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Decibel and the new classicism

Darren Jorgensen: Decibel, The Nature of Sound


Eliane Radigue and Carol Robinson Eliane Radigue and Carol Robinson
photo Vincent Pontet
In commissioning an original composition from French composer Eliane Radigue and her US collaborator Carol Robinson, Perth’s five-piece Decibel has entered the history of experimental music. Radigue’s creations are part of the canon of contemporary music. She was a student of musique concrète in Paris in the 1960s, before branching off to make electronic music that aspired to the state of Tibetan meditation. She did this with a synthesiser, slightly and slowly drifting ethereal sounds alongside each other. In the 21st century she turned for the first time to acoustic instruments, and Decibel’s commission is for one of these ‘sound fantasies’ that make the meditations of her electronic work palpable through live players.

In Decibel’s recent concert, Radigue and Robinson’s OCCAM OCEAN HEXA II was followed by two other commissioned compositions by Lionel Marchetti, a younger French artist who remains dedicated to musique concrète. In Marchetti’s Une Sèrie de Reflets and Première étude (les ombres), players sit next to speakers so that the sound of instruments and recordings becomes indistinct. Sèrie creates a spectacular, loud and brilliant atmosphere from the registers of instrumental and recorded sounds, while Première synchronises recorded and pre-recorded ocarinas, in a virtuosic aural simulation of a forest.

While Marchetti wants to obscure his players with clever, buzzing confusions and atmospheres, the Radigue and Robinson piece allows listeners to tune in to one instrument or another, as wind and acoustic instruments pluck long, ethereal notes from the air. So it was that the concert created a space between tonal intensities and individuating sounds, the mind’s interest in precision washed over by an immersive, atonal atmosphere.

The quality of these original works lies in the way that they turn conceptual gravity into dazzling affectivity, something typical of new and experimental music since the 1960s. While the West Australian Symphony Orchestra is currently playing a program of Bach, Haydn, Mendelssohn and the interminable Mozart, Decibel is forging ahead with a new classical canon, one in which composers like Radigue are central.

Decibel, 2015 Decibel, 2015
photo Holly Jade
The meaning of classicism is however something that many Australian arts organisations have not yet come to understand. For classicism describes a return to the aesthetics of an older period in order to set standards for the present time. Yet ideas of romantic composition like harmony, melody and expression are barely comprehensible in a discordant 21st century, that must look instead to the 1960s for its ideals.

For the 60s was the decade in which anti-war, civil rights, feminism and decolonisation movements changed the cultural landscape, and art reflected these changes. Composers became interested in feedback (Robert Ashley), indeterminacy (John Cage), extended techniques (Meredith Monk) and repetition (Terry Riley), creating a classicism for our contemporary times. In being rigorously conceptual and yet achieving intense sonic affects, composers like Radigue and Marchetti aspire to this classical condition. In the face of Decibel’s venture, classical Australian orchestras need to think through what it means to keep playing golden oldies, when the very material from which music is made has been so radicalised by electronic and recording technologies.


The Nature of Sound, Decibel New Music Ensemble, Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Perth, March 23.

RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016 pg.

© Darren Jorgensen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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