Tag Archives: Speak Percussion

Metropolis: Speak Percussion, Between Two Parts there is an Intermission of a Hundred Thousand Years

Alexander Garsden's Messages to Erice I & II. Photo by Sarah Walker.
Alexander Garsden’s Messages to Erice I & II. Photo by Sarah Walker.

The title of Speak Percussion’s opening concert sets a playful tone for this year’s Metropolis New Music Festival. The joke was driven home to me when I heard the announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, Between Two Parts there is an Intermission of a Hundred Thousand Years by Speak Percussion will begin in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall … .” I imagine this title came up during rehearsals, as the ensemble worked out how to switch between the three pieces, each with a different seating arrangement or in a different space entirely. Ultimately there was no such intermission. The ushers herded a willing audience around the building, leaving just enough time to consider the three composers’ distinct responses to the festival’s theme: Music and the moving image.

Speak Percussion’s artistic director Eugene Ughetti chose the composers Peter de Jager, Alexander Garsden and Jeanette Little because they are each at a pivotal moment in their careers. Each composer can comfortably forgo the term “emerging” in their biographies, though they are still “young” composers. They inhabit a no-man’s land between the important but largely unpaid opportunities open to students and the networks of commissioners of established composers.  Speak Percussion’s commissions, supported by the Australia Council for the Arts, showed each composer settling into and refining their individual style.

Peter de Jager, Fractured Timelines

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Peter de Jager’s Fractured Timelines. Photo by Sarah Walker.

The audience took their seats on the stage of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall for Peter de Jager’s Fractured Timelines. The gleaming keyboard percussion instruments of Peter Neville, Matthias Schack-Arnott and Eugene Ughetti formed three sides of a square around De Jager’s piano, with each performer facing inward towards each other. So intimately close were the audience to the performers that they could follow the coordinating glances of the performers and hear the pedals of the instruments moving. Though designed to project sound out into the auditorium, the stage made an excellent chamber music setting, equalising the natural volume of each instrument.

Fractured Timelines is a multi-modal, gestural romp to heaven and back. The piece is structured as a triptych with two roughly inverted movements separated by their “collision.” The first movement moves from ethereal and whimsical arpeggios and melodies down to a rumbling nether-world with highlights of damped cymbals. Instead of avoiding recognisable thematic, tonal and modal materials, De Jager crams Fractured Timelines full of them. Speak Percussion clearly enjoyed shaping the piece’s cellular themes and different instrumental configurations, including many duo and trio passages, shared lines and runs passed between instruments. The third movement moves in the opposite direction, from the dark to the light and back again, ending with a fabulous rolling ostinato in the bass registers of the vibraphone, marimba and piano. The second movement seems less the “collision” of the two exterior movements than its aftermath. Instead of the arching development of the exterior movements, De Jager presents juxtaposed fragments of thematic material, including funereal, plodding piano chords and a whimsical vibraphone solo (I haven’t heard Ughetti play like that for, well, ever). With his thematic riches and multi-modal language, De Jager is like a modern-day Messiaen without god. Like Messiaen, De Jager gives the themes in his scores short descriptions. In De Jager’s case, these descriptions (including “creepy mountain path” and “briar”) are drawn less from sacred imagery than his life-long experience playing video games. Commander Keen is still his favourite.

Alexander Garsden, Messages to Erice I & II

The audience retired to the stalls of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall for Garsden’s beautiful new work Messages to Erice I & II. Four large tam-tams were arrayed along the front of the stage and lit from below by yellow-gold spot lights. Each tam-tam is fitted with a transducer (like a speaker without the cone). Garsden has made recordings of each individual tam-tam. In the live performance, he manipulates these recordings and plays them back through the instrument via the transducer. The four tam-tams stand there like bronze breastplates, or altars, their mysterious sounds emanating not just toward the audience, but filling the high ceiling of the hall with shimmering, insect-like buzzing and clear, brassy tones. The lights suddenly change to a silvery-blue as the second movement (or “process”) of the piece begins. Here the sound signals are further processed, creating an alien sound world of “washboard” vibrations and fierce roaring. Garsden motivated the festival’s theme in several ways. The algorithmic relationship between the sound-processing of the different tam-tams is related to the relationships of the characters in Víctor Erice’s 1973 film El Spíritu del Colmena. The piece furthermore makes use of recordings, which can be considered moving “sound images.” Most strikingly, the performance itself was a moving cinematic gesture.

Jeanette Little, No Optic

Jeanette Little's No Optic. Photo by Sarah Walker.
Jeanette Little’s No Optic. Photo by Sarah Walker.

Once ushered into the Salon, we were treated to Jeanette Little’s No Optic for four percussionists and live electronics. The piece is accompanied by a video work by the Russian video artist Sasha Litvintseva. The video features a screenshot of somebody exploring high-resolution Google Maps images of various metropolises. In a reference to online and CCTV surveillance, copies of the screenshots are then dragged onto the screen, producing a multiplicity of staggered images. Scrolling cascades of images of roads and cars pass over the screen. The layering process is repeated with a video of somebody taking a photo with a smartphone. I appreciated that this was a video made almost entirely (if not actually entirely) without a camera. The moving image is now omnipresent, with almost every possible setting and activity recorded and uploaded into the cloud (or into some server farm in a desert). However, I was more amused than scared by the “electronic panopticon” (as it was described in the programme). This may be due to Little’s score, which aimed to conjure mixed feelings of “intimacy, discomfort, anxiety and opportunity.” The four percussionists, Ughetti, Kaylie Melville, Anna Camara and Matthias Schack-Arnott, stood behind four almost identical batteries of metal percussion. They produced beds of sound, like the high-pitched rattling of skewers on metal pipes. At other points the ensemble signalled important transitions. For instance, tiled videos of the interiors of trains give way to a single long-range shot of a city with a train passing through it in the distance. The performers stop suddenly, the resonance of car suspension springs ringing out into the calm. The pre-recorded materials, including loud dance music or a sacred classical-era aria, highlighted the omnipresence of recorded sound in our lives as well as recorded images.

Composers often regret the lack of opportunities available to them after their first student commissions. By commissioning three confident young composers, Speak Percussion has brought three fascinating and valuable new works into existence. This year’s Metropolis festival is full of such adventurous and intimate programmes by local and international new music stars. Be sure to grab a ticket or three.

Speak Percussion
Between Two Parts there is an Intermission of a Hundred Thousand Years
Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
4 May 2015

Peter de Jager, Fractured Timelines; Alexander Garsden, Messages to Erice I & II; Jeanette Little, No Optic.

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.

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.