The Australian Voices, Australia House, London

Emma Field Nov 1, 2012
Australian Voices

"Australian Voices are gaining a reputation for their fearless willingness to experiment"


As far as classical music exports go, choirs wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Australia – guitarist John Williams, conductor Charles Mackerras, violinist/conductor Richard Tognetti and pianist Piers Lane come to mind.

However, Australian Voices are steadily gaining a reputation for their championing of work by contemporary Australian composers, and their fearless willingness to experiment.

A hit at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, the group also recently made some ripples on YouTube with their ‘Toy Story 3 = Awesome!’ song by the choir’s conductor Gordon Hamilton. Using a series of Facebook postings to structure a multi-layered piece of vocal harmony, it’s guaranteed to draw a laugh, if not complete astonishment.

Tonight, six singers from the 25-strong choir present a selection from their new album, opening with ‘Kalkadunga Yurdu’, which the choir commissioned from one of Australia’s most famous didgeridoo players, William Barton. The rhythm is tens of thousands of years old and incorporates overtone singing (commonly recognised in throat-singing, but found in singing traditions around the world).

It’s a startling opener, but only a taster of this group’s versatility. ‘Other Plans’ by Melbourne jazz vocalist and composer Lisa Young, is a lively cacophony of scat singing and Konnakol singing, a South Indian vocal percussion technique. 

Hamilton is appealingly casual and off-the-cuff in introducing his composition, ‘To an Early-Flowering Almond’, a slowly emerging jazzy number which grows into beautifully poised five-part harmonies evoking medieval tonalities. 

It’s all very impressive. However, it must be the context that’s off-putting – Australia House, Australia’s High Commission in London, speaks of the colonial enterprise through its very walls, all of its marble having been shipped from Australia to complete the building in 1918. The ladies' white ball gowns also have more than a whiff of the colonial about them, and the endless need to address the ‘cultural cringe’.

All the more significant then that ‘We Apologise’, an electro-acoustic piece by Robert Davidson concludes the evening. To compose the piece, Davidson slowed down by 250 times a recording of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s historic apology in 2008 to aboriginal Australians for past mistreatment.

The choir then accomplished the near impossible task of recreating the slow version, which was then recorded and sped back up again by 250 times. Miraculously, Kevin Rudd’s words appear amidst the atonality – ethereal and hauntingly disembodied.

The ratio of 250/1 is similar to the amount of time indigenous peoples have been in Australia compared to white people, and as such is a poignant comment on the work now needed to do justice to that apology. This choir has certainly put the work in, and will continue to on their 250 date world tour.

The Australian Voices (Warner Classics) is out now. The choir will be touring the UK throughout November.