Tall Poppies


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After Julia


$23   (Australian dollars)


buy at: AMC - Buywell

After Julia is an album of eight contemporary works by Australian women composers responding to Julia Gillard’s tenure as Australian Prime Minster. Decibel Artistic Director, Cat Hope, was inspired to pursue the project after circumstances around Gillard’s prime ministership exposed gender discrimination within politics and wider Australian society, causing her to reflect on the new music sector.

Seven Australian women composers were commissioned to create works for Decibel – Michaela Davies, Andree Greenwell, Laura Lowther, Catherine Milliken, Kate Moore, Gail Priest, Thembi Soddell and Cat Hope. The premiere performance at the ABC Centre in Ultimo, Sydney in 2014 featured Julia Gillard as a special guest, and the program went on to be performed Australia wide. This studio recording was completed across 2020 – 2021.This broad collection of works includes a choir, instructions from goldfish, spoken phrases turned into musical gestures, mouth organs and more.

Decibel is a new music ensemble of 6 musicians based between Perth and Melbourne, Australia, that focusses on the integration of acoustic and electronic instruments in chamber music performance. Whilst rooted in Western Art Music tradition, Decibel aims to remove stylistic boundaries in its commissioning and performance approaches, which focus on the combination of acoustic and electronic sounds.

Gail PriestEverything and Nothing
Thembi Soddellyour sickness is found in my body
Cat HopeTough it Out
Cathy MillikenShifrori
Michaela DaviesGoldfish Variations
Laura Jane LowtherLoaded [NSFW]
Kate MooreOil Drums
Andrée Greenwell / Hilary BellArrows


After Julia is the result of Australian new music ensemble, Decibel, commissioning composers to musically respond to the ‘impact of, and reaction to, Julia Gillard’s prime ministership’ with Decibel interpreting these eclectic and very personal pieces. The ensemble’s Artistic Director, Cat Hope, was inspired to draw particularly, upon the voices of female composers, often occluded in a culture that continues to play it safe in repertoire choices, despite the number of active composers, let’s be honest, of any gender identity in Australia.
However, the impact of Gillard’s prime ministership and treatment at the hands of an exploitative conservative politic and megaphone supportive media, piqued Hope’s realisation that sexism remains rife in this country. This was the inspiration, both for the album, and for her choice of project contributors. The responses are all visceral of course and it is this highly charged and yet simultaneously contained essence that binds the works together. Because the diversity of instruments employed, and the vast array of stylistic characteristics could have found the album resembling patchwork pieces that cannot physically be brought together. However, another pivotal unifying element is the investment of Decibel in every single sound event of each piece. The commitment and understanding of the composer’s intent is made palpable in Decibel’s interpretations.
Thembi Soddell’s Your Sickness Is Found in My Body reflects the fact that gender discrimination plays a large role in the physical and psychological disorders some experience as a result. The piece is created using the bass instruments to which Soddell and Decibel are both drawn, including bass flute and clarinet. The piece also employs electronics, though it is hard to fathom where electronica and acoustic begin and end. Soddell explores and dwells on the inner, in response to perceptions of the outer, and this piece, for me is simultaneously disturbing and utterly meditative. It is as though the beautiful sound walls that the composer uses throughout, prepare the body for the detritus to be thrown at it. Thus, the unsettling aspects of the piece climaxing according to the Golden mean, are like a natural storm that the body knows will end. In this case, it does so abruptly, the body then seeking out restoration. From a personal perspective, there is always something soothing and warming about low tonalities, even in dissonance, because of their slow, felt, vibratory capacity and they are the focus here. The discombobulation this mix of emotions explores is both intriguing and addictive. Decibel’s playing on Your Sickness Is Found in My Body requires such nuance of technique. It is utterly masterful. I really love this work.

Gail Priest is a Sydney-based sound artist. Her piece Everything and Nothing draws on a sentence from Gillard’s speech after her defeat for the Prime Ministership by Kevin Rudd in June, 2013. The sentence that struck Priest is:
The reaction to being the first female Prime Minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership.

The seeming paradox of this statement follows the similarity in my response to Soddell’s piece; that you can simultaneously feel or know contradictory phenomena. Using a computer keyboard with activated MIDI replacing letters with sounds, Priest typed in the sentence and used the resultant note sequence, with gaps for the letters that had no attached sound, to sculpt the melody for Everything and Nothing. Flute and clarinet with violin and cello are prominent in the realisation of this piece as it unfolds from its single melodic line to a multi-layered feast. These separate intersecting voices nonetheless convey Gillard’s restraint and pragmatism – politically necessary when every word one utters can be grabbed with hyperbolic veracity by colleagues, opposition politicians and the media, and even more so when one happens to have been born female. The restraint of articulation practised by women as expressed in Iris Young’s Throwing Like a Girl comes to mind when listening to Priest’s piece.

The relationship between parts alters throughout, with melodic riffs across instruments seeming to demonstrate changes in support, alienation, agreement and disagreement until ultimately, we are left with a repeating motif in both the harmonic undercurrent and Gillard’s representative melodic overlay on flute. It is one of mundanity, of relinquishing ideals for political expedience, of pushing the inevitable ball of political and gender hope up a resistant mountain.
These interrelationships forged politically where again, the lines between friend, foe and colleague constantly fluctuate and blur, call for the resilience that Gillard displayed despite being attacked ultimately, as she was, from all sides. Cathy Milliken’s piece Shifrorl ‘a contraction of “she-for-all”’ as she describes, explores these relationships too. Chance plays a part, as Milliken provides three alternative endings of which the ensemble must choose one. They appear to emphasise that which Milliken mentions, a quote from Paul Keating on Gillard’s loss of the leadership, restated by Gillard, “We all get taken out in a box, Love.” Milliken seeks to reflect this in the opening – again wind instruments, here employing the use of a fourth interval as in a bugle “Reveille”. But the ending, with its deep slow beat on piano and sustained suspension in the upper voices is emphatically reverent and funereal.

Cat Hope’s Tough it Out also employs chance, in this case with immediacy. The first section of the piece allows Decibel to draw on a variety of pieces by Hope, or alternatively, to interpret Hope’s graphic score based itself on graphs depicting the popularity of various prime ministers. Hope immerses the ensemble in the no-win scenario of trying to do something for which you have trained over many years, but being deliberately stymied from this path by a range of forces. Hope’s use of glissandi, a compositional device she often employs, is licensed through the score and articulated by cello and violin. Hope uses multiple sound objects to depict the noisiness confronting Gillard and there are vocal articulations of frustration. Classic-style melodies mingle with the benign in what one imagines are the ‘set of recorded instructions and commentary designed to interrupt the reading, understanding and performance of the piece.’ These instructions are sent to players through headphones. The build-up at the end is devastating. It is followed by a satirical slow clap. Ah, politics!
There are two pieces where vocals predominate. Andrée Greenwell’s Arrow I, II, with lyrics by Hilary Bell is theatrical in its structure and conveyance with elements of recitative combined with more melodically conceived musical devises. It draws on statements by Gillard, her strong voice at the beginning of her Prime Ministership gradually interwoven with spoken assaults hurled at her relentlessly with attacks on everything from being a woman (how dare she), having red hair (how dare she), to other words used only to insult females such as ‘witch’ and ‘bitch’ the nastiness of the sounds of them emphasised so well by Greenwell in this context. Despite the unity of strong harmonious female voices used to convey Gillard’s resilience, the spoken-word insults create temporal and spatial dissonance and asynchrony. Arrow I is the outward presence of the Prime Minister and of these assaults. It is so effectively constructed. Arrow II is from within the receiver. The body resonates as arrows (violin glissandi) find their mark. The resilience remains, but the thousand ‘little arrows with their poison tips’, though producing ‘no visible blood’, internally kill, and ever so slowly. The vocal homophony here with its tightness and crispness is so effective and we gain insight into the emotions Gillard must have felt. There is again, this beautiful interplay of resilience and overlapping vulnerability, and, if I may, the sadness and disappointment at one’s fellow humans that have echoed through time, as potent now as then. Greenwell’s decision to musically dramatise the events experienced by Gillard, add an essential surreal quality (costume, makeup, lights, action), conveying the composer’s understanding of this point in our history and making it plain for everyone who may not.

Goldfish Variations is the other vocal work, but here, all Decibel members are the vocalists. Where in Greenwell’s piece, female voices provide an overall higher tonality, here voices dwell in Decibel’s preferred low acoustic range. Michaela Davies’ composition is presented to interpreters as a set of instructions. They are to use notes from the same whole tone scale, but other musical elements are governed by performers’ observation of a goldfish’s movements, to which they respond in real time. Performers each have a different visual perspective of the goldfish since they stand spaced around the bowl. It’s a novel and wondrous idea which again requires absolute trust between composer and performers. The scale structure ensures that though there are tight harmonies, they form suspended chords, rather than dissonant ones. The lowness, as in Soddell’s work manifests as a warming embrace of the listener. This is a reflection of the goldfish, trapped as it is inside a bowl, seeing all, but unable to escape any, for this listener at least, I find myself again with the essence of Julia, not the outer Julia who must be strong, brave, witty, with a quip at the ready for every situation, but rather those aspects less highlighted – her warmth and compassion.

Kate Moore uses pattern prolifically in her work. In the enigmatic Oil Drums the resultant minimalist piece exudes a presence whereby at times the varying aural threads enjoy each other’s company, but at others, particularly in regard to their not only syncopated but disoriented placement in time, they seem to be searching each other out. The drumming amplifies these different phases. Moore’s inspiration here is her own poem, based on a recurring nightmare. It’s about drills and oil drums in a desert which become overwhelming waves of destruction. As the Prime Minister of a minority government, Gillard still managed to pass important legislation, including in 2011, the Clean Energy Act implemented in July 2012 which reduced emissions of those companies within the scheme by 7%. In her text, Moore draws on the Delphi oracle, originally the foreseer for mother earth, Gaea. However, it is thought she was stolen by Apollo who used her (surprise, surprise) to predict the outcomes of political decisions including wars. ‘Apollos’, with their money and their power and their egos, have a tendency to forsake Gaea and her spokespeople. Moore wonders if Australia’s oracle is telling its Apollos that they are running from the truth. However, the actual truth is that we are big players in our own demise, not naïve at all: Complicit and willingly played.

Having studied in Western Australia, but now living in Los Angeles, Laura Jane Lowther aka Kučka is best known for her contemporary electronica where she does absolutely everything in the composing, performing and production of her works. On Loaded [NSFW} she relinquishes much of this control, but as with other tracks and I come back again to Your Sickness is Found in My Body Lowther deliberately creates a sound world where the responses one will have are simultaneously contradictory, as Lowther says:
like elevator music made from the barrage of notification and computer sounds coming from a busy office.

It is background music designed to both sooth and subliminally assault. The composition requires Decibel to respond musically to a series of headlines the composer has curated. Lowther explores the state of our current media consumption, and the message of course is that anyone in the public eye will have their words, their looks, their dress, their actions, their whole damned lives scrutinised, conveniently edited, and sensationalised. Julia Gillard is a prime example of being the subject of such offensiveness. Constantly. However, the use of subtle instruments in the interpretation of the piece, from the upper tonalities of the vibraphone and violin to cello, flute, clarinet, and electronica creates a dynamic interplay, an attractive busyness, where the volume of the sensationalism, whilst maintaining its potency of meaning, is suppressed. Therefore, as with Kučka’s contemporary pieces, the music is intoxicating. Gillard must look back and wonder how she endured not just verbal, but sound abuse and roll her eyes as she sees that there is still much work to do to remove this toxicity in politics. But the overriding message by Lowther is of the chaotic noise of contemporary communication that we are all subjected to, and that we now, frighteningly, accept as ‘normal’.

I have spoken more of the compositions than the performers, but the obvious trust between both to achieve the authenticity of meaning that is so obvious across the entire album, is laudable. It demonstrates communication, musical communion, at its very best. It is an extraordinary album, an important album that I hope many will savour.
© Mandy Stefanakis
Music Trust Loudmouth
November 2023

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 TP (1-901)



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