Decibel: Still and Moving Lines [pogus 21072-2]
The Australian ensemble Decibel specializes in performing new music integrating electronics with acoustic instruments. In this new release from Pogus the group presents engaging realizations of four works by composer Alvin Lucier, three of which are here given their recorded debut. The four compositions, all recorded live in Perth, span the years 1967-2002, with the most recent—Ever Present, the first track on the disc—being the only one to have appeared on a previous recording. The works are well-chosen and provide an excellent point of entry to Lucier’s oeuvre.
As a program opener, Ever Present pulls the listener immediately into Lucier’s hermetic sound world. Performed with flute, saxophone, piano and two sine wave generators, the piece creates an absorbing atmosphere of slow movement over a fundamental drone, the relatively short duration of the piano’s occasional notes contrasting with the held tones from the wind instruments. The piece has a horizontal rather than a vertical profile, which is to say that the tones of the various instruments are experienced as independent entities rather than as linked elements stacked into a single harmony. If slowly shifting and superimposed transparent planes of color made a sound, this would be it.
Carbon Copies (1989), also featuring saxophone, flute and piano but with recorded sound in place of the sine wave generators, takes us from Ever Present’s rarefied abstraction down to the mundane world captured in the field recordings that constitute its core. The piece has a tripartite structure, beginning with the playback of field recordings alone, which are then joined by the instruments. The third and final part eliminates the recordings, to leave the instruments by themselves. The piano and wind instruments’ contributions run to the timbral and episodic as the players set out to interpret the recorded sounds as mimetically as they can. In effect the field recordings serve as a kind of real-time, aural score for the musicians to realize.
Hands (1994) is a work for organ and hand movements, the latter being used in relation to the organ pipes in order to affect the sound emitted while sustained semitones are played. The dissonance of these minor second harmonies creates beats, trills and a generally unsettled sonic tension, while the hand movements coax slow, sometimes siren-like glissandi as well as changes in dynamics from the instrument.
The disc closes with the earliest composed work, Shelter (1967) for contact microphones, amplifiers, and enclosed space. The piece offers a commentary on the division of sonic space by architectural space by conveying sounds originating from outside the performance space—the “shelter” of the title—to a system of amplifiers, equalizers and speakers inside it. Contact microphones placed on structural supports enclosing the space pick up external sound as it vibrates through doors and walls and transmit it to the audio system. The present realization captures a quiet sound much like the background hum of a refrigerator or HVAC unit punctuated by what appear to be the sounds of musicians playing in distant rooms.