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Decibel, Tape It! Decibel, Tape It!
photo Ian Henderson
I’M SITTING AT A DESK, SYNCHING MY COMPUTER’S CD PLAYBACK INTO A PAIR OF STUDIO REFERENCE SPEAKERS WITH A GLOWING, INDISTINCT IMAGE OF A TV MONITOR PLAYING BACK A SEPARATE DVD OF THE SAME LIVE PERFORMANCE. NEARLY TWO MONTHS AFTER DECIBEL PREMIERED AT PERTH’S TOTALLY HUGE FESTIVAL THIS SEEMS A PERVERSELY APPROPRIATE MANNER IN WHICH TO REVIEW A NEW ENSEMBLE DEVOTED TO EXPLORING MEDIATED MUSICS AND PLAYBACK DEVICES AS INSTRUMENTS. ALVIN LUCIER WOULD BE PROUD (“I’M SITTING IN A ROOM...”).

Decibel is the brainchild of Cat Hope, and the first performance, Tape It!, offered a veritable hit parade of the Perth sound scene: reed-instrumentalist and MAX-patch master Lindsay Vickery, sound designing legend Rob Muir, art-and-rock-crossover cellist Tristan Parr, as well as Malcolm Riddoch, Stuart James and Dan Russell. A diversity of acoustic instruments combined with—or in some instances vied for attention with—assorted electromagnetic and digital sound reproduction technologies (laptops, reel-to-reel tape-players, guitar amplifiers, speakers, portable cassette-players, turntables etc).

The devices and the performers were variously positioned about the auditorium in order to install the works in various ways, and even in the stereo format in which I accessed this performance after the event, the complexity of spatial effects was impressive. Effects of proximity and distance (William Burroughs’ viral radio montages), focussed presence (especially in Mauricio Kagel’s Prima Vista) and ambiguous distance, all enlivened the performance. Broadly, the program tended to shimmer and shift, to grow but rarely arrest or conclude, producing a wonderfully affective series of effects in which musical resolution was alluded to but deliberately avoided.

Hope’s choice of materials, varying from new works of her own and those of Vickery, Warren Burt and Daniel Thorne, through to adaptations of extant pieces by Kagel, Burroughs and Brian Eno, highlighted composers who exploited elements of indeterminacy, collaborative composition, open works and imprecise, impressionist effects. Far from the rigorous precision of post-Serialist composition by the likes of Brian Ferneyhough, Hope’s contention would seem to be that playback devices are best utilised within more rules-based compositions and performative models.

Indeed, several of the pieces featured live projection of graphic or rules-based scores, suggesting an equivalence between this mode of notation and the tape loops employed elsewhere. This was most evident in Althoff’s Front Row, where the looped sounds on cassette are, as the program note explains, intended to act “as a kind of notation”—here scoring a duel of toys and their sounds. Thorne’s contribution was the odd one out in this sense with his tendency to employ urgent string refrains suggesting a quasi-Romantic set of emotional tensions and attempted musical resolutions which other artists eschewed.

Decibel, Tape It! Decibel, Tape It!
photo Ian Henderson
Tape It! represented not just an argument in favour of playback machines as instruments—a contentious if not altogether novel concept—but also a coupling of this idea with a specific aesthetic vision of what emerges from the pre-recorded and the acoustic. Hope’s thesis was, in this sense, counter-intuitive but persuasive: that the use of recorded or programmed material produces a greater diversity of only partially predictable outcomes, rather than necessarily supporting closed-off, formal processes of scoring like dots and lines, which have largely tended towards the construction of ever more predetermined outcomes.

Whilst the sonic palette on offer was unambiguously contemporary—the bursts of ringing noise which characterised Decibel’s interpretation of Burroughs, the rapid attacks and micro-gestural acoustic instrumental flourishes of Kagel and Vickery, Hope’s own acoustic drones, the fragmentation of conventional tonality without the imposition of a new over-arching logic such as Schoenberg insisted upon within Serialism, digital glitch, slide and process by Hope, Vickery and Eno, radiophonic sampling by Althoff and Burroughs—the performative logic employed overall by Decibel suggested the present bleeding back into history.

If the much prized staves and points of Western composition from the 18th to mid 20th centuries represented nothing more than an earlier form of “recording” or “playback” technology—the live performer as CD player—then contemporary electromagnetic devices are different from pre-modern ones in character, but not in nature.

In enacting this acoustic, electromechanical cyberneticisation of player and machine, Decibel’s program effected a curious kind of displacement. Despite the spatialisations of Hope, Muir and their collaborators, the sounds seemed strangely unfixed and placeless. Instruments seemed to echo and scratch (notably Kagel), but not sing or voice. There was a kind of materialism to these compositions which simultaneously rendered them as effervescent or impossible to locate metaphorically. Burroughs’ citation of the ever mobile mediascape and Eno’s Music For Airports were paradigmatic here in their articulation of a metaphoric, global or alien non-place.

One cannot and indeed should not reduce Decibel’s multifarious program or explorations to a single effect of what I will here call “aetherisation.” Kagel’s more emphatically theatrical use of the instruments, or Burt’s totally beguiling idea of something which is both ‘noise’ and lulling, suggest a range of processes and moods which are not easily amalgamated under a single affective model or critical paradigm. Decibel is, at least at this point, not about defining or demagogically fixing a unified approach to sound, music, playback and performance. It remains an open project, an exploration.

Nevertheless these trends and arguments over what happened after Serialism, following Cage’s celebration of chance, or what should be occurring in the wake of the rise of electronic composition and noise art as legitimate forms—all of these much debated controversies interact here to produce a number of tensions which Hope’s programming effectively exploits. It was therefore not only musical irresolution which acted as the concert’s dominant motif, but of musical history itself. Indeed, Althoff went so far as to quote the same trains sampled in Pierre Schaeffer’s landmark Étude Aux Chemins De Fer (1948) within his own contribution, driving home the historicist nature of a project such as this.

Hope and her peers (and here I would include Anthony Pateras as striving towards a similar model in his compositions and in his collaborations with Robin Fox) continue to argue that noise art, concrete approaches to sound and to the sample, together with instrumental composition, graphic scores and rules-based ideas, are not incompatible. Whilst there is no doubt that all of these methods productively animated Decibel’s performance, it remains to be seen if they are truly compatible, or should rather be seen as parallel trends which may be employed in conflicted tandem. Just as Cat Hope’s own approach favours the unresolved, so the combination of ideas and processes here might favour an endless, irresolvable dialogue, rather than a new condition of musical interpretation.


Decibel, Tape It!, director, performer Cat Hope, performers, collaborators Lindsay Vickery, Stuart James, Malcolm Riddoch, Rob Muir, Tristan Parr, Dan Russell; West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Music Auditorium, Totally Huge New Music Festival, Sept 10, http://decibel.waapamusic.com/; http://www.tura.com.au/

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 49

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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