Speak Percussion: 8th Taiwan International Percussion Convention

Speak Percussion
8th Taiwan International Percussion Convention
National Concert Hall, Taipei
27 May 2014
Review by Alistair Noble

Thomas Meadowcroft, Cradles
Anthony Pateras, Hypnagogics
Matthew Shlomowitz, Popular Contexts Volume 6
Simon Løffler, b

The Taiwan International Percussion Convention is a triennial event begun in 1993, the creation of Ju Tzong-Ching and supported by his own ensemble, the Ju Percussion Group. In 2014, the 8th iteration of the convention hosts 10 ensembles and 10 soloists from 14 countries around the world. The convention is titled ‘Taiwan’, rather than ‘Taipei’ for good reason, as it aims to bring percussion performances to venues around the island over a 10 day period, with the international and local performers undertaking tours to venues in Taipei, Taichung, Tainan, Kaohsiung, Hsinchu, Yilan, Changhua, Chiayi and Taitung. In terms of organisation, logistics and finance, this is a monumental undertaking, a music festival that has moved beyond the local to operate on a national front. Certainly, it serves to illustrate the extraordinary commitment and energy that can sometimes be brought to artistic endeavours in Taiwan, and the size of audiences seems to indicate that the convention organisers have been able to tap into a deep well of support at the community level.

Among the international guests at the 2014 convention are Speak Percussion from Melbourne, represented for this performance by Eugene Ughetti (artistic director), Matthias Schack-Arnott, Leah Scholes, and lighting designer Travis Hodgson. Australian fans will know this group for their polished and dedicated performances of works by contemporary European and Australian composers in particular. It is satisfying to see the group, with its flexible ensemble membership, making a strong impression at major international events like TIPC and MaerzMusik in Berlin.

Speak Percussion are more than just a virtuoso ensemble. They display a lively good taste in repertoire, and a strong commitment to the communication of their love and fascination for this music. They have a distinctive style of performance, combining a genuine jouissance with an unassumingly Australian theatricality, that brings to life even music that might seem alarming or pretentious in other hands.

In the cavernous space of the National Concert Hall in Taipei, I worried that the ensemble would be somewhat overwhelmed by the scale of the architecture, and that the audience might be small. On both counts, my fears were proven wrong. The hall filled rapidly with a large and enthusiastic audience, and the ensemble quickly took control of the stage and compelled attention by simply sounding terrific. Travis Hodgson’s lighting effectively transformed the gigantic space into something psychologically more intimate, with the performers lit only by narrow spotlights and the auditorium otherwise in complete darkness. A group of catholic nuns occupied the row in front of me—contemporary music fans? Or aunts and cousins of the convention organiser? I imagine them having a percussion ensemble in the convent and rehearsing Ionisation after Matins.

The concert opened with Thomas Meadowcroft’s Cradles (2013), a wonderful piece for two percussionists and Wurlitzer e-piano. The beautiful, chilled-out sound of the Wurlitzer (played by Leah Scholes) is the foundation for a work that contains a wealth of brilliant details. The two percussionists make use of a great raft of instruments, including finger cymbals, plastic castanets, Japanese toy drums, small shell chimes, medium shell chimes, a cluster of small Korean bells, and Chinese bells. The main work for the duo, however, is in playing the two reel-to-reel tape machines—pulling the unspooled tape by hand through the machines to create a complex and varied music of gurgles, rattles and chirps that is exhilarating and expressive, amusing and richly colourful. It’s as though Gregor Samsa (the post-rock band, not the character in Kafka’s story) were collaborating with 1950s Stockhausen, which is to say that Meadowcroft’s distinctive music is both intelligent and gorgeous. You can hear a recording of another performance of the work here.

Hypnagogics (2005), an 8-minute piece for a solo percussionist by Berlin-based Australian composer Anthony Pateras, is a richly rewarding, almost symphonically-textured work. This is surprising in some ways because the score calls for a carefully limited range of ultra-high pitched ‘micro instruments’—tiny little pits of wood, metal, skin, ceramic and glass—together with tinnitus (actually pre-recorded high-pitched electronics). This arresting palette of sounds becomes slowly more sinister as the music progresses, and then finally simply captivating. It is a clever and finely-crafted piece that rewards repeat listening. Matthew Shlomovitz spoke at Darmstadt in 2012 about the relation between musical material, and the engaged process of composing with, or investigating that material, proposing that ‘[o]ne way in which music might become critical is through investigating its own substance’. Pateras’ Hypnagogics would serve as a fine example of this notion in theory, except that the reality of the music is so much more than this. Eugene Ughetti, as the soloist, gave a brilliant and compelling performance. Have a listen here.

Matthew Shlomovitz’s four-movement suite Popular Contexts Volume 6 (2013), is a work for drum kit, vibraphone, midi keyboard and laptop (i.e. samples). It started very promisingly, rocking along happily. The nuns in front were tapping their feet and nodding appreciatively. And it continued more or less like that, for four inscrutably shapeless movements. It is fun music, and I really wanted to like it, but despite an excellent, energetic performance, something just doesn’t feel right. In another context, I might love it: it would be perfect music for a nightclub—a hip, glossy, fashion-magazine kind of bar, where you and I could sit in the corner and drink, watching the rich gangsters and the smart models. Or it might be a movie soundtrack–the scene set it in the same bar, overlooking the bay in Hong Kong, with John Travolta as a Russian oligarch who always wears dark glasses because he’s actually a vampire (you knew that, right?), drinking excellent, icy vodka to match his fine suit.

Like even the best movie soundtrack, however, this music is a bit long-winded and tedious in concert. It is stylish and cool (in a slightly irritating way at times), but ultimately insubstantial. As the piece wore on, the nuns withdrew into a more meditative state, perhaps saying some quiet rosaries or simply praying for it to stop. It would have sounded better if we were drunk. Get me a vodka.

The concert finished with a work titled simply b (2002) by young Danish composer Simon Løffler. Scored for three musicians, three neon lights, effect pedals and a loose jack cable, this might at first seem like a daft idea for a piece—but it sounded wonderful. The players knock out complex rhythms on the effect pedals while the loose jack cable. . . well, it does what loose jack cables do, crackling and humming, and the blinding neon lights flicker on and off in the darkened auditorium generating electro-magnetic interference (sometimes magnified by the performers grabbing hold of the lights and each other to make a direct-circuit contact). It is a thunderously exhilarating, dangerous piece, with a powerful theatrical element. In addition to the superficial thrills, on a deeper level the work is a superb critique (in the sense of compositional investigation) of some unlikely materials. The nuns were perched on the edge of their seats, eyebrows bristling with excitement and electro-static energy.

Alistair Noble

Speak Percussion are also performing:

7.30pm, 30 May 2014
Chiayi Performing Arts Center, Chiayi, Taiwan, R.O.C.

7.30pm, 31 May 2014
Performance Hall of Cultural Bureau, Hsinchu County, Taiwan, R.O.C.

2.30pm, 1 June 2014
Yuanlin Performance Hall, Changhua, Taiwan, R.O.C.




Partial Durations is a RealTime/Matthew Lorenzon joint project.

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