A large woman was holding forth to her friends in the foyer “I lived surrounded by hippies in the 60’s and 70’s, but my god, have you ever seen anything like this crowd? Look at how they’re dressed! Look at that one – what a throwback!” she barked. Dressed in my best Melbourne black, I tried not to smirk. The man she had singled out looked much like I do for most of the week.
The truth was that the crowd was quite a mixture of age groups, and yes, styles of dress. The Elisabeth Murdoch Hall was close to capacity, and it was clear from eavesdropping the conversations most people knew exactly what they were coming to hear, and were most excited to hear The Spooky Men’s Chorale presented in the now legendary acoustic of this wonderful venue.
This is their first national tour, though as the group has been performing for sixteen years, they are veterans of Folk festivals, and it is clear that this is where their fan base has largely experienced them. Making much of the idea that they are usually more at home in a shed or tent, the group shambled onto stage “like Brown’s cows” in studied indifference to the staged discipline common to vocal ensembles. Eventually there were sixteen men dressed in a variety of rumpled blacks, or quite faded black, and each with a different hat, as though that made them suitably dressed for an outing.
What followed was mostly original material widely based on variety of topics treated in song, from wistful sentiment to daffy incomprehension at suburban phenomena, to a very funny reworking of a Bee Gees piece. There was much other amusement too, from the self-deprecating to absurdist humour sufficient to satisfy the most ardent Monty Python fan.
The song opening the second half was a piece about the second half being symbolic of the existential crisis of the male entering middle age – “so, I fertilized – what am I here for now?” Hetero-normativity is assumed throughout. There was lots of word painting in the witty musical writing – downward melodic shapes, ever darkening harmonies, then finally that effect so beloved of Bach at the end – the optimism and stability of the major chord. The effect on the crowd of the change of colour was widely felt.
These men are constructed as daggy “Uncle Arthurs” – probably most at home doing some hobby in the shed in a suburban or rural setting. The fact that they have found their voices doing something like the so-called men’s movement activities some of their material lampoons is something of an irony. The danger of this group is that one could imagine it as a community choir, which totally belies the high levels of discipline and musicianship concealed beneath their image. This is a highly trained and skilled group, with a wide range of expression. Credit must go to their director, Stephen Taberner.
What interesting vocal tones they produce! There is a stunning initial impact from the ensemble of somewhat raw yet pure masculine tone – at once ancient and timeless, there are echoes of some early religious music, though the topics are not. The whole evening was a vibrato-free zone, though there was no lack of expression – this was achieved by skillful dynamic control throughout.
This was a celebration of pure, natural singing and deep levels of co-operation. There was only subtle sound reinforcement and a little reverb at times, otherwise it was natural vocal tone the whole way. There was no beatboxing, there were no microphones tight on people’s mouths to turn plosives into drum beats – just singing, in such variety. Though there were a couple of solos, there were no melismas, there were no displays whatsoever of virtuosity – just pure melodies accurately presented in excellent pitch.
The variety in the expression, and the settings as well as the material itself made the evening a fascinating presentation of what is possible with such a group.
The harmony was produced from the ground up with a solid foundation of some wonderfully resonant bass vocals of enviable pitch stability, then baritones, and the top end largely by baritones with well-developed falsetto ranges, rather than any big heroic tenors. This allowed for a wonderfully warm sense of vocal blend, and the pitch was remarkably secure for the most part. For me, there was just a moment or two where the falsettos singing at very soft volumes were slightly under the pitch, but my ears are extremely trained, and I’m sure no one else noticed. Otherwise, the whole concert was an extraordinary display of a capella singing.
Specific mention was made of the Georgian styles of harmony employed in some of the pieces, but the truth is that the arranger and composer(s) for this group’s repertoire draw on a remarkably wide range of styles of harmony – moments of African, American gospel, classical-romantic, and once or twice I was reminded of the harmonies of contemporary American composer Morton Lauridsen. It is a surprisingly sophisticated palette, and contributes greatly to the interest of the presentation.
The audience’s enjoyment and engagement was felt throughout. It was interesting to see some people have a quite visceral response to the beautiful sounds, as well as laughing at the humour, and calling out appreciatively at appropriate times – some of the folk festival spontaneity clearly came to this venue. There was much love for this group in the hall.
Peter Hurley reviewed the Spooky Men’s Chorale at the Melbourne Recital Centre on April 28, 2017.