An Interview with Speak Percussion Artistic Director, Eugene Ughetti
Speak Percussion is an ensemble - or more accurately, a project - that's been experimenting, performing around the world, and innovating at the fringes of "percussion music" for longer than most musical ventures could ever hope to exist. As of 2017, they show no signs of slowing down as they return to Perth's Totally Huge New Music Festival, presented by Tura, to perform an audio-visual program entitled Fluorophone, and Michaela Pisaro’s epic work for 100 percussionists, A wave and waves. I phoned up founding member, performer, composer and artistic director, Eugene Ughetti - to pick his brains and record his insights about Speak's unique approach to percussion practice.
LB: Hi Eugene. How's it all going?
EU: Yeah really well. Great first day... we're really rapt. We just came out of a big meeting with all the musicians from 'A Wave and Waves...'
LB: Yeah, fantastic. What's your role in that performance specifically?
EU: Well ... it's a work for 100 percussionists. It's a long work, it's 74 minutes long, it's a big ambitious experimental percussion work and every part - all 100 parts - are different. So you can imagine the logistics of balancing that, but also just the challenges of rehearsing it.
EU: It's performed in kind of a grid form, where the audience sit in amongst the musicians. So it's a really amazing kind of intimacy that happens, but also an extraordinary scale, in terms of depth of... field? In the sound?
LB: Absolutely, yeah. So I guess where you're sitting as an audience member makes a big difference to how you experience the piece?
EU: Yeah it does, yeah. Every seat is unique from that point of view, but also the same in the sense it's got very very intimate sounds - the sounds that might be, y'know, half a metre from your ears - all the way to sounds that might be 20 to 40 metres away. There's a really contrasting sense of presence and focus to the sound.
LB: Awesome, I wish I could be there to hear that... I believe my dad is playing "pebbles" in the ensemble.
EU: Oh great! Very cool. That's a great part.
LB: A lot of people that will read this [interview] might not be familiar with Speak, I was going to ask if you could take us back to the origins of that... was it, the year 2000?
EU: It was, so it all started very early 2000, and all the musicians were enrolled students at the Victorian College of the Arts. We gave our debut performance for Musica Viva, and we played a whole series of classic contemporary percussion pieces. And from there it's been, you know, a 17 year journey to where we are today.
LB: And has the core group remained the same throughout that time?
EU: No, no... so at the beginning there were five of us. And that group sort of lasted for about two years, and we sort of all burnt out. And from that point, I stayed on - I was the only founding member that stayed. And I changed the model pretty dramatically at that point, it became - rather than an ensemble or a fixed group of players - it became more of a project-based group where the players were hand-picked for each project based on their skill set or the demands of the project. So from that point onwards it's been relatively flexible.
LB: So, what would say were the objectives around forming Speak in the first place, and did that change when you took on that more flexible approach? What did you want to achieve beyond simply having a group of people performing percussion music... if that makes sense?
EU: Yeah absolutely. The goals... there are a few goals. I guess one of the really big ones is that - percussion practice in the way I see it is about much more than "percussion instruments." In fact the whole question about "percussion instruments" is one which is in constant flux, and can actually mean different things to different people. So, the "goal" of the organisation is, well firstly, to take the art form into a much deeper place than it's ever been before... essentially, when you're talking about "percussion" you could be talking about any physical object in existence. And that idea in itself is very inspiring for me, from the point of the view that literally any object can be a percussion instrument, can be musicalised, can be used in a performance of music, can be sonified. On top of that, the role and responsibility of a percussionist is very much more than just one who makes sound with objects... that, of course, can lie within performance...can very easily lie within a sound installation world, etcera etcera. But in particular that idea of the relationship to the objects - that idea of building an instrument, or helping to shape the physical object that you're using, is an important responsibility. And then I think finally, there's that choreographic or theatrical relationship that a percussionist has to their object, to their instrument.
EU: So sometimes, it's about how the instrument is presented on stage - the kind of role that it plays, whether it's kind of a physical one or a theatrical one. So it's kind of about exploding that art form out, so it not being about just percussion instruments, but about a whole "percussive arts practice." So that's certainly the goal now. And you'll see that a lot of our work now, the emphasis is sort of away from "concerts," it's away from commissioning pieces of music... and it's much more about bigger concepts, that bring all of those ideas into play. So the instrument might be completely customised for that project, or the concept might be tied in with the intimate relationship that a human being might have with a particular object.
LB: Which I guess leads us leads us quite nicely to Fluorophone. And yeah, I guess it's probably a great entry point for someone who might be interested in this idea of an exploded or an expanded percussion practice, because I think - from the video clips that I've seen - it feels very much like you instantly know this is a percussion performance or concept, but it's also completely unlike anything I've seen before. I'm interested in, particularly, how this Fluorophone program came about and whether there's much precedent for that kind of work - like if you were inspired by anything in particular...
EU: Yeah, I mean, I think firstly... Fluorophone is a work that is about the relationship between light and sound. And effectively, about using light as a percussion instrument, or looking at a way in which percussive techniques can then manifest visually as well, through light. And what's beautiful about a project like Fluorophone is that it's an extremely universal one in the sense that it's about exploring the behaviour of sound and light and the simultaneous direct relationship between those two things.
LB: Uh huh.
EU: It wasn't the idea of Fluorophone that came first, it was some of the work that I was doing with certain composers that kind of tied everything together. There is definitely a precedent of this kind of work that's been done in the past... I mean, I don't know a project that's been done before Fluorophone of music pieces or percussion works that were all about the relationship between light and sound in this way. But there have been many individual examples of work, a range of different works of that nature, but to the best of my knowledge it's the first kind of comprehensive and thought-through programme of this kind of work. And I think what it does is that it puts the work into a visual space, where suddenly the nature of the material starts to effect the way you interpret. So your visual sense effects the way you start to interpret sound, or the behaviour of the light then maps the way you understand the musical structures that are at play, at so on. So it becomes a really powerful tool in helping to understand New Music, and artistic concepts.
LB: I guess to get more specific I'm curious about the range of technologies that you're using... I know that's probably a pretty big and intricate question, but I don't know - if there's anything you thought you could particularly talk about that would express [the outcomes] you're referring to?
EU: I think in relation to technology, there's not really one specific world that our work exists in - we're not really looking to be an "electro-acoustic band" or work purely in the vanguard of live music performance software, or artificial intelligence or any of that sort of stuff. Though certainly we do delve into those sort of areas from time to time - it really on depends on the nature of the project. So here at the Totally Huge New Music Festival, aside from Fluorophone which is very much driven by electricity... and the use of a whole range of different kinds of software to make those ideas work... the hyper-kinda-contrast of that is the work by Michael Pisaro for 100 percussionist, called 'A Wave and Waves' which is completely acoustic and is about something much more organic. But on the other hand is still really excessive, and a really "new" work, and a very unusual format to be hearing live music in. So the work is rarely about the technology, and as a result we keep coming in and out of that depending on what the demands of the concepts of the projects are.
LB: Yeah, so the technology is secondary to the creative gesture, or... interests.
LB: Going back to Fluorophone though, can you talk us through any of the - techniques, I guess? I noticed that in your piece, 'Pyrite Gland,' there looked like there were quite unusual and, to my mind hard-to-unpick, things going on there, can you talk us through it a little bit?
EU: In that particular case, I wanted to create a work that worked with LED light, and that was mainly because I wanted a real cross-section of lights to be used, so we've got everything from strobe lights, matches, fixtural and fluorescent, so LED was a logical fit within that mix. The idea here was to turn the tom-tom into a light fixture itself. So the instrument, to most people, of course looks like a recognizable drum. But then on the other hand it also behaved like a light; the skins were illuminated like a light with a frosted lens. The way that that was put together was the music and lighting design were composed as sort of one and same thing. Not exactly a 1:1 relationship between the light and the sound, but a sense that the lighting was linked to the score and articulating the musical lines of the performers. I had this double LED disc built that could fit inside the drum that then was speaking wirelessly to a wireless router and then was linked to a click track, and was completely timed to the composition. So the LED discs have been pre-programmed, using midi software, to be completely aligned with what's going on on stage.
LB: Right, so, it feels like there's an important but subtle kind of distinction... in terms of this concert or set of works as opposed to, for example, another musical performance where the light show is very closely linked or integrated with the sound. I feel like it's more about collapsing those two things so the same gestures produce both at once, or they create each other - would that be fair to say?
EU: That's exactly right, that's precisely it. The ideal scenario is when one source of energy or one movement has a result, where the focus of that energy is that it delivers both a a sound and a light component simultaneously. Most of the pieces do that, like for example striking a match - it's very hard to strike a match and make it light without it being percussive or without it making a sound. And with the strobe light, you can't get it to flash without it clicking. The globe as it fills with electricity also makes a sound... so it's those two elements working together that creates the work, and makes it different to what you described before which is where you've got some sound and some light placed over the top of it.
LB: And then I guess as a result - sort of drawing attention to sounds that might seem incidental to another kind of utility in daily life, but in this instance becomes, you know, an aesthetic object.
EU: Yeah, exactly.
LB: Cool. So you mention you have curated groups of performers depending on the project. Who have you got for this one?
EU: We've got Louise Devenish; Matthias Schack-Arnott is our artistic associate, so he's involved in that as well; and myself. There's also a fourth - and that's Kaylie Melville - the whole project is a "trio" program but there's one piece in which all four of us play.
LB: And if there's anything else you wanted to mention about it?
EU: With Fluorophone.... it's taken a lot of development to find a visual and sonic language that really works on stage, and also on tour. And so we've worked very very closely with all the composers involved to create a set of really strong contemporary works. And as a result I think the project has had a really successful life; it's toured multiple times internationally, throughout Australia and it's going back to Europe again next year. It's really caught the attention of some prestigious New Music festivals around the world - I think because the music is really strong, but also because it manages to recontextualise the sound in a way as well.
LB: I'm looking forward to getting forward to getting to witness it at some stage. Thanks Eugene, that was all really fascinating.
EU: Thanks for you time, really appreciate it.
Speak Percussion appear at THNMF over several time slots.
7.30pm Wednesday 25 October, Subiaco Arts Centre
A wave and waves:
1pm and 4pm Sunday 29 October
Midland Railway Workshops