Gordon Hamilton / composer

composer / conductor

composer / conductor

Joining in? Chinese audience protocol in the spolight

Although The Australian Voices toured China once before (twice if you include Taiwan), the line-up – conductor and all singers – has since turned over completely, so our trip in December 2012 was a first. Like the naive protagonist at the beginning of a roadtrip movie, I felt overly confident and giddily unaware of what was in store.

We at The Australian Voices are pretty used to guerrilla touring (motels with an ‘M’; two to three concerts per day; intimate familiarity with the McDonald’s menu). Compared to our usual standards, this Musica Viva tour was as close to luxury as lowly choral musicians can achieve, funded in part by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and produced by Barry Plews, a fascinating Australian man who has spent the last 20 years working in the thriving arts scene of Shanghai. The great thing about staying in hotels (with an ‘H’!) and giving only six performances in three weeks was the abundance of rehearsal time. We practised all day about four times a week – also a rare luxury for musicians!

The concerts were peppered with the spectacle of two actual Chinese speakers in the group and myself introducing the songs in Mandarin. After the first piece had concluded, I would approach the microphone (with that feeling of climbing a high-dive platform and suddenly regretting it) and began my painfully-rehearsed spiel; I had notated it on manuscript and literally sang out “Dàjia¯ haˇo!” With a flurry of applause, the audience would politely let me know that I didn’t completely suck.

Curiously, it’s the more adventurous and bizarre music that really drew a response. For Ng’s Stellar Mansions (on “Tao, Life and the Universe”) we lie down onstage to sing, as though gazing at the cosmos through a glass ceiling. I’m pretty sure the Chinese audiences liked this, because when I zoomed around in front of 600 people for three seconds of applause at the Hangzhou Theatre, I was greeted with a sea of Apple devices capturing the spectacle of prostrate musicians getting their smart evening-wear creased and slightly dusty on the floor.

In Guangzhou we were to sing the Chinese and Australian National Anthems at the 40th anniversary celebration of diplomatic relations between the two nations. I had arranged each (with somewhat spikier harmony than either we or they are used to) to be combined as one composition (after checking about 90 times that the anthem was indeed that of the People’s Republic and not of Taiwan – a major diplomatic incident averted! Federal Arts Minister Simon Crean and the Governor of Guangdong Province were in attendance there and at our final performance, at the Xinghai Concert Hall on December 9. During intermission, the two politicians and their entourages descended backstage, the Governor remarking that the bird-calls in Stephen Leek’s Kondalilla reminded him of his rural childhood home. Fencing us in was an armada of minions, translators and bodyguards, all poised to proffer a business card or take a bullet.

As far as I could tell, during our performance at The Lyceum in Shanghai, plans for new cities were being mapped out and generational feuds were coming to their messy conclusions, all on phones. Applause, rather than arriving in discrete bell-shaped packets between the works, was distributed evenly throughout the music (circus-style) as the sine wave a = 1 + sin t (where a = Approval and t = Time).

Most performers in Australia would be cursing their audience or running for the hills, but in China we found the chatter completely charming! We certainly weren’t offended – it seems they were ardently discussing our unearthly noises. And there was some very welcome noise indeed at the beginning of Nicholas Ng’s arrangement of Yue Er Ming (‘Moon is Bright’), when a solo baritone sang the traditional lullaby once in English. Not understanding the text, but recognising the tune, the audience joined in with the Mandarin words: a cross-cultural, bilingual sing-along that goes to show how connected we really are.