The vicious gender attacks surrounding Julia Gillard’s prime ministership were well documented in the media. Composer Cat Hope commissioned eight women composers to ‘sound out’ a response to Gillard’s tenure as prime minister. The result, performed by Decibel ensemble in Sydney last year and now co-presented in Perth by Tura and PICA, is an incisive example of music as social commentary.
The theme of noise and interference was explored in several works, most overtly in Andree Greenwell’s Arrows I, II where the pure harmonies of four female singers became increasingly obscured by venomous voices yelling “ditch the witch”, “Bob Brown’s bitch” and other now-famous insults. In Cathy Milliken’s Shifrorl a dialogue between members of Decibel’s six-piece ensemble became increasingly confrontational before an elegiac conclusion played on wheezing harmonicas. Cat Hope’s comic Tough it Out used a set of instructions sent to the performers over headphones to disrupt their performance. In Laura Jane Lowther’s Loaded performers responded to media headlines with musical ideas that were then played back with distortion.
Michaela Davies’ Goldfish Variations made a quirky but pointed comment as the actions of two goldfish in a bowl were observed and interpreted by two performers. Thembi Soddell’s electro-acoustic Your Sickness is Found in My Body built into a frantic cacophony before an abrupt halt and in the stillness the lone sound of a fading flute note. Gail Priest used a quote from Gillard to determine the melodic material in Everything and Nothing.
Kate Moore’s enthralling Oil Drums was a bold work of orchestral density created by layering piano chords, syncopated instrumental rhythms, electronic thrumming and drones over the throbbing sound of 44-gallon drums.
The diversity and uniqueness of these pieces is something I’ve come to expect from Australian women composers and the near-capacity crowd responded with great enthusiasm. Two things struck me: we need more concerts like this especially given that 25 percent of our composers are women (more than almost any other nation in the world); secondly this is a far more interesting and useful cultural exercise than commissioning music about Australian war history.