Currently on tour around the UK performing a repertoire of experimental works, the Decibel New Music Ensemble are a chamber group founded in Western Australia who specialise in interpreting non-standard notation scores and exploring the integration of acoustic and electronic instruments. The London leg of their tour sees them grace the cosy, candlelit Café OTO for their performance of Inland Lake, a collaboration with French composer Lionel Marchetti. Over 40 minutes the group, backed by a track of musique concrète created by Marchetti, conjure a sublime, meditative atmosphere where elements of the natural world ring out like echoing memories.
The players of the ensemble consist of Cat Hope on flute and ocarina; Tristan Parr on cello; Aaron Wyatt on viola; Lindsay Vickery on clarinet and bass clarinet; and Louise Devenish on percussion, including crotales (a set of tuned bronzed discs, which are bowed to produce high, singing tones), a massive tympani-sized bass drum and, by comparison, a rather modest gong. They also at times each play Tibetan singing bowls of differing sizes.
The singing bowls represent a concept that is at the heart of the piece, in that they are not tuned to the standardised Western tonal system. The ringing notes they produce are generated by the natural harmonics of the metal and the resonant frequencies that arise. Likewise, the other instruments are not playing in the major and minor territories we are used to. The notes they produce, often sustained for minutes on end, contribute to a shifting spectral tonal palette that eschews conventional harmonic rules. As a result, the notes begin to sound purer somehow – dissonant, but without the centrifugal force of a tonic home key the music is not struggling against anything, and a more natural harmony is established.
Underneath the long, delicately bowed and blown notes, the backing track bubbles, clicks and rumbles. Beginning with a bed of howling wind, the sounds often evoke the natural world – the muffled reverberations of being underwater, the screeching of birds, the clicking of insects. Later, garbled voices are heard over a radio and it sounds like the ghosts of a world we have left behind.
The interplay between the acoustic instruments and the electronic backing track creates a blurred boundary where it’s hard to know whether we are hearing feedback or bowed harmonics, human breath or synthesised hiss. It’s like a primordial soup of musical building blocks, a soothing liminal sound space. The delicate playing of the ensemble is an exercise in expert control, with the notes often being coaxed out as quietly as possible. There is a sense that the instruments are being allowed to be their true selves, vibrating without their usual restraints, and it makes for spellbinding, revelatory listening.
Reviewed on 30 November 2022