Gordon Hamilton / composer

composer / conductor

composer / conductor

Orchestra Possessed by Choir?

When the mundane or banal is recycled into art, it can be elevated to an ironic, humorous and oddly-exquisite level (the auto-tuning of viral videos comes to mind!)


In recent vocal works I’ve been keen to consecrate jarringly-humdrum language in choral music. In Toy Story 3 = Awesome! I set Facebook status-updates and in The 9 Cutest Things That Ever Happened, I turned a Buzzfeed article about cute animals into a faux Anglican hymn. The smooshing together of things which usually don’t mingle (in these cases, Internet language and classical music) can intrigue.

Let’s face facts: when many voices sing text, the meaning is often obscured. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the text might take a back seat to the music. But if the intention is that text be understood by the listener, I find that only the most colourful words emerge from the choral texture with their meaning intact.

In Ghosts in the Orchestra, a choir stands mysteriously among the orchestral musicians, prompting them with sung instructions:

"semitone... different... darker... longer...halve the bow pressure".

The orchestra enthusiastically complies, unrolling the commandments into symphonic gestures, sent back for the Ghosts to make sense of. The Ghosts quickly help the Orchestra establish a main chord on which the entire work is assembled:

“enjoy the chord: isn't it just — wicked!?

...remember this chord. Feel it. Own it.

The voices pick out strategic intervals from this chord which the orchestra weaves into a joyous melody.

They become self-aware and disobedient, speculating on what brought them into existence:

“What year is this?

According to the title page, we were composed in 2014

is that the present or the distant past?”

Recently at The Australian Voices we’ve encountered several new works that blur the meaning of the word ‘composer’. In We Apologise, for example, Rob Davidson slowed down the audio of Kevin Rudd speaking the words “We Apologise” from the historic parliamentary apology. The resulting five-minute sound was then sung by the ensemble. In my own piece Tra$h Ma$h (the dollar signs in mock reverence for Ke$ha!), I stole tiny grabs of modern pop songs and (in the spirit of Tippet and Messiaen) pasted them together into a deranged mosaic, original keys and tempos intact. Neither work was really “composed” in the familiar sense of “writing music,” but in the etymological sense of “putting together”. Here, in Ghosts - drawing into question the role of the composer - the choir muses upon whether or not it must stick to the notes written by the composer onto the score. Even the orchestra and their conductor is invited to rebel:

“The conductor might improvise a gesture and the musicians interpret it spontaneously…”

Thus I have written myself - the composer - into the piece. The audience is encouraged by my ghosts to take out their smartphones and “send a message into the future” (that is, by email) to the composer, who apparently was curious to know if they would be enjoying themselves in the concert:

“Bring forth your smartphones!

Give me your reaction;

Tell me what you make of this thing, this 'concerto', this Liaison for orchestra and voices?

Transmit your comments, questions and complaints to:

G–O–R–D–O–N [at] theaustralianvoices (all one word) [dot] com"

The work is playful and ironic; sometimes contemplative, sometimes humorous. The Ghosts cheekily instruct everyone to take a “selfie” and post to Twitter with the hashtag #ghostorch.

This conversation between orchestra and voices is carried out almost as though the orchestra is ‘possessed’ by a choir (or is it the composer pulling the strings!?). The two entities are in separate universes passing through each other, united only for a fleeting shared experience on the concert platform.


8pm, Saturday 9 August 2014
QPAC Concert Hall

Conductor Stefan Solyom
The Australian Voices, directed by Gordon Hamilton 

Sibelius: En Saga 
Hamilton: Ghosts in the Orchestra - QSO commissioned World Premiere 
Nielsen: Symphony No.2 – The Four Temperaments