In the seventies English composer Roger Smalley performed in the pioneering electro-acoustic ensemble Intermodulation. But he discarded his electronic explorations when he moved to Perth in 1976 and thought the style would mean little to the Australian public. Times have changed and Cat Hope and ensemble Decibel have brought the little-known repertoire back to life. Their concert which opened Tura’s Scale Variable series on Tuesday paid fascinating homage to Smalley who died in August last year.

The program was a surprisingly neat fit for Decibel which is similar in make-up to Intermodulation. Impulses (1986) could have been written with Decibel in mind as it was scored for flute, alto trombone, percussion, piano, cello and synthesiser. The ensemble revelled in the precision of Smalley’s fugal layers and moments of soloistic virtuosity.

Then there were the moments where Didgeridu (1974) brought to mind Cat Hope’s bass-heavy compositions with the sliding pitch and rhythmic patterns of the didgeridu manipulated through an archaic four channel tape machine.
The virtuosic early piano works Transformation (1968) and Monody (1971) performed by Adam Pinto and Stuart James respectively displayed Smalley’s first attempts at electronically manipulating live sound.

Decibel performing Zeitebenen at the Underground Studio c Bohdan Warchomij

Hope’s curatorial sleuthing unearthed the score for Zeitebenen (1973-75) – a pivotal work composed while Smalley was touring in Stockhausen’s ensemble – from behind a cupboard at the UWA School of Music. The 45 minute work for four instrumentalists, live electronics and tape was Smalley’s first attempt at expressing politics in music. The work’s three sections and 21 ‘moments’ (similar to Stockhausen’s Momente) and the rhythmic patterns derived from the Fibonacci series reflect Smalley’s career-long fascination with structure. His richly imaginative sound world included slowly evolving vowel sounds (referencing Stimmung), waves of electronic noise derived from the four natural elements and a section of street noise. The work started with the same melodic pattern as Monody and moved via a gradual downwards glissando to an electronic and acoustic battle against the industrial destructive aspects of humanity, ultimately resolved by a victorious thump on the bass drum by percussionist Louise Devenish. 

This review copyright The West Australian 2016.