Music

Small, quirky and weird – Australian New Music ensembles have moved their inventive processes online, with some delightful results. By Harriet Cunningham.

New Music online

A screenshot from Lionel Marchetti’s La Patience, part of Decibel New Music Ensemble’s 2 Minutes from Home project.
Credit: Lionel Marchetti

One of the few advantages of working in a chronically underfunded, marginalised corner of the arts – such as, say, New Music – is that you develop a remarkable ability to adapt and survive. The grant is cut, the gig falls through, the car breaks down and you can’t afford to get it fixed but, somehow, you keep playing, you keep making music. This means that when a global pandemic rocks up and disrupts the entire music ecosystem, you are uniquely equipped to flex your creative superpowers.

Over the past four months, while the monoliths of the performing arts world scraped by on JobKeeper and back catalogues, the quirky, weird and wonderful realms of New Music have been supporting each other and sharing their limited resources. Some have adapted live performance for online presentation; some have repurposed funds from cancelled performances, instead offering commissioning fees and project funding; and others have given away any attempt to replace the traditional concert experience in favour of reinventing the art of organised sound for a socially distanced world.

Claire Edwardes, virtuoso percussionist and artistic director of Ensemble Offspring, was one of the first to experiment with a new performing protocol when she set up a series of intimate studio concerts for 20 ticketed audience members. The hour-long Zoom meeting came directly from her studio (aka a small room in her house), using a single camera, a couple of microphones and an abundance of goodwill. The sound was not great and the vision was worse, but the act of sitting and listening with others while someone performed, albeit on a screen, was strangely moving in lockdown.

About the same time, Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt launched the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall (MDCH), selling $20 tickets to one-hour concerts of classical music and New Music, live-streamed from Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre and other locations, with professional videography and broadcast technicians. The MDCH experience goes some way towards being a temporary substitute for live concerts, especially if you sit down five minutes before in your best trackies, preferably with a glass of wine. More to the point, the MDCH has raised nearly $600,000 for performers since lockdown began.

However, as in Edwardes’ studio concerts, without a live audience the performance feels essentially incomplete, especially when the musicians face the auditorium, empty but for a sound desk and cameras, and take their bows in silence. I can’t help thinking of it as an anthropological investigation into the curious ritual of communal listening.

But so much for filling the concert gap. What if you gave away the idea of replicating a concert experience online and, instead, made new work specifically for the digital space? This is where it gets interesting.

When composer Damian Barbeler, like so many other musicians, found himself at home with time and ideas on his hands, he decided to repurpose existing projects for online delivery. Then, in the process of setting up a website, he realised he could also offer young composers – including students he taught at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music – a flexible, low-cost space in which to experiment. So began hiberNATION, “an online festival for sharing lo-fi, intimate, roughly produced experimental projects by artists at home”.

From April to July, the hiberNATION website became a hub for a festival of sound, with live streams four nights a week, a gallery of sketches and music visualisations, the “an art a day” collection and a series of collaborative artworks. While Barbeler is the mastermind behind hiberNATION, his involvement of recent music graduates Liam Mulligan and Elizabeth Jigalin as co-curators ensures that the project is laced with Gen Z know-how and humour. There is the Zoom Meeting for Inanimate Objects, for example, an unexpectedly compelling collaborative work featuring inanimate objects having a Zoom meeting. Or Care Packages for Ensemble Offspring, a play on the YouTube phenomenon of unboxing videos, where nine Ensemble Offspring artists, in different locations, simultaneously open care packages from various composers, then perform the contents. It’s chaos, but it’s also a delight.

HiberNATION is not a substitute for live performances. Collaboration is central and, as the curators say, “failure is an option”. Although a random browse is fun, the process is more important than the outcome. But as an alternative space for art, and as a support network for the New Music community – especially those who are isolated and without access to sophisticated equipment or fast broadband – hiberNATION is powerful. If you have to #stayathome, why not #playathome?

While hiberNATION is the messy accident of life with Covid-19, Decibel New Music Ensemble’s response is more sophisticated. Its 2 Minutes from Home project showcases a bespoke iOS app, Decibel ScorePlayer, which allows multiple performers to play a work together, following a place marker across a score. It’s similar to the paperless sheet-music apps now being adopted by many mainstream ensembles, including the Australian Chamber Orchestra. But instead of being confined to traditional music notation – such as crotchets and quavers on manuscript paper – it can accommodate any kind of notation from a traditional stave to an infographic to a freehand doodle. Not only that, but it can also be annotated, colour coded, and set to run forwards or backwards or even to track a random path through a graphic score because, well, why not?

After Covid-19 shut down Decibel’s live program in 2020, the ensemble redirected its funding towards commissioning new work. Twenty new works, in fact, for 20 composers around the world. Each work is two minutes long, and created for the Decibel ScorePlayer. The ensemble members perform from their homes, “making and experiencing music apart, together”. The short videos, put together by Karl Ockelford, combine the graphic score with the musicians’ playing in real time. A new one gets posted on Vimeo every second Friday, alongside a podcast interview between the composer and an ensemble member. As I write this, there are six.

It’s only when you sit down to view these miniatures that you begin to conceive of the possibilities. Yes, they are just two minutes long, but there is so much going on in each work. Louise Devenish’s Taut, for example, is disarmingly simple: six players, each with a china bowl, and six dotted lines indicating what to play. But behind its DIY simplicity is the idea of proliferating information, the drips of data about Covid-19 creating a complex, polyrhythmic cacophony. Or there’s the grungy noise of Gail Priest’s 6 Grades of Grain, where elliptical shapes of different grades of sandpaper form a collage for five players to interpret, sonically. Or the analog charm of Lionel Marchetti’s La Patience, constructed from ripped manuscript paper and inky scribbles. This is not background music: this is art that demands your full attention for two minutes of intense sensory immersion, where sounds and visuals and ideas are intricately woven together.

No doubt theatres and concert halls will reopen, and live music will crawl out from its Covid-19 cocoon some time in the future. But the New Music scene is not inclined to hold its breath – not for the “new normal”, not for adequate funding or even a favourable political environment. It’s doing what it always does: making music for now. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2020 as "Striking Chords".

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Harriet Cunningham is a writer and critic based in Sydney.