John Cage (1912-1992) turns 100 this year and Decibel ensemble are joining in the worldwide circus with their own birthday party. Their Perth performance of Cage’s complete Variations spun heads with its impressive technology and persuasive improvising. Cage’s scores were projected on screens so audience could watch in delight as random collections of circles and squiggles were interpreted by improvising artists – those in the building and those around the world who were connected via skype.

Tomorrow (Saturday) Decibel are doing a repeat performance in Brisbane, and you can guarantee that nothing will be the same. The maverick may be dead but his music is reborn every time it is performed.

Here is my review from the Perth concert:


Decibel Ensemble

Hackett Gallery, WA Museum
Review: Rosalind Appleby
First published theWest Australian  March 2012

Decibel ensemble has compiled John Cage’s series of eight Variations (1958-1967) into one program – the first time this has been done. The group have recently returned from touring the program through Europe and their performance on Wednesday night showcased the group’s affinity for Cage’s playfully provocative music.

The ensemble made good use of the old Hackett Gallery library with musicians and audience spread around the hall. In Variations I and II bass clarinet, violin, alto flute and cello sounds floated from the balcony. Thanks to modern technology it was possible to follow on screens the various permutations of Cage’s graphic scores. The score of Variation III was a series of overlapping circles, interpreted with delicate detail by Stuart James on drum kit.

In Variation IV the score was superimposed onto a floor plan of the concert venue and directed the performers where (but not what) to play. The members of Decibel disappeared through various doors and the result was a distant, surround-sound experience of whistling, radio noise and thuds.  Cage’s pointed comment on the need for improvising artists to draw from within but also get out of the way is just as pertinent today.

Decibel used proximity antennas and light sensitive devices (technical wizardry Cage would have loved) to aurally trace the movements of four dancers in Variation Five. The ensemble also added their own stamp to Variation VI which featured guitars leaning against amps which were manipulated and controlled through effects pedals. In Variation VII electronic communication tools including laptops and iphones created a chaotic buzz of noise. Variation VIII gave satisfying closure with a ‘performance’ by the room itself, using a feedback system that listened to the resonant frequency of the room. The drones and humming resonated peacefully through the space and tuned our ears to the world of sound around us. This was a thoughtful, stimulating and polished tribute to Cage on the 100th anniversary of his birth.