Tristen Parr’s work Us and Them for Decibel New Music Ensemble’s Two Minutes from Home project sees the players grouped by state – which was the situation the musicians found themselves in during the COVID lockdowns and border closures in Australia, split between Perth and Melbourne. The pre-recorded message of WA’s COVID hotline playing in the background – in a piece that begins in anxious dissonance and ends with the wry humour of ‘on hold’ jazz.

A still from Louise Devenish’s Taut. Photo © Karl Ockelford

Artists and organisations all over the country were forced to change the way they work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The unique situation saw projects – like Ensemble Offspring’s video project Lone Hemispheres: The Solo Sessions – emerge from 2020 both inspired and constrained by what became the new normal.

Two Minutes from Home saw Decibel commission a series of 20 works, each two minutes long, for the Decibel ScorePlayer, an app designed to coordinate the reading of scores that use graphic notation, allowing the performers to view the same scrolling score simultaneously on multiple devices. At two minutes long, each piece is a concise exploration of a particular idea, sound or texture – almost the musical equivalent of a short story. All the composers chosen have worked with Decibel in the past, though have not necessarily written for the ScorePlayer, and the list includes Decibels own members.

While near the beginning of the project Limelight described the works as “beautiful, eye-catching miniatures”, what’s fascinating about approaching the series as a whole – beyond even the wide array of musical ideas, sound-worlds, visual effects and use of the technology – is the way these 20 works become a kind of anthology of the 2020 experience for these musicians and composers.

Many of the pieces reflect on life during lockdown, such as the sense of stagnation and claustrophobia in Dominic Flynn’s Always Quiet or Dan Thorpe’s tense ‘none of this is helpful after midnight’ or in the sound world created by domestic objects in Louise Devenish’s Taut.

Looking at the bigger picture, Erik Griswold’s Pandemic is almost chirpy, until you realise the intensifying sound is the musicians interpreting graphs of the COVID-19 virus’s spread in different countries – an alarming crescendo of sound.

The jagged lines of counterpoise, by Decibel’s Stewart James respond to the pandemic in a more abstract sense, while Jon Rose’s cacophonous Data Data plays on the various pronunciations of the word the composer heard spilling out of his radio. Over beating drum, Pedro Alvarez’s Chronotope-Situation No 2 incorporates astringent electronics crowd-sourced from his circle of friends on social media. Cathy Milliken’s glittering View from Vega II explores time and space, inspired in part by hearing the term “temporal distancing”.

Other works, like J. G. Thirlwell’s Angel of Retribution, take aim at a broader political climate – Thirwell draws on the US election and COVID-19 response, while Lindsay Vickery’s Mueller sees the performers interpret the black redacted passages of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election as the report flicks by.

Some of the pieces explore territory beyond the pandemic and contemporary political situation, such as the arrangement of jewellery that forms the visual score for Aaron Wyatt’s Glisten, the dense and tenebrous Let go of Control by Thembi Soddell, Icelandic composer Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir’s ethereal Soap, the visceral exploration of texture and surface in Gail Priest’s 6 Grades of Grain, Lionel Marchetti’s enigmatic La Patience or the final work in the series, Haruka Hirayama’s exquisitely haunting depiction of snow in winter, Tsumotta Yuki.

Marina Rosenfeld offers up a fascinating challenge with A Martial Exercise in Togetherness, her words – musings on musical notation – ascending the screen, the only real instructions in the final sentence: “Please accept this diatribe as a score.” Amanda Stewart’s Soup (Tautology 12) is inspired by the sounds created by human infants in their first few months of life.

There is an element of community to the Two Minutes from Home project in that it brings in – and employs – composers who are part of the wider artistic community Decibel has cultivated. But that sense of community is more intimate in Artistic Director Cat Hope’s own contribution, Delay Taints, which brings together Tristen Parr on cello and movement artist Laura Boynes, siren-like slides reflecting the curvature of blue and red lines weaving across a score which Hope created as a marriage gift for the pair.

Two Minutes from Home rewards both ‘snacking’ and a more album-like approach to listening, while the videos mean the audience gain an insight into how the graphic scores can be interpreted. Just as the films of Ensemble Offspring’s Solo Sessions are unified by the direction of Michelle St Anne, Two Minutes from Home’s visual style is given a cohesive style by Karl Ockelford, who gently and thoughtfully incorporates the performing musicians in engaging videos that showcase the scores without overpowering. Ockelford’s own ‘bonus’ Two Minutes from Home contribution, Roll With It, is well worth checking out.

For those wanting a deeper experience, an accompanying podcast series includes interviews with each of the composers featured in the series and this collection promises to have a life beyond COVID as well, with the entire set to be performed live by Decibel in Melbourne in July.

Two Minutes from Home is available online now

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