Classical Music

“Use technology to get what you want, not what it lets you have”

“Use technology to get what you want, not what it lets you have”


For Cat Hope, technology is about creativity. It’s about taking your musical ideas, and giving them a voice beyond the limits of an acoustic instrument or traditional chamber music setting.

The Australian composer has worked with Decibel New Music Ensemble to produce their latest self-titled album, and it features music facilitated through an original piece of technology: the Decibel ScorePlayer. It’s an iPad app they’ve designed to help musicians read — and scribble on — scores that are based in graphic notation.

We chat with Cat about how it all works, and the benefits of inventing an app for collaboration in a chamber music setting.

Decibel New Music Ensemble (credit Zal Kanga Parabia).

Hi Cat, it’s great to chat with you about your new album. You created the music through the Decibel ScorePlayer, which you use to present animated graphic notations. What exactly is this technology, and how did you use it as a compositional device?

Thanks for this opportunity! The Decibel ScorePlayer is an iPad app you can buy on the Apple app store. It coordinates the reading of scores featuring predominantly graphic notation by putting the score, or a reading pointer on the score, in motion.

It was developed within the Decibel New Music Ensemble for music where non-traditional notations needed be timed and/or coordinated with a number of players, so its development is very much driven by performers and composers. It doesn’t help you compose – rather, it is a way of presenting coordinated notation to performers to read.

My scores exist as hard copy — you can get from the Australian Music Centre, as PDF, or as a ‘scorefile’ for the app. You can also embed audio into the scores, as with Wanderlust on this album, which I think makes the score a much more ‘comprehensive’ proposition.

Beyond the composition, the actual recording of this album relied so heavily on technology: artists were in two different cities, and Decibel member Aaron Wyatt developed some software to bring it all together. Talk us through that unusual recording process.

Aaron is the programmer behind the Decibel ScorePlayer, and is also part of the development team on JackTrip, a software system that provides high-quality audio for networked performances over the internet. So we recorded some tracks on this album ‘live’ with three performers in Melbourne, and the other three in Perth, and this software ensures audio quality when it is delivered via the internet.

We could hear the ensemble through our headphones as if we were in the room together, when in fact, we were 3400km away. But this kind of scenario will never reproduce the actual atmosphere and connection that happens when you are in the room together, in my opinion. It is better used for more experimental outcomes.

Decibel in performance (credit Lisa Businovski).

Let’s talk about the music itself. The first track Majority of One is moody and slow-paced. But as the album progresses, the works become frantic and give an impression of violent energy. How much of your album is based in storytelling or creating a mood — compared to the story of what technology can bring to composition?

The significance of Decibel in my musical life is the theme of this record. It is an important collaboration that has shaped my music and the way it is played.

The album explores texture — what fast noisy music, and long languishing pieces have in common, and the worlds created by the combination of acoustic and electronic sounds or, in the case of Chunk, an electronic player.

It is interesting that you mention energy — I find energy in the slowest, simplest music more often than in the most frenetic. I think that is because energy is also about potential and trajectory. Traditionally, music has used rhythm and harmony to create trajectory. What if we use other elements of music to create that energy? Here, I am using texture — each piece on this album has its different textural world — framed by something that particularly interested me at the time. For example, Juanita Neilsen is influenced by the noisy violin playing approaches of Jon Rose, who it is dedicated to. This material is a response to the tragic loss of Neilsen, the person.

Chunk is a Disklavier and live pianist face-off in a notated noise battle, and Shadow of Mill features sections where a printed copy of the disastrous White Australia Policy — influenced by the ideas of John Mill — is used to play the cello with, oscillating between drone and noise.

I’m not going to lie — it sounds like this album was complex to produce, on a logistical level. What would you say are the benefits of spending time learning or developing new technologies that can help you realise new ideas in music?

For this album and the pieces on it, technology is just a facilitator. It made this album possible when it felt like it couldn’t be; and it makes my graphic scores readable in ensembles, which without the app, wouldn’t be.

Decibel is used to working with technology. Performing music featuring both acoustic and electronic instruments for over 12 years has led us to embrace what works when presenting electronics in chamber music settings.

Technology has had an incredibly positive influence in my work – it has enabled the rendering and distribution of ideas that I simply couldn’t work out how to express in a practical way. For me, it is important to use technology to get what you want, not what it lets you have.

Do you think this music is an example of what we’ll hear in future, as more and more artists embrace technology — or do you think it’s a ‘niche’ artform that will live alongside acoustic works? What lies ahead?

I would like it to sit amongst all art music. Ultimately, it is a selection of chamber works featuring flute, clarinet, cello, viola, percussion, and piano, alongside electronic sounds that include a feedback effect, a sub tone, an electric guitar, a field recording.

I would love people to listen to the music, and judge that on face value, rather than the process of making, or the look of the scores. Music is about listening. That is one reason I rarely project my scores – people get distracted from the music by the notation system. It is what we do with it that counts. I think music has been much slower than other arts to mainstream technology beyond recording and playback.

Final words before Australia gives it a listen?

Please listen to this music as you listen to any other music – let it take you on a journey. Some of it may seem unusual at first, because it has a different compositional emphasis to a lot of music around right now – but I hope you will be rewarded by close listening.

Open up to the wonder of abstract musical ideas. Everything else is just fluff.

Decibel by Cat Hope with the Decibel New Music Ensemble is now available on Bandcamp. Learn more about the Decibel ScorePlayer for iPad online.

Cat Hope (credit  Karl Ockelford)

Images supplied. Cat Hope featured headshot by Megan Burslem.

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