Review: Decibel ensemble, ‘Partition Concrète: The Music of Lionel Marchetti’ ⋅
The Sewing Room, 26 August ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅
Lionel Marchetti is a French composer of music concrète, a type of electronic composition that draws on sounds from the natural world as well as computer generated sounds. In recent years he has collaborated with Decibel, an Australian ensemble who explore the intersection of electronic and acoustic instruments. Their work together is being featured in a national tour which commenced in Perth this week.
Marchetti’s work with Decibel heralds his first venture into performing with acoustic instruments. In order to seamlessly integrate the electronic and acoustic parts he has developed the concept of a ‘partition concrète’. The part, as explained in the program notes, functions as an ‘alter ego with whom it is possible to engage in an intimate dialogue – a support or an ally into which musicians can lean’.
On Monday night this electronic part was played through speakers carefully spatialised (in some instances facing the backstage walls) so that it was impossible to distinguish the instruments from the electronics. The Decibel instrumentalists (wind, strings and percussion) interacted with the partition concrète to create what, at times, felt like deeply thoughtful musical poetry.
In The Last Days of Reality, written in collaboration with Decibel’s director Cat Hope, the sounds of the tam tam (Louise Devenish) and bass flute (Hope) interwove with Marchetti’s partition concrète in a wash of eerie, low tones. The Earth Defeats Me had a similar slow-breathed expansiveness. Long bass clarinet tones emanated from the speakers and Lindsey Vickery playing live bass clarinet. Cello (Tristan Parr), viola (Aaron Wyatt) and flute joined in the responses, creating an ebb and flow that had the pulseless constancy of the sea. There was even what sounded like echoes of mournful gulls and distant fog horns in the percussion and electronics parts.
The ensemble presented the world premiere of Le Cerveau, a work which invited a musical response to pitches generated in the electronic part. Marchetti joined the Decibel members on clarinet for a study in deep listening as they mirrored the slow, warm sounds emanating from the speakers.
By the time we reached the final work on the program, the premiere of Inland Lake, the performers had established an atmosphere of quietude and aural acuity. With deeper listening the delicacy and beauty of Marchetti’s slowly evolving electronics became more apparent, as did the sensitivity and control demonstrated by the performers as they blended almost imperceptibly with the partition concrete. The whine of wind blurred into a more percussive bubbling, layered micro-glitches and fast pulses swirled. The focus moved to pitches slowly bending and building in intensity then evaporating, leaving behind an aching absence. By the end of the 30 minute work Marchetti had shaped our listening: sounds were emancipated from their source and the music became simply and purely sound, or the absence of sound.
A performance by Decibel ensembleis a visceral sensory experience, particularly when performing music by French composer Lionel Marchetti. Their musical collaborations – spanning eight years – are being celebrated in a national tour, part of a series of concerts recognising Decibel’s ten year anniversary. Seesaw magazine chatted to Decibel’s artistic director Cat Hope about the magic that happens when acoustic and electronic sounds overlap.
Rosalind Appleby: Firstly congratulations on Decibel’s 10 year anniversary as a band! It’s great the party is continuing all year with this series of 10 at 10 concerts. And I’m pleased WA (as the original home of Decibel) is hosting the launch of this tour with Lionel Marchetti. What are your highlights from the past 10 years?
Cat Hope: The highlight is really how we have evolved and consolidated as both a musical project but also a group of people playing music together. But specific highlights would have to include the tour of Europe in 2012, where we worked with German Radio producers and tonmeisters: it really validated us and our approach, and made me realise that there is a place for our music outside the ‘experimental music ghetto’ that I sometimes feel we are relegated to in Perth.
Our performance at the International TENOR conference earlier this year was also great, because it became clear there that we are held in very high esteem by our international colleagues.
RA: Lionel Marchetti has been working in the French genre ofmusique concrète since the 80’s, utilising recorded sounds (instruments, voice, electronics etc) as raw material in his digital compositions. How did you first come across his works?
CH: We met Lionel when Decibel shared a bill with him during a performance at Liquid Architecture in Sydney in 2011. I was so impressed with his live performance, and this idea that music concrete could be a performative genre, that I asked him to write a piece for Decibel. The result was a beautiful work that we premiered the following year at the WA State Museum, Premierè étude (le ombres). Later I found out that he was in Australia back then to be on the bill with Eliane Radigue, as he is a preferred diffusor of her electronic works. She was unable to travel that time, but we went on to work with her later, so that’s a nice link. Since then we have worked with Lionel on around seven works, in different ways: they are all on our Room 40 CD release,The Last Days of Reality released at the end of last year.
RA: Decibel’s 2012 commission from Marchetti was the first time he had done anything for a combination of electronic and acoustic instruments. Can you explain the process of how you came upon the idea of a ‘partition concrete’, a concept which inspired the title for this concert?
CH: Premierè étude (le ombres) is a text score, and comes with what Marchetti calls a ‘Partition concrete’ (concrete part). Referencing his music concrete practice, the partition concrete is a fixed audio ‘part’, like any part in an ensemble. The partition concrete is reproduced through carefully calibrated and situated speakers onstage, and sometimes alongside, the live performers. The performers are instructed to interact with these sounds in specific ways. The result is truly wonderful: delicate but at times surprising, a real examination of the nature of sound and performance. You can also listen to these partition concrete alone: they are all on his Bandcamp site.
RA: What has Marchetti’s music brought to Decibel Ensemble’s ongoing explorations into the integration of electronic and acoustic instruments?
CH: This is a great question: one thing that became clear to us a few years into our existence was how important scores were going to be as part of our commitment to the integration of electronic and acoustic instruments. So we found innovate ways to read and create scores for electronics within the ensemble. Marchetti’s music took us in a different direction again, as it relies much less on notation. The detailed instructions are within the sound, but structured through the text score. It draws on the intuitive musicianship we share as creators of electronic or acoustic music, and relies on excellent ensemble skills to come together. I really believe in this common musicianship concept – musicianship as something that all experienced musicians hold, irrespective of process, genre or style. When you truly explore that notion, the results can be pretty special.
RA: In this concert the loudspeaker is not simply a system of amplification or even an instrument in itself – Marchetti is trying to render the speaker invisible. Can you explain how he manages to make the sounds from the speaker invisible?
CH: When the acoustic instruments are work working within and around the sounds from the speakers, you really can’t tell which is which sound is coming from the instrument or speaker, and that’s kind of magical.
RA: The program includes two works Marchetti wrote for bass flute (you) and a work for Decibel ensemble. There is also a new collaborative work that will be performed on the night – can you give us some clues what we can expect from this?
CH: Two of the works are collaborative pieces between myself and Lionel: The Last Days of Reality (2018) for bass flute, tam tam and partition concrete, and The Earth Defeats Me (2014) for bass flute, bass clarinet and partition concrete. These were made differently from the others in that I first created a graphic score in the Decibel ScorePlayer as I usually do, performed and recorded it, sent to Lionel who would then use it to create the partition concrete in some way. That partition concrete is then built into the score, so whenever we play it, from the score, that part is included. I love the way these turned out.
There are two other existing works for the ensemble (and Lionel will play a clarinet in one of them!), but also an extended new work by Lionel, Inland, which we will be developing in the residency before the concert.
RA: How should we be listening to it?
Darren Jorgensen called this music the ‘new classicism’ in his Realtime Reviewof a concert we did featuring Marchetti’s music in 2016, and I think it’s a good term. There is an unexpected and strange kind of formality to this music, a new and different type of formality that I am still attempting to describe. The music is experienced as a sensory experience because it requires a kind of virtuosic listening – the sound is rich and multilayered, coming from places you don’t expect, instruments creating sounds that seem to defy their construction or intention, as well as the use of unusual instruments at times. The closer music moves toward the real centre of sound, the more visceral it becomes.
Award-winning composer Cat Hope will give a voice to the silenced when she returns to Perth to present the annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address on Thursday. Hope is currently based in Melbourne where she is head of the Sir Zelman Cowan School of Music at Monash University. The visit will be the first of several Hope will make to her hometown in the coming months.
Glanville-Hicks had a stellar international career and the address named in her honour provides a platform to challenge the status quo and raise issues of importance in new music. Hope is a fitting choice for the address with industry experience as a performer, curator, academic and advocate for gender equality.
Speaking on the phone from Melbourne she outlined her plans to use the Glanville-Hicks address to discuss gender inequality in the music industry.
“Some in the industry believe that gender equality is not an issue but there is now evidence to confirm women and non-binary individuals do not experience the same access to opportunities as men working as music creators. I’ll present this data and also suggestions on how we can develop change.”
Hope’s advocacy for women and non-binary artists was galvanised by observing the treatment of women in public life.
“Women like Julia Gillard, Gillian Triggs – women just doing their job – were attacked for reasons that had nothing to do with their work. I realised that Australians operate within a systemic hierarchical structure and the arts are included in that, even though we may think we are more collaborative or left-leaning. We need to change the way we think, talk about and commission compositions across the full range of society, from individuals at a ground level to government policies at a federal level.”
In a tangible demonstration of putting change into action, Hope’s address will include the performance of a new work commissioned from artists she would not normally work with. Melbourne metal singer Karina Utomo will perform a composition for voice and electronics created collaboratively by Hope and Polish-Australian composer Dobromila Jaskot.
Utomo will also be starring in Hope’s first opera Speechless, to be premiered in February as part of the Perth Festival. In Speechless Hope’s concern for issues of social justice take on a large scale, as befits a work in the genre of opera which historically often drew on the issues of the time. The score is derived from drawings and graphics extracted from the 2014 Human Rights Commission report, The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.
“Speechless is my personal response to Australia’s refugee crisis. When it first happened I was devastated and felt so helpless. I wanted to use music to activate the issue.”
The opera retains the conventional structure of arias, recitative accompanied by orchestra but Hope expands the horizon of opera according to her experimental practice and philosophy of inclusivity.
Utomo will perform alongside experimental vocalist Sage Pbbbt, Iranian-born singer Tara Tiba, opera singer Judith Dodsworth and a combined community choir of 30 voices. The opera has no libretto, instead the four soloists and choir will sing wordlessly (think Ennio Morricone mixed with experimental singer Cathy Berberian) in a fitting homage to people whose voices are rendered silent through political means. Instead the narrative will unfold through the music which will be performed by the Australian Bass Orchestra, an ensemble of low pitched instruments such as cellos, double basses, bass guitars, bass winds and brass, bass drums and electronics.
Hope composes her music using graphic notation and the score for Speechless is derived from the format of The Forgotten Children report. The singers and musicians follow specific colours and literally ‘read’ the report, following the up or downward trajectory of graphs, children’s drawings and photos.
The process may be unusual and technical, but Hope says the experience for audiences will be exhilarating.
“People will be challenged but it is ultimately rewarding. We’ve heard a lot of words and seen a lot of images and I think Australians are suffering from compassion fatigue. I hope the opera might give people a different way to grapple with the issue.”
Perth audiences can have a preview of Hope’s compositional style performed by Utomo at the Peggy Glanville-Hicks address on Thursday night. Hope will also be performing with her award-winning ensemble Decibel on Monday night at the Subiaco Arts Centre. Since founding in 2009 the six-piece electro-acoustic ensemble has become something of an Australian institution, renowned for their pioneering work with graphic notation and their commitment to commissioning Australian composers. The Decibel concert explores the vinyl record as a sound source, musical instrument and score.