Robert Davidson: “Make good art and be honest”

New work at the Canberra International Music Festival



Robert Davidson is sharing the messages that need to be heard.

The composer and bassist is one of Australia’s leading artists, sending powerful statements through his work – you may recall our chat about Total Political Correctnessin which Robert set Donald Trump’s misogyny to music.

Robert is back with a new work, Betty Beaver Blaze, through which he promotes equality by drawing on Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poem White Australia. The premiere will take place at the Canberra International Music Festival and feature Clive Birch, didgeridoo performer William Barton, and the young artists of the Luminescence Chamber Singers.

Ahead of the festival opening gala A World Of Music this April 28 (which will also feature Robert’s Landscape, among other musical works and acclaimed international artists), the composer talks us through his latest piece and the values that drive him.


Hi Robert, tell us all about how you became involved with the Luminescence Chamber Singers.

I first met members of Luminescence when they joined with The Australian Voices and my own ensemble Topology for The Singing Politician, where we made music from Prime Minister speeches. Then Luminescence performed my music.

Your piece Betty Beaver Blaze will be premiered by the group at the CIMF. What was the inspiration and concept for this work?

Betty Beaver commissioned the work. It is a setting of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poem White Australia, condemning racism and also calling for honest democracy and egalitarianism and welcome to all. Will Barton has been my neighbour – living in the flat directly below me in a 1930s Kangaroo Point high-rise – for years and we’ve had many jam sessions, which have definitely left their mark on this work. The work also features the bass voice, as if rising out of the earth, in response to the poem’s line ‘earth was made for all’. I’ve tried to make the melody as memorable and direct as possible; almost as a kind of hymn, inclusive of all.

I’ve spoken a great deal with Will Barton about music over the years, and his particular ideas about rhythm and flow are influences on the music. Other than that, I simply engaged with the poem, spending a lot of time saying it aloud until the music naturally emerged.

How does the poem White Australia resonate with our politics today?

White Australia is unmistakeable and clear, and makes an impassioned cry for justice and equality. Its need is as strong as ever, with great imbalances in how Indigenous Australians are treated, and also with the added resonance of current rhetoric that marginalises Muslim people, asylum seekers and others. As a Canberra boy, I was also very mindful of the meaning of the name as ‘meeting place’, and the strong tone of welcome in the poem is resonant in that regard, as this is a Canberra piece.

How important is the role of contemporary composition in addressing social or political movements?

I think music has the potential to heighten perception of people’s experiences and contribute to greater empathy and solidarity. I remember how powerful it was at the National Apology in 2008 when Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly’s wonderful From Little Things Big Things Grow was sung – it galvanised support and gave energy to the desire to work on reconciliation. There are many less-public expressions happening currently that encourage community and energise work for justice and peace. I’m thinking of projects like Eve Klein’s current work collecting stories of drought in regional Queensland and making opera from them, for example. The most important thing, however, is to make good art and music – it can become tiresome, in my opinion, if it becomes one-dimensional and solely political – it needs to be first and foremost authentic, nuanced, high quality art. The reason From Little Things works is it’s a great melody and great storytelling; and Eve’s opera is sonically and conceptually rich and fascinating.

What do you feel is the responsibility of other Australian composers to be using their art to send similarly powerful messages to the nation?

I don’t think it’s anyone’s responsibility to use art in this way – I think an artist’s responsibility is to make good art and be honest. My own interests seem to turn with unexpected regularity to topics of justice and inclusion, without my meaning to, and it just comes out in my music because I write what is going on for me.

This concert will conclude with your piece Landscape – why is this a strong pairing to the other works in the program for this event?

My composition Landscape emerged after I’d spent quite a lot of time overseas; in India, then in the United States and Europe. I had always resisted the idea of writing music inspired by landscape – it had been such a strong theme in Australian composition with the excellent works of my forebears, and I thought it might be time to give it a rest. But on returning to Australia, I found myself so helplessly moved emotionally by my attachment to the place around where I live that I couldn’t help but write music about it. The music just kept coming into my head when I was in places like the Glasshouse Mountains and the Border Ranges. I think the theme of White Australia is summed up in the line “earth was made for all”, which is rooted in landscape. So to return to this theme in music that is an ecstatic response to landscape – after hearing a diversity of music, welcomed in as it were – is a fitting way to end the concert.

Another work of mine that will be featured in The Singing Politician and is relevant is We Apologise, in which I took the two words ‘we apologise’ from the voice of Kevin Rudd and slowed it down to five minutes. It becomes a sonic landscape. This sound is imitated very closely by the choir and Topology. We record the sound on stage and then compress it back to its original length – squashing the five minutes back into one second. And (if it all goes according to plan!), the voice of Rudd re-emerges, solely from the sound of the music recompressed. It’s a very symbolic work – the voice of one person stretching out over the whole landscape, expressing the apology. The short duration of settler Australia compared to Indigenous Australia. The short time of making an apology compared to the time needed for reconciliation work. I think it’s a good companion for Betty Beaver Blaze and Landscape.

See Robert Davidson’s work performed by the Luminescence Chamber Singers (below) and others at CIFM. Tickets available online.


Images supplied.

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