If you’re an Australian (or, for that matter, a person) who’s interested in innovative music and you’re not familiar with Percy Grainger, something is amiss. Still, if that’s the case, the blame can’t be lumped solely on you. The man is – all in all – under-celebrated.
Yes, as far as formal recognition goes, Grainger is no doubt one of Australia’s more acclaimed and historicised composers, but that hasn’t necessarily made him a household name. In primary school I never learned about him save for seeing his name affixed to “An English Country Garden” in our music class songbook – and in high school, despite taking a year-long class that focused on 20th century musical innovation, I don’t think his name ever came up. You can imagine my surprise and bewilderment when, soon after (and probably via Wikipedia meanderings), I found out that the man I associated with “An English Country Garden” was in fact an Australian pioneer of electronic music, a bravely experimental composer, a world-famous concert pianist, an inventor, a hobbyist clothing designer and visual artist, an ethnomusicologist, sadomasochist, scholar, social commentator and the exhausting list goes on.
But there are those who are still flying the Grainger flag high – among them, the Grainger Museum at Melbourne University, and Perth-based new music ensemble, Decibel. Today brings these two formidable entities together, in a concert-meets-lecture that pays tribute to remarkable local legacy while looking excitedly towards the future.
The Grainger Museum is a round, brick building that sits rather humbly outside Melbourne Uni’s Parkville Campus on the leafy Royal Parade. It’s a beautiful warm November day, and as I wonder the eccentric corridors of the small museum, crisp sunlight flows in and dapples the framed scores, the drawings, the beaded costumes; the BDSM whips, the experimental and ancient instruments, the personal trinkets and letters.
Legend has it that young Percy was hanging out by Albert Park lake when he was still only eleven, gazing at the overlapping waves and ripples playing on the shore, when it first occurred to him that musical pitch needn’t be limited to the discrete intervals of western scales (he called it “goose-step” notation). He imagined a music that could instead be free to flow, with frequencies moving and mingling like water. Writing later, Percy compared the contemporary state of music to the “egyptian bas-relief” age of visual art, and discrete musical intervals to mosaics that lacked the fluidity of painting. Young Percy kept his idea tucked away safely and finally brought it to life in 1935 with “Free Music #1” – initially performed by string quartet, but adapted the following year for four theremins.
That Grainger’s concept for a free, fluid music never became a dominant mainstream approach makes it no less visionary or prescient: the sound he envisioned foreshadowed the wild portamento capabilities of modern synthesisers, and the amorphous sound of much later ambient music. Today, Decibel revisit this crucial juncture in Grainger’s career, a moment that marked a paradigm shift away from not only standard tonality but also standard notation.
“Free Music” could never have been scored using traditional dots on a staff. Grainger instead drew wavy lines, like parabolas or mountainous horizons, within an X-Y axis denoting pitch and volume. Originally, this posed a dilemma: the score needed to be drawn on paper, but page turns don’t lend themselves well to continuous, fluid tones. Decibel’s mission statement includes showcasing Australian experimental composition and innovating with technology and score formats, so “Free Music” presented a golden opportunity.
Once ensemble director Cat Hope’s explained much of this, it’s time for the group to make some sound – beginning with “Free Music #1” performed using iPad theremins, and with a scrolling score projected onto one large screen. Tracing over Grainger’s score, converting it to one big digital image and colour-coding the individual theremin voices, Decibel have maintained the visual essence of the original graphic notation while making it more workable than the yellowing, fraying, page-by-page scans of yore. They then insert the digitised score into their bespoke Decibel Score Reader app, which allows the score to scroll from right to left in real time; the four iPad performers focusing on the point where their parts intersect a fixed playhead marker. Bereft of the traditional antennae, they tilt their iPads left and right, forwards and back, to control pitch and volume, and the ghostly, ever-gliding melodies combine to create a truly otherworldly chorus. The decision was to use the iPad’s built-in speakers, rather than opt for external amplification; the result’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means each instrument is its own sound source, and is relatively quiet – creating a close-up intimacy and meaningful spatialization of sound that is rare in electronic performance. On the other hand, it does make the piece less audible than might be ideal (especially if you’re sitting up back, near the audible air conditioner) and renders the lowest frequencies (usually favoured with keen enthusiasm by Cat Hope) virtually non-existent. It’s a trade off, one that could perhaps be mitigated by using an extra (still locally positioned) speaker per iPad. In any case, as a demonstration of the technology, the score, the concept and indeed as a listening experience – it’s thoroughly fascinating.
They follow up with “Free Music #2,” which expands the group to six i-Theremins, and in turn boosts the cloud of sound – quite considerably, in fact. The cumulative effect of these frequencies weaving through the air, sometimes in tandem and at others in contrary motion, is peculiarly familiar: it’s distinctly reminiscent of howling wind in an eerie storm. In 2014, with new handheld technologies and fresh performers, Grainger’s piece manages to sound as elemental as the rippling waters that inspired it 120 years ago. And there’s a beautiful symmetry to that.
The performance ends there, with Cat and the rest of the Decibel entourage – Lindsay Vickery, Stuart James, Aaron Wyatt, Louise Devenish and Tristan Parr – all having done a commendable job of handling a thoroughly unconventional task. The lecture segues into a Q&A, which covers myriad topics – from the value of quietude, to possible further innovations (such as introducing timbral variation), to the influence of Grainger on the likes of Brian Eno. The Q&A then spills over into an enthused wind-down, with countless wise brains chatting in the small room – from Decibel members to Aussie dronesmith Lisa Mackinney (Mystic Eyes) and composer Ros Bandt, to local sound artists Nigel Brown and Rosalind Hall and even thinking-person’s pop-star Wally de Backer (Gotye). It’s quite an inspiring crowd to wander amongst.
Grainger was one of a kind – a true polymath and visionary, the sort that doesn’t come along often. We shouldn’t hold our breath for the second coming. But with phenomenal, passionate minds like those in the heads of Decibel, we can rest assured that his spirit of ingenuity, his thirst for musical metamorphosis, has a strong legacy yet.