Deep and Low: Australian Ensembles Meet in London Tunnel Shaft

London has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of quirky venues. On 2 December a pair of Australian ensembles collaborated in a concert in Rotherhithe, in southeast London, on the banks of the River Thames. The performances took place at the Grand Entrance Hall, Brunel Museum — the former entrance shaft to the Thames Tunnel, designed by the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. First used as a concert venue as early as 1827, the tunnel is today used by trains, and the striking soot-blackened walls of the underground entrance hall make it look like an abstract artwork. The huge thundersheet in the percussion setup only enhanced this impression that the concert took place in an art installation.

Ruthless Jabiru, a chamber group of Australian musicians based in London and directed by Kelly Lovelady, welcomed the visiting Decibel New Music Ensemble for this final event in their UK tour under the auspices of the UK/Australia cultural exchange season. Both are adventurous new music ensembles with clear individual identities, Ruthless Jabiru focusing on social justice activism and Decibel on performances of graphic notation that integrates acoustic and electronic instruments. Their programme took us to the depths in more ways than one: the ensemble, conducted by Lovelady and Noongar musician Aaron Wyatt, comprised predominantly low instruments.

The programme, titled The Holy Presence of, was inspired by climate change, specifically by heavy storms in a Welsh village in 2014. As the local authority has decided not to repair the village’s flood defences, the inhabitants will ultimately be forced out of their homes, making them the first climate refugees in the UK. But what of the music? In her brief introduction, Lovelady suggested the audience might “listen without thinking”: there are always different ways to approach a concert as a listener, though this statement rather undermined the carefully thought-through ideas behind the programme.

Cat Hope, Kelly Lovelady, Decibel, and Ruthless Jabiru--© Billie Tün courtesy of Ruthless Jabiru

Cat Hope, Kelly Lovelady, Decibel, and Ruthless Jabiru–© Billie Tün courtesy of Ruthless Jabiru

Wyatt, Decibel’s viola player, directed Kaija Saariaho’s Neiges (1998), here performed by a string section of three violas, five cellos, and five double basses. (Saariaho’s Finnish origins linked unexpectedly to the venue, which is very near London’s Finnish Church, built to cater for seafarers.) The harmonic-heavy drones of Neiges were perfect for the performance space. It is easy for a Saariaho performance to wallow in the attractive soundworld, but Wyatt’s expressive direction ensured the momentum never slackened.

Two works by composers based in Australia were given UK premieres. Lindsay Vickery was the ensemble clarinettist as well as the composer of Bascule, an unconducted mysterious, expressionist piece based around repeated rocking ideas. For the Chilean-Australian Pedro Alvarez’s Intersperso-Ultradiano, Lovelady provided discreet guidance from the front and Decibel’s director Cat Hope joined as electric bass soloist. Recorded sound provided additional support for circling, harmonics-rich chords, and rumbling train sounds spontaneously added an extra layer. The heavily distorted bass guitar interjected without reaction from the ensemble: the isolated individual never quite connected with the group.

The British were represented musically by Tansy Davies’s rhythmically inventive Feather and Groove (2008). The deep-toned ensemble was more groovy than feathery, and the long-breathed violin melody of the original was here played by cellist Coral Lancaster, injecting a moment of emotional poignancy. Louise Devenish’s deconstructed drumkit underpinned the limping rhythms of Davies’s piece.

Aaron Wyatt, Decibel, and Ruthless Jabiru--© Billie Tün courtesy of Ruthless Jabiru

Aaron Wyatt, Decibel, and Ruthless Jabiru–© Billie Tün courtesy of Ruthless Jabiru

After Alvarez’s work, Julius Eastman’s The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc (1981) moved us back to a strong rhythmic groove. Lovelady kept the collective ensemble tight, and the five-strong double bass section came into its own. The literally vibrant experience of being so close to massed bass string instruments will stay with me for a long time.

Hope was, in her words, the “electric noise bass soloist” in the premiere of her own Never at Sea. A striking physical gesture marked the start: Hope raised a portable radio above her head, a gesture followed by the ensemble. The static interference of the radios provided a disquieting layer, which again was based around sustained overtone-heavy chords. Hope’s distorted bass guitar was still more disquieting, all the more so when feedback was added to the mix. Other instruments tried to compete with the bass guitar, but only Devenish’s gong and thundersheet were successful. Hope intended the piece to conjure up the impression of being consumed by water, and it was certainly a powerful, visceral experience, with the whole building seeming to participate.

The programme ran without interruption for just over an hour, enhancing the sense of immersion. At the same time, there was no printed programme and no spoken announcement of the composers’ names. Ruthless Jabiru and Decibel’s imaginative, powerful programme was an excellent fit for the venue and a memorable event, though I would have liked the composers to be highlighted and credited in this way.


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