BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
“If you think we’re weak, then think again.”
Brave words from young composer Josh Belperio, who wrote them in an open letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – through song.
Josh’s new piece Dear Malcolm Turnbull sends a catchy but powerful message in support of the LGBTQIA+ community. With the help and generosity of his friends, Josh created a video clip to help share his musical views about the same-sex marriage postal vote. And Australia is listening, with more than 200,000 views of Josh’s video on Facebook (read on – you’ll soon get to see why it’s viral and making headlines).
Josh is a queer-identifying artist with a degree in composition from the Elder Conservatorium of Music. He was one of the inaugural 2014 Artology Fanfare Competition winners, in which his original fanfare Rising Sails was recorded by the Australian Youth Orchestra and heard by an estimated 175,000 attendees through the Sydney Opera House from July to August the following year.
His success continues – this year the world premiere of his Scarred for Life show sold out at the Adelaide Cabaret Fringe Festival after it was developed with the assistance of a Helpmann Academy grant. As for what’s next, he’s writing a new musical, The Adventures of Sang Kancil, with Tutti Arts – an organisation for people with intellectual disabilities.
But for now, let’s learn about the inspiration behind his newest release, Dear Malcolm Turnbull.
Why did you decide to use your musical skills to send your vote yes message in song?
Comedy can be a deliciously powerful tool to point out the silliness of someone’s prejudice, and thereby disempowering it. When we add uplifting music to that, we add joy and resilience to – in this situation – a community under siege.
There are examples of Nelson Mandela using humour to charm, disarm and win over his persecutors. I am particularly inspired by Mandela, though in saying that, I must clarify that I absolutely do not wish to draw a comparison between the horror of the Apartheid, and our own LGBTQIA+ rights movement – these are completely different human rights struggles that exist in their own separate worlds. However, his bravery in speaking out for what he knew was right, his formidable use of language to change people’s minds, and most importantly, his forgiveness of the people who incarcerated and oppressed him, is highly moving to me. I love his optimistic humanistic outlook, encapsulated in the quote: “Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished”. When internet trolls comment on Andrew Bolt’s blog post about my song, I like to keep that quote in mind.
Most importantly, I would like to imagine that the following quote of his may resonate with how a queer audience may receive my song: “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same”.
Do you feel it’s important for other young composers to take advantage of their skills in expression to assist in social or political change?
Writing music for social change is certainly not something that anyone has to do. I believe that simply having the sheer love and empathy to create music in the first place is enough.
You know, I have never heard a piece of music used to promote hatred. Not even amongst extremist religious organisations. They save those messages for their sermons. Yet, their hymns are often about love and kindness.
Music inherently fosters empathy. It inherently opens pathways of connection between people. These qualities are enough to nudge people towards a more progressive social/political ideology. If you then choose to create music that has an articulated or symbolic message of connection and love in the service of social change, then that’s awesome. And in this particularly noxious chapter in our nation’s history, I believe that is very important. But simply filling the world with – as Lin-Manuel Miranda put it – “music, love and pride” is a noble and worthy pursuit.
What sort of feedback have you received from the classical and art music community for your song?
It’s hard to isolate the reactions of a specific subgroup of my friends and colleagues, amidst the noise of the internet. I noticed some particularly articulate and humorous comments from my friends who practice classical music in response to the Andrew Bolt article. They seemed particularly incensed, and their responses made a good read.
What advice would you give to young classical musicians looking to follow in your footsteps and stand up for a cause they believe in?
Just creating music and dedicating it to a cause about which you are passionate is enough. Even better, you could consider choosing a charity (like we chose QLife Australia) and raise funds/awareness for them through sales of your music.
If by ‘follow in my footsteps,’ you mean creating a specific and clear message for a broad audience, then you have to think about accessibility. The potential for my message to have a broad appeal was increased by the fact that it was a pop song, and therefore Australian audiences required little-to-no additional knowledge on top of internalised cultural musical expectations in order to understand it.
I don’t know how many viewers picked up that at 3:14, my left hand plays an emphatic descending scale to symbolise my inevitable eventual marriage; and the fact that this scale lands on bVII before the harmony shifts through more distant tonal territory represents the passage of social progress over time. These are symbols that viewers who have had a classical music education may pick up, if they look hard.
If you already have an audience who will understand the way in which you represent meaning through classical conventions, such as musical symbolism, then that is fantastic – go for gold. If not, then I would encourage considering other ways to make your work intelligible and accessible to your chosen audience. Specific and careful use of language in the form of lyrics is a great one. Being across multiple styles/genres is another good one, too.
Ultimately, there are so many great classical musicians out there using their work as a vehicle for social change that I would recommend looking at them. Iain Grandage is a great example – particularly in his operas, oratorios and musicals. Then there’s Paul Grabowsky, Genevieve Lacey – so many wonderful artists doing great things.
Show your support by purchasing Josh Belperio’s song from iTunes.
All money raised from sales will be donated to QLife – Australia’s first national, free, and anonymous counselling and referral service for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. QLife provides mental health support including peer supported telephone and web-based services to people of all ages.
Are you a muso? Download the score and play the song yourself!
We’re teaming up with Josh to bring you the original score. You’ll find the piano and vocal parts sent to you instantly once you hit the button below. All funds received from our sales will also be donated to QLife Australia.
Dear Malcolm Turnbull by Josh Belperio: Piano score with female vocals (range: F#3-Db5)
Dear Malcolm Turnbull by Josh Belperio: Piano score with male vocals (range: A3-E4)
Learn more on Josh Belperio’s website.