Sound is all around us. Every action we take as people, every naturally occurring event has a sound to it; and every sound has an associated rhythm.

The whistle of wind through the rustling branches of a tree. The crack of high heels on a hardwood floor. The splashing of water, the crackling of flames, construction site noises, a car whizzing past your ear – each of these sounds has an inherent rhythm. Once you start to notice the rhythm of the world around you, it can be hard to un-hear it. Speak Percussion, the Thornbury based percussive art collective, must be all too aware of this.

Speak Percussion have been active for sixteen years now, and have been responsible for over one hundred premieres and commissions of new works. Their latest piece Assembly Operation, presented by Arts House in North Melbourne, demonstrated the nature of rhythmic sounds found in unexpected places. While crafting music from every day objects is no new concept, it has rarely been embraced in Australia on the scale of Assembly Operation. The three performers began the work by creating vast and often abrasive soundscapes through the use of tracing paper and tables. Sliding the paper along the amplified table created a rough, scraping sound, reminiscent of the white noise produced by a static television set. The trio crumpled up sheets of the paper, and allowed them to slowly un-crumple themselves, resulting in a flickering crackle, calling to mind a simmering fire place. The sheer range of sounds that the artists managed to create from the individual source was nothing short of spectacular. Visually, through the scene of the three artists sitting behind desks, tirelessly working on almost identical tasks, images of sweat shop factories were called to mind. The waste that piled up beside each table from the ever increasing amount of tracing paper utilised perhaps served to comment on the wastefulness of the modern world, the disposable culture which surrounds the products we use.

The set dressing of the stage saw three seperate stations ascending, each higher than the next. After leaving a pile of tracing paper and the desks at the front of the stage, the artists made their way to a collection of what appeared to be pots and pans, traditional drums and clay objects. These were played in different ways, with another impressive array of sounds produced. A violin bow scraping against an object leading to a subtle, dusty yet persistent tone. Various sized bowls being hit to create faint melodies. Walls of interlocking rhythms created by the three artists performing individual sections. While the objects utilised seemed to be random, it soon became apparent that they formed individual parts of three seperate structures, which were slowly built by the performers as the work continued. With gentle projections dancing on the screen behind them, the artists created three towers reminiscent of ancient Chinese palace structures. Perhaps this served as a comment on the nature of production, of ancient buildings constructed by the hands of slaves.

The tickets provided to audience members were Chinese (Yuan) bank notes. According to Speak Percussion, this note served as a trigger for the work. They assert that Assembly Operation draws “on the visual, sonic and conceptual qualities of the one Yuan note.” 

During the third act, the work became far more modern, as the performers stationed themselves behind what appeared to be small synthesisers or sequencer pads. A theme that dominated Assembly Operation was that of polyrhythms – rhythms which interplayed with one another, not quite complimenting one another or working together per sae, but creating a rich tapestry of inter related textural sound. With colourful lights illuminating them, and the piles of tracing paper from the first act glowing with white lights under them, the performance became something of an off-kilter 8-bit techno show, swirling analogue synthesisers filling the room with unique rhythmic patterns and bizarre twists and turns.

Assembly Operation told three stories across its three acts which were interlinked by certain ideas, and modes of performance. Yet each act also felt like its own story, its own moment in time. The reflection on the nature of the objects around us, and the reflections on mass production and assembly lines were subtle, yet profound. For an audience member attending this as a musical work, there was much to enjoy. For an audience member attending this as a piece of performance art, there was also much to enjoy. Conceptually, texturally, visually and aurally; Assembly Operation worked on each of these levels.

Eugene Ughetti
Clare Britton
Video Artist:
Cyrus Tang
Sound Designer:
Nick Roux
Lighting Designer/Production Manager:
Richard Dinnen (Megafun)

Ceramicist/Visual Artist:
Jia Jia Chen
Kaylie Melville, Matthias Schack-Arnott, Eugene Ughetti
Michaela Coventry
Bryony Jackson