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The pathos of the natural sublime

Fringe World review: PICA with Tura and Speak Percussion, Polar Force
PICA, January 21⋅
Review by Jonathan W Marshall⋅

Both Australia and New Zealand have been offering fellowships for artists to travel to Antarctica since the 1980s. Results have ranged from the pedestrian (DJ Spooky’s 2008 version of  Sinfonia Antarctica) to the more bracingly exciting and complex (Phil Dadson’s 2005 Polar Projects). Polar Force is the latest such work from Melbourne’s Speak Percussion (Eugene Ughetti and Matthias Shack-Arnott) in collaboration with sound artist Philip Samartzis and RMIT instrument builders Nick Roux and Malte Wagenfield.

The sonic palette developed here is designed to evoke the striking sound of Antarctic winds, rain, storms, flying particulate matter, watery ice and the astonishingly varied and intense vibrations and clatters which these forces produce within the rattling metal sheets, tubes and strung wires of human Antarctic structures. Samartzis has produced some tremendous, all-engulfing field recordings which are played back at three main points within Polar Force, and these are the strongest moments.

The majority of the concert however is not directly derived from these sources, but is rather designed to evoke isolated elements or motifs from these recordings through the use of a novel instrument. The custom built device mounted on a series of elegant glass and metal tables running between two banks of seating is essentially an aerophone, a pump-operated device fitted with valves and apertures through which windy exhalations may be manipulated. The sound is then picked up and transformed by specially fitted microphones. Consequently while some sounds are airy and clattering, others are more audibly electronic, recalling Theremins. Other amplified materials include the rich, harsh cracking of ice as it melts in water, and the sound of balls fed up air tubes and onto a hard surface, like banging doors or particularly hard icy storms.

The attention of Ughetti and Shack-Arnott to this quasi-scientific looking, snaking tubular installation is unfussy but intense. The playing is gestural, yet physically restrained. Adding to this visual aesthetic is the glowing venue itself. The audience is seated in an incandescently white, inflatable, circular-arched quonset hut, metal versions of which abound at Antarctic stations.

Musically, the performance is broken into four main movements separated by three periods in which Samartzis’ recordings are played back. Ughetti and Shack-Arnott tend to focus on particular capabilities of the instrument, and hence on particular elements from the recordings which they can evoke, picking out tones or elements and then gently playing with them (here windiness; then metallic and electronic like; and so on). As a musical composition which evolves over time, I did find the work rather static. Each movement is fairly consistent, and musical or sonic motifs do not seem to develop or shift significantly in focus. Rather there is a tendency towards the initial isolation and reduction of sounds which gradually leads to a crescendo—the most commonplace model in noise art.

Given that the live performance deliberately invites comparison to the recordings, I found it hard not to conclude that “Nature” here is a superior musical author to the humans. Antarctic conditions have crafted indeterminate mixtures and layers of sonic amalgamations which quite literally blow everything else away. The production therefore has something of a pathos-filled quality to it, dramatising the melancholy failure of humans trying to reproduce sounds found in the environment whose full richness eludes them. The natural musical sublime wins.

This is not necessarily a bad thing since the production overall features both types of material—totalising field recordings and more subtle live emulations—while the performances of Ughetti and Shack-Arnott masterfully prepare the audience to listen closely to Samartzis’ overwhelming recordings, as well as raising provocative conceptual conundrums such as where does nature end and the human begin. Field recordings are, after all, themselves a product of enormously complex technology. Overall then, this is a tremendous and thought provoking listening experience.

Polar Force continues until February 24th.

Pictured top: Eugene Ughetti and Matthias Shack-Arnott performing on the custom built instrument.  Photo by Christophe Canato.

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