Vocal heroes - Issue 90 - Magazine | Monocle

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“In the song ‘I Still Call Australia Home’, Peter Allen wrote about a sense of belonging,” says Olivia Wirth, group executive for brand, marketing and corporate affairs at Qantas. “The song has become a second national anthem for Australians and the anthem for the airline. Our ad campaigns featuring choirs singing it have been a phenomenal success. It has long been a part of who Qantas are and always will be.”

Screened on Australian and international television for nearly two decades (and on Qantas planes too), the combination of singer-songwriter Peter Allen’s rousing lyrics and the imagery of children dotted around iconic locations singing of their affection for their homeland has become one of Australia’s most recognised and loved campaigns. The advertisements, first screened in 1998, were produced by Australian advertising agency Mojo and subsequent versions were made in 2004 and 2009. The idea is said to have come from the top: legend has it that then deputy chief executive of Qantas, Geoff Dixon, saw the choirs perform at Sydney’s annual Christmas Carols in the Domain concert and called the agency to suggest they represent the airline in its new campaign.

Swiftly, the composer Les Gock of Soundthinking and Design in Sydney was seconded to work on the arrangement of the piece. “Geoff, having spent his career until then marketing Australian airlines, had long had the idea of using the song to sell plane tickets,” says Gock, who has arranged the music for all three versions of the concept.

“Straight away my sense was that we’d have to forego all pop sensibility,” he adds. “We couldn’t even attempt to be hip. Instead, we’d need to approach the music as a de facto national anthem. With the emotion of the song, combined with the innocence of the kids and the sweeping panoramic shots of spectacular locations, we showcased Australia’s grandeur – making the whole campaign anthemic, which managed to evoke national pride.”

Australians collectively refer to the campaign as “the Qantas ads”: the emotive two-minute love letters to home have become part of the national psyche. Even the most hardened frequent flyers become misty-eyed as the entertainment system of their homeward-bound Qantas jet screens the ad and the song is piped through the PA system. Gock says the tugging of heartstrings was always the brief. “The ad industry likes things hip but this was the opposite,” he says. “Working with our de facto national anthem means treating it with respect. The public loved it because it had a strong emotional hook but it was resisted by a lot of creatives. They have, however, softened over time because of its impact.”

The initial shoots took the Melbourne-based National Boys Choir and the Australian Girls Choirs to Australia’s most famed locations to sing: feet planted in the sand on an island of the Great Barrier Reef; playing ring-a-ring-a-roses around a boab tree in the red earth of the desert; and frolicking along the base of Uluru. They also went abroad to Qantas’s key destinations.

The most recent version of the campaign opens with children from the Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir, led by Sydney-based artistic director Lyn Williams. The choir sings a verse of the song in Kala Lagaw Ya, a little-known indigenous language from the Torres Strait Islands, arranged specially for the third version of the commercial. Gock says updates like this have increased the concept’s longevity. “When you rehash a familiar or beloved song people still want to hear it the same way. You can’t do anything too whacky lest people are offended and think you are attacking their anthem,” he says. “Incorporating an indigenous verse was important and the Gondwana kids were absolutely gorgeous to work with.”

The “Gondwana kids” now sing regularly to welcome official guests to Australia. More than 25 years ago Williams decided to build a choir comprising children aged 10 to 16 years. That became the Sydney Children’s Choir and the outfit has since grown to include more than 20 ensembles for children with more than 1,000 children across the groups, including The Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir.

The choirs, under the Gondwana Voices umbrella, are based at Sydney’s prestigious arts precinct The Wharf and count Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Dance Company and Bangarra Dance Theatre as neighbours. Their performances now stretch beyond state functions but the organisation remains a not-for-profit entity, funded through a combination of local, state and federal-government money and private and corporate philanthropy. Mining conglomerate Rio Tinto is the principal partner, bankrolling much of their travel.

Williams is a prolific commissioner of new work, the catalyst for more than 200 original Australian compositions during her tenure. The most recent is a new composition by Felix Riebl, lead singer of jazz maverick The Cat Empire, which has seen the children travelling to the red earth of the Pilbara region of  Western Australia. “Our aim with the Gondwana choirs has always been to seek out young Australian people who would otherwise have no access to music education,” she says. “The choirs provide the opportunity to be part of the creation of new artistic work – to perform, to travel and to represent their country. That is not something they take for granted.”

"I Still Call Australia Home"

The lyrics

No matter where in the world they are – and they’re pretty much everywhere – Australians can conjure up the old country with Peter Allen’s ditty. Channeling a communal patriotism free of bombast, at home it brings a lump to the throat and abroad moistens the eye of even the wildest colonial boys and girls.

I’ve been to cities that never close down,
From New York to Rio and old London town,
But no matter how far or how wide I roam,
I still call Australia home.

I’m always travelling, I love being free,
And so I keep leaving the sun and the sea,
But my heart lies waiting over the foam,
I still call Australia home.

All Nippon Airways (ANA)

ANA has played its theme tune “Another Sky” aboard its aircraft since 2002, when Japanese violinist Taro Hakase composed and recorded the music for the airline’s 50th anniversary.

Conceived specifically to mark that milestone, the song is now the company’s musical signature and is only the third time the airline has had an anthem since the mid-1970s. It is now repeated more than 6,700 a week for an audience of hundreds on each occasion. Some passengers liked it so much they asked ANA to make it available on CD – and the company duly obliged.

Norihiro Kawate, ANA’s director of brand strategy, remembers talking to the composer about the concept. “It was a tough period for our company,” he says. “The 11 September terrorist attacks had just happened in the US and in Japan the airline industry was consolidating. We wanted to show thanks to our customers for 50 years of support and to convey our desire to reach new heights and expand on our overseas routes. As I was explaining this to Hakase he was already drawing the five lines of a stave and writing down the notes of the song.”

Roppongi Hills

This gargantuan office and retail space opened with an aural surprise: a theme song composed specially for the building by much-admired Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto. He was called on by developer Mori Building to create a theme for what was designed to be a city in microcosm, complete with homes, rooftop gardens and millions of people passing in and out. His upbeat “The Land Song – Music for Artelligent City” was the result.

“I expressed the sharp, forward-looking character of Roppongi Hills through the drum arrangement and also tried to make it friendly to everyone, with a melody that goes on top,” says Sakamoto. His diverse choice of instruments, including a tin whistle, a Japanese hichiriki (a double-reed flute) and an accordion was intended to represent the different cultural backgrounds of people who would come to Roppongi Hills. Mori later invited influential music producer Hiroshi Fujiwara to come up with a tune for its Omotesando Hills development. His spartan track had just the right amount of edge to complement architect Tadao Ando’s work.

Developers in Japan think of every incidental detail, from a building’s smell to its lighting, so it’s no surprise they want to give sound to their structures too.

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