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15 August 2022

Prestigious works of animated instability: A reflective review of Cat Hope's new album Decibel

Decibel at Revelation Film Festival, Perth Image: Decibel at Revelation Film Festival, Perth  
© Edify Media

Daniel Portelli provides a reflective review of the new album Decibel by Cat Hope and two of their recent performances of Revolution and 2 Minutes From Home live in Melbourne and Perth.

In the recent tumultuous years under the COVID cloud, it's heartening to see the Australian new music scene is flourishing once again. The ensemble Decibel and composer Cat Hope are long time collaborators (since 2009 when Hope founded the ensemble), and now in 2022, it is a partnership that continues to go from strength to strength. These three projects may be tied together by their close proximity in release/performance, but together they are a strong reaffirmation of their dedication to transgress methodological borders and to venture down new modes of performance.

Conceptually, the album's opening track Majority of One is intriguingly objectless. A listener can lose themselves in the absence of stable points of fixed notes and metrical nodes. Terms like 'extended just intonation'[1] and 'syntonic commas' do not seem adequate in explaining a piece which sees pitch fundamentally different, as an infinite plane in flux. Disregarding harmonic ratios and proportions, the performers navigate the sinuosities without the fixity. The music of Catherine Lamb[2] comes to mind, specifically her concept of harmonical space and interacting spectra. Although a slightly different conception of a fixed/non-fixed harmonical plane, a subtle floating pitched aspect is still at play in both artists. As a listener, it invites an open, mind-wandering experience. The music is preoccupied with the sensation of tone, convergence-divergence, the stuttering effects of interference patterns, and therapeutic slowness.

Track 2 Juanita Nielsen draws its inspiration from the activist who advocated against the urban development in Sydney's Kings Cross, supported the Green Bans, and was involved in the alliance between the upper middle-class anarchists, communists, and the working class left. The passioned fast stochastic string playing, along with the wide piano glisses, high shrieking guitar, is woven into a dream-like haze of unsettling sounds; perhaps to denote the injustice of Nielsen's abduction and murder.

Like Juanita Nielsen, Chunk is hyper-virtuosic with the ferocity of a cyclone, a welcomed perceptual saturation mid-album. The mid-to-low spectral masking on these tracks obscures the identity and familiarity of the instruments to find new and unexpected splendour. A piano is generally stuck in equal temperament, in step wise gradations, but the speed and complexity of Chunk disrupts this rigidity, along with the wide clusters, tempi extremities, instrumental entanglement, and fast glissandi. It's reminiscent of Nancarrow's sound mass canons[3] [4], and Peter Ablinger's speaking piano[5]. Just like other works in this genealogy, the piece engages with the infinite plane between the division of temporal units. Beyond measuring things as ratios and propositions, Chunk seems more about micro-serendipitous alignment and mediated temporal approximations. As a 'defensive mechanism', the brain filters out pianistic features which then are transformed and processed as streams, blocks, shapes, and serrated lines. For the listener, the pointillistic non-uniformities are like immersing oneself in a frenzy of pixel noise.

In Wanderlust, a fluxus walking event is combined with unnervingly strange glisses, fast splatters of dial tones, and musique concrète bird sounds, traffic, and waves crashing. The field recording of walking a dog is a spatiotemporal performance of self in space, made during the COVID hard lockdown in Melbourne. It opens up a contemplative and purposeful experience for the performer, letting go of past memory associations, habitual pathways to disrupt the consumerist mindset that unknowingly infiltrates us and the urban landscape. In looking at these ordinary acts, this track is an exploration of how people make sense of social spaces and relations to others-especially during the disarray of a lockdown. This small act of social nonconformity can be surprisingly subversive. For the listener vicariously experiencing the walk, the colourful warping sounds become impressionistic for one's own imaginary guided sound walk.

Shadow Of Mill is a potent destabilising interrogation of the White Australia Policy, underlining the weight of its ramifications that has plagued us as a nation. A copy of the White Australia Policy is rubbed against the strings of the cello masking its clarity and suggests an eerily looming shadowy presence of abjected unease. The presence of the subtone and the demarcations were handled phenomenally in all its boldness. Shadow Of Mill feels like an important contribution to the growing genre of anti-racist music.

Image: Decibel New Music at Revelation Film Festival, Perth (2022) © Anthony Tran

Similarly, Decibel's recent concerts are impressive in their imagination, diversity, and scope. A live adapted version of Decibel's online project 2 Minutes from Home (performed on the 11 and 26 July in Perth and Melbourne), was a challenging technological feat handled masterfully. This community nurturing project fostered a platform for a new wave of musicians, encouraging them to reimagine their understanding of notation today. Bringing this adaptation to the stage offered the chance to read performers' body language live, deepening the audience's somatic level understanding of these pieces. Audio excerpts from composer interviews played intermittently, such as Gail Priest's insightful conceptual framing of her piece 6 grades of grain. 2 Minutes From Home is a playful destabilisation of the listening experience with the temporary suspension of certainty adding mystique to the experience.

The live concert of Revolution on 28 June in Melbourne showcased the versatility of the turntable in a chamber ensemble setting. An instrument that is always full of surprises not only on a mechanical level but how artists conceptually frame it or build new performance practices from it. In the performances, the turntable's arsenal of needle pops, knocks, fragmentary bursts, crackles, buzzes, and rumbles was embraced as an anempathetic juxtaposition to great effect. Equally compelling were the synchronisations of mini-jack pops in Lindsay Vickery's work agitation techniques in a closed system. These compositional choices, along with the intertextuality of the sampling, made for a dynamic concert full of diametrically and ontologically opposing sounds. The superimpositions in Annika Moses' piece V.K.W 96.1FM with needle noise, sax, muffled spoken word and jazz was subdued and distinct. Cat Hope's U Mangibeddu Nostru stands out with its lethargy and droning density. The final work The Gift defiantly embraces the pulse to a recording of John Cale reciting a story. An uplifting and playful way to end such a diverse concert.

The album/concerts of Cat Hope and Decibel have stayed true to their ethos of resisting definition, responding to these complicated times we live in and the resonance of history. This is a collaboration that embraces the powerful force of animated instability in the music, which makes for not just fascinating listening experiences, but ones that invite contemplation in amongst the maelstrom.


1 Sabat, M, 2015, 'On Ben Johnston's Notation and the Performance Practice of Extended Just Intonation': https://marsbat.space/pdfs/EJItext.pdf

2 Wooley, N, 'Interacting Spectra: A Conversation with Cat Lamb': https://soundamerican.org/issues/just-intonation/interacting-spectra-conversation-cat-lamb

3 Conlon Nancarrow, Study for Player Piano No. 40: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXFiq19-KSE<

4 Schlumpf, M, 'An Analysis and Sound Transformation of Several of Conlon Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano': https://www.martinschlumpf.ch/wp2013/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/The_greatest_Discovery.pdf

5 Speaking Piano "A Letter from Schoenberg" by Peter Ablinger: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBsXovEWBGo

Decibel is available in the AMC catalogue here.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Dr Daniel Portelli is an artist-academic who works as a sessional lecturer in music composition at Western Sydney University (WSU) and the University of New England (UNE). He is a Badugulang Fellow, and an Associate Fellow with the Advanced Higher Education Academy. Recent publications include Leonardo Music Journal, ADSR Zine, and the Journal of Embodied Research. He is an alumnus of the Centre for Research in New Music at the University of Huddersfield (UK), where he was awarded a PhD in composition. He is also a peer assessor for the Australia Council for the Arts, working as an Industry Advisor for experimental, contemporary classical music, and the cross-disciplinary arts.


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