★★★½☆ Decibel blows the traditional concerto out of the water.

Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts
October 24, 2017

The 13th Totally Huge New Music Festival has kicked off in Perth with workshops by artists in residence Anne Le Baron and Speak Percussion, a late-night improvisation club, a sound installation, a young artists’ concert and an electronics/multimedia performance.

On Tuesday night Decibel performed a programme of eight electronic concerto commissions.

Like most of their programmes, Decibel took the traditional understanding of the concerto and blew it out of the water. The soloist instruments in the spotlight were the Theremin, Trautonium, laptop, loudspeakers, Moog synthesiser, toys, electric harp and bass guitar. Paired with the six electro-acoustic performers from Decibel, the sonic potential was almost limitless and invariably interesting.

As Decibel director Cat Hope said in her programme notes, the focus was not virtuosity but rather “to challenge the way we think about our relationship to electronic instruments as performers and audience.”

It wasn’t bombastic. Pedro Alvarez’s Intersperso-Ultradiano featuring Cat Hope on electric bass came close with its squealing white noise cadenza, but much of the concerto was played with extreme sensitivity by the ensemble and the guitar was often unamplified – effectively mute.

Rather the challenges came as more subtle inversions. In Johannes Mulder’s Stolen Goods (stocketus) the material for the soloist (a stack of loudspeakers) was constructed from phrases ‘stolen’ from the ensemble (viola, cello, bass clarinet, bass guitar, percussion and electronics). A sliding bass guitar fragment and a haunting bell toll were heard played back through the speakers a few seconds later. The ensemble sounds became increasingly shorter – pecks and splats heard in quick succession – until ultimately the instrumentalists and amplification worked simultaneously, culminating in a unison finale of soft questioning chords.

A similar idea occurred in reverse in Catherine Ashley’s electric harp work Concerto Games. Melodic fragments from Ashley on harp (the plucked and scraped steel strings sounding like an electric guitar) were mimicked by percussionist Louise Devenish who passed the idea on to bass flute and so on in a fabulous game of Chinese whispers. The material was often barely recognisable when it reached the last instrument in the group but it created effective cohesion.

Perhaps the most ‘trad’ concerto was Patchwork RSQ Remix by Chris Tonkin for Moog synthesiser. The work opened with Tonkin delivering a solo melody line on the synthesiser over a quasi walking bass line from the accompanying cello. Tonkin took centre stage spinning dials like a DJ to create distortions and pitch bending. The Moog even had its own cadenza accompanied by a gently humming chord from the bass clarinet, a reverberating wine glass and an electronic sine tone.

The most affecting performance came from Dan Thorpe’s Limp Wrist where the Theremin featured as soloist, performed by Jos Mulder. The Theremin (a precursor to the Moog synthesiser) is an electronic instrument invented in the 1920s and designed to produce pure sine waves controlled by the proximity of the performer’s hands between two antennas.  Short, vivid and achingly sad, Mulder cued the Theremin sine wave into an incremental descent by performing a slow forward bow, accompanied by soft scratching from viola and cello and video footage of an outstretched hand.

Stuart James created unique laptop software for Noise in the Clouds so that, similar to the Theremin, the performer Kouhei Harada used hand gestures in front of his laptop screen to generate electronic sounds. Arcs of sliding pitch, rustling wind and white noise from the laptop were accompanied by eerie microtones from the ensemble creating an immersive aural experience.

Meg Travers is on a quest to preserve the world’s understanding of ancient, analogue musical artefacts and so her Southern Currents featured a Trautonium she built based on the 1929 German original. Travers played a small keyboard while her left hand used dials to alter the sound. She devised a fairly democratic graphic score from a weather map of the South Pole with the performers responding with soft delicate offerings and the Trautonium embedded within the ensemble rather than soloistic. A Theremin was part of the accompanying ensemble and its whining combined with the low synthesiser sound of the Trautonium created an eerie submerged sound world.

In Mark Oliveiro’s Motherboard – A Circuit Bend Concerto for hacked toys, the performance was also constructed from subtle video instructions. Electronic sounds from a toy – rendered almost unrecognisable by wires and hardware modifications – created an expansive opening movement with twinkling keyboard fragments and an underpinning pedal note followed by rapid fire electronic aggression and a final wash of electronic exhalation.

The festival’s kaleidoscope of new sounds continues until October 29 with a programme including concerts by Speak Percussion, Ross Bolleter (his ruined piano recital is sold out), trumpeter Callum G’Froerer, a sonic walk and a festival conference.


The Totally Huge New Music Festival runs until October 29.

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