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14 October 2010

10 years of 'speaking percussion'

Eugene Ughetti and the Glass Percussion Project Image: Eugene Ughetti and the Glass Percussion Project  
© www.speakpercussion.com

Australians are fascinated by percussion, judging by the number of successful percussion ensembles and collectives that can be found around the country. To name just a few: based in Sydney are Synergy Percussion, TaikOz and MATCH Percussion; Perth has Tetrafide Percussion; in Brisbane is Karak Percussion; and from Melbourne - and celebrating their tenth anniversary this year - is Speak Percussion.

Eugene Ughetti, artistic director of Speak Percussion, tried to make sense of this on The Music Show on ABC Radio National recently: 'I think Australia has a really good appetite for percussion. We're a sporting country - percussion's pretty physical. We're full of adventure, and the new, and I think that that's what percussion represents in Australia, so I feel like we're in good company.'

Percussionists, more so than any other instrumentalists, like to stick together. Is it because they spend so much time sharing their instruments? Or is it because of the 'home' provided by the designated percussion room found in every conservatorium or school music centre? Educational institutions have certainly played an important role in the rise of the percussion ensemble since the 1950s. Most percussion ensembles remain student groups - providing a chamber music experience for percussionists - but some venture out into the wider world as a professional ensemble.

This is the path Speak Percussion has taken. A group of percussionists - students at the Victorian College of the Arts - came together in 1999 for a recital given by Minako Okamoto, who was playing Marimba Spiritual by Minoru Miki. The following year they formed again, this time officially, to perform in Musica Viva's Ménage series, calling themselves Speak Percussion. The name had come about from the experience of rehearsing with a musician whose English was not so good. 'We found we were using percussion as a way of communicating with each other,' Ughetti explains. In other words, the music became a common language - they were 'speaking percussion'. The name continues to be relevant to their desire to use percussion to communicate: 'a lot of what we've done has referenced that title'.

Eugene Ughetti recalls the group being very ambitious from the start, with hopes of becoming an established, highly-regarded Australian percussion ensemble, while also retaining 'a risk-taking quality'. For Ughetti, the most important change to have taken place over the last decade has been making the transition from a student ensemble to a better-known professional group in their own right. It's also about perception, about gaining 'respect, and a sense of place in the industry.'

It hasn't been an easy journey, however. 'There were five people who were all equal members of the group, so it was very much a democratic process.' But getting five people to share a common artistic vision can be difficult. 'There tends to be a kind of middle ground, a compromise of the artistic goals. In 2002 we found we were burnt out as a group - financially, creatively… I was the only person willing to continue.'

The structure of Speak Percussion then became much more flexible. 'We're a collective, not a quartet,' Ughetti explains about the present setup, 'even the core players aren't always part of the line-up'.

This flexibility has made it easier to pursue one of their initial goals: to push the boundaries of what constitutes a percussion ensemble, and to collaborate with other artists - and not just musicians. 'I see it as kind of a research [project]... Speak Percussion is really about extending the genre… doing things that challenge the way we think about percussion.'

One advantage that percussion has over other instruments is its visual effectiveness: 'when we can see a sound being made very clearly, I think we have a better relationship to what is actually means'. And in many of Speak Percussion's projects, what a performance looks like is just as important as what it sounds like. The Glass Percussion Project, which has been going for several years, is a good example of this: a collaboration with glass artist Elaine Miles, which has taken place in several different locations, such as the Melbourne Recital Centre, and the Adelaide Festival Centre. It's part installation, part performance, and the art is in both the glass objects themselves, and in the music that the percussionists make with them. 'Percussion can be more than just music-making. Percussion is this world of beautiful objects… Even glass sculptural objects can be percussion, miniature sculpture can be percussion.'

A more unlikely combination of the senses is that of hearing and taste; yet earlier this year, for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Speak Percussion presented Pasta Percussion. Where is the common ground between such seemingly unrelated words? You have to go back a long way, but they actually share a proto-Indo-European root word, 'kwēt', meaning 'shake'. That, of course, is just the starting point - it turns out there are all kinds of ways to link the experience of watching pasta being prepared, eating it, and listening to percussion music.

But perhaps the most important collaborative work Speak Percussion has done, which Eugene Ughetti is keen to emphasise, is their commissioning of new music from Australian composers. More than 50 new works have been commissioned in their ten-year history, and they have established continuing relationships with several composers. The program for their current anniversary tour features two new works by Brendan Colbert, a composer who they first worked with way back in 2000. Anthony Pateras, who went to high school with Eugene Ughetti, also features on the program. Ughetti goes so far as to say that 'Speak Percussion is just as much about composers and sound artists as percussionists'.

Eugene Ughetti's enthusiasm for the possibilities of percussion reminds me of my own childhood passion: long before I took up trumpet and piano, I always used to dream of being a percussionist. When I was taken to orchestral concerts as a child, it was clear to me which musicians had the most interesting job. The strings, woodwind and brass would always be in the same seat, playing the same instrument - and often without making much of an impact on the overall sound. But up the back, the percussionists got to wander amongst all the most impressive-looking and impressive-sounding instruments. Watching their movements was enough to keep me entertained for hours.

Aged seven, I was obsessed with Carl Orff's Carmina Burana - not because of the words, which I knew nothing about, but just because of its sheer quantity of percussion instruments. I would spend entire afternoons looking around the kitchen, backyard and shed for my own percussion instruments. Then, seated behind my laundry-bucket-timpani and assorted crockery and cutlery, I would put on the record and patiently match each drum roll and bell stroke with one of my own.

There's something about percussion which conjures up that childlike excitement to an extent that no other instrument does - the discovery and exploration of new sounds, finding the music of unlikely objects.

Further links

Speak Percussion - homepage
'The Glass Percussion Project' - and article on Resonate by Emily Heylen

Subjects discussed by this article:

This article was written by David Lang, the Australian Youth Orchestra’s 2010 Music Presentation Fellow. The quotations are mostly from a phone interview with Eugene Ughetti, but some come from Andrew Ford’s interview for The Music Show on ABC Radio National.


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