Decibel ensemble with student composers
WA Academy of Performing Arts

The conductor cued the beginning and the members of Decibel ensemble simultaneously pressed the space bar on their computers. This almost-comic choreographed moment demonstrated the relationship between electronic and acoustic instruments which is now a big part of contemporary composition.

Decibel ensemble was performing a program of music created by WAAPA students in response to the philosophies of musical revolutionary John Cage. The piece in question was Chance Images by Kevin Penkin which required performers to play cells of music as they appeared randomly on the computer screen. Jack Moriarty used chance to determine the construction of Music for Digital Spaces. His 3D score – potentially the first of its kind in music history – was projected on a screen and the spinning mobile of blocks and circles interpreted by bass clarinet, bass flute, cello and electronics. Meg Travers updated Cage’s fascination with radio to the medium of twitter, using message feeds from CNN and related Morse code rhythms as the basis for Breaking News. Jake Steele’s Bleep Test extrapolated Cage’s interest in games into a sprint test for the performers who had to deliver their passage of music before the next beep.

Henry Andersen’s Pulmonary Sketches was a standout with its throbbing rhythms and eerie ending. The sounds were derived from the recording of a heartbeat, the sound Cage couldn’t escape when he famously visited an anechoic chamber to listen to silence.

The award for best composition went to Samuel Gillies for Music of Transitions which, in contrast to Cage’s preference of listening to sounds as isolated entities, explored the properties of music as it moved between sounds. The performers followed a graphic score and their contributions were looped and played through opposing speakers. The darker timbres of bass clarinet, viola and bass flute muttered conversationally while tom-tom drums thudded and the manipulated electronic sounds added an industrial and sometime bird-like quality to the soundscape.

The depth and diversity of works paid tribute not only to the innovations of Cage but also indirectly to the vibrant composition program currently running at the academy under Lindsay Vickery.

copyright The West Australian May 2012