Posts Tagged ‘robert davidson


Stalin’s Piano


Stalin’s Piano

Robert Davidson and Sonya Lifschitz

Brisbane Festival and Griffith University

QPAC Cremorne Theatre

Friday September 14 2018


Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway



I think everyone is a composer, at the very least through endless spoken melodies

Robert Davidson


22 Jan 2015, Twitter


You and I may not have noticed before, but there is music in everyday speech. According to Brisbane composer Robert Davidson, we are all composers, creating and performing music every time we speak.


Davidson is fascinated by politics, the connection between politics and art, and by the music of speech. These preoccupations fuse in Stalin’s Piano, a multimedia work developed in collaboration with pianist Sonya Lifschitz, and premiered at the Canberra International Music Festival 2017. Together, Davidson and Lifschitz uncover the music in the speech of 19 famous artists and politicians, creating musical portraits of them in a powerful piece of theatre.


The 19 range from Bertolt Brecht, to John F Kennedy, Joseph Stalin, Robert Helpmann, Mao Zedong, Gough Whitlam, Percy Grainger, Ai Wei Wei, and Jackson Pollock. Particularly memorable were Percy Grainger, with his astringent description of music as ‘the art of agony’ and ‘derived from screaming’; EE Cummings, with a lyrical reading of one of his love poems; Robert Helpmann, with stories about his early life; and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, with the surprising and stirring music of her anti-misogyny speech to the Australian Parliament.


Lifschitz is centre stage at the piano, with video clips playing on a large screen behind and above her. In this performance lasting just over an hour, she is playing or speaking almost constantly.


She gives an awe-inspiring performance of great warmth, playing music of varying styles, from lyrical to frenetic, martial to Latin jazz.


Her timing is uncannily precise, with the piano exactly echoing the musical notes of speech from the video soundtrack. The listener feels a sense of discovery and illumination in response. At other times the piano is in counterpoint to the voice and connects with the images on the screen, or it elaborates on or accompanies the music of the speech.



The composition, the images and the performance of Stalin’s Piano arouse many emotions: it is by turns lyrical, fierce, horrifying, funny, chilling, sad, and nostalgic.


The film clips are often sampled and looped, with the repetition and rhythm reflected in the music. This has been used to create comic effects, for instance in the portrait of JF Kennedy, with exhilarating Cuban-influenced rhythms and choppy film echoed by the piano, and contrasting with the tension of the Cuban missile crisis.


As part of her spoken performance, Lifschitz talks about Stalin, Shostakovich, and Russian pianist Maria Yudina. The story of Yudina and Stalin is central to the work, as reflected by its title. The story is of two absolute opposites: the dictator who destroyed millions of lives, and the pianist who championed artistic freedom and openly defied Stalin’s regime, yet survived.


Stalin loved Yudina’s playing and demanded a recording of her performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which was made especially for him in a late-night recording session by terrified conductors and musicians. This recording is said to be the last music he listened to before he died.


Yudina was revered in Russia, and a huge influence on Lifschitz and her contemporaries as students. In a poignant tribute during Stalin’s Piano, Lifschitz plays some Mozart along with the recording of Yudina.


Davidson and Lifschitz both spoke in a relaxed and friendly way to the audience about the work beforehand, and took part in a Q&A after the show (chaired by Brendan Joyce, Artistic Director of Brisbane chamber orchestra Camerata). The show certainly stands alone without the Q&A, but this added some fascinating insights (such as revealing that Gough Whitlam spoke in B flat major, and explaining how Lifschitz manages to synchronise her playing with the spoken words and moving images).




In discussing the comedy of Stalin’s Piano, Davidson said that manipulating sound and image, as in the JFK portrait, is only one element of the comedy in the work. Sometimes comedy lies in what the person is saying, as in the portrait of Percy Grainger, with his spiky response to an interviewer echoed by the piano. Humour also comes from the realisation that there is inherent melody in speech, which was borne out in the frequent laughter from the audience.


Davidson said that while music isn’t as precise as words, it enhances what is underneath them, ‘where the real punch comes in’. Stalin’s Piano certainly does that, amplifying the feeling in the spoken words of 19 people. The show is intense, entertaining, and completely absorbing.


There was only one performance of Stalin’s Piano at Brisbane Festival. If it ever comes back, or you can see it somewhere else, don’t miss it!



Alice Night: Culture, how could you?


ALICE NIGHT: Culture, how could you?

Judith Wright Centre

Judith Wright Centre Performance Space

April 29 2016

Reviewed by Katy Cotter


Firstly, I have to mention how beautiful and transformative the performance space at the Judith Wright Centre is. I have seen many a show at this venue and each time I have walked into a completely different world.

Now, I admit I hadn’t heard of singer songwriter Alice Night before so I listened to her songs online and was instantly whisked back to a point in my life dominated by the chaos of first love. Night’s lyrics are bleeding-heart-on-the-sleeve raw and brutally honest. Her performance slash debut album launch Culture How Could You? is a glimpse into her mind; tangled musings about society, politics and cultural oddities. Night was joined onstage by an extraordinary team of musicians, sound and visual designers, singers and performers, and all of them breathed as one.

The audience was invited on a journey through sound and song back to the innocence of childhood, back through the history and the woes of humanity, and catapulted back to our current world that is over stimulated by the media and consumerism, reeling with pain and desperately searching for meaning, for hope. Yes, these are huge ideas to comprehend but the performance is so perfectly balanced that these ideas zip through the air like shooting stars, careful not to linger too long and overwhelm.


Composer Robert Davidson’s arrangements are exceptional; flawlessly linking one moment to the next, though there is no doubt the heart of the show is Alice Night and her tantalising haunting and primal voice. She doesn’t just sing the words, you can tell that she’s lived them, and that she carries them deep within her. She has this ethereal power; her eyes connected with everyone in the audience as if she were whispering secrets.

Night is currently studying a masters degree in writing for performance at NIDA and her philosophical formula is ART + HONESTY = ALCHEMY.

I absolutely felt I was part of a rare and special event. It is true that music holds its own magic in connecting people. It can heal, it can evoke memory and most importantly it can conjure hope, which I felt was Alice’s secret that she whispered to me. Don’t worry, I trust you all with it!

If you ever get the opportunity to see Alice Night in the future, I strongly suggest seizing the moment. This woman is incredibly talented and her work is bold, insightful and inviting.         

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