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January 23, 2017

Remembering the aliens among us

The legend and legacy of David Bowie lives on even though the man has gone, and this February it will be channelled through the instruments of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

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  • Words: Anthony Nocera
  • Pictures: Robert Catto

The thing about dying is that it’s dreadfully human. So when a man who made himself superhuman dies, it’s a shock.

In an essay for Kill Your Darlings, Gillian Terzis wrote that in our era of constant connection “grief has become a viral phenomenon”. Death trends.


Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in association with Adelaide Festival Centre presents  David Bowie: Nothing Has Changed (a Sydney Symphony Orchestra Production) on February 16 and 17 at the Festival Theatre.

This was certainly the case with the death of David Bowie. News of his passing felt palpable, inescapable and was made all the more difficult by each tribute feeling as though it lacked nuance. Not because they weren’t genuine, but because of the fierce individuality of Bowie as an artist, and the personal, almost superhuman, way in which his fans engaged with his work.

This notion of all-encompassing individuality was a central challenge in the creation of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s new tribute show, David Bowie: Nothing Has Changed.

According to creative director Amanda Pelman, the key to doing Bowie justice is to embrace his complexity.

“I was slightly reticent at first,” she says. “How do you do this? How do you start interpreting Bowie with validity and with respect? I said that we can only do it with a series of artists who had a compassion for his music and had been influenced by him throughout their careers but were in no way going to imitate him.”

“How do you start interpreting Bowie with validity and with respect?” — Amanda Pelman

The show, which has been touring nationally with different orchestras, features features performers iOTA, Tim Rogers, Steve Kilbey, Deborah Conway, and Adalita, each presenting their own individual take on Bowie.

For Adalita, singer-songwriter and former vocalist of Magic Dirt, the show is particularly personal.

“He was so influential. I was listening to him from a very young age,” she says. “One of my most treasured and old beat-up cassettes was a collection of David Bowie’s hits, it was a compilation that I just played over and over again. I’ve loved him ever since I can remember.

“I liked how he was always changing and he was unique. He just did things his way. I think he would’ve liked us to bring our own thing to it, you know? I think we’re doing the right thing. There are so many ways to pay tribute, but I think just rocking out is the right way.”

Each performer is backed by a forty-nine-piece orchestra, which naturally blends with the contemporary sounds of Bowie’s music.

“If you go and listen really intently to a large portion of Bowie’s work there’s a lot of orchestral arrangement in there that goes unnoticed to the everyday ear if you’re listening with a pop sensibility. His music was amazingly orchestral,” says Amanda.

The melding of rock and classical isn’t just restricted to the sonic elements of the show, but also extends to the audience’s experience.

Bowie 2 (c) - Bowie mural by James Cochran (Jimmy. C)

An iconic image of an iconic man. Mural by James Cochran (Jimmy C)

“At our last show, there was this very big gap between these orchestra subscriber types and then there was this five-year-old kid just running down the isle having a great time,” says Amanda. “It gets people up and dancing. Even though people are hearing the remarkable strains of an orchestra, it’s a rock show as well.”

For the Orchestra itself, shows like this not only represent a chance to pay tribute to one of the greats but also reinvent their own image as they shift from the usual classical fare to presenting more original and contemporary works.

“What’s interesting now is that we’re getting in towards the 2020s and we can look back on something like the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s with a fifty-year history, and have a look at how music has been created, mimicked and renovated from what was popular fifty years ago,” says Amanda. “And that’s not so different to what orchestra’s normally play. It’s exciting.”

Following sold-out runs in Sydney and Melbourne, Adalita says that fans should come prepared to let loose at the Adelaide show.

“There’s so much emotion in the night … there are people crying and then they’re getting up and dancing and just having a ball,” she says.

“We encourage people to really express themselves, which I think is so great for this kind of tribute. For Bowie. There’s a lot of love flowing between performer and crowd.”

David Bowie: Nothing Has Changed promises not only to be a magical musical experience, but a chance to grieve the right way, through remembering Bowie and the immortal art he created, whatever that means to you.

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