Light made sound made light

Madeline Roycroft: Speak Percussion, Fluorophone

Speak Percussion, Fluorophone Concert, The Substation

Speak Percussion, Fluorophone Concert, The Substation

Speak Percussion, Fluorophone Concert, The Substation

While the relationship between music and light is usually metaphorical, Speak Percussion has no time for such conjecture. With its purpose-built instruments used as lights and lights as instruments, the Melbourne-based ensemble’s latest program Fluorophone steps beyond simple choreography. Presenting works by Damien Ricketson, Eugene Ughetti, Juliana Hodkinson and Simon Løffler, Speak fills the iconic industrial space of Newport’s The Substation with sound and light.

Opening the program is Rendition Clinic, Damien Ricketson’s unsmiling exploration of the role music and light have played in ‘soft’ torture practices. Combining live percussion with bright flashing lights and samples of recorded music, the work is unsettling and disorienting right from the onset. Percussionists Louise Devenish and Matthias Shack-Arnott are sporadically illuminated by custom-built strobe lights that emit loud clicking noises upon discharge. Precise metallic tapping in the percussion mimics the distinctive sound of these contraptions, incorporating the lights both visually and sonically into the piece.

Pyrite Gland, a recent composition by Speak’s Artistic Director Eugene Ughetti, features two tom-toms with custom-built LED lights fitted inside. Radiating an odd yellow-green light, these drums offer an impeccable synaesthetic reflection of the eerie cooing sound created by foot pumps on the floor. The ensemble generates a palette of unsettling sounds with balloons, sticks and the ribbed plastic piping which carries air to inner cavities of the drums and doubles as a kind of plastic guiro.

Speak Percussion perform Pyrite Gland, Singapore 2015

Speak Percussion perform Pyrite Gland, Singapore 2015

Speak Percussion perform Pyrite Gland, Singapore 2015

Scored for amplified matches, Juliana Hodkinson’s Lightness explores an equally inventive sound world. Speak Percussion finds the rhythm in striking, igniting and extinguishing matches, sacrificing an immeasurable number of Redheads in the process. In the final sequence, the audience watches with bated breath as outstretched arms slowly pass a dwindling flame.

Most prominent in the program are two works by Danish composer Simon Løffler. The first is a new commission by Speak Percussion simply titled e. Performed on what could be an art installation—panel lights arranged in the shape of a subdivided triangle with an actual triangle suspended in the centre—e lacks nothing in visual stimulation. Seated behind the instrument, the four players use pedals and clickers to operate a geometric lightshow accompanied by exhilarating electronic noise. After extensive crackling and buzzing it is almost ironic to hear the unexpected timbre of the triangle, which plays in sync with a satisfying pattern of lights.

Løffler’s earlier work b (2002) sees three Speak members seated shoulder-to-shoulder at a small table. Three neon lights flicker ominously as two players stamp out complex rhythms on effects pedals and a third exploits the crackling of a loose jack cable. By touching the lights and clutching each other’s arms the performers pass static electricity from body to body, creating distorted sounds and jolting rhythms. Truly a pleasure to watch, the musician’s ecstatic interaction alone fills the room; an especially remarkable feat considering the openness of the venue.

Fluorophone is an electrifying experience that truly lives up to its name. Speak Percussion is to be commended not only for an exhilarating performance but also for curating a program that maintains diversity in instrumentation and style while successfully synthesising music and light.

Speak Percussion, Fluorophone, The Substation, Newport, Melbourne, 23 Nov

See Zoe Barker’s review of Speak Percussion’s Annica and Matthew Lorenzon’s interview with member-composers Eugene Ughetti and Matthias Schack-Arnott.

RealTime issue #136 Dec-Jan 2016

© Madeline Roycroft; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

7 December 2016