

The high energy exuded by Tom thoroughly engaged the audience. His light-hearted comedy was very welcomed by the audience and neatly created introductory bridges between works. Referring to Charlie the Unicorn, some political jabs, and telling jokes using the orchestra wielding the conductor’s baton like Micky-Mouse in Fantasia. I’d loved to have heard more from Gordon, as he is also highly charismatic, though in a different way.

There was a lot of a ‘big band’ jazz feel to the works. A highlight for me was the third piece – Junk Mosaic where interesting timbres were explored and went beyond usual beat-box performance. Although Tom confessed to not understanding what he referred to as the jumble of dots and lines that is music (he had a cue sheet written in language), his musicality and precision allowed for a high degree of compositional interest in Gordon’s work. Triple Cadenza was also great for me – I particularly enjoyed Gordon’s trumpet writing and its performance by Sarah Butler.

I found the audiences reactions interesting – counter tenors sing in falsetto as their modis-operandi but  when Tom Thum did it (even as a serious compositional device) it was considered hilarious – perhaps it was intended as send-up – he could execute beautiful lyricism in that range and I’d enjoyed further exploration of his capabilities here in a more serious context.

There were moments of Tom showing off his prowess to the audience – and the audience loved it – leaving the orchestra and Gordon in the dark, or indeed, using them as fodder for jokes and send-up. Why this was part of the event, and the tables not turned to give the spot light to the orchestra and Gordon, I’m not sure.

Bar far, the best work of the program for me was the final work; Ratchet Face. It was an arrangement by Gordon of a pre-existing work that Tom Thum had composed. The arrangement hit the right mark. It used live sampling and looping, full orchestra – a real integration.

In all, I enjoyed myself, and was left wanting more. I hope the collaboration continues to further explorations of abilities and Gordon has opportunity in future to let loose in the context of an extended work.

Read our new magazine online