Speak Percussion, The Black of the Star

Speak Percussion, photo by Jeff Busby
Speak Percussion, photo by Jeff Busby

Speak Percussion
The Black of the Star
Deakin Edge
Melbourne Festival
16 October, 2013

More than any other twentieth-century work inspired by our scientific understanding of the natural world, Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’étoile [The Black of the Star] continues to capture our imaginations. Perhaps this is because Grisey made sure to embed the mythology of the work’s scientific conceit in the piece itself. Once captivated, the audience are auditory pioneers at the unstable intersection of technology and science.

Le Noir de l’étoile begins with a ponderous voice reciting the words of Jean-Pierre Luminet, an astrophysicist and poet. The voice describes the remarkable discovery of pulsars, the “fantastic compact residue created by the supernova explosions that long ago disintegrated the massive stars.” Who could not wonder at these super-dense masses of neutrons only thirty kilometres in diameter but with the mass of the sun? As the voice explains with fairy-tale cadence, “A thimble of the material from one of these stars would weigh one hundred billion tonnes on Earth.” Unlike their larger cousins the black holes, pulsars are brought down—and perhaps this is their appeal—to human dimensions by the fact that they revolve with the relatively musical frequency of between hundreds of times a second and once every ten seconds. Emitting two beams of light they are, as Luminet puts it, “Like great lighthouses in the heavens, … cosmic clocks marking out their seconds.”

Spaced around the steel and glass mezzanine of Deakin Edge, Speak Percussion were suspended in front of the night sky behind six gleaming percussion batteries. After Luminet’s introduction lulls the audience into expectant wonder, Ughetti begins a gentle pulse on a floor tom. This pulse is eventually taken up at different tempi in other batteries, creating a captivating constellation of musical pulsars. An interjection on wood-blocks also echoes around the room like the light and radio waves that take thousands of years to traverse the galaxy. At other times a roaring snare roll passes between the percussionists and a loud, lone tom strike gives momentary focus to the bewildering sound-scape. The introduction helps give rise to these astronomical metaphors, even though, as Speak Percussion’s Artistic Director Eugene Ughetti explains, the first half was originally composed as Tempus ex machina, a work concerned not with pulsars but with time and space more generally.

The second half of the performance features two pulsar signals, one of which has an Australian provenance. The first is from the Vela pulsar, discovered by scientists at the University of Sydney in 1968, which spins at a rate of 11 times per second. This pulsar is only observable in the Southern Hemisphere and for Speak Percussion’s performance the CSIRO provided a new recording of the pulsar by George Hobbs. Ughetti claims (and I could only get away with this in a journalistic context) that the original recording used by Grisey was made by pulsar expert Dick Manchester, who worked at the Parkes observatory in the late 1960s. The signal sounds like a repeated, clipping sample of static, not unlike something one would hear in a Drum and Bass track.

The second pulsar provides a low, “whumping” sound at a rate of 1.4 rotations per second. For the work’s première in 1991, the signal from this pulsar was broadcast live into the auditorium from the Nançay radio astronomy station in Sologne. Unfortunately, a live broadcast of the Vela pulsar was unavailable for the Deakin Edge performance as the pulsar is not visible at this time of year. At Deakin Edge both signals were diffused by the team of Lawrence Harvey from RMIT’s SIAL Sound Studio.

When the initial metrical spatialisation gives way to the recordings of pulsars, the players are given more elaborate rhythmic phrases. It is as though, after imitating the pulsars (and theatrically conjuring them into the room), the ensemble begins to play along with them. The individuality of the performers comes out, with Ughetti’s dynamic sensitivity and Schack-Arnott’s improvisatory fluidity. But the point of these two sections may not be so much a contrast between machinic imitation and human inventiveness as a contrast between technology and science. While the technology of radio telescopes enabled us to hear the pulsars, scientific conjecture allowed us to interpret and understand them. As Luminet writes in the introduction:

In the electromagnetic tornado given out by a pulsar, the radio waves emitted represent only a whisper, and it is this that is picked up by the instruments. For an astronomer, it is like trying to understand the way a large machine in a factory works by listening merely to the few muffled noises that escape from it. The energy collected is infinitesimal… In 50 years of observations, all the energy gathered by all the radio telescopes in the world is less than that you need to turn a single page of your programme.

In a world where government-funded university science departments pursue narrow techno-industrial aims and objective research centers of global relevance have to be crowd-funded, Le Noir de l’étoile reminds us of the importance of big science—internationally-coordinated, large-scale investigation into the very large, the very small and the very distant—to our cultural and spiritual identity. By 2019 Western Australia and eight countries in southern Africa will be home to the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope (actually an array of thousands of radio receptors spaced over thousands of kilometres). The SKA will be fifty times more sensitive and will be able to produce surveys of regions of the sky 10,000 times faster than any other existing instrument. We can barely predict what data we will gather, but when we do I hope our scientific and creative imaginations will up to the task of interpreting and understanding it.

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

5 thoughts on “Speak Percussion, The Black of the Star

  1. Hi Matthew–fellow Real Time writer! I have long been an admirer of your work, and for even longer an admirer of Speak Percussion. Nice, curious work here…but I’m wondering what you mean by the phrase, “Ughetti claims (and I could only get away with this in a journalistic context) that the original recording used by Grisey..’ etc. What are you trying to ‘get away with’, here? Or what do you presume you are getting away with that you would otherwise [in other contexts] need to explain? Best Zsuzsanna

    1. Hi Zsuzsi! I meant that hearsay is not the most trustworthy source of information, so in an academic context I would have to chase up that claim. As it stands it’s a tantalising possibility to be explored!

      1. Furthermore, and I see that I didn’t detail this in the article, the claim was tentative to begin with. Dick Manchester recently heard the recording used by Grisey and recognised it from his days at Parkes. I don’t know how many recordings have ever been made and how much they differ from one another. Sounds like a thesis!

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