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10 June 2009

An interview with Robert Davidson

Robert Davidson Image: Robert Davidson  

'There is something very Brisbane about Topology', claims Robert Davidson. In this short interview, he talks to Nicole Canham about how Topology came to be, and what it means to be an ensemble in residence at the Brisbane Powerhouse.

Nicole Canham: You've really created a place for Topology, not only in the Brisbane scene, but also in the national landscape. How did Topology form, and did you start out with a clear aim in mind or have things evolved?

Robert Davidson: Topology formed out of a larger, more sprawling collective of composers and performers known as Music for the Heart and Mind, which was active between 1990 and 1996. The principal participants in MHM were Roland Adeney, Tom Adeney, Joanne Abbott, Lynette Lancini and Topology’s Christa Powell, Kylie Davidson and Robert Davidson. In a series of very grassroots concerts, each artist presented a separate work, ranging from, say, a Shostakovich trio to an original work for choir and string orchestra. Some of the concerts became quite epic as each piece had a completely separate line-up of players. Topology came about when several of us decided to limit the instrumentation so that we could coordinate and rehearse the music more effectively. There were several aims in forming: we wanted to play the music that had evolved out of Music for the Heart and Mind, and to have a continuing band. We also wanted to play music we loved but weren’t hearing played much in Australia, for our own enjoyment as much as anything. Another aim was to play music as friends – the instruments were chosen less for their sound than for the people playing them (this has stood us in good stead; after twelve years, we are still together and get on very well). So I think you could say that we formed as an ensemble with some definite aims, but we arrived at that point through a grassroots evolution.

NC: Topology seems to have quite a wide appeal; you do a very interesting range of work. What have been some of your favourite performances over the years and why?

RD: Favourite performances tend to be those where we are stretched stylistically; our most recent gigs with Katie Noonan were really enjoyable as we traversed quite a range of genres and performance approaches, including bluegrass, calypso, intensely focused chamber music, post-bop, funk and straight-ahead pop, among others. It was also great to work with comedians like Gerry Connolly and the Kransky Sisters, as we were taken into more demanding thinking of the humorous aspects of our composition and performance. We’ve played for a big range of audiences, including for stadia full of 15,000 screaming teenage girls when we did several support gigs for Savage Garden in the nineties; in the same weeks, we were playing at the Queensland Art Gallery playing Fluxus music, performing while being tied up with bandages. My favourite performances have been when the ensemble reaches an uncanny togetherness in playing familiar works from our original compositions – perhaps the best of these for me was at a full Sydney Opera House concert hall back in 2000.  

NC: You are Ensemble in Residence at the Brisbane Powerhouse. How does having a 'home' or a key place in which you create work influence your activities?

RD: The residence at the Brisbane Powerhouse has been wonderful in encouraging us to try different things in a secure environment. It has really helped us expand our thinking, particularly with regard to collaboration – we can invite people to join us at this wonderful venue, having something very attractive to offer.

NC: Your work crosses a lot of boundaries in terms of genre and the use of mixed media. How important do you think this is in terms of creating work that responds to place?

RD: One way we respond to place is by telling stories about where we are. Storytelling is an effective way to invite people to participate, to weaken barriers to entry that are often felt by people who see the arts as belonging to specialists only. Many of our works respond to where and when we are, and we often use speech recordings and video to tell these stories, also providing ways in for non-specialist audiences (apart from being completely integral to the works themselves). Genre flexibility also allows us to tell our own stories, as we include references to, say, The Saints or The Go-Betweens, strongly associated with Brisbane, in our music.

NC: Do you think that there is a very 'Brisbane' flavour to what you do - does where you all live have any impact on your work?

RD: I think there is something very Brisbane about Topology. Perhaps there is something of the 'striped sunlit sound' that Tangled Shoelaces (a favourite 80s Brisbane band) used to talk about. It’s clearly difficult to pinpoint, but I do associate our sound with Brisbane. I also think perhaps the collaborative approach we adopt is quite a characteristic of this place – the scene is small enough that one must get along with people of different genres if one is to have any artistic community (we are too small to have substantial cliques). I tend to believe there is a lack of pretension here, encouraging musicians to communicate in ways that are clear and straightforward, however sophisticated and playful – certainly Topology approaches performance that way.

NC: What do you see as Topology's role or place in the national fine music scene? 

RD: Topology’s place in Australian 'fine music' is to create individual, distinctive performances that are reflective of ourselves and our communities, to foster creative community and to both entrance and challenge audiences in ways that include a wide range of people without being pandering or patronising. Most importantly, we need to be authentic and make music we love.

Further links

Topology (http://www.topologymusic.com/)
Brisbane Powerhouse (http://www.brisbanepowerhouse.org/)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Nicole Canham is an independent artist (clarinet) and artistic director specialising in chamber music performance and audience development. She has also worked in theatre, film, new music, improvisation and folk music and built a body of work with colleagues from other art forms. She has worked with The National Library of Australia, The National Gallery of Australia , The National Film and Sound Archive and Old Parliament House to develop site-specific programs and commissioned works. She has performed internationally with the quartet Clarity, an ensemble she co-founded in 1996. As Artistic Director of the Canberra International Music Festival, she achieved record attendances and box office during her four-year term (2005 – 2008). In 2009, Nicole is undertaking research into the positive impact of culture in diverse communities in North and South America as a recipient of a Churchill Fellowship.


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