Metropolis: Speak Percussion, City Jungle

City Jungle € The Reginald € Seymour-31
Matthias Schack-Arnott and Eugene Ughetti, image courtesy of the Melbourne Recital Centre

Speak Percussion
City Jungle
Metropolis New Music Festival
19 April

Between its origin in mid-1990s rave culture and its contemporary chain-ganging into the long, wobbly march of dubstep, drum and bass was a hotbed of virtuosity and experimentation at the heart of electronic dance music. In Australia, pioneers like Terminal Sound System have continued to develop the unique style of breakneck drum beats and earth-moving bass with an ear towards contemporary art music and the forever-plastic world of electroacoustic composition. At the same time, classical musicians like Speak Percussion founder Eugene Ughetti have drawn from drum and bass and jungle to inspire their own virtuosic playing. City Jungle is more than a collaboration between Terminal Sound System and Speak Percussion, it explores and summarises possible lines of influence between two musical worlds.

An array of cymbals, drums and vibraphones gleam under purple and red lights at the far end of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon. The audience is ranged through the room on chairs, lounges and at standing tables. The intimate-sounding room is arranged not so much for dancing as for an intense, though laid-back listening experience. Terminal Sound System himself is not present, but Matthias Schack-Arnott and Ughetti provide ample visual interest with their focused, breathtakingly-coordinated attack on the battery of instruments.

At times Ughetti and Schack-Arnott provide backbeats on toms and cymbals to expansive electronic atmospherics and smooth-jazz melodies, while at other times they provide spitting, hissing, syncopated breakbeats on snares and Chinese cymbals over melodic bass lines. Moving to the vibraphone, the musicians contribute melodic hooks and ostinati of bewildering complexity to the mix. In these ways Speak Percussion complement Terminal Sound System’s electronics, filling in a part of the whole musical picture.

Of greater interest, perhaps, is Ughetti and Schack-Arnott’s ability to reproduce electronic-sounding effects in a live setting. One effect is stereo panning and phasing. Facing each other at the front of the stage, the percussionists play tremoli on two triangles, gradually muting and unmuting them to create waves of timbre that pass back and forth across the room. A similar technique is used with rolls on snare drums, except this time the players send waves of both volume and speed back and forth. As the speed of the rolls decreases their volume increases, giving the sound spatial depth, as though it were moving towards you and getting larger. Other atmospheric effects included Schack-Arnott’s playing untuned radio static and conjuring unearthly sounds from a China ride cymbal.

Sometimes complementing Terminal Sound System’s sounds and sometimes expanding on them, Speak Percussion show the permeability between contemporary percussive and drum and bass sound worlds. Already in its third outing, City Jungle is becoming a remarkably popular and effective piece of contemporary Australian repertoire.

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