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canaries in electric rain

darren jorgensen: decibel, small things

Small Things, Decibel Small Things, Decibel
photo Brad Serls

Decibel arrive on stage with all of the formalities of a chamber orchestra, wearing funereal suits and gazing seriously at scores unrolling on an array of networked laptops. Into this quiet, conservative atmosphere they work with the quirky edges of new music, each piece holding a surprise within it that turns the conservatism of composition on its head.

In Agostino Di Scipio’s Texture/Residue the musicians play without playing, tapping their fingers on the instruments without blowing or drawing a bow. Here lies the awkward moment that Decibel are working with, as we expect to hear the harmonies of instruments working together but are instead confronted by a tapping of fingers on cello, flute, saxophone and the like.

At some point being amused by the piece turns into a fascinating experiment in listening to what you usually deign not to hear. Instrumental sound is also the sound of the materiality of the instrument, a materiality that is here attacked vigorously by the fingers of the players, building to an anxious and beautiful texture of sound.

Liminum, by the outfit’s artistic director Cat Hope, is a brilliantly didactic example of what Decibel is interested in doing—colliding electronic and instrumental sounds, as if in a centrifuge. Here instruments imitate a distorted electronic sound, as if taken from a horror film soundtrack. There is a dark ambience at work here, as the instruments are required to remain at the pace and tone of the sound, never rising or falling to the registers they are capable of. This is Decibel at their most interesting, as electronic and instrumental sounds flesh themselves out in relation to each other, here beginning to sound positively industrial as a violin twists through the amplification of pedals.

Such experiments are symptomatic of the kind of awkward and fascinating fit that Decibel create, in compositions that sometimes generate harmony but often highlight the ways that sounds can slide and grate against each other. In Liminum, it is as if some bulbous creature is trying to order a drink in a bar but cannot make itself understood. Amid such experiments the standout instrument of the concert became the piano—ably played by Stuart James—pulling many of these sounds together just as they were moving in different directions. The piano also tied much of the concert to sounds that resembled those from a 1980s horror movie. A new work by Australian wunderkind Anthony Pateras, commissioned by Decibel, also had a haunting feeling to it, as did an atmospheric, moody composition by Perth’s Joe Stawarz.

The highlight of these horror themed pieces was JG Thirwell’s Canaries in the Mineshaft/Edison Medicine from his Manorexia project. Thirwell is better known for the brashness of Foetus, but like many rock musicians, discovered that he was also good at composing music. Innovatively combining the sound of a skipping CD, a record player and baby accordion, Thirwell’s composition offered a chance for the ensemble to show off what they are really good at, as different angles of musicality were thrown together in a series of distortions that built to sublime cacophony.

To throw the whole concert into a different register, a final, happier piece by Bohren and der Club of Gore called up images from a moody 1970s conspiracy film. Old cars in traffic and a recording of rain combined in one of those mixed up combinations that kept the concert attuned to the Decibel concept, while pushing its continuity.

Such disruptions make for a lively Decibel concert as short pieces try out different ideas, throwing sounds together and pulling them apart again. This gives their performances a freshness that can transform into a nervous disposition, as an audience waits for an irruption of new sounds. In a traditional concert setting, where everything is prim and proper, this could well be fatal to an experience of the music. Such discomfort provides however the perfect atmosphere to experience the uncertainty that comes out of collisions between one type of sound and another.

Decibel, Small Things: Decibel performers Cat Hope, Stuart James, Tristen Parr, Malcolm Riddoch, Lindsay Vickery, Aaron Wyatt, Callum Moncrieff, Perth Concert Hall, May 28

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 48

© Darren Jorgensen; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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