Watch out for the so­pra­nos in this en­thralling con­test to find our best singing group, says Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

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

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