Music Australia News

The Other Sound of Conflict

Renowned NZ baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes will perform at Voices of Remembrance
Rhonda Davidson-Irwin
| June 6, 2018

On 11 June, online auditions will open for Queensland choirs who would like to perform at Voices of Remembrance, a musical performance presented by the Queensland Government, in partnership with Queensland Music Festival, featuring a 200-strong mass choir the areas of Toowoomba and Cairns between 9-10 November.

This state-wide choral program encourages communities across Queensland to remember the centenary of the signing of the Armistice through music. Accompanying the mass choir at each event, will also be a core choir of 30 individuals. The core choir will have the opportunity to perform the international premiere of Gordon Hamilton’s new choral work and selected repertoire from the First World War.

Programs and events like this allow us to reflect on how sound has been utilised in historical periods of conflict. Everyone has seen war films and we are all overwhelmed, as indeed the poor soldiers must be, by the brutality of modern conflict. Before this there was a similar cacophony that accompanied the pre-industrial struggles our forebears suffered. It may have been a few decibels lower and short on shockwaves but it was still difficult and testing. It was no wonder that the ancient Greek God of War, who was called Aries, was accompanied by two sons called Fear and Panic or Deimos and Phobos.

However, I am not here referring to the worst of ancient military sounds; the cries of the wounded and dying, the clash and din rendered from sword and shield, the throaty shout of cohorts and phalanx and the pounding fury of cavalry with the hideous slither of spear tip slicing the air as it seeks its target. No, through all this terrible and boisterous struggle was something else. This was the stirring rasp of the pipes, the boom of drum and the heralding of trumpets and tuba, cornet and anafil.

Nothing has enabled manoeuver throughout history more effectively than the musical instruments that accompanied the clouds of men marching off to war and into battle. Indeed, even in the midst of these noisy struggles the only sound a desperate soldier could hear above the din would have been the sounds of battlefield instruments blasting out the decisions he had been conditioned to obey.

From Joshua, in the Old Testament, we know of the importance of the well blown ram’s horn, and not just for toppling walls but for marshalling men and intimidating foes. Speaking of which, what Roman legionary was not keenly attuned to the whistle blast of his centurion and the peel of the Roman tubas and cornets emanating from the Legates post. Much of the organisation of the best armies relied on constant practice and military instruments have always been part of precise battlefield drill.

The pipe and drum, the bagpipes and indeed the singing men themselves have also served to get troops to the battlefield in good order. The ancient world so respected singing that it was seen as a form of piety to be able to sing well the prayers to the gods. Many ancient games included singing with the other martial sports. Of course military music is not only a theme in western civilisation.

When the bold crusaders threw themselves at the infidels in the Holy Land, their Saracen enemies deployed their own versions of martial musical tools. The Seljuk Turks were especially fierce and returning crusaders wrote of the dread felt when they deployed massed kettle drums and tabors and the brutal piping of anafils heard by the hundred.

The next time you are stirred when you hear Wagner and imagine ancient battle, or when Strauss makes for you a vision of proud soldiers marching or Suppe puts a light cavalry brigade before your very eyes, just remember that the musical DNA of the entire orchestra served the real thing for many centuries. Surely it can be no surprise that even now a modern orchestra can magnificently inform a poor or untrained imagination to have a better understanding of the urges that drove men to battle in the past.

Like letters, tools, myths and books, music has danced through the entire length of civilisation with us. Yes, often it was used in war and we do well to remember that. The lesson though, should be that if these instruments can inspire and inform and train us to do such things in conflict, then what promise can they hold when they are deployed for the benefit of learning, culture and pleasure. We should deploy them now in a new war against a world that would be darker, sadder and far less interesting if our command of these wonderful tools was ever to vanish through lack of understanding or the disinterest of our political leaders.

Online auditions for the mass and core choirs for either of the Voices of Remembrance concerts close 29 June. Information about the audition requirements and criteria are available on the Queensland Music Festival website.

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