Decibel: Small Things @ Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre, Monday May 28

The thing about experimental music – well, not THE thing but definitely a thing – is that it’s got unique motivations as music goes. Free from specific aesthetic goals and often guided more by intellect than intuition, it’s about exploring and advancing the possibilities of sound and what we understand ‘music’ to be. Which is a great proposition, but it carries with it the danger of becoming a bombastic pissing contest: sounds vying to be the most radical, at the expense of artistic rigour and internal logic. Perth’s black-suited bastions of New Music adventuring, Decibel, are not so impetuous. Their experimentalism is a slow-burn process, working through constellations of ideas with a fine-tooth comb so as to not neglect the finer points – god, after all, is in the details. This is a group that understands the importance of the intricacies, the Small Things – so much so they named their latest concert after them.

Decibel also understand the importance of presentation, and tonight’s show takes place in the superb State Theatre Centre, rising up from the base of the horseshoe bridge. A well-groomed usher ushers me down a staircase, a mass of gold cylinders dangling overhead as if the ceiling were a day-care centre for baby pipe organs. I pass the bar and its rows of impeccable glass and porcelain, its packet sugar and good-postured staff, and pass into the Studio Underground space.

There is the dinging of the concert-starting bell, the dimming of the lights, and it begins. No introductory banter, no briefing. Four members of the Decibel crew (namely Aaron Wyatt, Tristan Parr, Lindsay Vickery and Stuart James) take their positions behind strings, woodwind and piano – Malcolm Riddoch, meanwhile, seating himself at a laptop and an unseen trove of devices. A projector screen lights up overhead, and four small spheres appear on it, demarcating quadrants in the space. The four musicians with instruments begin to intone single, unembellished notes, sustained without variation until more small spheres begin to appear, orbiting the initial four. The spheres of increasingly varied colours are joined by arching lines, forming a quartet of revolving graphic scores that resemble four separate solar systems. As they move, the musicians interpret the visuals by some enigmatic process that I can’t claim to decipher – but the ensuing sound is remarkable, and surprisingly ‘beautiful’ (by traditional standards) given what one might expect from a sound art or New Music performance. It’s a swirling and glimmering (though unsentimental) array of frequencies, sunlit tones coalescing into randomly shifting harmonic clusters. To give you a less obscure idea of how it sounds, this piece – DAVID KIM-BOYLE’s ‘Point Studies #1’ – wouldn’t seem out of place on a Sigur Ros album. Still, it’s far more than sheer beauty, with its intriguing processes and sideways references to ancient cosmic ‘music of the spheres’ notions fueling the brain, only soothing the ears and eyes on its way in.

Melbourne’s ANTHONY PATERAS supplies the next composition, entitled simply ‘Trio’ and performed, as you might expect, by 3 members (James, Parr and Riddoch). It’s a more jarring and less immersive listen, with fragmented piano and cello flourishes sitting awkwardly alongside digital gurgles triggered from the computer. Despite its aesthetic disjuncture, there is a sense in which the parts inform each other, moving together in moments of clarity before exploding apart again – as Pateras describes in his brief program notes, an “attempt at order during prolonged, honey-like, disorder.”

Group director Cat Hope enters stage left, and what follows is the world premiere of ‘Cells’ by local composer Joe Stawarz, whose last name I don’t know how to pronounce, but I’d like to think it’s ‘Star Wars’ and so no-one’s gonna stop me saying it that way. Like David Kim-Boyle’s piece, the highly visual score for ‘Cells’ lies at its conceptual core, with an array of geometric designs and curves forming stimuli for performance. Unlike the Kim-Boyle piece, ‘Cells’ fails to leave a lasting aural impression, and seems to err more heavily on the cognitive side of things. Looking back, I can’t for the life of me remember anything specific about how the music actually sounds here. Perhaps that’s a lapse on my part, or perhaps it really is a less memorable listen. Next is ‘Texture/Residue’ by Italian renaissance man AGOSTINO DI SCIPIO, a piece that gives the oft-ignored incidental sounds of music performance their moment in the limelight. Eschewing ‘played’ notes (breath and bows are disallowed), Di Scipio presents all players with the same score and bids them finger their keys or strings rapidly without producing pitched tones. The resulting piece elevates sonic detritus to the status of music, sitting at the fore of our consciousness instead of falling victim to our everyday perceptual filters. This is hardly a revolutionary concept in experimental music, however: more interesting is the way that Riddoch then resamples and amplifies the mottled tapping sounds, playing them back at irregular intervals. We experience the audio out of step with the continuing hand-motions of the players, producing an uncanny rupturing of the assumed sight-sound synchronicity in music performance. It’s a simple piece, but a rich one.

The first half of ‘Small Things’ rounds out with a composition by JG THIRLWELL, perhaps better known as ‘80s industrial one-mand-band Foetus, and meanwhile adopting such monikers as Steroid Maximus, Baby Zinane, Clint Ruin and many more. Tonight’s piece – ‘Canaries in the Mineshaft/Edison Medecine’ comes from his Manorexia project, an outlet for freeform cinematic and textural ideas. Mind you, ‘freeform’ probably presents a misleading impression of the piece at hand – in fact, it is the most clearly structured and “musical” of all the evening’s works so far. Featuring Callum Moncrieff on guest vibraphone, the soundscape eddies and billows melodically around driving rhythmic motifs, all the while preserving an eerie suspenseful quality. At the last minute Stuart James offers four swift hand waves and the group bursts at once into a fast-paced final section, propelled along by an insistent beat and tightly-wound melodic stabs.

A short interval happens: I have time to buy a weak coffee and extract some icy water from the stylish yet understocked cooler before it’s back for more Decibel. Luring us into the show’s second half is a new composition by local musician, poet, artist and writer Amber Fresh (who I seem to have mentioned a lot in these reviews lately, and who indeed has her own column in this very mailout!) The piece, called ‘Torndirrup,’ draws inspiration from her physical and spiritual homeland, Torndirrup National Park in Goode Beach, WA, and begins with almost total quietude – like a day in a national park might. Like a true city slicker, my mind and sensibilities sit in wait for an overt musical development – a motif, a recurring noise, a compositional shape or structure – but instead what evolves is a supremely subtle collage of whispering string-drones and breathy waves of barely discernable notes. Over this mist comes Amber’s recorded voice, cooly reciting the names of birds one might encounter in Torndirrup. The vocal sound bytes are flung from speaker to speaker along the length of the stage, as if each bird were positioned in a different tree, and soon I begin to feel as if the tremulous drones are blowing a salty wind across my skin, and the sunlight is streaking dappled brightness across the moist earth, and the birds are calling to each other through the pale green canopy with melancholy echoing trills. It’s certainly a mood piece, and an evocative soundscape, much more than it’s a stern-faced conceptual statement. And while that sets it apart from much of the work Decibel tend to favour, it also invests it with a remarkable amount of heart, which is often missing from experimental music. Though there’s no ‘lyrics,’ the composition presents a moving landscape, and eloquently conveys Fresh’s deep and ineffable love for the titular site.

Cat Hope’s ‘Liminium’ comes next and provides a fitting foil for the poignant softness of ‘Torndirrup.’ Pitting viola against bass clarinet with laptop and effects pedals as mediators, it is boisterous and uncompromising, though not without complexity. Distortion pedals and octave-dropping pitch shifters usually associated with rock guitar find striking new applications here, transforming otherwise benign sounds into arresting industrial outbursts or thunderous cacophonies. But what we hear is not mere chaos: a mobile score leads the parts to interact and intersect at times, at others randomly warping the piece’s structure to add an aleatoric volatility.

Lindsay Vickery’s ‘EVP’ is perhaps the most intriguing piece of the whole night, if not sonically (it’s a strong contender) then at least in its back-story. EVP stands for “Electronic Voice Phenomenon,” that is, the capturing of ghost/paranormal voices on electronic media. The scientific basis of such a phenomenon’s existence is uncertain, but whatever the truth might be, thousands of people search through reels of tape every year extracting the supposed speech of supernatural beings. Here, Vickery constructs a score based on such recordings, presenting approximations of their pitch, duration and velocity for the performers to reproduce. Ultimately, the instrumental sounds and the (rather terrifying) electronic vocalisations mesh into one, leading me to initially think that the instruments were triggering vocal samples as they played. This is Vickery’s third recent work to engage with supernatural content, which appeals to me entirely, and I hope he continues to probe such mysteries.

If any naysayers are sat in the audience tonight, looking down their nose at these so-called musicians tapping and booming and droning away, their old-hat accusations would now be swiftly toppled by the performance of Decibel’s final piece for the evening, a rendition of ‘Prowler’ by German jazz/ambient/doom ensemble Bohren & der Club of Gore. Hope takes to the double bass, Moncreiff returns to eke a smoky beat from a drum kit… Riddoch adds field recordings of rain on an Australian tin roof while Parr and Wyatt drone icily. James kneads the piano with aplomb, and Vickery wails with a thrilling sense of espionage on the sax. On the one hand, it’s hard to see why this piece – an ultimately accessible and straightforward bit of creepy jazz jamming – makes its way into the night’s repertoire; the inclusion of electronic samples seems more tokenistic than crucial. On the other hand, I find it hard to care, as it sounds utterly awesome and helps debunk the immature suggestion that an experimental act should never breach the realms of convention and tonality.

Tonight would barely have sated the desires of those looking for a wholly eccentric, confrontational night of noise and subversion. There were, of course, moments of bold abrasiveness and plenty of strange sound, but really the consistent theme was subtlety and focus. Providing a zoomed-in look at specific concepts, meditations and commonly neglected sounds, Decibel probed not only the conventions of Western Art Music, but indeed, of experimental tendencies themselves – to reveal how the smallest things can sometimes be the most telling, touching and compelling.