Rise and respond

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We Will Rise (Topology)

Aria-nominated and internationally regarded Topology, is an established leader of musical creativity in Australia, renowned for the unique collaborations that determine much of the group’s distinct style. So the release, this month, of the vibrant local quintet’s 16th album “We Will Rise” is worthy of attention on pedigree alone. The fact that the concept album features ten tracks curated by the group’s members (John Babbage – saxophone, Robert Davidson – upright bass, Bernard Hoey – viola, Therese Milanovic – piano and Christa Powell – violin) from their 23-year back catalogue and new compositions, reflecting contemporary concerns, makes it worthy of particular attention. The compilation of original music from the late 90s through to the present day has been curated to empower, inspire, and support, making it an innovative journey through a variety of moods with the common theme of working through challenging times.

The album’s theme is evident throughout, but most obviously in its titular track ‘We Will Rise’ by Topology’s Artistic Director, Robert Davidson. The number, which features the group’s instrumental accompaniment interwoven with Prime Minister James Scullin’s inspiring 1931 address to the Australian people during the Great Depression, brings with it memories of the group’s 2015 show, “Unrepresentative Swill” which was inspired by famous speeches from Australian history. Giving the speech about rising out of difficulties and depression the Topology treatment, serves as showcase not only of skilled musicianship, but how the best speeches showcase a musicality to their structure and delivery. Indeed, the number not only empathises with the text’s insistent and deliberate motivating meter, but makes the energy of the speech’s cresendoing rhythm accessible with strings finding its natural stirs and melodic cadence.

 Just like in great speeches, there is a certain poetry to “We Will Rise”, giving people a sense of order in a life of current chaos. The work is interwoven with social messages as the group continues with their connection to community, even at this time in which the industry is taking a significant beating. ‘Drought Stories – Texas, a recently premiered work composed by John Babbage is an at-first slowed-down and tender, but ultimately upbeat testimony to resilience, inspired from the share of the honest stories of Texas locals from many visits to the rural Queensland town. Meanwhile, Bernard Hoey’s optimistic ‘One Day Gavin Stomach’ is a chaotic conclusion that sees musicians simultaneous playing atop an energetic MC Hammer baseline in different meters before unifying together in hope

While strings give flight and swirl to John Babbage’s Millennium Bug’, a number inspired by the anxieties surrounding Y2K, the piano features strongly throughout the album, in the energetic solo, ‘Glare of Fire and also ‘Rush’, which sees the controlled chaos of ten hands on one piano, in symbolism of the common experience of us all at the moment. In all instances, there is an obvious clarity and separation between the instruments, that makes for a crisp listening experience.

Topology’s “We Will Rise” not only captures a moment in time, but serves as a reminder that without arts workers there is no art. The album captures the Brisbane-based ensemble’s idiosyncratic blend of classical and contemporary sounds in its expressions, illustrating how music can communicate beyond just lyrics. The collection of music in response to the need for inspiration, strength, and collective healing, is available to stream and download now.

Tortured treats

Tortured Remixes (Topology)

Vulcana Women’s Circus

May 11 – 12

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Contemporary classical act Topology is cool and clever; in fact, it was clever from before it cool to be so. The quintet has been on the Brisbane scene for 20 years now (with only one member change) and they are celebrating the journey towards the anniversary with their 14th full-length album, Tortured Remixes, launched through this year’s Anywhere Theatre Festival. 

The ‘mixtape’ album is not one of traditional cover songs but ‘tortured’ takes from the creative minds of Topology’s composers, John Babbage, Robert Davidson and Bernard Hoey, who bend, stretch and scramble popular melodies into adventurous songs anew. And the result is as enigmatic as ever thanks to its mostly anagrammed song titles.

Some arrangements such as ‘Mama Mia’ and ‘We Will Rock You’ are instantly familiar, while others take longer to appreciate, such as in the spirited, stylistic ‘Satisfaction’ mashup ‘Fantastic Note Coatings’, which comes complete with the same sense of frustration as its The Rolling Stones original inspiration. From The Beatles to Beyoncé, “Tortured Remixes” offers audiences a trip across continents and decades. Certainly with such a range, there is something for everyone, whether they be fan of Dizzy Gillespie’s modern jazz be-bop or the pioneering Australian punk rock sound of The Saint’s 1976 iconic single, ‘I’m Stranded’ (which serves as a particular show highlight).

Slowed down as many of the arrangements are, also allows for unique appreciation of the nuances of melody, such as in numbers like ‘Whinging Tweet’ which serves as tribute to Cold Chisel’s ‘Cheap Wine’ tell of sitting of the beach drinkin’ rocket fuels. Similarly, the ‘Black to Grey’ two song mashup of Deep Purple’s hard rock number ‘Black Night’ with Visage’s decade-later, new-wave, electronic hit ‘Fade to Grey’, allows for some lovely stripped-back string sounds in evocation of chorus memories. Every piece comes with a clear passion in its delivery. Indeed, right from the opening number’s take of Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk’ (‘Two-Punk Fight’), there is an infectious energy to proceedings that permeates the light and shade of individual numbers and Robert Davidson is particularly blistering on the double bass.

Anyone who has ever seen a Topology show knows to expect a treat because everything the group does is good and “Tortured Remixes” is no exception to this expectation. As they continue to go from strength to strength, touring nationally and internationally, Brisbane should not only be proud of them as a home-grown success story, but embrace any opportunity they can to see their sometimes-warped but always wonderful work.

Sing PM

Unrepresentative Swill (QPAC and Queensland Music Festival in association with Brisbane City Council, Topology and The Australian Voices)

QPAC, Concert Hall

July 29

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Brisbane’s own indie classical quintet, Topology are acclaimed for a reason; their collaborations are as innovative as they are exceptional. Following on from their work with the Kransky Sisters and then Dead Puppet Society, they are back with another interesting collaboration, this time with The Australian Voices choir as part of the Queensland Music Festival. And the result is simply magic.

“Unrepresentative Swill” takes audience members along on a musical narrative ride inspired by famous speeches from Australian history. Composed by Topology’s Robert Davidson and John Babbage, alongside The Australian Voices Artistic Director Gordon Hamilton, the performance navigates pivotal moments that have shaped our nation, taking the words right out of our PM’s mouths in the process. And from Whitlam’s ‘Well May We Say’ to Abbott’s ‘A Stain on Our Souls’ there is something for everyone and from all sides of politics.

This is a balanced work of restraint with the words of the oratory being easily overlayed by the musical and choral work so that no one element ever threatens to outshine the other. In true Topology fashion, the music is simply magic with all musicians being given ample opportunity to shine, especially in their synchronicity with the rhythm of wartime speeches and lingering violin melancholy.

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Under the guidance of their enthusiastic conductor Gordon Hamilton, the The Australian Voices choir’s synchronised vocals cannot be faulted as members sing every line melodically and with conviction, especially evident in the final ‘Not now! Not ever’ exclamatory speech of Julia’s Gillard’s misogynist accusations. Tenors add much timbre to pieces and through the singing style and animated faces of choir members, there are many moments of humour to the show, culminating in a John Howard rap, taken from a 1996 Four Corners interview about the parallels between politics and cricket. Indeed, not all speech extracts are from politicians or the political arena, with the program also including numbers such as Noel Pearson’s 2014 eulogy for Gough Whitlam about public progress being the reward for public life and Malcom Fraser’s comment that life is not meant to be easy, made as part of his 1971 delivery of the Alfred Deakin Lecture.

“Unrepresentative Swill” takes its name from former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s blunt view of the Australian Senate, so is an excellent descriptor for the nature of the evening, which ends with encore mashup of famous lines about no children living in poverty, children overboard and Joe Hockey’s recent advice to first homeowners, amongst others. However, while there is some light made, there is also much substance to the program, illustrated through its sensitive approach to such emotional texts as Keating’s 1992 ‘Redfern speech’ including the choral repetition of the line ‘we took the children from their mothers’ as a lingering emphasis of its power.

The show seems to capture the truth at the essence of each message and to complement this, author, comedian and TV personality Adam Spencer’s eloquent and engaging narration is filled with interesting titbits of information and historical context, such as the stories of John Curtain’s death in office and the circumstances behind our nation’s shortest serving politician. His anecdotal style of delivery is both eloquent and engaging and complements the wise choice not to present the speeches chronologically.

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“Unrepresentative Swill” is a distinctive work of much distinction. The intimacy of its reverse mode Concert Hall staging with the audience seated in close proximity to the performers on stage creates an intimate and relaxed atmosphere that suits the unplugged style of interpretation and delivery, and only makes it feel like more of a privilege to experience the superb show.

Creative play’s charm

Argus (Queensland Theatre Company and Dead Puppet Society)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

May 5 – 17

When Queensland Theatre Company announced “Argus” as part of its 2015 program, they had me at Topology. I’ve loved everything that this acclaimed group has done and their presence as provider of the live music soundtrack (John Babbage’s score) to the show was reaffirmation of why the music ensemble is so acclaimed on the Brisbane Theatre scene, adding as it does to the innocence and beauty of an already sweet story.

“Argus” is a whimsical whip of a show from Queensland’s own Dead Puppet Society, running at an economical but entirely engaging 45 minutes. The charming children’s work tells the adventure story of a little creature’s fragile attempts to find home in a world in which he does not fit. From birds to bugs, all sorts of characters emerge from all types of terrain, from under the sea to outer space, making use of nothing but household objects, the performers’ hands and a revolving wheel of mini-sets to take audiences through each chapter of Argus’s journey to try and find place in the human world.

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The characters are made entirely endearing through the collective efforts of their four puppeteers, intertwined as they so often are to produce unbelievably believable creatures of all animal types. Although there are frequent sounds to emphasise emotion and engage the audience into audible ‘awws’, the show is sans any dialogue and does not suffer from its absence. It does not detract from the narrative at all, but, rather, reinforces the poetic magic of the experience.

“Argus” is a show that needs to be seen, not necessarily to be believed, but because it is so difficult to describe the immersive world created by its puppet-based visual theatre. Dead Puppet Society is renowned and celebrated for its unique way of looking at the world through imagination at creative play and “Argus” is a stunning example of this. The heart-warming show bubbles with joy (literally) and is sure to be a hit amongst the youngest of audience members. Even those (like me) who are not traditional puppet fans wills surely be entertained by its whimsicality, impressed by its performer’s technical skills and comforted by is essential message regarding the worth of paying attention to the little things in our big world. As Dead Puppets Society embark on their post-Brisbane-season national tour, the joy is that they get to share this quietly touching piece and expand the imaginations of so many theatregoers, whether they be young or young at heart.

Treasured tube tunes

Tunes from the Tube (Topology)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 5 – 13

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With an ABC test pattern projection domineering the pre-show stage and an opening number from “Lost in Space”, it is clear early on that there is going to be nostalgic appeal to Topology’s show “Tunes from the Tube”, which sees them presenting in collaboration with Esk’s own oddball Kransky sisters. But rest assured that you do not need to be of any particular vintage to enjoy the musical repertoire; from “Dexter” to “Downton Abbey”, soaps to “Skippy”, there is something for everyone to either instantly recall or eventually realise. The musical instruments are just as eclectic, as in accompaniment to Topology’s usual repertoire of string and piano, come the Kransky’s tuba, toilet brush and cheese grater to name but a few.

So how has this seemingly strange collaboration come about? Topology travelled to Esk to rehearse for a follow-up to the tour they shared with The Kransky Sisters in Holland. Two months later they returned to retrieve their left-behind television, only to find that the previously deprived sisters had discovered the wonders of daytime tv, reality shows and home shopping. It makes for a very funny premise as the sheltered spinsters recount the experience of having houseguests (Topology are a little bit messy and use a whole teabag each), all with trademark folksky dialogue and deadpan delivery. They barely even crack a smile, for example, when half-sister Dawn hilariously moves to her own mysterious ways to trip the light fantastic solo into the audience.

Topology are acclaimed for a reason; as an innovative group of theatre professionals they create interesting shows – always different and always good. While the premise of “Tunes from the Tube” and its collaborative execution are keeping in this tradition, the result is a sometimes laboured rhythm, particularly during an onstage quiz for ‘volunteer’ audience members. Topology shows aren’t usually so talky. Its members are musicians not actors and it is when they play their music that the show really hits it heights with a haunting version of ‘On the Inside’ (of “Prisoner” fame) and a memorable rendition of the “Law and Order” theme tune, made their own through rich string sounds.

Fluidity issues aside, “Tunes from the Tube” is full of fun, frivolity and even a few surprises. With tv as its fodder, it is rich with entertainment possibilities, for as the sisters observe, tv never sleeps from its selling and buying, yelling and lying, kissing and crying. “Tunes from the Tune” may not engender any of these reactions, but it will have you wanting to clap and sing along as you relive some treasured tube memories.

Shared sounds of story

Sharehouse (Topology)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

May 16 – 18  

I like Topology. They do interesting things and they do them well; “Share House” is another example of this. The ‘instrumental opera’, which is loosely set in the 1970s, fuses physical theatre and music to convey a narrative of fictional characters that progresses without any words. Rather, the story is conveyed using only the magic of the group’s original musical pieces. And it is amazing how clear events are, despite the lack of dialogue, as the music speaks its volume of emotions – from the longing of love unrequited that is captured by the soulful strings to the intensity of the ensemble’s combined criticism of one of their own (that one housemate who breaks things, drinks too much, sets a fire – you know that type, there is probably one in every share house.)

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There is indeed an authenticity to “Share House”. As the laid-back instrumental sounds of Cold Chisel’s ‘Cheap Wine’ entice the audience, the scene is set beyond just the littering of empty beer cans across the stage. Complete with the contrasts of colourful, mismatched fabrics and the clichéd kitsch of hippy religious iconography (and a yoga mat), the Powerhouse’s Visy stage is authentic in its representation of the disheveled flat that is home to five dysfunctional bandmates and their story. And it is a story of pathos and comedy (complete with a twist in its tail), full of affection and fun. Accomplished as these musicians are, Topology’s team members all perform flawlessly and with impeccable timing, allowing for silence to speak as much as the show’s sounds. Although it might not inspire you to share a house, it will ignite in you a desire to share more of Topology’s talents and anticipate what these marvelous musicians will come up with next.

Photo c/ohttp://brisbanepowerhouse.org/