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27 August 2020

Decibel and 2 Minutes from Home

Decibel (top row): Cat Hope, Stuart James, Louise Devenish - (2nd row) Lindsay Vickery, Tristen Parr, Aaron Wyatt. Image: Decibel (top row): Cat Hope, Stuart James, Louise Devenish - (2nd row) Lindsay Vickery, Tristen Parr, Aaron Wyatt.  

Cat Hope writes about Decibel's '2 Minutes from Home' project, for which 20 Australian and international composers were commissioned to create short works performed from the ensemble members' homes, for an online, audiovisual delivery. To find out more and watch all videos launched so far, check out the project page and Decibel's Vimeo channel.

Not long after it was made clear our 2020 concerts and tours were to be cancelled as the impacts of COVID 19 were rippling through the arts community, the Decibel new music ensemble came up with the '2 Minutes from Home' project, and submitted a successful application to the Australia Council's Resilience 'Create' fund. This would enable the commissioning of twenty composers to create two-minute pieces notated with the Decibel ScorePlayer, an iPad application developed by the ensemble to coordinate the reading of graphic notation by putting it in motion in different ways.

We selected artists with whom Decibel had worked before, or planned to work with in 2020, from around Australia and the world, asking them to use the software in their compositional process, with the aim to create unique audio visual outcomes that could be shared online across our social media channels. We had experienced success with showing graphic scores in performances previously, even dedicating an entire program to this presentation (Anime, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2015). But overall, we had avoided projecting scores in performance, hoping to maintain focus on the music itself, and elude reviews and commentary focusing on how the score looks or is read.

But these were unusual times: performance could only occur online for who knew how long, an opportunity to explore the way scores in the Decibel ScorePlayer could be presented alongside performances we made in our own homes. Karl Ockelford, who did the first Decibel photo shoot back in 2009, was commissioned to create these videos, and our long-time collaborators, Soundfield Studio, would mix the audio. Every two weeks, Decibel members would send in their audio and video parts to be set with the score in a video. It has been fascinating to see these videos evolve as the project progresses.

Of the twenty composers commissioned, sixteen are Australian. These are Jon Rose (NSW), Amanda Stewart (NSW), Erik Griswold (QLD), Dan Thorpe (SA), Dominic Flynn (TAS), Thembi Soddell (VIC), Pedro Alvarez (WA), Cathy Milliken (QLD/overseas) and J.G. Thirlwell (Aus/USA). The six members of the ensemble are included in this count, including those who compose rarely (Louise Devenish), only for themselves (Tristen Parr) or not at all (Aaron Wyatt). The international composers featured are Lionel Marchetti (France), Haruka Hirayama (Japan), Marina Rosenfeld (USA) and Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir (Iceland).

At time of print, seven of the works have been completed. Some address elements of the pandemic head on, others more tangentially. Erik Griswold uses the fluctuating numbers of cases around the world as a core organisational principal in his work Pandemic, using it to determine the duration and intensity of the harmonic structure for the piece. The videos are set amongst a formal graph paper background.

Others circle around aspects of pandemic life. Dominic Flynn reflects on lockdown time in Always Quiet, a vibrant score that incorporates strange MIDI versions of online collaboration attempts. Daniel Thorpe uses spoken word to provide thoughtful contemplation on the change in human contact during the pandemic in none of this is useful after midnight set against a simple, clean video layout.

In Louise Devenish's taut, the first in the series, the performers are invisible, only the instruments can be seen, the score seeming to float across the white background. Lindsay Vickery has created a piece of what US music technologist Jason Freeman calls 'extreme speed sightreading' in his piece in Mueller, using the redactions of Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election as performance cues. The video reflects the 'photocopied' quality of the report in the presentation of performers and score. Gail Priest's timbral exploration Six Grades of Grain is stimulated by text from music concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, and the score is shown large to enable a close look at the textures being 'read' by the instrumentalists.

Each collaboration is accompanied by a podcast featuring the piece, where the composer elaborates on their work and situation. Performing with the ScorePlayer comes up: given half of Decibel is in Perth and the other in Melbourne, and the composers further afield, ways of life are contrasting and changing, defining opportunities to source instruments, ideas or even enthusiasm. The regular, fast turnaround, self-supported technical requirements and brevity of the pieces can be challenging: focus can be difficult without the unique feeling of playing together in the same room. We have learnt how much that means to us. Recording parts in our own homes highlights feelings of separation and solitude, yet the project is holding us together. The mirror-like mobile phone video creates a tenuous link to what we know as performance, and, for the viewer of the final videos, a link to how the score is sounded. Our attempt is to keep our community together, whilst sharing Decibel's continuing journey through innovation in music making. The 'Two Minutes From Home' project has shown us that we need it now more than ever.

> Decibel: Two Minutes from Home (https://www.decibelnewmusic.com/2-minutes-from-home.html)


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