Over the course of Topology’s career, the group has teamed with the likes of didgeridoo player and multi-instrumentalist William Barton to pop-opera singer Kate Miller-Heidke, supported Savage Garden in 10,000-seat arenas, and played everywhere from theatres and art galleries to concert halls.
When asked to describe the Topology’s sound herself, violinist Christa Powell conceded it was difficult to sum up by slapping a genre sticker on it. “I’d say pulse-driven,” she told InQueensland. “For me it’s the rhythm and it’s the energy of the rhythm, it’s accessible.”
The five-piece – also comprised of John Babbage (saxophone), Robert Davidson (upright bass), Bernard Hoey (viola) and Therese Milanovic (piano) – have just released their 16th album, We Will Rise.
The album – a combination of new material and tracks collated from the ensemble’s career – features compositions with thematic links to the existential threat of climate disruption and the global COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on the needs for strength, hope, fortitude and resilience to pave the way for recovery and collective healing.
Powell said that although planning for the new album was already underway prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the collection resonated strongly with the social upheaval of 2020.
“I think it’s definitely trying to make a statement, I suppose of, ‘we will rise out of this’,” she said.
“I know a lot of people [in the arts industry] are creating but many are finding it really difficult and they’ve just stopped. It’s just very stressful financially, emotionally and it’s like that pressure to create has sort of made it really difficult – people I know that are unbelievably prolific can’t even pick up their instrument at the moment.”
We Will Rise’s title track, which deftly interweaves the group’s instrumental accompaniment with a 1931 speech by Depression-era prime minister James Scullin, providing one of the collection’s most poignant moments.
The oration culminates in a rousing call to arms in which the then-newly elected leader asks Australians to have confidence in their government, nation and themselves, with the track building to a crescendo to the looped “and we will rise out of our difficulties and depression” portion of Scullin’s speech.
Powell said the music was written by bassist Davidson, who she said has an innate ability to hear lyricism and musicality in speech.
“It’s amazing the way he does it, it’s something that Rob is very, very talented at,” she said. “He can listen to a speech and hears an inherent musicality straight away, so he’s done that to a lot of speeches.
“I don’t know how he does it it’s just one of his peculiarities, I suppose. He just hears it, when he hears a speech, he hears the music straight away and it’s an enigma.”
One of Toplogy’s greatest strengths as an ensemble is the ability to convey a range of complex emotions without – for the most part – any lyrical accompaniment.
“It’s actually really easy, I find, because I guess that’s my comfort zone, is to be able to express emotion through melody or through my instrument,” Powell said, citing the track ‘Rush’ – which features every member of Topology simultaneously playing a singular piano – as a prime example.
“For me it’s just the idea that we’re all on one instrument, creating something together and that’s really how I feel about Topology and hanging on in this time that we’re in, we’re not able to be out on the road – being five people as one entity, communicating our narrative. Rush brings back all those feelings of being able to be all crammed in on this one instrument and working together.
“It’s quite a sound when 10 hands get on to one piano, it’s an amazing feeling to be there and feeling that piano pulsing. I really like all the tracks on this collection but that one for me, emotionally, is really poignant.”
The members of Topology ordinarily spend a large proportion of their time touring and engaging in community workshops and education and mentoring programs, with a heavy focus on regional areas.
We Will Rise includes a new composition, ‘Drought Stories Texas’, which is the first part of a planned multimedia project aimed at highlighting the adverse impacts of long-term drought.
“We came up with the idea of ‘Drought Stories’ to tell the stories of farmers – what is it like to be five years with no water? Your kids don’t really know what rain is. While they were there filming this [in Texas], John was out there and one of the farmers brought out his mower and his kid goes, ‘what’s that, dad?’
“‘Drought Stories [Texas]’ was the music that John composed to that short film and it’s really a pilot we did and it’s going to be part of a longer project, about a 70-minute film project that we’re going to do, telling stories on the land, pretty much.”
Powell said touring regional centres and hearing first-hand accounts of the effects of prolonged drought had imbued her and the other members of Topology with a desire to “want to reduce that divide between regional and the city”.
“I feel very strongly that everything should be accessible,” she said. “We’re quite happy to reap the benefits of the bounties of regional Queensland in farming and the food and everything else, so once I started getting to know people in regional Queensland, it just made me even more passionate about it.
“Not only the education and the services, but just really being able to connect with people I mean I love to connect with people I love to talk to people I love to hear about other people’s experiences and their stories.
“Those kind of things you sometimes think are happening in some far-off land, not our own back yard pretty much, just a few hours away so that was really, I think it’s really important to tell those stories.”
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