Decibel New Music Ensemble: 2 Minutes from Home

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Written by: Cat Hope

The Artistic Director of Decibel new music ensemble Cat Hope writes about the group’s project to commission 20 x  2 minute works as audio visual outcomes during 2020,  including  composers’ reflections on the  first three works to date.

Decibel new music ensemble is a six-piece new music ensemble that focuses on the integration of acoustic and electronic instruments in chamber music performance. This has seen over 100 concert programs featuring newly commissioned works from formally trained composers as well as pop musicians, sound and visual artists, and a focus on the interpretation of graphic notation. Decibel have commissioned over 90 new works since they began in Western Australia in 2009.

Decibel new music ensemble. Photo Zal Kanga-Prabia

Decibel has had members split across Perth and Melbourne since 2017. However, we managed to keep making music together through carefully planned visits to each city, residencies and touring. But like all Australian independent musicians, Decibel saw their 2020 concert activity cancelled or postponed as the COVID 19 pandemic evolved. We met online to discuss what next – and came up with the “2 Minutes from Home” concept – reaching out to artists we had worked with in the past to create new works for an online environment. Not only did we want to keep working together in some way, we felt it was an important time to reach out to our community of artists – here in Australia but also further afield. We had been in touch with many of them, hearing stories of how their lives had been turned upside down. The idea was whilst supporting them in some small way, we could continue to make work together, and keep the Decibel collaboration alive over what would otherwise be an indeterminate length of time without making work together.

These 20, 2-minute pieces would mean there would be a new work every two weeks for the second half of 2020, tracing the artists’ experience of the pandemic. We decided to make use of the Decibel ScorePlayer and iPad application we created to facilitate the coordinated performance of graphic notations. Each composer would be asked to make a piece to be read in the ScorePlayer app, which puts their score in motion to be read by the performers. An online outcome enables an exploration of the relationship of performance and notation for the ‘viewer’ – without the live element, where the experience is more distilled. We commissioned video artist Karl Ockelford to make bespoke videos featuring the performances and score for each piece, using the concept for each work in conjunction with the aesthetic of the score to inform the layout design. Decibel member Stuart James masters the audio recordings at the Soundfield Studio.

The Decibel ScorePlayer enables audio to be embedded into the score, meaning the composers could ‘play along’ with us inside the score. Each work is made remotely, with each member performing – and filming – their performance from their own home.  Audio on an audio recorder, film on our mobile phones. All contact with the composer is over email. Each work is accompanied by a short podcast, designed like an off the cuff, after-concert interview with each composer, discussing the piece and the situation in their own unique location.

To date, three of the twenty have been completed, and a wide range of music and experience has emerged already. We began with a piece by Decibel percussionist Louise Devenish, Taut.

Louise Devenish TAUT – screenshot of video

This work is for six noodle bowls, chosen by Devenish because she was sure that was one percussive item we would all have at home. She was right. One reason we made the works so short was to keep the expectations on composers manageable in what may well be a difficult period for them, and Devenish found  that “the project feels manageable in the context of working from home, not having access to venues, or in my case, not having access to instruments”. For others, this shorter length was a challenge, having found themselves with plenty of time, and used to working in much more extended formats. Both Daniel Thorpe and Lionel Marchetti found the isolation period enriching for their practice, with Thorpe commenting that “it’s been a great time for my artist practice” and Marchetti noting this as a “very active period” in his creative life.

South Australian composer and pianist Daniel Thorpe created a work entitled none of this is useful after midnight, inspired by the strangeness of late nights in isolation.

He had worked remotely with Decibel before, composing a piece for Decibel’s Electronic Concerto program in Perth during the 2017 Totally Huge New Music Festival. The score uses vibrant colours and snippets of conventional notation to create an atmospheric and eerie personal journey.

Daniel Thorpe: ‘none of this is helpful after midnight’

French music concrete artist Lionel Marchetti noted that the close working relationship developed with Decibel during his visit to Australia last year assisted him in developing this work remotely, commenting that ”after working with you last year, I have in my mind what you are all able to do”. Decibel had commissioned six pieces from Marchetti, all put together without the composer present, resulting in an album of work on Room 40, The Last Days of Reality. Marchetti works without notation, a fixed audio part providing a foundation for an intuitive compositional process with the acoustic instrumentalists.

Marchetti moved his studio into his home when hearing France would be going into lockdown. The family piano assisted in creating his first notated piece La Patience for our project, noting how the short length helped: “It was possible to compose two or three notations on the piano … working well with my sounds”. The result is a beautiful, ambient work, the video mirroring his working with pen and paper.

Lionel Marchetti: ‘La Patience’ – screenshot of video

We came up with the idea for 2 Minutes from Home shortly after Western Australia closed its border to the rest of Australia. The future was very uncertain then, and it seems even moreso now. Looking at the research emerging about wind instruments and their ability to spread the virus makes me glad we are doing this in our homes. This project is one that will track these times, evolving and shaped by what this uncertain future brings for our composers.

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The list of upcoming works for the 2 Minutes from Home project can be found here. The works come out every other Friday, and can be found on our Vimeo, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter channels.

2 Minutes from Home is supported by the Australia Council for the Arts ‘Create’ Fund.


Author

Cat Hope is the Artistic Director, Decibel New Music Ensemble and Professor of Music at Monash University.

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