The composer is a curious character in the theatre of the twenty-first century. For one thing, he or she is rare: seldom does the new acquaintance introduce themselves as a composer, even if they do write music. Meanwhile, the composer has no obvious outlet, beyond appending themselves to another discipline – one can compose for film, for video games, for jingles, but dedicated presentations of new composers’ pieces are increasingly elusive. For a third thing, “composition” bucks all the current tendencies of cultural production and consumption: it’s time consuming, it’s tricky to mass-distribute, it’s difficult to replicate. For all its innovation and modernity, contemporary composition remains antithetical to the quick-fix experiences offered by social media and digital entertainment. From conception to transmission to digestion, it’s an extended process.
Thank goodness for organizations like Tura New Music who furiously carve out a space for composition to endure. At once welcoming and uncompromising, the organisation puts experimental and contemporary classical composition in the thick of things, refusing to let these styles slip into the esoteric nooks and crannies of Perth’s culture. Tonight, we’re literally in the centre of Perth Cultural Centre, upstairs at PICA in the West End Gallery, where WA Composers have been undertaking a ten-day residency prior to two concerts in which they’ll present the fruits of their labours. Tonight heralds the first one.
We wind up the spiral staircase and settle in the white prism of a room. Decibel – a slightly amorphous group led by Cat Hope and almost always featuring regulars Lindsay Vickery, Tristan Parr, Stuart James and Aaron Wyatt – are tonight joined by Paul Tanner on percussion and piano. They take their positions as the light dims and, after a minor false start, ease into HENRY ANDERSON’s piece ‘Resident Frequencies.’
It’s a work driven by the idea and impossibility of silence, a work that finds music in what would normally be considered sonic negative space. A recording has been prepared of the “silence” inside PICA; this recording has then been replayed in the space and re-recorded, over and over, in a strange process of layering near-nothingness, reminiscent of Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting In A Room” or indeed of conceptual artist Ian Burn’s “Xerox Book” in which he photocopied a blank piece of paper 100 times and ended up with visible black forms. The real intrigue here, though, arises from Anderson’s analysis of the prominent frequencies emerging in the recording, which – having been given a pre-recorded exposition – are passed on to live instruments. It implies a ghostly presence of inaudible music in even the quietest of spaces, of the titular resident frequencies that surround us without our knowing (interestingly, Anderson’s been overseas, so in one way, the frequencies almost exist in lieu of the composer during this “residency”). It’s a wonderfully accomplished translation of concept into listening experience, laying out its elements and providing ample space for contemplation.
Up next is JOHANNES LUEBBERS’ “The Past Is Never Far Behind,” which delves into rhythmic volatility, extended techniques and labyrinthine form in an effort on the composer’s part to escape his own habits and usual musical reference points. Probably the most tonal and “traditional” piece of the evening (it appears to be read from conventional scores), you hear the influence of, say, Stravinsky here moreso than that of Cage or Lucier. Still, the piece retains an air of forward-thinking adventure, providing a riveting listen from the jazz-trained composer and a well-placed addition to the programme.
Luebbers’ piece is followed by a composition called N-Dimension by Decibel’s own STUART JAMES and, I gotta say, it’s one of the most brilliant New Music works I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. With theory-heavy underpinnings (it explores “n-dimensional topographic space” through “elaborating on the dimensionality of […] musical structures) I feared that its accessibility might be lost upon a layman like myself, one unable to fully comprehend the conceptual roots of the work. Yet in another great marriage of idea and sonic outcome, N-Dimension proves not only accessible but deeply engrossing, flinging the listener into sparkling sound-environments ornate with feedback, flutters, live delays and textures that pan wildly between the four surround-sound speakers. Semi-distinct sections swell into earshot and trip over one another, forming a beautiful rolling mass that is neither wholly abstract nor familiar. The piece invokes “infinite and fractal pitch sets,” and while I can’t claim to know how that works, the mind-boggling scale (or potential scale) of the piece does seem palpable, as if what you’re hearing is a window unto a vast new realm.
Soon after, LINDSAY VICKERY’s “Silent Revolution,” brings us very much back to Earth: to the turbulent, dark and overwhelming world of oppression and resistence. With its thematic, it could hardly be more timely – mere days after Egypt ousted its first democratically elected leader, Mohammed Morsi, and with plenty of other nations undergoing their own leadership upheavals and turmoil. Through a combination of richly illustrated scrolling score (projected onto a side wall) and highly evocative musical utterances, Vickery’s piece invokes or alludes to such uprisings, whilst also referencing the daunting realities of slums, trillion-dollar aircraft graveyards, toxic waste dumps and African refugee wars. While the limitations of both time and medium preclude the work from exploring these realities in any great factual depth, “Silent Revolution” opts to do what music does best: instill the emotional truth of the situation. “Silent Revolution” is dense with melodic anarchy and frantic, unstable rhythm, constellations of noise and pitch grasping at order but rarely – if ever reaching – it. Despite this, there are moments of beauty, lucidity, and a surface of calm. The title’s meaning, referencing a term given to drastic changes that occur with little fanfare, is ambiguous here. By my reckoning, it seems to point to the tremendous calamities and disturbing truths that go on under our noses – but also music’s problematic position within politics, as a cultural tool that is at once potent, powerful, and yet strangely mute.
[I fetch some sushi]
[Chat with some friends]
[Realize I won’t manage a beer in time and fly back up the stairs]
The second half of the concert is ushered in by CHRIS TONKIN’s “Rapid Same Question.” It’s a remarkable composition which, in some ways akin to “Silent Revolution,” foregrounds the act of grasping and never quite arriving. In what almost seems like a cruel prank, Decibel’s performers furiously and erratically attack their strings, reeds, keys and drums in an effort to trigger a spoken-word recording of a text by Gertrude Stein, but are consistently thwarted by the stop-start structure of their parts. The acoustic sounds of the instruments form a quasi-random cacophony which is in itself interesting, but the half-discernible disembodied voice entering the fray adds a real point of intrigue. The text, when read in full in the program, evident belongs to the surrealist “exquisite corpse” tradition and is exceedingly abstract, ultimately implying that the search for meaning can be cyclical and futile: or, more optimistically, that meaning is not to be found in the signifiers so much as in the experience of the art and the passion of its practitioners.
In CAT HOPE’s “The Lower Drawer,” flute, bass clarinet and bass drum collude to trigger pitch-matched sine wave tones and gradually construct a 13-note chord. It’s a process of slow and steady artificialisation, as each organic and human-wrought sound trails off and leaves only a raw frequency – simple data made manifest – in its wake. As the piece unfolds, each new tone is lower than the last, approaching the “lower drawer” – though tonight the microphones detecting the played sounds seem to be favouring higher-pitched overtones, resulting in quite a stratospheric, glassy conglomerate of thin synthetic drones. It may not have been the intended texture necessarily, but chance plays a key role in the piece anyway, with performers exercising free agency in which notes they choose from descending clusters. That “The Lower Drawer” found itself in a higher register is not necessarily a failure by any means.
Two more pieces round out the night – the first, SAM GILLIES’ “The Aura Implicit,” which focuses on ineffable or un-named things by way of gestural sounds, dizzying 3D audio panning and a tight nexus of electronic and acoustic sounds. The translation from concept to content here is not as apparent as in other pieces this evening: maybe that’s a given when the piece is “about” the difficulty of expressing that which has no description? It’s an ambitious composition, and at any rate Gillies has delivered a beautiful, immersive work forming another quality chapter in the his personal catalogue (Gillies is a busy composer: he’s recently had a spatialized sound installation installed in a Roe Street Arcade, plays in multiple groups, and toured Japan a few months back). Finally, RACHEL DEASE’s “The Perils of Obedience” rounds out the concert. It’s perhaps the most historically focused – certainly the most cinematic – piece of the evening, fusing footage of Stanley Milgram’s psychological experiments in the 1960s with an eerie musicality that’s both melodic and conceptually driven. The experiments – which tested participants’ sense of obedience against their better consciences, to try and understand the human machinations of the holocaust – are mirrored in the score, with different instruments taking up different roles in a dynamic of control. While this parallel could have been more pronounced, or explored more thoroughly, the piece functions wonderfully on its own merits, with live drones, melodies, shifting chords and spoken word lab samples forming a haunting array against rippling visuals of the original experiments.
At the start of this entry, I said that “the composer” is a curious character in our contemporary dramatis personae. After witnessing Decibel perform the works of eight WA Composers, I haven’t changed my mind – but unlike characters listed at the start of a play, composers don’t need a neat role or a one-line justification for their existence. It’s more likely their work is driven by a combination of innate impulse, sound-related interests and a personal philosophy, and it’s up to the rest of us to decide how we take it or where it all “fits.” Organizations like Tura New Music, and ensembles like Decibel, are uncommon, but their existence is crucial, and for two reasons. One, people are still interested in composition. And two, not enough people are interested in composition, and groups like these offer sufficient fascination to grow that interest in the community. That most (if not all) of the composers tonight play in adventurous pop-music groups and engage with other realms of the arts is testament to the fact that composition of this kind is not at all dislocated from modern times, grass-roots culture or accessible ideas. On the contrary, it flows through and around these things. If tonight’s affirmed anything in my mind, it’s that this group of composers warrant the platform they’ve been given tonight: separate from academia, away from stuffy concert halls, in the midst of the city, the cultural centre, and its Friday night goings on – in the thick of things, front and centre.