Planet Hugill | Swirling, static energy: Ruthless Jabiru & Decibel New Music Ensemble at Brunel Museum

Ruthless Jabiru, Decibel New Music Ensemble, soloist Cat Hope and conductor Kelly Lovelady at the Brunel Museum © Billie Tün (Courtesy of Ruthless Jabiru)

Kaija Saariaho: Neiges, Lindsay Vickery & Ian Rawes (London Sound Survey): Bascule [2016] for ensemble and field recording (European premiere), Tansy Davies: Feather and Groove, Pedro Alvarez: Intersperso-Ultradiano (European premiere); Julius Eastman: The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc; Cat Hope: Never at Sea (World premiere); Decibel New Music Ensemble & Ruthless Jabiru at the Brunel Museum

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 02 December 2022 (Planet Hugill)

Two exciting ensembles of Australian musicians unite under the Thames

The exotically-monikered Ruthless Jabiru are a chamber orchestra of Australian musicians who live and work in London, under the leadership of their artistic director—Kelly Lovelady. In this London concert, held in the unique ambience of Brunel’s first tunnel under the Thames at the Brunel Museum (02 December 2022), they were joined by the Australian Decibel New Music Ensemble, in the UK as part of a European tour, to create a large, and intriguingly bass-heavy, musical group performing music by Kaija SaariahoLindsay VickeryTansy DaviesPedro Alvarez, Julius Eastman and Cat Hope.

Starting with the nebulous micro-polyphony of Saariaho’s Neiges, the full-capacity audience was led into a timeless world of suspended sounds. The subtle inter-weaving of the individual players created mesmerising effects right from the opening expansion from tight unisons, through wider vibratos, trills and eventually fragmented lines and harmonies. This is a piece which rewards close attention and listening and was ideally suited to the intimacy of this venue.

Ruthless Jabiru, Decibel New Music Ensemble and conductor Kelly Lovelady at the Brunel Museum © Billie Tün (Courtesy of Ruthless Jabiru)

Vickery is a member of Decibel, and his piece Bascule took the form of an orchestrated field recording—an interesting concept, in which the original found sounds were totally rewritten and “spectralised” to create a new timbral world. The original recording was made by Ian Rawes (London Sound Survey) of the bascule—a chamber below London’s Tower Bridge, built to allow for the movement of counterweights used to lift the drawbridge)

After two long-form, floating and timeless compositions, Tansy Davies’s Feather & Groove came as a welcome scherzo-like moment in the programme, with tight rhythmical interactions between the bass clarinet, low strings and percussion demonstrating a sustained focus and a wry sense of humour. This is a piece which Davies originally wrote for COMA, and is designed for flexible performance with any orchestration—the low pitches and resonant acoustic of the chamber provided a new, slower-paced interpretation of this work.

Perth-based composer Pedro Alvarez’s Intersperso-Ultradiano combined synthesised sounds with acoustic string instruments and Cat Hope’s idiosyncratic approach to bass guitar playing. It was another generally slow-paced, exploratory piece, in which the various harmonic forms generated by the distorted and detuned guitar were developed by the rest of the ensemble, including the use of extremely long sustained drones from the violas, cellos and basses.

The static atmosphere established by this piece was abruptly disturbed by the ensemble’s new, abridged version of Eastman’s The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc. Driving, repetitive rhythms were pushed hard, with a strong sense of urgency imparted by director Kelly Lovelady. There was something relentless and unaccommodating about this performance—forcefully retaining its energy in an inwardly-focused manner as if the audience were uninvited guests at some private ritual. This focus and drive persisted admirably—Eastman’s music can be challenging to perform and to listen to, but this performance managed to keep the highly-strung tension right to the last note.

The concert proceeded without breaks for applause or announcements, which created the impression that the six works, from a very diverse group of composers, formed an extended suite, or that they were viewed as movements in a longer piece—an approach which, to an extent worked with the first five pieces, although Cat Hope’s concluding work, Never at Sea, with the composer herself performing on a highly-distorted electric bass guitar, seemed rather to stand alone in the context of the programme. Performed from an animated score, which combined graphical as well as conventional notation, and with added projected words and imagery on the wall of the Brunel Museum, this piece straddled the divide between improvised and notated music. The tablet-based software and the electronic scores seemed to provide a much-needed compass for the musicians as they navigated the trackless wastes and heaving swell of this musical sea. This was a piece which inhabited place and filled time, rather than one which took the listeners on an end-to-end journey—and this was very much the feeling that infused the whole event. A sense of place, of mood, of texture—this was a programme of swirling, static energy. Energy which was conjured from the air, swirled around menacingly and evocatively, and then, abruptly, dispersed. 

Ruthless Jabiru, Decibel New Music Ensemble, soloist Cat Hope and conductor Kelly Lovelady at the Brunel Museum © Billie Tün (Courtesy of Ruthless Jabiru)

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