Limelight Magazine | Decibel embarks on its first UK tour

Cat Hope talks about the electroacoustic music ensemble’s first British tour in a landmark Australian cultural collaboration with the UK; and why electroacoustic music is in a constant state of flux.
by Maddy Briggs on 17 October, 2022 | Limelight Magazine

Decibel New Music Ensemble will be touring across England in November and December, having been selected to participate in the UK/Australia season 2021–22. The UK-led program is a joint venture between the British Council and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spurring cultural exchange and collaboration in fields including theatre, visual art, music and literature. 2021 marks the first collaboration with Australia. 

For its tour, Decibel will perform five concert programs over six venues, with a place at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival exhibiting the music of its Artistic Director, composer Cat Hope. Decibel will also premiere Hope’s new work, Never At Sea, in partnership with chamber orchestra Ruthless Jabiru at London’s Brunel Museum, alongside a series of seminars and workshops to be conducted at universities across its tour.

The ensemble will showcase the 2 Minutes from Home program—a series of audiovisual commissions from both international and Australian artists that served as its 2020 response to the halt lockdown placed on the art music community, and nominated for an Art Music Award for Excellence in Experimental Music in 2021.

Limelight spoke to Cat Hope about Decibel’s maiden British voyage.

Congratulations on your selection for the UK/Australia Season. What’s in store for these concerts? 

We’re excited to share a range of concerts for this tour that really cover what Decibel can do. There are five different programs across six concerts, and we’ll also be undertaking workshops and research meetings in between. The concert programs include 2 Minutes from Home live, a program of two-minute pieces with videos by Karl Ockelford, recently premiered at Perth’s Revelation Film Festival and performed in the UK at the Performance Space at City University, London; a long-form piece we commissioned from French composer Lionel Marchetti entitled Inland Lake (le lac intérieur) that we’ll perform at Café Oto, London; a program of my own compositions at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival; two programs of new animated notation works by British and Australian composers at Bath Spa and Liverpool universities; as well as a collaboration with London chamber orchestra Ruthless Jabiru, conducted by Australian expat Kelly Lovelady at the amazing Brunel museum in London.

This program features a new work by myself alongside works by Lindsay Vickery and Pedro Alvarez from Perth, as well as works by Tansy Davies, Julius Eastman and Kaija Saariaho—the latter conducted by Decibel member Aaron Wyatt.

What was your aim in programming these concert programs? 

I really wanted to show the diversity of what Decibel does. We are very focused on collaboration, and I think this shows in both the animated notation programs, where we will work with both emerging and established British composers on new works, but also in the preparation of the program with Ruthless Jabiru, where Decibel will be part of the orchestra. We’re also keen to promote our recent recorded releases—Inland Lake (le lac intérieur) will have come out on the Australian label Room 40 by then. The Huddersfield program will be the first monograph concert of my own music, which we hope will draw attention to our recent release Cat Hope – Decibel on Swiss label ezz-thetics. And, of course, to showcase the talents within the group—Aaron Wyatt as a conductor, and compositions by all members.

What are some of the international commissions you’ve created?

Inland Lake (le lac intérieur) was commissioned in 2019, when we toured the work with Marchetti through Perth and Sydney. The 2 Minutes from Home program includes 21 commissions from composers we’ve worked with in the past, and was made possible thanks to funds from the Australia Council during the COVID lockdowns. These were created for online presentation that we released one at a time via social media over six months at the end of 2020, but we’ve really enjoyed presenting them as live performance with video. It’s also great to be revisiting Pedro Alvarez’s work Ultradiano-Intersperso, which we commissioned for our Electronic Concerto program at the Perth institute of Contemporary Art in 2017 as part of the Totally Huge New Music Concert.

It’s the ensemble’s inaugural performance in Britain, though you’ve previously toured throughout Europe and Asia. How do you feel about touring the UK? And how do you feel Australian music fits in on a broader international scale?

We are excited to present our work in Britain, especially as part of the UK/Australia Season, which is showcasing so many great Australian artists in the UK over 2021–22. We’ve found that what we do really resonates in Europe particularly, where music experimentation and innovation is more common and mainstreamed than in Australia. We’ve had great audiences through Europe in the past, wonderful engagement from them and the promoters we’ve worked with and I hope this flows over into our British experience. We are proud signatories to the UK-based KeyChange movement, where we’ve pledged to commission and feature at least 50% women and non-binary artists in our programs, so we look forward to it.

You’re featuring graphic and animated notation in these concerts – Decibel are inspiring trailblazers in the use of non-standard notation, especially with your own Decibel ScorePlayer app. What do you think the use of this kind of notation for works brings to art music?

I think digital delivery of graphic notation offers opportunities to bring composers and performers closer together. This app for iPad, available on the Apple App store, coordinates performers of graphic scores very precisely, which results in a re-positioning of graphic notation from something very open and quasi improvised, to something more akin to traditional notated composition. Graphic notation offers so many interesting possibilities to explore, possibilities that traditional notation is not very good at communicating to performers. For example, a more focused attention to texture, different ways of engaging with rhythm and time, long, sustained sounds and forms. 

These things are further enhanced when presented digitally—you can then incorporate interactive elements, automation, dynamic elements, embedded sound into scores and more! I think it also enables more performer choice and input into each performance of a single piece. So, I really believe it offers opportunities for closer collaboration between composers and performers, if they are ready for that!

You’re also holding workshops and seminars at universities during your tour; how is accessibility of new music important to Decibel?

We’re keen to experience what our colleagues in Britain are doing in this space hands on, but also share how great the app can be for composers and performers alike. The workshops will be mostly working with university students on their developing works, in most cases through to performance in our program. We think that audiences are more adventurous than we often credit them to be—and so we try to perform in a range of different spaces to reach a wider range of audiences. We also commission works from artists who don’t necessarily fit the ‘art music’ or ‘notated composition’ mould—like JG Thirlwell and Thembi Soddell in our 2 Minutes From Home program, for example.

The position of electroacoustic music feels like it’s in a constant state of change. Where do you see it in a greater musical sphere; especially being held in grand venues across your tour?

I think you’re right—and I like to think all music should be in a constant state of change—evolving and adapting as we change ourselves. Electronic music is super-exciting right now, so when you add acoustic instruments as we do in all Decibel works, I think you can make something really fantastic! We mix acoustic instruments with electronics in different ways—in live processing of acoustic instruments, as fixed media parts, effects, field recordings, or electronic reworkings of acoustic sounds and vice versa as part of the compositional process. The venues we are playing at are quite diverse in type and audience, so I hope we can begin to grow an audience in Britain through these diverse opportunities.

The last concert, The Holy Presence of, features a special ‘low end’ orchestra which sounds thrilling. What can you tell us about that?

I’m glad you’re as excited about that as I am! Ruthless Jabiru will consist of double basses, cellos and violas for this concert, alongside Decibel’s own strings, low winds and percussion. Both my work and the Alvarez feature live electric bass as a solo instrument—so add that to the mix! This concert also includes Lindsay Vickery’s Bascule (2016), which is an orchestration of the movement of counterweights used to lift the drawbridge of London’s Tower Bridge, based on a recording made from within a large chamber (bascule) beneath the bridge. These works will sound incredible in the venue, which is itself a tunnel under the Thames.

Decibel’s UK tour runs from 21 November to 02 December
Read their press release in full →

The Holy Presence of

Friday 02 December, 7:00pm
Grand Entrance Hall, Brunel Museum

Decibel collaboration with Australian conductor Kelly Lovelady and Ruthless Jabiru. Featuring a special ‘low end’ orchestra, with world premiere of a new work by Cat Hope, European premieres of West Australian composers Lindsay Vickery and Pedro Alvarez (WA), Kaija Saariaho conducted by Indigenous artist/Decibel member Aaron Wyatt, and further works by Tansy Davies and Julius Eastman.

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