Ostensibly a performance by a hundred percussionists gridded throughout an expansive seating plane, A Wave and Waves offered individual audience members a rare delight: to perform the listening body for a hundred percussionists.

A vast space, subtly lit and fogged, with chairs neatly staggered around small high tables guarded by intent performers. A series of objects, displaced from their usual domestic or studio environment, now sitting atop small high tables on black trays. An array of individual seats awaiting individual listeners. Altogether, a system for experiencing small-scale gestures for large-scale percussion whose sounds would come in waves.

Wisely, the scattered performers stood perpendicular to the focus of the seated bodies, facing the neatly formed countdown of small screens mounted high on the Meat Market walls. This arrangement allowed us to experience the performers’ bodies with more care, watching their hands move forward to grasp a rock on a bed of sand, a sheet of paper to tear, a handful of seeds or salt crystals to drop onto ceramic or glass, a brush to cast along a snare drum, a bow to glide along an inert object.

Speak Percussion have long aroused my perceptual sensitivities. A decade ago, Rosemary Joy’s beautifully crafted instruments for Schallmachine (2006) performed David Young’s composition for audiences of three in some of Federation Square’s hidden spaces, creating an intimacy wholly unexpected and deeply treasured. Speak’s collaboration with Chamber Made on The Box (2012) extended this craft to present a work whose sound performance was not mere centimetres away but rather hidden in the kitchen, in the garden, in the eponymous structure that dominated the Living Room Opera space. A Wave and Waves created a space for both presence and absence, proximity and distance.

For an audience attracted in part by the work’s programming as part of the 2015 Melbourne Festival, the expectation is for performers and audience separated by formal means: stagecraft and seating in spatial design that makes clear distinctions, defining thresholds that cannot be crossed by either performer or audience. Sitting in individual chairs set apart from one another and comprising a neat grid across the floor, each one of us became a concentrating body, conscious of several performers around us – perhaps one right next to us, perhaps another a few places away – and conscious too of being surrounded by listening bodies. Each of us one single element within a superbly crafted system for focused listening.

In a discussion almost fifteen years ago with the experimental sound artist John Grzinich that would become a text to accompany his Intimations (2004), John described sound as one of the universe’s key resonant qualities, as well as – conversely – the sense of internal presence. Sound travels across space, and as it crosses distances vast and small, it travels across time. The wave and waves we experienced at the Meat Market last week arrived at the delicate receptors deep within our ears at different times, swirling through successive spirals, striking tiny drums, competing with the human vibrations of breath and bloodflow, neural electricity and muscular impulse. Movement is constant. At different times we became aware of the outward human sounds of sneezing, coughing, shifting in seats. At different times my body felt warm, cool, alert, sleepy, heightened in perception, mellow in sensation, and profoundly happy.

It takes not only great focus but – more importantly – great audacity to keep pursuing a method of working that seeks out new forms of precision. Speak Percussion’s sophisticated approach to the intimacy of sound makes new modes of perception possible.


A Wave and Waves (2015) by Speak Percussion
Composer: Michael Pisaro. Director: Eugene Ughetti. Guest Artist: Greg Stuart. Performers: Matthias Schack-Arnott, Louise Devenish, Kaylie Melville, Greg Stuart and 96 guests.

Presented as part of the 2015 Melbourne Festival

Image: Speak Percussion