Two Minutes From Home (Decibel new Music, Revelation Perth International Film Festival and the Melbourne Recital Centre)
Still, there’s something satisfying about walking into an actual room, occupied by other bodies, and then sitting within sight of live musicians battling it out with a less-than-ideal sound system (light buzzing in the left side; not quite clear foldback sound for performers to hear what they’re doing), which present a sonic experience that can now occupy an expansive space in the form of both silent fragments suspended in the void , or dense sonic masses.
So Decibel New Music returned to Perth to create the live version of Two minutes from home a series of 20 short works composed in 2020 and presented online in 2021. As Decibel art director Cat Hope later confided to me, while it was uplifting to go online during lockdown, nothing beats getting together in the same physical place to play.
Hope’s intention was to connect with her peers and thus allow space for complexity, if the artists wanted it, but also not to ramp it up too much during this stressful time. All parts of Two minutes from home do not last more than two minutes. They are miniatures, and I must admit that each time I liked one, I was disappointed not to have more. I hope many will be developed into complete works.
The parts in Two minutes from home are also non-thematic, and therefore very diverse in concept or non-musical content. That said, Decibel’s artistic identity is based on the interplay of those acoustic instruments typically used in classicism, namely the flute and double bass (played by Hope), clarinet and saxophone (Lindsay Vickery), cello (Tristan Parr), viola (Aaron Wyatt), piano (Michael Terren) and percussion (including vibraphone and xylophone, played by Louise Devenish). These are opposed to amplified, electronic and/or digital devices (in particular played by Terren, but also the other performers). Non-acoustic devices are treated as instruments in their own right.
Additionally, Decibel is dedicated to using unconventional notations, especially graphic scores. Typesetters write lines, dots, colors, arrows, text, and more painterly images, instead of dots, bars, and staves. The music produced is largely post-atonal, with sharp punctuation, leaps over staves and chords, and shifts between sharp isolated gestures and deep, dark drones. The works are varied, with the use of non-verbal voices and recorded speech particularly standing out as relatively rare interjections in a general feeling of “music after everybody’s had enough of Schoenberg”. The concert certainly jumps, but not as much as the presence of 20 different composers might lead one to believe.
The other key ingredient is the visual accompaniment, coordinated and adapted by Karl Ockelford. The films shown during the works are taken from the patented Decibel score-player software application, which takes scans and renderings of visual scores and animates them in a decorative frame, either by rolling from right to left (the public and the musicians read left to right), or top to bottom.
In many cases, however, the audience doesn’t quite see what the players are reacting to; a conceptual weakness in my opinion. In Mullerfor example, composer and Decibel member Lindsay Vickery asks his peers to use black, redacted material from Robert Mueller’s Inquiry into the Misdeeds of Donald Trump as the notes they will play. But what the public sees are the pages of the report itself, not the sheet music used by the performers.
The link between vision and sound is therefore unequal. Sometimes the abstract, not entirely decipherable aspect of this relationship is extremely seductive. Haruka Hirayama’s last track, Yuki Tsumotta, is a beautifully playful piece brought to life by the sounds of breath and gently unfolding as we watch Japanese characters set against a quietly dynamic cloudscape with an eclipsed sun at its center. The slightly heavy registered version is entirely different from the wonderful live version. Once Hirayama’s delicate utterances are placed within the vast sonic realm of the live room, the piece exhibits an alluring, sweet sense of subtlety and suspended, precise tones that the recording cannot compete with. Nevertheless, this opaque relationship between vision and sound is sometimes troublesome.
Whatever his tastes, it is indeed a concert of musicwhich is then accompanied by a film projection.
The very tight integration of projection and sound that David Young achieved in his skin quartet (2003) and Val Camonica (2004) is not present here. Young offered a surprisingly consistent and easy translation of abstract forms into music, and audiences saw exactly the same material used by musicians as sheet music. Even so, Young defined his abstract score forms and notation on otherwise conventional staves and lines, thus defining the possible notes quite exactly, which Decibel composers generally do not.
Decibel employees therefore offer more freedom to their interpreters. Indeed, Marina Rosenfeld’s score is a diatribe against the very idea that composers dictate anything to musicians – something that is not easy to play accurately – which is more interesting to see live, where only the text appears on screen, in all its glory. irony, and the musicians are visually separated from the material they have to perform.
Whichever way you read these works, it is a large collection of pieces with simply too many highlights to discuss in detail.
It was, for example, great to see electroacoustic composer Lionel Marchetti try his hand at writing notes, albeit in his wonderfully rough hand on beautifully textured, torn and glued paper: a fine spindly study (again, very different in live version, where the acoustic instrumentation was much more prominent.
It was also satisfying to see Decibel member Stuart James come up with a loud electronic bass drone which even rivaled Hope’s, ironic given that most of Hope’s compositions focus on subsonic bass noise. James’ work was also impossible to appreciate without a sound system such as the one offered in the live room. Computer speakers will not suffice.
My final pick was Amanda Stewart’s non-verbal stochastic poem in which she sang/sung alphabet letters along with brief poetic interjections, which the live musicians then augmented: a lovely combination of concrete poetry and accents musical (the live version having a much richer, warmer sound than the slightly cold online version.
Two minutes from home shows both how creative you can be in lockdown, but also why it’s so good to be outside. We are all praying for it to last.
Decibel New Music Ensemble’s Two minutes from home was presented by the Revelation Perth International Film Festival and the Melbourne Recital Center on July 11 and 26, 2022.