The Australian Music Vault (AMV) has launched its Choir Project as a part of its Learning Program, engaging local arrangers to make iconic Australian songs choir-ready with arrangements and backing tracks freely available to school and community choirs. By encouraging new forms of engagement with Australian pop and rock music, the Choir Project is adding another dimension to the preservation and celebration of Australia’s musical heritage, which is at the heart of the AMV’s mission.
Amy Bennett from Arts Centre Melbourne has provided the following statement on the Choir Project:
Singing is a huge part of musical creativity, and singing in a group offers many benefits and is super fun! With that in mind the Australian Music Vault Choir Project aims to help school and community choirs with new arrangements of Australian songs. The songs include music by Paul Kelly, Killing Heidi, Archie Roach, Midnight Oil, Birds of Tokyo, Crowded House, Emily Wurramara, Gordi, Hunters and Collectors, Missy Higgins and The Seekers. The arrangements are available for free, with the aim that schools and community choirs will send back images or video of their groups singing the songs. We have worked with fantastic arrangers like Sophia Exiner and Vicky Jacobs who have experience in contemporary choral arranging and often run or conduct their own choirs. This has led to the arrangements being sung by these choirs (Melbourne Indie Voices, Glee Club) which is fantastic!
I learnt about the AMV Choir Project when Sophia Exiner (Phia & Melbourne Indie Voices) introduced her arrangement of Hunters and Collectors’ Holy Grail to the repertoire of her Melbourne Indie Voices choir and we were filmed performing in our rehearsal space in Collingwood with Hunters and Collectors trumpet player Jack Howard as a special guest. Sophia has also created the arrangements of On My Side by Gordi (2017), Black Boy by Emily Wurramara (2018), and Keep A Dream In Your Pocket by The Seekers (1988) for the Choir Project.
She kindly answered some questions about her involvement with the project, how she approaches her arrangements, what it means to her as an Australian musician, and what interesting outcomes she’s seen so far:
I was contacted by Amy from the Arts Centre as to whether I’d be interested in arranging any of the selection of Australasian songs they’d picked for the Choir Project. I jumped at the chance, particularly as it aligned so closely with the work I’ve done with Melbourne Indie Voices.
The first step [in the process] is listening to the song lots of times. I try and internalise the feeling of the song and what the song is trying to convey. I then find my way into the – song it could be the verse or chorus, whatever immediately jumps out at me as being clear, what a fun accompaniment singing line would be. Then it spools out from there. The most important thing for me is that a choir arrangement is fun to sing. Every line should be fun! I sing through every line to make sure it’s enjoyable.
I’m so passionate about Australian songs and songwriters and try to and weave that into all the work I do, whether with choirs, teaching or obviously my own music. I also am really pleased that so many female songwriters are involved in the project. Singing in a choir is often the first group music experience that we have as children, and it’s powerful that this project is bringing songs by Australian and female songwriters into schools. I hope it will have an influence on young girls believing they can write their own songs and sing their own stories. In general that’s the impact of elevating Australian music, validating our own stories and creativity.
I loved getting in deep with Holy Grail by Hunters and Collectors! That’s a song I’d heard many times over my life but never really examined it before. I love the lyrics and production, it’s such a fantastic song. And it was such a thrill to team up with Jack Howard, the trumpeter from Hunters and Collectors, for the video we made of the song with my choir! Jack’s a fantastic musician and songwriter and I actually was his student at high school – he was Mr Howard, my trumpet teacher and later on leader of the jazz ensemble that I played piano in. So it felt like bringing everything full circle, being involved in this fantastic project bringing great music into schools by teaming up with my old teacher who taught me so much about playing music in a band!
From a conservation perspective, often the discussions around intangible heritage focus heavily on documentation. As a member of Melbourne Indie Voices, I became very interested in how the AMV Choir Project is enabling new generations and different communities to become part of the preservation process through practice. By listening, learning and performing these arrangements, more people are engaging with our musical cultural heritage in a way that allows them to think about the bones or make-up of these songs. Much like Sophia, I had heard Holy Grail many times growing up but it wasn’t until I saw it broken down into parts on sheet music in front of me and heard my voice blending with a group of people as Sophia conducted us, putting the parts back together, that I really appreciated the beauty and power of the song.
The AMV’s request that choirs send in videos of their performances adds another layer to the documentation process as well. There are currently two videos from choirs on the AMV website and Melbourne Indie Voices released their video of Holy Grail in February. As more choirs learn, perform and record themselves, it will not only add to the AMV collection, it will hopefully create a broader community who are engaging with the project. Engagement with cultural heritage is essential to the significance we place on it and a collective sense of value and custodianship over our Australian musical heritage should grow from this community of participants.
Choirs can request the arrangements by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and more information is available at https://australianmusicvault.com.au/learn/amv-choir.
I would like to thank Amy Bennett and Sophia Exiner for their generous contributions to this article.