A wave and waves

David Barmby

A work of exquisite precision and specificity reminding us of the joy of sound.
A wave and waves

Photo: Jeff Busby

The audience was led by torchlight into the cavernous and dimly lit main hall of the Meat Market in North Melbourne, a rectangular space of 30 by 15 metres with barrel-vault ceiling. The space had been filled with fog and shafts of light emanating from the floor formed tall pillars. One hundred percussionists from young to senior dressed in black and facing east stood in seven long rows behind their assemblages of percussion instruments: some minute, some large. We were carefully seated in between the performers: immediately behind me a senior lady, before a Tibetan bowl on its tiny red silk cushion, holding a cello bow; to my left and right young music students from local high schools work with stone plates, large sheets of paper and gravel. Immediately, before me, indeed, perhaps 30 centimetres from my eyes, a percussionist stands behind a tray of pea-sized beads and a white, upturned porcelain bowl.

The entire ensemble was coordinated by the work’s duration in microseconds projected onto small monitors on the east wall. Before each musician was a precise timing card of when they must start and stop their single activity; they had rehearsed carefully and knew from memory the work’s vast structure, its points of culmination and dissipation. There were no ‘parts’ on stands as such before them, there was no conductor nor full score in sight. 

We had been told in the foyer that the work is structured in two 35-minutes halves, commencing and ending in silence and that there is also a period of four-minutes silence to expect in between halves. The lights dim and we sit in silence, and then, as subtle as a tremor on a spider’s web, the sonic tremors start and sweep through the space. The first half is like one vast, layered texture which builds and subsides; the second is a series of waves, a model of the ocean the composer observed at Big Sur’s Pfeiffer State Beach. The movement contains 100 waves, 'six waves of ten instruments each are followed by a single wave of 40 instruments,' and then further ‘unique’ waves using all 100 instruments.  

All of the instruments have been selected in collaboration with Pisaro’s long-term collaborator Greg Stuart for whom the work was written (between 2006 and 2007) and who realised the work as a recording playing all 100 parts. In these performances for the Melbourne Festival, Eugene Ughetti and his ensemble are giving the first live performances. Each instrument is beautiful, a balm for our ears.

In a question and answer session after this performance, Stuart explained that there was a stage in his career when he wanted to become 'a different kind of percussionist,' and began studying not only the instruments themselves but the multitude of micro sound variations they were individually capable of producing. The work, in this sense, was like entering the DNA of just a single, tiny cell and exploring its every manifestation; infinite variation within one entity. The sound world before us was, therefore, made up of simple individual components but, as a whole, fascinatingly complex, so much so that there was no need for either narrative nor development. Ughetti and his ensemble here continue the creative philosophy of past collaboration with Swiss composer, Fritz Hauser.

So the experience was rather like sitting beneath a canopy of stars and trying to take it all in; an impossible task but endlessly enjoyable to try. The sonic subtleties and infinitesimal variation was a salve for our weary ears which in our urban environment are so regularly bombarded with meaningless and unintended noise. At 70 minutes duration, the work passed as if but a fraction of that time. A powerful exercise in ‘mindfulness’; a reminder of the exquisite beauty within small things.

All praise to Speak Percussion’s artistic director Eugene Ughetti for bringing this extraordinary project to fruition, with so many involved from community groups through to school children (as part of Speak Percussion’s Sounds Unheard program). A rare, indeed, unique experience which doubtless will resonate for some time for all involved.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

A wave and waves
by Michael Pisaro
Presented by Speak Percussion and the Melbourne Festival
Speak Percussion
Eugene Ughetti, director
Michael Pisaro, composer
Greg Stuart, guest artist
Richard Dinnen, lighting designer and production manager
Jody Haines, stage manager
Megafun, production
Michaela Coventry, producer
Chrissy Chan, assistant producer

Meat Market, North Melbourne
15-17 October

Melbourne Festival
www.festival.melbourne
8-25 October 2016

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, director of music at St James' Anglican Church, King Street, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.