DECIBEL JOURNAL: CAT HOPE AND KELLY LOVELADY ON THE DECIBEL/RUTHLESS JABIRU COLLABORATION IN LONDON ON 2ND DECEMBER 2022
Artistic Director of Decibel Cat Hope is working with Kelly Lovelady, the conductor and founding Artistic Director of London chamber orchestra Ruthless Jabiru on a new program, The Holy Presence of as part of Decibel’s tour to the UK underway right now. Here, they discuss the program and the rationale behind it.
Cat Hope (CH): Decibel are so looking forward to participating in this collaboration with Ruthless Jabiru. Our collaboration started with a discussion about what kind of theme would suit a collaboration between these two groups, what interested both of us, and what kind of sonic worlds we could create through this interest. We spoke about our common interests – climate change, the plight of refugees as a result of that, as well as my personal obsession with low frequency sound worlds. We sent a few works backwards and forwards, making suggestions to each other, but the idea of a new work for bass guitar and low frequency orchestra by me was something of a starting point, right?
Kelly Lovelady (KL): You offered a world premiere of a major new work and with yourself as soloist – no way was I going to turn that down! You and I share a passion for using our practice to connect with social justice issues so I’ve been wanting to collaborate for a long time. I also loved the name of the piece, Never at Sea. Ideas for sonic and conceptual links were flowing straight away which is always a good sign.
CH: The name Never At Sea comes from a project I am working on with visual artist Kate McMillan, where we are creating a new installation with the same name. Kate found the motto for the Women’s Royal Naval Service (known as the Wrens), a women’s branch of the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy founded in 1917. Like Kate, I enjoy the complex meanings and contradictions of this title, and elements of this piece and its premiere performance will reappear in that installation. This is the first bass guitar solo I’ve written out for myself, as I usually improvise on this instrument. That is something I usually do for others, but I think the curatorial process acted as a guide for how this work evolved.
KL: For me concert curation is a real driving force. I love thinking deeply about connections between different works on a programme and how to create a space for them to coexist in an organic whole. This project was always going to involve digital notations given Decibel’s innovation in that area, so our programme includes animated, graphic and text scores. Of the traditionally notated works, one is open scoring/flexible instrumentation, and another uses graphic elements for extended techniques. The most familiar presenting on paper, Julius Eastman’s The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc, is actually a transcription of a radio broadcast as Eastman’s manuscript was famously a casualty of his home eviction, left out in binbags for the NYC Department of Sanitation. Most of Eastman’s music uses graphic notation as a mnemonic device: lately I’ve come to think of them as oral scores which were essentially passed down in the rehearsal room. Obviously, we’re lucky to have a score at all but I think the original would have elicited a very different energy from its musicians. I feel a huge responsibility to liberate this piece from the fixed notation it now comes to us in and hoping this programme will put us in a headspace to do that.
It’s a given that each of the six works we’ve chosen have different rules and freedoms but that same flexibility also applies within each piece. We’re all familiar across genres with structured improvisation over a composed element. For me in your music the fixed aspect is textural-timbral. Is this how you also see it? A score can be a work of art but it’s still just a means to getting the right sound. I love your noise bass improv albums – ditch the rulebook and write yourself as much freedom as you need to be in that zone.
CH: I like this idea of ‘making a headspace’ as part of a curatorial frame. Whilst I love the beauty of some graphic scores (and I will say here that not all mine fit into that category!), they definitely all have different sliding scales of rules and freedoms. Mine are actually quite strict in some ways. But I use graphic notation because it enables me to describe musical elements that traditional notations are not very good at doing – like, as you point out, timbre and texture. Graphic notations also provide space to engage with thematic material visually, and that is something I have definitely done in this work. I have tried to make notations that are somehow connected to the sea, and the idea of it as some kind of liminal space for people. Emigrants, immigrants, refugees, navy, sailors… I draw on my own experience as a teenage competitive swimmer, where I thought a lot about my body in the water, especially the ‘line’ between the air and the water. The “real world” where you take breathing for granted, and the strange underwater space where I always felt somewhat alien and close to death – where if I just took a breath in the wrong place and time, that would be it! Then in the surf of the ocean, the pull of the tides and waves, being confronted with the ocean’s strength and my feeble weakness in comparison. I have thought a lot about the contrast of my own experience of water, to those who must take to the water out of necessity – often life and death situations. And those who now must confront the water in other ways, as it encroaches on the places they call home. In Never At Sea, I describe flow, depth, tidal pull and surface tension in the notation, and that of course is what creates the sound world. Lines are much better at describing the long durations I am exploring than the odd circular shapes ‘tied’ together in traditional music notations – drawing lines as notation means I can erase the pulsed counting implied in metered notations. I think this has a big influence on the way players approach time when they are playing the piece. The Decibel ScorePlayer software provides a way to coordinate players when reading these scores, by providing a consistent ‘point of performance’ through time, just as tempo does in traditional notations. The conductor is still important though, as you bring more depth to the interpretation of the score.
KL: Thanks! For this piece we also have sections of the orchestra playing the same notated part. Although each player will choose their individual pitch range, I think there still needs to be a sectional sound so I can help with that too. I’m excited to be working in Decibel ScorePlayer – a really ground-breaking piece of kit! The auto-scrolling score is a mental shift for me as internally I’m not always at the point of performance, but constantly moving back and forth between real-time and what’s coming down the line. It’s also important for me to not be visually dependent on a score so I can listen and engage with what’s happening in the room. While I do prefer to conduct with a score in front of me, I use a lot of memorisation techniques to free me up and internalise the music. With a hard copy, I’m taking a quick snapshot every now and then as a memory trigger and those memories are often visual—where something is happening on a page for example. Having said all that, I’m always open to new ways of working and the untapped creative possibilities they might open up… so bring it on!
It’s weird that the animated score brings such a sense of urgency for me when all music is really happening within this same dynamic continuum. My score study process is so disconnected from real-time – I can literally spend hours untangling a few seconds of music so I guess it’s just a shock when all that preparation scrolls by so quickly! One observation so far is that scrolling can seem to exaggerate the importance of note lengths which I don’t think is necessarily always the highest priority. I appreciated our recent conversation about your vision to bring graphic scores into better alignment with traditional notations: basically approaching these as we would any other music and with the same amount of humanity.
CH: Well for me, it’s about musicianship. This is something all musicians share, whether we read traditional or graphic notations, improvise, DJ, or play folk music. I really believe graphic notations, if they can be coordinated in a way that facilitates this musicianship, are the best chance we have to keep music reading alive. I liken musicianship and music reading to a sense of music community, and Decibel has always been keen to support local artists. So for this UK tour opportunity, I was glad to hear you were also keen to feature works from the hometown we share, Perth. Composer Pedro Alvarez’s Intersperso-Ultradiano (2018) was commissioned by Decibel for our ‘electronic concerto’ program in Perth that year. This also features the bass guitar in something of a soloistic role, and has been newly adapted for our expanded orchestra. We also had Decibel member Lindsay Vickery’s bascule (2016), a piece with a relationship to the River Thames which he has similarly adapted for this concert. It is what Vickery calls a ‘spectral orchestration’ of a recording made by Ian Rawes of The London Sound Survey entitled Bascule Chamber: North. The bascule itself is a chamber below London’s Tower Bridge, built to allow for the movement of counterweights used to lift the drawbridge. It ties in very well to this venue – which now I have had a chance to see it, is amazing!
KL: I love the Bascule Chambers and have been trying to figure out how to get an orchestra down there for years. Logistics are challenging and we’ve more than doubled the heavy end of the band otherwise it could have been a great space for this project! Instead, we’ve gone with an equally cool option 2km downstream – the old entrance to the first ever underwater tunnel which connected Rotherhithe and Wapping below the Thames: the Brunel Tunnel Shaft.
I was looking for a playing space that resonated with Never at Sea and the feeling of being overwhelmed by water. It’s important to me that Ruthless Jabiru’s projects have an impact beyond the performance itself and tell a real human story. We have this opportunity to capture people’s imaginations and emotions through sound and sensation so why not direct that energy towards a problem that needs solving if we can find an authentic way to do so. It was right around the time we started talking about your concept for the piece that I stumbled onto the story of Fairbourne in Mid Wales. This low-lying village is going to be underwater in 30 years thanks to climate change. To compound the problem, rather than pour money into their sea defences or more creative water management solutions, the council has opted instead to raze Fairbourne to the ground and split up 450 families with generational ties to its land and community. You and I were talking about resisting the forces of the ocean and I couldn’t get this story out of my head. Fairbourne’s residents are facing a complex set of problems that we won’t solve through our music, but I hope we can add some people power to their cause by sharing it.
CH: I do believe music can do this – creating a very personal, internal and abstract ‘thinking space’ for people working through their responses to complex issues, particularly if they are only just learning about them, or issues that are ongoing and causing what is now known as ‘compassion fatigue’. I also think that the type of vibration in the body caused by very low frequency sound creates a kind of physicality for that thinking space, making it somehow more emotional and embodied. Pedro often links his work to political issues in similar ways, and I am very fortunate he chose to feature electric bass guitar in Intersperso-Ultradiano, making it a great fit for this program. In it, he presents a series of macro-textures by blending synthesised and acoustic sounds. The harmonic material is derived from the solo electric bass’ scordatura and presented in flexible time and timbral scales, creating what he calls a “topological approach to musical form”. In this way, the piece ties into the concepts of flow and place we have been talking about.
KL: Exactly – Pedro’s adaption of the work for us stays true to his original but now with the addition of string orchestra as a dynamic, sympathetic drone that adds even more depth to his harmonies. In their revisions, both Pedro and Lindsay have chosen to keep Decibel as a solo subset of the orchestra which I’m looking forward to hearing. There’s a lot to learn from you guys about this sort of music! It’s going to be so much fun bringing the different rehearsal styles of our two groups into a dialogue.
I really love the programme we’ve decided to go with. There are heaps of sonic links between pieces and although it wasn’t a deliberate part of our curatorial process, also resonances with climate and protest across their titles. My goal is to lay the groundwork for Never at Sea to be the hero – setting up the ear and emotional state of the audience through everything that comes before it. I’m not sure if anyone’s programmed Eastman’s The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc as an introductory piece before as it’s such a mammoth undertaking, but I really wanted that unrelenting quality of dissent that it brings as a protest anthem. To make it work in the context of our show we’ll play an abridged version but which I think carries just as much the power as the original.