Watch out for the sopranos in this enthralling contest to find our best singing group, says Graeme Blundell
SOMEHOW, a million or more years ago, our ancestors discovered how to control their thorax, using breath to produce a sustained vocal sound on a single pitch. Some scientists believe human song began even before speech. Certainly when I first sang in a choir at the local Baptist church in the early 1960s people were much happier singing than talking. There could be little light- hearted chat about matters involving atonement, salvation and the fight against evil. But the adrenalin- inducing thrill of massed voices was simply joyous.
The men sang the slow grey hymns loudly, lustily, so many attempting harmonies it was difficult to know what the melody was: the rain of discordant notes never ceased to fall.
This will not be the case with Seven’s new singing show Battle of the Choirs , according its choral conductor George Torbay, a leading educator on all matters to do with mass vocals.
Hosted by Seven’s all- purpose everyman David Koch, Battle of the Choirs showcases 16 choral groups, 700 members between them, from across Australia.
Four judges — Torbay, choirmaster Jonathan Welch, musician Iva Davies and, somewhat perplexingly, children’s entertainer Charli Delaney — will determine who makes it through each round of the knockout competition.
Two choirs eventually will sing head to head in the grand final. The winning choir will be awarded $ 100,000 and a recording deal with Universal Music.
Gospel, barbershop, classical, pop, a cappella, jazz, soul: all genres will be represented. But Torbay is adamant personality, passion, power and performance will be required to make it past the judges when they’re challenged to perform songs from Kylie Minogue, Meatloaf, Rihanna, Kiss, AC- DC and the Scissor Sisters.
‘‘ We want to show a new generation that choral singing is more than simply an arcane church tradition, or the old male choirs of national groups,’’ Torbay says.
‘‘ We want to show that choral singing can be contemporary and even rather hip.’’
Torbay has selected most of the repertoire, conscious of choosing as laterally as possible for television presentation.
‘‘ People are going to think this is so odd,’’ he laughs. ‘‘ Weird choices, maybe, but which make for such exciting singing.’’
But while contemporary songs will be sung by the different groups, the concentration is still on what Torbay calls ‘‘ unanimous sound’’. And his instructions to the choirs will still revolve around the basic group- singing techniques of posture, breath management, changing registers and pitch accuracy.
The choirs will present their own material, a piece chosen by the judges, blend into a largescale group medley and perform songs that are sprung on them impromptu- style.
This sounds like a Thank God You’re Here kind of thing, playing off that show’s charming attempt to recapture, if fleetingly, that childhood state of spontaneity which proved so popular to TV audiences last year.
Maybe Choirs will be the exemplary local merger of the reality shows that have dominated the first decade of the 21st century, part Idol franchise with elements of Dancing with the Stars , Big Brother and even Survivor . And inevitably there is a suggestion of just a few elements of The Choir of Hard Knocks narrative, involving groups of people trying to get their lives together through music.
Thankfully we are to be spared the mawkish displays of the truly untalented in the show’s early rounds, paraded like freaks and painfully funny. These choirs are actually good, it seems, polished and assuredly musical. ‘‘ This is not
a variety show,’’ Torbay says, almost appalled that I could suggest it. ‘‘ It might be a competition, but the entire focus of this show is on the choirs.’’
The show does have an element of the car crash genre about it, in which the boundaries between life and art are deconstructed for their embarrassment content.
‘‘ You are going to find out about the individuals in these choirs, really see what their lives are like,’’ Torbay says. ‘‘ People you could never imagine, all with fantastic stories.’’
This sounds like cringe factor to me, but all these hodgepodge reality shows need some humiliation as a basic ingredient. I sense that this time we can simply luxuriate in the sheer excellence and commitment of the singing.
It’s interesting that shows like this, cleverly contrived hybrids, have more emotional power than our scripted dramas and far more visceral impact. They reveal something of the power of TV democracy, how spectacle and humanness can accidentally interact in such a brutally, hardnosed commercial setting.
Ultimately, that’s what separates the typical crap reality shows from the special ones: the willingness to point out that most of us live in places where we’re constantly tripping up against what we yearn for, and falling over our expectations. Not that these singers are all that likely to crack or trip: people who sing in choirs live out a kind of idealised reality.
‘‘ You stand in the middle of a choir and feel the rush of sound around you and it is exhilarating,’’ Torbay says of the thrill of singing alongside many other voices. He is right, as anyone who has sung knows. Mass vocalising touches something that is embedded in our biological natures: we are neurologically wired to sing after all.
He points out that, until recently, singing in a choir was thought of as something that only women and geekish men did. It has changed, he believes, and now more men see choral singing as a way to self- assurance, and for many women the choir has replaced the book club.
Most of all, choral singing offers a sense of community, Torbay says. And he projects an almost idyllic future world, a universe of choristers using group music to declare personal identity as people flock evangelically to choirs after seeing his show.
‘‘ We want to create an entire generation that sings, and for whom singing is a voyage of selfexploration,’’ he says.
He’s sucked me in. Already I can hear the thousands of voices in different registers working with and against each other in harmony and counterpoint across the country. And he’s probably right in suggesting that choral singing is one of the last frontiers of human independence, where no one owns the music and every voice is free. I just hope his show uses subtitles so we can sing along at home.
Battle of the Choirs, Sundays, 7.30pm, Seven.
All together now: Hornsby Girls High School’s choir goes through its paces for Seven’s Battle of the Choirs