The audible & the invisible

Zsuzsanna Soboslay: Decibel New Music Ensemble, After Julia

Members of Decibel perform Michaela Davies' Goldfish Variation, After Julia concert

Members of Decibel perform Michaela Davies’ Goldfish Variation, After Julia concert

Members of Decibel perform Michaela Davies’ Goldfish Variation, After Julia concert


Live concert events are theatrical, in that the kinetic presence of performers always invites some degree of visceral engagement from an audience. Whereas what we expect to see and hear from performance ensembles can be disrupted by the addition or subtraction of instruments, electronica per se also brings in invisible elements which can charge and redefine what we experience in new ways.

After Julia, works by women composers commissioned by the artistic director of the Decibel acoustic and electronica ensemble, Cat Hope, centres on the Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard and the discrimination to which she was subjected. Hope offered seven composers the opportunity to ‘give voice’ to their responses to this aspect of her term in office. Here, the parallels and interplay between visible and invisible, spoken and unspoken or muted forces at play, both politically and musically, were appropriately matched.

Gail Priest takes as starting point Gillard’s “everything and nothing” speech, turning the letters of her statement into a melodic line via simple MIDI transcription. Alto flute opens with a phrase of simple stepped notes, the piece becoming an imitative fugue first on clarinet, then strings. Cello and violin lengthen the first note of the phrase, allowing flute and clarinet to return—like some of Gillard’s detractors—with petty, trill undercuttings. The vibraphone builds turbulence until the overall melodic contour reaches a distressed high ‘b.’ The piece comes to a sudden stop: as in politics, endings can be short and sharp.

Thembi Soddell’s Your Sickness is Felt in my Body is inspired by studies published in 1995 on the physical and psychiatric effects of sexism on the female body. A scratchy ‘ill wind’ blows through flute and clarinet bores. Tonalities begin to widen between instruments; interventions from electronica prompt clarinet protests and squeals. A wire brush scrapes and irritates the bass drum; when assertive white mallets begin to strike, we finally see an overt source of pressure that builds and builds.

A crescendo peak falls back into a thin, tight, scraping. What caused this neurotic interlude? Who was responsible? It is perhaps in Soddell’s piece that the power of the ‘invisible forces’ of sexism—what Gillard calls “the small things that all add up”—is given strongest illustration.

Cat Hope’s Tough It Out begins in a sonic charting of the popularity ratings of national leaders over the past 20 years. String glissandi illustrate the rise and fall of polled ratings. Via headphones, the composer directs ‘interruptions’ inciting disruptions to the performance. The clarinettist coughs, splutters, shifts and stands; the violinist dislocates the cellist’s score; the clarinettist plays the back-end of his own bore. The piece ends with whispers ‘in a corridor.’ Who was in charge anyway? Gillard, a guest of the evening, quipped in a mid-concert interview, “I hope they are still talking to each other.”

Cathy Milliken’s Schifrorl opens with flute signalling a standard ‘homing cadence’ of V (dominant) rising to 1 (tonic) in a plaintive and slightly melancholic song. The flute fans open to a fugue with clarinet until a surprise mallet drops onto the kettle drum. Then, more ambiguous and disrupted cadences follow. Hammered piano chords are countered by slides on the cello. This is unstable ground.

Milliken’s piece is the least programmatic overall. Its textural contrasts—rattles, rolls, chips and gliss that thicken and thin—insinuate rather than illustrate a ‘court of intrigue.’ Which of the instruments—or who, or what—really holds power? Its closing stage brings a hint of ‘ill wind’ in its almost hurdy-gurdy sounds. Three harmonicas rasp and etch against a single piano bass note, and finish with an invisible yet audible and unnerving electronic thrum.

The presence of a goldfish in Michaela Davies’ Variation was a refreshing device but incompletely realised. Two musicians sit facing each other, a bowled goldfish placed on a plinth between them. What follows is an earnest, if timid, rendition-in-voice of the fish’s movement ‘score’. When the fish gets sleepy, vocalisations wane, until the whole is enlivened when a pinch of fish-food is dropped into the bowl.

While fish and bowl serve as a nice metaphor for the politician exposed to constant scrutiny of her every move, the piece would have benefited from more stringent dramaturgy. There is room for a much more dynamic engagement between fish, voice and singers’ bodies to amplify the absurdity of relentless scrutiny, small-minded commentary (small voices) and the hyperbole to which public lives are subject. The space per se, pared back to two + fish performers, cried out for this degree of theatricality. For instance I would have loved an extended extempore ‘melisma of the tail.’

Kate Moore provides an oracular poem to accompany her piece Oil Drums. Cross rhythms between piano and violin suggest tribal antagonisms. I picture battles in vast desert landscapes, shattered horizons, the incendiary threat to a vulnerable oil commodity. There is more than a hint of global economic, political and climactic pressures impinging on local concerns.

I’ve never heard a high ostinato before but the keyboards play it, high-flying sand blinding the air. This is a contemporary Apocalypse Now, both reminiscence and foreboding, wondering at the place of non-partisan decision-making that perhaps makes it Moore’s statement rather than one Gillard would have made.

The sound balance is unsatisfying, therefore it is quite hard to distinguish the interweaving of electronic against acoustic tonalities. It was an ‘I-could-have-heard-but-didn’t’ event. The final phrases, however, do seem to express the heroic in the career path of those ‘called to serve.’

Andree Greenwell’s Arrows I and II show the composer’s passionate belief in harnessing the expressive power of music to highlight both noble and mean-minded sentiments and reveal moral pressure points. Six young women, dressed in black, enter and line up behind microphones. There is a soloist and choir of three citing Gillard’s Prime Ministerial acceptance speech in a melodic sprechgesang, while the youngest two bark aggressive invectives such as those levelled at Gillard during her incumbency (‘bitch,’ ‘cow,’ ‘liar’). It is powerful to have the invectives delivered by the young. How conscious or unconscious is misogyny? Bowed vibes provide a high sharp note, leaving an ironic question hanging in the air: Why?

Arrows II is composed to a poem by playwright Hilary Bell. Greenwell provides sweet melodic anchors to counterpoint these sharp ethical questions, echoing Bell’s lyrics about ‘little arrows with poison tips,’ hinting at slow death by invisible forces. The ire and fire of politics. From the mouths of babes.

After Julia, Decibel New Music Ensemble [Cat Hope, Lindsey Vickery, Stuart James, Tristen Parr, Aaron Wyatt, Louise Devenish], vocals Helen Grimely, Sonya Holowell, Poppy Duwenbeck, Helen Hughson, Nicola James, Minna McLure; ABC Classic FM, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Ultimo Centre, Sydney, Nov 8

RealTime issue #124 Dec-Jan 2014 pg. 50

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

5 December 2014