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Features/Music

Never more than two minutes from home

19 August 2020

Decibel New Music Ensemble have used the pandemic as an opportunity to do what they do best – innovate. They tell Ara Jansen about their latest boundary-challenging project, 2 Minutes from Home.

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If six musicians on a screen in a Brady Bunch style of sharing music is now officially boring you, then consider the Decibel New Music Ensemble’s interesting and challenging new take on playing and commissioning music.

Artistic director Cat Hope says Decibel decided to create a series of works that were technically realizable no matter what the pandemic had in store. The result is 2 Minutes from Home, two-minute commissioned pieces from artists they’ve previously worked with. The project’s title refers to composers and performers sending creative work out into the world from their homes all over the globe.

“The arts have been hit hard by this upheaval,” says Hope. “This is something we can do, within our own realm of possibility, to keep music going for us, our collaborators and audiences.”

The Australian ensemble focuses on the integration of acoustic and electronic instruments in chamber music performance and are world-leading interpreters of graphic notations and digital score formats for composition and performance.

“Decibel are split between Perth and Melbourne, with three performers in each city, while the composers are all over the place,” explains Hope. “The project so far has stood up to the challenges of the pandemic: border closures, travel restrictions and different lockdown arrangements in states and countries.”

Twenty new pieces of music

Cat Hope says Decibel’s new project is supporting composers from all over the world

Decibel members Hope, Tristen Parr, Aaron Wyatt, Lindsay Vickery, Stuart James and Louise Devenish are all doing two-minute pieces. The commissioned artists include Haruka Hirayama (Japan), Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir (Iceland), Amanda Stewart (NSW) and Pedro Alvarez (WA).

All up, there will be 20 pieces of two minutes. Each work will be presented as a video showing the ensembles playing their parts in their homes, alongside the score. There’s also an accompanying podcast featuring the composer that gives extra context to the work and their experience.

Decibel are performing, recording, mixing and video editing two to three of the pieces a month. The two-minute duration keeps it manageable, and also works better when shared on social media. Plus, they wanted to make the commitment manageable for composers.

“These are difficult times for everyone, some more than others and these states of difficulty are in constant flux.

“Also ‘20 x 2 minute works in 2020’ works well as a title!”

Decibel chose to work with people they had previously worked with as a way of supporting their direct community. They started with the people whose works they were going to perform in 2020 and then worked back through previous collaborations and commissions opting for a range of artistic approaches and composer locations.

“For example, we chose two artists we have worked with in the past from New York – Marina Rosenfeld and J.G. Thirlwell – as they were experiencing very difficult times. Having the Australia Council fund the commissions through their Create program ensured composers were well remunerated, which was also important.”

An electronic score

Going online has prompted all sorts of innovations in how performances are done across the arts landscape. Decibel are adding another which offers the audience the experience of following the score during the performance through their self-made application called the Decibel ScorePlayer.

Each new work is created for the Decibel ScorePlayer, an iPad application developed by the ensemble to enable the coordinated reading of graphic notations. Listeners can follow the music as the musicians play it and enjoy the wide range of notational approaches composers will bring.

a screengrab of a video call with six musicians and a central word document
Viewers can watch the Decibel ScorePlayer while the musicians perform the music.

As an ensemble, Decibel designed and created the Decibel ScorePlayer. With a focus on music where electronic and acoustic instruments are in the same ensemble, they developed skills around presenting and reading the unusual notations for electronic parts created for the group. Over a number of years they trialed different hardware and software but nothing was quite right until they ported the concept to the iPad operating system.

Now you can download the player from the Apple App store and use it on an iPad. This has meant anyone in the world can access it and there have already been hundreds of downloads. The App is being constantly developed and refined.  

All the members of Decibel contributed to the creation of the App, from programming to testing. Hope says it contributed to their artistic practice as musicians, composers and academics.

Newest video from WA composer

This week the ensemble has released the video performance of Mueller, a piece by Perth composer Lindsay Vickery. The work is an extreme sight-reading piece where the notation is redacted sections of the Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential election by Robert Mueller.

“We have to react to the score as quickly as possible – responding to the things that are redacted in this important document. His score uses the Decibel ScorePlayer in a different way to most – rather than scrolling left to right like many do, it acts like a predetermined page turner, programmed by Vickery – with pages appearing for an average of 270 milliseconds – making the performance challenging.

“It’s a conceptual piece that highlights how few people (3% of the US population) have read this key report. There are rules for the musicians to follow, for example, redactions high on the page are higher in pitch than those lower on the page, and colour images are trills.

“I think I’ll start to experiment with my own performance presentation a bit from hereon in. That’s the fun with this project, you can evolve as works come in. I am excited to see how all the composers work with the Decibel ScorePlayer and how the composition itself is only a part of the project – the composer, performer and video experiences are also a big part.”

“Art is so important now. It is part of us, part of our response to and understanding of the world. If we are going to survive all this intact – it has to remain so.”

Artistic director of Decibel, Cat Hope

Hope believes that art can get us to look at and hear things differently and 2 Minutes from Home is certainly a perfect example of that. Art is one way to help us make sense of a world turned upside down, not just as a distraction, but a way to change thoughts and beliefs and give cultural or personal context.

“Art helps us to make sense of the world. Traditional or experimental, familiar or innovative, commercial or bespoke – we are surrounded by art. I don’t think you will find anyone who hasn’t been moved or affected by a work of art – a film, painting, drawing, design, song, book, poem.

“This is why art is so important now. It is part of us, part of our response to and understanding of the world. If we are going to survive all this intact – it has to remain so. Our project is just a little part of that.”

2 Minutes from Home started in July and seven videos have already been published. Experience them here.

Pictured top: Decibel musicians. Photo Rachel Barrett

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Author —
Ara Jansen

Ara Jansen is a freelance journalist. Words, bright colour, books, music, art, fountain pens, good conversation, interesting people and languages make her deeply happy. A longtime music journalist and critic, she’s the former music editor of The West Australian. Being in the pool next to the playground is one of her favourite places, ever.

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