Assembly Operation

David Barmby

Commercialism, waste, mass production and profligate greed inform this gentle lament by Speak Percussion.
Assembly Operation

Image: Speak Percussion. Supplied.

Recent winner of the 2017 Art Music Award, Speak Percussion’s latest project is composed by founding artistic director Eugene Ughetti whose gentle work always allows his audience to assemble meanings through opaque layers.  Assembly Operation flows from his mentorship and following collaborations with the esteemed Swiss percussionist and composer, Fritz Hauser.   Employing few traditional percussion instruments, Ughetti instead uses paper, polystyrene, masking tape, ceramic and musical toys in this one-hour work structured in three segments.  In his artist’s statement Ughetti contemplates how wrapping paper (no doubt with its sonic qualities) becomes worthless once the gift is revealed.


Ughetti commenced this project in 2014 with a DFAT-sponsored visit to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.  It started by collecting from markets mass-produced children’s toys, each with sonic characteristics.  These innocent playful items meant for fun and then discarded became pertinent to the creation of the work.  Matched with their innocent purpose were significant ethical concerns: 'A child’s toy may provide joy and an opportunity but can simultaneously be polluting… [may be produced in unacceptable] conditions of labour and contain Phthalates and BPA.' The work also relies on creating sounds from found, everyday objects.  The value of objects is reversed whereby the valuable becomes unimportant and the counterfeit is highly esteemed.

The Chinese inventions of paper (and also paper money), earthenware/ceramics and fireworks become key signifiers in the work.  The one Yuan note (today worth around 20 Australian cents, and used as the ticket of entry for the performance) is the conceptual core of the work.  Its visual imagery is of a lake beautifully reflecting the moon (the West Lake in Hangzhou) with three stupas and a distant bridge.  The artists’ statement includes a translated children’s story about a puppy contently carrying a piece of meat in its mouth.  Crossing a bridge and seeing his reflection in the water, however, he tries to snatch what looks to be a bigger piece of meat from the reflection and in the process loses what he already has.  The one Yuan note and this story combine as a metaphor for the work. 

The work was commissioned by the 2015/2016 Speak NOW donors, composers, performers and patrons who have each donated $100.  ‘We then seek to directly share that art with our donors, so that we stay in touch during the development of the work…it is about creating a greater stake and closeness to the art and artists, an artistic community, and a model that is perhaps more sustainable for ongoing contributions.’

The audience walks into a darkened space with 9 white desks in three rows of three ascending tiers.  An identical set of instruments and objects is assembled on each desk: paper on the first tier; metal, drums, polystyrene, more paper, masking tape and ceramics (by Jia Jia Chen) on the second; and finally three toy, one-octave keyboards called HONGYING Fish that produce one of the most low grade synthetic sounds one can make.  Each desk is fitted with tiny microphones that pick up the most infinitesimal of sounds.

The three percussionists (Kaylie Melville, Matthias Schack-Arnott and Eugene Ughetti) dressed in black are seated, motionless behind the first tier.  Production-like manufacture becomes apparent.  Throughout the work, although each percussionist is allowed an individual voice, their tasks appear to be largely identical commencing with the sliding of a wide sheet of paper (right to left and left to right by way of finger perforations) looped under the desks.  Sheets of tissue paper are then carefully laid out onto the desk tops, scrunched into a ball, patted rhythmically, slowly torn and then rustled aloft.  They then move off the edge of the desk to join refuse on the floor.  An image appears (Cyrus Tang) behind the performers, soft green and white, the screen divided into three tableaux, detailing the slow disintegration, melting and bubbling of a submerged white polystyrene stupa in liquid.  One by one the performers move to the next tier and a similar process of shared activity moves to different surfaces and sonic effects, notably the scratched and grinding surfaces of ceramic offset by the bounced resonance of polystyrene objects.  In time the instruments will all be assembled to create three stupas as on the Chinese currency, two white and a handsome central manifestation comprising red drums, metal and other wooden objects/instruments.  Finally, the last section has the trio performing elaborate and rhythmically intricate monody on the toy HONGYING Fish keyboards accompanied by sound manipulation and lurid flashing lights possibly emulating neon advertising material and fireworks.

The work is a one-hour long crescendo from the miniscule rustlings of paper (perhaps a portrait of the moon-lit lake scene with stupas and bridge) to the loud and lurid vulgarity punched out by counterfeit organs.  Overall, though, Assembly Operation presents a gentle and timid creation.  With the grimly concerning issues it addresses I felt that it could have been more forceful, perhaps even brutal to realise the ugliness of its meaning and intent.

4 stars out of 5

Assembly Operation

Speak Percussion

Clare Britton, designer and dramaturge
Jia Jia Chen, ceramicist and visual artist
Michaela Coventry, producer
Richard Dinnen (Megafun), lighting designer and production manager
Bryony Jackson, image
Kaylie Melville, performer
Rick Roux, sound designer
Matthias Schack-Arnott, performer
Cyrus Tang, video artist
Eugene Ughetti, composer, director and performer
Presented by Arts House, City of Melbourne
North Melbourne Town Hall
Saturday, 9 September, 2017

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.