★★★★☆ A fascinating and artistically absorbing musico-political event.

Queensland Performing Arts Centre
July 29, 2015

We Australians don’t think that we have lyrical legislators or pleasingly polyphonic politicians. So the idea of musical settings of a sample of our parliamentarians’ speeches seemed such an unlikely paradox that hearing Topology and Australian Voices present Unrepresentative Swill – our Senators, à la Paul Keating, not the repertoire of the concert – was, frankly, impossible to resist at the Queensland Music Festival.

The venue was the Concert Hall of QPAC in Brisbane: we, the audience, sat in the choir stalls and the performers (violin, viola, double-bass, saxophones and piano together with the 24 young choristers, with their conductor, Gordon Hamilton) had their backs to where the audience would normally have been: a symbol, perhaps, of politicians who, so often, ignore or spurn their constituents?

There were 15 pieces (plus a hilariously mocking encore, Unrepresentative Swill): 11 of them by Robert Davidson (the bassist and director of Topology); one by the group’s sax player (John Babbage); one by Dominic Hefferan (a bass in the choir); and two by Hamilton. Some were for unaccompanied chorus, others just for instruments, all (or nearly all) had recordings of the speeches played behind or under the music.

Dark Hour, the music for the oldest oration (which was delivered by Prime Minister, WM “Billy” Hughes, in London in 1916), was almost hymn-like. Composed by Hamilton (a man who understands choristers and their work perfectly), it had echoes of Vaughan Williams and Finzi and it was a glowing tribute to the excellence of his singers. Performing from memory, as they did for the entire program, they were beautifully in tune, precise in metre, and produced a radiant sound. By the end of the night I was convinced that this was the finest choral singing that I have ever heard in Australia.

In several of the pieces – the announcement of war in 1939 by the Prime Minister, RG Menzies, for example – the audio-recording became a musical element, itself, as crucial phrases (whether because of their own cadences or their historical import) were cut up and repeated, almost like a hieratical chant.

The styles were moderately eclectic but never outré. For John Curtin’s speech to the nation in 1941 about the seriousness of our destiny in the face of the Japanese threat, Davidson used only instruments in a jazzy way, over the recording, as if to anticipate the Prime Minister’s appeal to America which was only days away. Malcolm Fraser’s notorious “Life is not meant to be easy” remark was set by Babbage in a “minimalist” style for chorus alone – a profusion of repeated words and syllables – as if to indicate the social fragmentation which it implied (only a really proficient chorus could have brought it off so well, incidentally). Julia Gillard’s, “Not now! Not ever!” (the famous misogyny speech) was set by Davidson in a deliberate, word-for-word manner, as if to say that its emotional impact (and truth) needs no gloss, only the directness of simplicity.

Not everything was serious, though. Ironically, when (in, perhaps, the most profound utterance) the choir sang Kevin Rudd’s two words, “We apologise”, we initially needed the program pamphlet to tell us what they were singing. But when the MC, Adam Spencer, asked Davidson to replay the recording at double speed (at first, still no comprehension), again and again until it was about 64-times the original pace, we realised that the languid tempo and long-drawn-out syllables were really that crisp message, “We apologise”. Surely Davidson was creating a metaphor for the protracted history of how hard it had been for White Australia (and significantly there was no speech from John Howard included in this roll-call, just part of an interview) to utter those two profound words.

But “An MC?” you ask. Well, yes. Candidly, I found Spencer’s contribution excessive and rather solipsistic (if good-naturedly so). Yet it is probably true to acknowledge that, for the younger people in the audience (and there was a gratifying number of them), many of those politicians were nebulous historical figures. Thus some introduction and context were necessary. Away with the cavilling, therefore, and just recall the substance of this fascinating and artistically absorbing musico-political event. An Australian rarity, indeed.

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