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In Conversation with Choir Conductor and Composer Sue Johnson

Four choirs will come together on Sunday 10 December to form Sue Johnson’s Combined Forces at our Rotunda Restoration Celebration. We speak with choir conductor and composer Sue Johnson to talk about unusual performance spaces, a current resurgence in choir singing and more.

You’ve been a long-time visitor to the Convent. Your choir Pagan Angels has rehearsed here nearly every week for almost a decade. Why is the Convent such a great place to rehearse?

Every Thursday night, no matter how chaotic the traffic, I am rejuvenated as I walk into the Convent by this timeless world marked by the aroma of spicy food and blossom. It often inspires an impromptu flash mob performance; singing for the ‘Hogwarts’ bats flying their evening pilgrimage into the sunset, or a creepy verse of ‘Hush’ for the nuns outside the Linen room in the nighttime corridor.

Are there choir members who’ve been involved from the beginning? There must be an incredibly strong sense of community with the group.

We are heading for nine years and I just counted my choir folk this term and I am amazed 50 per cent have been there since day one. We have a laugh at each other’s quirks, we will occasionally share a glass of wine after choir and we have sung for a Pagan Angel wedding. I have heard some are going walking together next April in the central desert. We have always spoken about having a weekend camp but that just might be where it all comes undone! I think it is a healthy ‘family’ as everyone has their own lives but appreciate the group’s specialness.

To celebrate the reopening of our rotunda, you’ll be melding the members of Pagan Angels with Prana Mob, Living Out Loud and Trolls, to create Sue Johnsons Combined Forces. How many will be taking part in the performance?

It will be about 60.

Do you bring groups that big together often?

No. It is a special event. The last time we did a big sing together was on the steps of parliament to make a noise for climate change to mark the UN Nations conference with the SEAM project. But actually, this is special – I have never done it before and all my groups are special, so I want it to be … special.

What can people expect to hear from your super choir Combine Forces on the day? Will you be performing original compositions?

It is a mix – geez I had to think quickly what we could all sing together. The songs we plan to do include celebrating the ‘YES’ vote, roaring up the revolution, singing a lullaby for the planet (an original song with words by Melbourne author Elizabeth Honey) and we thought we’d throw in a death song also to liven things up.

What are some of the challenges of conducting such a large group of performers?

Shutting them up! Literally. It’s ‘so’ Melbourne – everyone knows everyone, and they love a chat. With leading it is no different to small groups if you are in the right head space – it’s a bit like directing traffic – or herding a big group of (very intelligent and talented) sheep.

Your choir Trolls live up to their name by performing under bridges. You’re also a guest leader for the Northcote Carpark Choir. Why have unusual performance spaces been embraced by choirs in recent years?

The Trolls’ favourite venue is under the resonant old bluestone bridge in Murray Road, Coburg at dusk. The joy is in no one driving above the bridge having any idea that music is spilling out below by the babbling river. Passers-by and their dogs get a surprise. We have done many surprise venues and they keep us in the moment completely – connecting with the space and the surrounds.

The rotunda positioned at the base of heritage garden creates a somewhat natural amphitheatre. You’ve previously performed at the rotunda. Tell us why it makes for such a great performance space.

It is a timeless space. We can sink into the music and the beauty around oblivious to the world outside. With all the pre-Christmas craziness buzzing away, I think it is a good time of year to lie on the lawn in this exquisite garden and soak up the music.

Have you noticed a renewed interest in choirs in recent years, both from a participation and appreciation perspective? Why do you think that is?

Yes! When singing for pleasure you can’t think about or do anything else. You are fully in the moment, your body and mind. Science is catching up with reasons why it is so good for us physically and mentally – but as one of my choir members remarked – it’s better than therapy – and cheaper!

Do you have any major choral plans for 2018?

Yes – a desire to film the Combined Forces singing ‘Walk My Own Revolution’ (can anyone help with that?)

See Sue Johnson’s Combined Forces perform with Pasefika Victoria Choir and the Melbourne Georgian Choir at our Rotunda Restoration Celebration on Sunday 10 December, 11am – 1pm, in our heritage gardens.

Credit: Prana Mob photo courtesy of Breena Dunbar and the Victorian Women’s Trust.