Seven new works commissioned by Decibel inspired by Julia Gillard’s term as Prime Minister

Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Studios Ultimo.
November 8, 2014

After Julia was devised by Cat Hope (Artistic Director of Decibel, composer, current composer in residence at the Peggy Glanville-Hicks house) and took place at the Eugene Goosens Hall, ABC Centre Sydney last Saturday evening 8 November 2014 from 7:30pm. The event was inspired by the tenure of Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, and how her leadership inadvertently exposed gender discrimination in parliament, leading to highlighting of gender discrimination throughout the country. Seven composers were commissioned to respond to this premise.

The concert as a whole not only presented different reflections on Julia Gillard’s term, but 7 completely different approaches to composition. Julia Gillard was in attendance and this perhaps attracted an audience who would not normally be seen at such a contemporary music event. The kaleidoscope of styles presented was an excellent introduction to the multifaceted sound world contemporary composers work in.

The concert was introduced by ABC presenter, and composer (and the previous composer in residence at the Peggy Glanville-Hicks house) Julian Day.

Gail Priest opened the program. Audiences are more familiar with her works for electronics and voice and music for cross art form collaborations. This acoustic work “Everything and Nothing” took an arbitrarily formulaic approach to the construction of her base melodic material which was derived from an excerpt of one of Julia Gillard’s speeches – “the reaction to being the first female Prime Mininster does not explain everything about my Prime Ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my Prime Ministership”.

The disjointed alto flute theme that stated the interpretation of this text into music was repeated and echoed in the other instruments of the ensemble. This created a pleasant lilting dissonance. There was a pause before the second section of the work – beginning with a viola and cello duet, drawing from a fragment of the original theme. The minimalist repetition was tastefully done but I personally felt its development to be too subtle. It was a very pared-back work with a sudden finish.

The next work “Your Sickness is Felt in my Body” by Thembi Soddell drew from studies of sexism and psychology – in particular a quote from an article – Landrine et al., (1995), “Physical and Psychiatric Correlates of Gender Discrimination”. It essentially said that mental illness within women is amplified and potentially caused by gender discrimination. A very powerful quote. The piece began with a very tense electronic backdrop, artistically capturing the beginning of a maligned mental state. This clear tension was built upon with Cat Hope and Lindsay Vickery’s masterfully controlled development of a sound world constructed of airy sounds, clicks and hints of notes. The foreboding electronic waves weighed heavily on the audience, and set the form of the work. The third and final large wave gave an appropriate development to the work, particularly with piano and drum, encapsulating the heightening of neurosis or anxiety.

The ensemble worked well with this piece, it was very well suited to Decibel, it seemed, as their capacity to follow an improvisation guided by graphic score is impeccable – as it is their speciality.

“Tough it Out” by Cat Hope was based on two elements; political popularity ratings graphs and the random disruption created by inappropriate sexist commentary. Her interpretation of the amalgamation of this arbitrary data source with aleatoric surprise elements was immediately understood by the audience, who reacted appropriately, making the connection between glissandi with popularity ratings and the musical outbursts with inappropriate commentary. This allowed audience to understand the music easily. My favourite component of this work was a string duet, and I felt that if the score was interpreted by a string quintet rather than the ensemble at hand, the work would have been even more successful. This work raised the question to me about the relationship between data sources, emotive intent (implied by the program), and the sound itself. This work married data with sound perfectly.

My favourite work of the program was “Shifrorl” by Cathy Milliken – but this is because of my personal tastes in music composition. A very obviously skilled orchestrator and highly developed sense of harmony, Cathy’s piece was a reflection on leadership which began with a very simple oscillation that morphed into erratic composition of masterfully shaped gestures, poised yet dynamic, bold. Some of it (particularly the opening passage) almost felt like a hinted quote from Stavinsky. The constant boldness of gesture became labouriuos but a perfectly timed relief of this theme transported the listener to a very familiar leadership conundrum; there was a solo flute playing a lyrical passage, undermined by tension building in assorted drums. It was a perfect reflection of the leadership challenge to be aware of the background anxieties, yet present and direct a positive outlook.

A more traditionally constructed work, the harmonies presented were exquisite, and a surprising ending where the performers picked up and droned on mouth organs was innovate and delightful. A beautiful work, transforming from section to section seamlessly – highly enjoyable for tis timbral variation and general harmonic development and language, yet remaining intact with good thematic transformation.

Michaela Davis’ “Goldfish Variations” was more of an installation work. A plinth was placed on the stage, a goldfish in a bowl on top, two singers on either side of the plinth interpreted the goldfish’s movements – vertical axis in pitch, horizontal in volume, movements in articulation (it seemed)…. I wasn’t sure of the second horizontal axis. The audience enjoyed it, but we understood the premise after a short period and I found myself thinking ‘ok, move on’ after about a minute. Another comical moment happened when the singers stopped their interpretation to feed the fish… This work felt very Fluxus, and although it is not of my personal taste, it was effective for audiences who enjoyed its comical nature. The concept of the work was insightful, and its demonstration, although lacking in musical interest for me, was comical and engaging. – “visible to the outside world but separate form it, the goldfish goes about its goldfish activities, unaware that its actions are being interpreted by others unseen to create outcomes beyond its control” (quote from Davis’ program note). 

Kate Moore’s “Oil Drums” was minimalistic, and I can correlate it with works by Nyman, Glass and Reich quite easily, in fact I could almost recognise the sound world of one of Glass’ “Qatsi” trilogy. The instrumentation was very full, with intense changes, and the constant pulse retained excitement. There seemed to be some balance issues that were fixed live during the performance, yet I felt that the balance between the oil drums used in the composition to the rest of th work could have been more skewed to the drums, rather than ensemble. We cannot know if this was composed or simply interpreted this way. Despite this issue, the work conjured imagery of staying focused on a goal, sailing through hazardous times, and I found it enjoyable.

Andrée Greenwell’s work “Arrows I, II” was composed with lyricist Hilary Bell. They took a fragment from one of Julia Gillard’s speeches, which was sung by soloist Helen Grimley, and interjected with sexist remarks against Julia that publically surfaced during the Gillard government. Andrée is a highly talented composer for music theatre and opera and this work showed her talents beautifully. Her use of melodic line for the soloist had influence from lines composed for other politically official or leadership roles in opera and music theatre. Helen’s timbre of voice and performance well-suited the work. She was leading an ensemble of young women vocalists who added further timbre and harmonic depth to the composition. The second song’s text was written by Australian playwright Hilary Bell. The composition was more of a popular style, and again showed off the outstanding talents of soloist Helen Grimely as a vocalist within more popular genres and Andrée Greenwell’s compositional prowess.  

In all, this concert is testament to Decibel’s flexibility as an ensemble – their ability to perform such disparate styles to a high level of proficiency is indicative of their passion and willingness to engage and explore. This was a concert for Artistic Director Cat Hope to be proud of.