Decibel undertakes the first complete performance of Cage’s colossal Variations for the composer’s centenary.

On the back of a recent, successful tour to Europe, Perth-based new music ensemble Decibel this week stages a never-before-attempted complete performance of John Cage’s colossal Variations to celebrate the centenary of the maverick composer’s birth.

One can only imagine the dignified self-righteousness with which a young John Cage might have looked into the eye of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, and defiantly uttered the words, “Then I shall dedicate my life to hitting my head against a brick wall.” The rebellious upstart had been told by his older colleague that, as someone with no feel whatsoever for harmony, Cage’s career as a composer would be doomed, and pursuing one would repeatedly bring him up against unsurmountable obstacles.

It was perhaps this crucial moment that galvanised Cage and set him on his path as a musical revolutionary. Far from being deterred, as any lesser mortal may have been, he went ahead to forge a new future for classical music by subverting old, comfortable truths on the nature of the artform and calling into question the role of the composer.

One hundred years after his birth, Cage’s ideas still boggle the mind for their intellectual breadth and limitless vision. Ever eager to push the envelope, Cage’s tireless curiosity took him on a voyage through numerous musical worlds – the prepared piano, non-standard use of instruments, multi-media works and, perhaps most importantly, aleatoric or chance music – influencing generations of composers and sound artists after him.

To mark Cage’s 100th birthday, Perth-based new music ensemble Decibel are celebrating his genius with the first-ever complete rendering of his Variations. Decibel premiered the works at the Goethe Institut in Palermo, Sicily early this year as a part of their first European tour, impressing the audience with their use of mobile and graphic scores and innovative computer programming skills. They repeated the performance last month at the Western Australian Museum in Perth, as the first instalment of TURA New Music’s Scale Variable chamber concert series.

The Variations are a gargantuan set of eight separate works, each a complex world unto itself and based on distinct aleatoric premises. Cage’s scores are by turns graphic and textual and always painstakingly difficult to prepare, requiring meticulous interpretative work. In Variations I, II and III, scores consist entirely of points, lines and circles on plastic transparencies. The performers of Variation V are instructed to use an astronomical chart. And Variation IV, often described as the pivotal work in the series, plays with the idea of sound spatialisation, including the distribution of its sound sources as a part of the score.

Key to Decibel’s take on the Variations is the realisation that many of the works’ chance operations could be executed using programming software in a way that was both musically satisfying and faithful to Cage’s vision. Programming languages Max/MSP and Java become the tools that enabled Cage’s musical indications to leap from plastic transparencies onto a large screen as organic, graphic representations moving in real time, that both performers and audience can follow as the pieces unfold. In this way, Cage’s inscrutable scores which, in other performances, often need to be thoroughly annotated, can be instantly and intuitively interpreted.

This distinctive approach to performance is not new to Decibel. Last year, they premiered The Talking Board, a work co-composed by two of the ensemble’s members (artistic director Cat Hope and Linsday Vickery) for which they developed the programming since adapted for the interpretation of the star chart in Variation V. And their innovative mobile scores are by now an established ensemble trademark, having already featured in numerous concerts.

In the short time since its inception in 2009, Decibel has quickly made a name for itself as one of Australia’s most cutting-edge new music outfits. Its members (Hope, Vickery, Stuart James, Malcolm Riddoch, Tristen Parr and Aaron Wyatt) are committed to the realisation of an inclusive sonic artform that defies classification as either sound art, music or installation. They were awarded last year’s AMC/APRA Art Music Inaugural Award for Excellence in Experimental Music and, in 2010, they released a CD of original music by Hope and Vickery entitled Disintegration: Mutation.

On their recent tour to Europe, they played to enthusiastic audiences in Belgium, Holland, Germany and Italy. Any sense of Australian inferiority they could have experienced in the great motherland of classical music was quickly shrugged off as their talents were validated by some of the giants of the European new music scene, including Armin Köhler, director of the Donaueschingen festival. “He really engaged with us”, says Decibel artistic director Cat Hope. “He loved our programming style and found it very different from anything anyone else was doing. It was very affirming.”

It is with cemented self-confidence, then, that Decibel returned from Europe to perform Cage’s Variations at the WA Museum in late March. Now, they will take the works to The Cage in Us, a Brisbane festival on April 12–14 celebrating Cage’s life and work. A program more appetising to the sonic adventurer in each of us could hardly have been dreamt up: one of Australia’s most vigorous new music ensembles playing one of last century’s most audacious works to honour the centenary of the American avant-garde’s greatest iconoclastic.

In all this, I suppose, we have good old Schoenberg to thank. If he hadn’t told the cold, hard truth, bursting poor John Cage’s bubble and, ultimately, reinforcing his resolve to go out there and be himself – not a composer, that is, but more an inventor of sound ideas – we might have missed out on some of the 20th century’s most exciting musical developments and, well, we wouldn’t be here today celebrating his centenary.

Decibel performs the complete Cage Variations at The Cage in Us, a festival celebrating the music and life of John Cage, at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in Brisbane, this Saturday April 14 at 7.30pm.