Having received many awards for festival performances and excellence in experimental music, Speak Percussion brought over fifty percussion, wind and brass players from the community to an almost capacity audience in the Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, for an adventurous project in Melbourne’s Rising festival.
Described as “an immersive sonic event, spatialised sonic choreography and a reframing of the marching band phenomenon”, there was a great sense of expectation for this event as the concert space was expanded well beyond the walls of the main venue. An exploration of the sound and space of the entire foyers and spaces of the Melbourne Recital Centre began well before the main program. For twenty-five minutes before the official start time, well-spaced soloists or small groups emerged with their instruments, walking slowly through the crowd or on moving escalators, parading slowly and sombrely on, with a continuum of regular sustained notes and slow two note patterns. The whole acoustic space was filled with a shifting sober and serious march, the atonality occasionally punctuated by loud and insistent snare drum rolls, with striking blows on the bass drum adding weight and structure.
With members of the audience seated informally on the full stage of the Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, it was the performers who were immersed as soloists with sets of percussion spread widely on the stage and in every corner of both lower and upper levels of the auditorium. As the house lights faded, soloists were strategically highlighted, and long rolls on the snare drums were passed around solo players as authoritative conversations grew. Changing timbres and textures were clear as the music proceeded in clearly structured sections, with sounds of cymbal rolls, sustained chimes and brass percussion glowing as notes were bent, dissipated and blended like clouds through the warm acoustical atmosphere. This slow, unfolding plan took great discipline, teamwork and listening as new sections seamlessly unfolded, allowing new colours on triangle, finger cymbals and smaller brass percussion to develop a little more activity and lightness. At regular intervals, the whole atmosphere was submerged with the imposing entrances of large suspended gongs and powerful bass drum.
Most timely was a shift to the drier sounds of woodblocks, sticks and shakers, with a hint of environmental sounds, and the audience laughed in response to imitative frog like sounds. Visually interesting were the widely spaced performers whirling sticks in the air, suggesting spears whose movement through the air created an eerie atmospheric contrast and a fresh and intriguing magically soft sound.
Certainly, this innovative sonic event was a mesmerising and hypnotic experience where the evolving surrounding colours and blend of continuous percussion effects could take the listener into a trance-like sleep. The continuity of gentle, colourful gongs and blended drone-like chimes expanded the third and longest section, taking the program to an hour and a half, which perhaps then became challenging for several audience members. With minimal change in the texture, with just increasing or decreasing dynamics bringing variety to the repetitious nature of the performance, the musical destination was unclear.
Distractions in the audience began as impatient audience members surreptitiously checked their phones or left the hall – quite a distraction when audience members left and returned from the main stage area – and quite “naturally” people applauded at the end of this main piece.
This piece of music had successfully flowed and glowed with a beautiful golden brassy aura, and would have been a fine way to close the program. But there was still more musical activity with a further last section of contrasting scraping, shorter finite wooden sounds, high thin and dry, leading other instruments into a further extended finale. The finishing line seem to have become uncertain and changed character drastically. Woodwind players were seen standing in lines flanking the upper seating levels, a single flute stepped through a rising scale, with brass instruments joining one beat apart, all with the insistent rising of the bass drum.
Performers and audience left the hall together, probably to smaller than expected applause, as the music continued out into the foyer and public spaces again, re-connecting with the initial foyer prologue.
Now wearing bright red, glowing lighted headbands, a regiment of players stood still in band formation and continued the sonic eclipse of pulse beats, an insistent bass drum, and the timeless continuous snare drum rolls.
Julie McErlain reviewed “Sonic Eclipse”, performed by Speak Percussion at the Melbourne Recital Centre on July 15, 2023.