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Interview: Samuel Boyd

Interview: Samuel Boyd

| On 30, Oct 2015

After a triumphant run in New York, The Australian Voices’ new work Boombox is coming home. We caught up with co-director/creator and performer Samuel Boyd to talk about the choir’s latest genre-bending masterpiece.

If you’ve been to the theatre this year, you’ve probably encountered The Australian Voices. They’ve collaborated with everyone from La Boite to the Queensland Symphony Orchestra to Topology, and travelled from Mount Isa to New York sharing their particular blend of soaring vocals and plugged-in pop culture. Boombox, however, is quite unlike anything they’ve done before. Blurring the lines between choir and theatre, tradition and technology, the show incorporates rap battles, political speeches and a touch of the theatrical, in sixty minutes of non-stop vocal extravaganza.

When I sit down with cast member Sam Boyd, he has just returned from bringing the show to the Americans (who, as it transpires, liked it very much). It’s a crowning achievement for a production that has already spent a year evolving and touring around Australia. “It’s been crazy,” Sam says. “It’s been a really big joy though, going around to each different city and seeing how people react to it, seeing what people like about it and what they don’t like about it—which is nothing, because it’s perfect,” he laughs. “It’s been a long, but very rewarding process.”

 

Boombox 4

Co-director, co-creator and performer, Samuel Boyd.

 

‘Crazy’ certainly seems the right word for a show that walks the musical tightrope the way Boombox does. From its earliest days, the idea was a little bit mad. The first spark came from The Australian Voices’ artistic director, Gordon Hamilton.  “He came to me and said, ‘Let’s do a show that has a thousand things that have nothing to do with each other!’” Sam says. “And I was like, ‘Great, that’s not going to work.’”

From here, Sam says, he suggested implementing a through line, which became the production’s titular boombox. “We’ve got an actual boombox which kind of ties it all together. So someone will walk on stage and press play on the boombox and a sound will come out which will be the starting note for the next song. One song—we play the world’s first rap battle (that’s been recorded) and then we kind of jump in and start annotating what they’re singing and saying and it becomes a song, and that leads into a dissection of a classical work.”

Our conversation is full of these promising glimpses into the rich musical patchwork of the show. When I ask how such a kaleidoscope of fragments was first assembled, the answer only creates more curiosity. “Gordon and I started by just writing ideas down of everything you wouldn’t see in a classical concert, so original drafts were just like: ‘people saying random words which change into other words’ or ‘an ancient kind of Bulgarian sound which then transforms into a little cute song about baby sharks’ or speech rhythms, which kind of reinterprets [themselves], or grunts which then turn into a song, just things you would never expect.”

 

Boombox 3

 

Despite the extreme eclecticism of the show, Sam assures me there’s a lot of method behind the madness, and a lot of hard work has gone into making it a coherent whole. “As random as it seems, a lot of massaging and finessing has to go into it in terms of the pacing of the piece, because you’ll find at the start of the show that there’s a bunch of different ideas, there’s a bunch of really cool things and experiments, and then as we progress it becomes a bit more focussed on melody and the techniques of singing.”

Rap battles, political speeches and baby sharks may seem strange fare for a choral group, but The Australian Voices are no strangers to pushing boundaries. Since Gordon Hamilton took over as Artistic Director, the group are becoming known for their creative fusion as much as their choral skills, with a string of viral YouTube hits and collaborative concerts. Earlier this year they joined forces with speech rhythm maestro Robert Davidson of Topology. “We worked with him on a few Prime Ministerial speeches, which turned into another concert called Unrepresentative Swill, which we did in July.” From here, Sam tells me, the partnership brought the idea of more text songs into The Australian Voices’ work, transforming a new range of speeches and recordings. “Regardless of who’s speaking or what they’re saying, every word has a pitch and every word has a rhythm, so in theory you could take this conversation that we’re having and notate an opera around it.”

It’s definitely my first time as a potential opera subject, and I’m half tempted to press the offer. More importantly, though, this collaboration led to several of the songs featured in Boombox, including audience favourite, ‘Not Now, Not Ever’ (the Gillard misogyny speech) and a new work written for New York, ‘Total Political Correctness’, which is possibly the world’s only choral arrangement to feature Donald Trump.

 

Boombox 5

 

The choir’s seamless combination of pop culture and classical sounds not only has the ability to make Tony Abbott sound good, but it’s putting The Australian Voices on the cutting edge of choral music, bringing more and more people to their work. Is it also necessary for the survival of a choral choir in today’s cultural landscape? In a smaller Australian scene, Sam says probably yes. “I always think there’s going to be a place for choral music, but in terms of reaching a wider medium—we can still do the choral music, but it kind of helps to have that extra kick, you know? We’ve posted a classical song on Facebook and it’s like ‘Great, we got two thousand likes,’ and they we posted a song called ‘Baby Shark’, which got over two hundred thousand likes.” (As this is the third mention of the mysterious Baby Shark song, it seems only fair to offer a link.)

However, even with such a bold history behind them, Boombox is still an innovation for the choir. “The new work is ground-breaking in the sense that the spontaneity and the reaction and the ideas behind it, you wouldn’t see anywhere else….nowhere else has done [this] yet and so I think it’s really, really exciting.”

 

Boombox 1

 

We fall to talking about Sam’s other life as a sound designer and compare his usual work on shows like La Boite’s Pale Blue Dot to the kind of technical elements supporting Boombox. While the show is pitched as the ultimate skirmish between the human voice and machine, it seems the more technical aspects take a slight backseat here—“because the amazing thing about the show is what we can do with our voices.” When I ask if this means the human voice comes out the winner, Sam hesitates before calling a tie. He does, however, quickly add, “but of course the voice wins because the boombox doesn’t have any power without voices.”

It seems the only way to know for sure is to get down to the show. With Boombox preparing to head to Adelaide Festival next year and then possibly to a return season in New York, this could be a rare chance to catch this internationally acclaimed production, and self-proclaimed travesty of classical music, in Brisbane—so don’t miss out!

 

THE DETAILS

What Boombox

Where Brisbane Powerhouse

When 5:30pm and 7:30pm 1st Nov, 2015

How Much $32 – $39

For more information or tickets head to the Powerhouse’s website here.

 

Image Credit: Samuel Boyd and The Australian Voices Official.