Brisbane Festival Interview: Composer Robert Davidson talks about The Singing Politician

Taking the words out of our Prime Ministers’ mouths and merging them seamlessly together over of stirring music, The Singing Politician is the classical performance you didn’t know you wanted to see. From Menzies’ ‘Declaration of War’ to Whitlam’s ‘Well May We Say,’ and even a possible appearance from Donald Trump, Brisbane’s Topology and The Australian Voices have come together to create a powerful music performance unlike anything you’ve heard before.

Ahead of a string of performances at the 2017 Brisbane Festival, composer Robert Davidson tells us what inspired this unlikely partnership between song and political speech, the power of satire and what Julia Gillard said in response to her ‘song.’

What can audiences expect from The Singing Politician?

Audiences will hear the recorded voices of many of our Prime Ministers, in their key speeches, but heard as if they were singing. The musicians and the choir perform music that frames the speech as if it were music – the natural rhythms and melodies of the speeches are treated as song. We go on a journey through Australia’s history, from Gallipoli (in the words of Billy Hughes), through the Depression (Scullin), World War 2 (Menzies and Curtin), the Dismissal (Whitlam), indigenous experiences (Keating, Rudd, Abbott and Noel Pearson), political misogyny (Gillard) and more.

What inspired this marriage of song and political speech?

I always found the drama of parliament quite exhilarating, and enjoyed the individual musicality of these prominent voices. It’s enjoyable to hear familiar words in familiar voices in a new way. I also was looking for ways to empathise with politicians, not as just facades for political positions, but as people, with real feelings and real motivations. I think that getting behind the words to the intonation and emotion, the music, in speech is a way to foster that.

Good public speakers certainly seem to have a musicality about them. Did you find it was easier to set music to some speeches rather than others? Did any politicians give you a particularly hard time?

Yes, though I find music in all speech. It’s true, though, that the most memorable speeches are quite musical. The standout one for me is Noel Pearson’s eulogy for Whitlam, which is beautifully melodic. Gough Whitlam’s waltzing “Well may we say” was also easy to find music in. Tony Abbot speaks very quickly, and it’s tricky for the singers to keep up with him! But also very musical in his repeated phrase “our failure towards Australia’s first people was a stain on our soul”. Interestingly, one of the most musical voices is one that has been often pilloried as harsh and nasal: Julia Gillard. Her misogyny speech is very engaging on a musical level.

Has there been much response to the work from any politicians – featured or otherwise?

We got to play the Whitlam setting to the man himself while he was alive, and he had a little chuckle as he strolled past. Paul Keating didn’t want to hear his. Julia Gillard heard hers and has said that she liked it and thought it was very good.

The show seems to be both funny and serious at the same time – was that intentional? Is it important not to take politics too seriously?

I’m glad you said that, because yes, that’s intentional. There is satire, there is some focus on pompousness and other political failings, but there are often serious and heartbreaking topics at play, and as mentioned before, there is a desire to get to grips with these politicians as real people. We’ve never performed this concert without there being a significant number of audiences members in tears at some point.

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The Singing Politician will be playing at ABC Studio 420 as part of the 2017 Brisbane Festival on the 15th of September. Tickets available at: http://www.brisbanefestival.com.au/whats-on/the-singing-politician