Radical percussions

Matthew Lorenzon: Eugene Ughetti, Australian Percussion Solos

Eugene Ughetti

Eugene Ughetti

Eugene Ughetti

Over the past decade, percussionist Eugene Ughetti and his ensemble, Speak Percussion, have commissioned a startling catalogue of works by emerging and established Australian composers. As part of an MCA/Freedman Fellowship for Classical Music, Ughetti has brought these works together as a living portrait of Australian solo percussion music.

Ughetti’s portrait is virtuosic and post-experimental, which is to say that non-traditional percussion instruments and compositional techniques (with ‘traditional’ incorporating institutionalised techniques of the 20th century avant-garde like serial and spectral procedures) are incorporated seamlessly into unified compositions that are as rewarding to hear as they are challenging to play.

Alex Garsden’s Macrograph is a case in point. The variety of dinosaur sounds Ughetti conjures from a bowed cardboard box requires a mastery of diverse ricochet effects along the bow and extreme sensitivity to bow pressure and speed. These animal recitatives are held together by a background of irregularly chiming steel bowls containing vibrators that are turned on and off at switches as different tones are required. Despite the eclectic combination of instruments, the piece is a perfectly contained series of five episodes escalating in intensity, followed by a coda on pitch-pipes, styrofoam and a metal sheet.

James Rushford’s Twin Resistance requires an extensive battery of bells and crotales, including a series of chimes activated by mop-bucket pedals. The piece’s restricted tone colour provides an opportunity to focus on Rushford’s rhythmic world, a continuous tissue that defies repetition and meter.

While Garsden and Rushford’s pieces show Ughetti supporting a new generation of composers, the concert also highlights his relationships with established composers. Liza Lim’s ‘postcard piece,’ Love Letter, requires the performer to write a love letter and then translate the characters of the letter into musical material. Ughetti’s wife Rochelle must have felt very lucky listening to his beguiling daf drum solo. Throughout the letter’s eight sections (could they be sentences?), the drum is rapidly shaken, swayed, struck all over and caressed with hands, knees, loofah pads and a superball until the final gesture: three Xs traced on the drum skin with the fingertips.

Thomas Meadowcroft’s Plain Moving Landfill from 2003, the earliest work on the program, provided a contrast of pace. Two soporific foot bellows huff and puff into melodicas, generating a snoring, swelling drone. Meanwhile, Ughetti massages a bass drum with soft mallets, brushes and a plastic water bottle.

The concert ended with Anthony Pateras’ Hypnagogics “for microsounds and tape,” which draws in part on the psychoacoustic experiments of the composer Alvin Lucier. Thanks to Ughetti, listeners have had multiple opportunities to hear this work over the past eight years and explore its psychoacoustic properties in different settings. Throughout, Ughetti plays short bursts on rows of shot glasses, small ceramic teacups, miniature skin drums and crotales—the ‘microsounds’—which interact with tones from the tape part to create binaural beats, or tones that seem spatially and timbrally disconnected from the performer’s actions. In this performance I did not hear the ear-tickling binaural beats that I have before, but tones that seemed to fill the room with a shimmering aura.

After such a rich series of short performances, I can’t help asking where the neat edges of the works commissioned by Ughetti come from. What does it say about the funding and commissioning process in Australia that the radical sounds of the past 50 years are being packaged into neat dramatic arcs and discrete variations? Are composers writing for CDs and impatient audiences? Is there a genuine sense that the ideas explored therein need no more than 10 minutes to unfold? Ughetti’s portrait of Australian solo percussion music may also shed a light on the audiences and institutions surrounding it.

Eugene Ughetti, Australian Percussion Solos, Melbourne Recital Centre, 14 Dec, 2013

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 48

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

24 February 2014