10 May 2017


The concert was called the Art of Rhetoric. It was essentially the words of various politicians put to music by composers Robert Davidson and Gordon Hamilton and performed by RD's band Topology and the combined choirs TAV (The Australian Voices) and our local Luminescence Chamber Choir under GH. The first half was less effecting. There was considerable minimalist four-to-the-floor regularity, repeating lines, occasional jazz improvs or written conversations between instruments (not least all the strings, violin, viola and bass). But the key was the treatment of speech. RD would listen to the patterns, the phrasings, the moving pitch and tempo to write a line to accompany selected lines of speech or sometimes just accompany with a wash of sound or an aural counterpoint. The first half featured this style, with words from David Malouf, Jessie Street, Charles Kingsford-Smith and Menzies and some ever-sad words of Abbott. That was the start of the tragic story recited from Australian politics. I chatted a day later with someone who was there, who had worked in Parliament House, and we could only bemoan our recent inability to deal with issues. It seems worse now, but there in some ways the Singing Politician recounted a history of tragedy with little light. There was one of Tony Abbott with one of his simplistic slogans, "No no no". Note, ever in three; ever a slogan. He understood rhythm if not the ease and costs of destruction versus the difficulty and hope of construction: think car industry, govt agencies that fell in one swoop, Julia Gillard for that matter. There was Menzies, the sainted one: we all know the quote about entering the war because the mother country had, but there was also melocholy in his further words of a price to be paid. Billy Hughes about Gallipoli, the Dark hour, and John Curtin about the war approaching Australia and John Scullin, sworn in only 2 days before the Stock market crash of 1929 that ushered in the Depression and, indirectly, another war. And Fraser with his infamous line about the easy life or otherwise: this was done 4/4 minimalist with polyrhythms. The Dismissal was the biggest work, using multiple voices for a long rendition. I hadn't remembered a younger Keating line, "a completely unprincipled act", but I did remember the chants of "We want Gough". Also here was choral accompaniment with a remelodicised God save the Queen: interesting. I hadn't remembered Bob Hawke, then ACTU head, on the day of the dismissal calming workers with a warning of a "snowball into violence". That was admirable (and prescient as we watch democratic politics crumble under right-instransigence and growing inequality and climate and the rest). Also Noel Pearson in his euology to Whitlam recognising Gough's good work for Aboriginals: "The reward for public life is public progress". Howard just appeared as a cricket tragic seeing politics as a parallel game: "politics and cricket ... playing the game, yeah". There was the profundity and truth-telling of Keating's Redfern speech: "the problem begins with us ... it begins in an act of recognition that it was us that did the dispossession ... we took the children from their mothers". [NB: how could you not despair after Stolen Children, with institutional child abuse and deaths in custody and Manus/Nauru as emotional darts to our civic hearts]. There was a fascinating play with the Rudd Apology speech, where two words were extended to several minutes and sung by the choir and recorded, then, live, played back, faster and faster until we heard those words again: "We apologise". Then Gillard "Not now, not ever". I sat thinking of the young women singing those words and how they would relate to this recent feminist history. Then a summary piece that featured various boorish and barbaric quotes: I'm a fixer; No cuts to education, health; the recession Australia had to have; suppository of all wisdom; PM Trumble; Please explain; People have a right to be bigots; by 1990, no child will be living in poverty; shirtfront; kids overboard. Then a final encore on Trump and "total political correctness". So I listened and mighty was the playing, the composing, the voices, not least Luminescence who got their part together in no time, but more so I found myself despairing of this country and its uninformed self-image: forever now "Great" or "Fair go" in the talk of pollies but the home of climate denial, inequality, misinformation and more, once the light of the world with emancipation and the rest, now this timorous server of wealth and denier of evidence. This is music but more. Excellent for the political tragics amongst us.

Topology, The Australian Voices and Luminescence Chamber Singers performed music by Robert Davidson and Gordon Hamilton, mostly on political themes, at the National Gallery of Australia. Topology comprised John Babbage (soprano, alto sax), Robert Davidson (bass), Bernaud Hoey (viola), Therese Milanovic (piano) and Christa Powell (violin). Gordon Hamilton (conductor) led the combined choirs.

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