Q: Welcome back to Perth, Eugene. Audiences may have experienced your works last year as part of Totally Huge New Music Festival. For those new to Speak Percussion can you introduce the company?
For sure, Speak Percussion is an Australian organisation dedicated to making ambitious projects with and about percussion. We recognise that any physical object in existence can be a percussion instrument and it’s our discipline to bring those objects to life through sound and performance. Importantly, Speak’s work has moved beyond the concert hall, our projects often draw on elements of design and a strong visual aesthetic.
Q: Polar Force came out of field recordings by Dr. Philip Samartzis, who undertook 2 Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowships at the Davis Station, a site for scientific research. Philip has said that every sound has a story, what was the story of these trips?
Polar Force emerged from a conversation Philip Samartzis and I had in 2015 about the musical nature of the Antarctic soundscape. During his first trip to the ice, Samartzis noticed that the built environment of Davis Station often sounded like a monumental piece of 20th century avant-garde music due to structural stress and fatigue caused by the extreme conditions.
For his second trip in 2016, Samartzis strategically applied his recording technology as if his subject matter was Speak Percussion, focusing on the acoustic, material and spatial characteristics of Casey Station as it responded to the withering effects of cold, and the powerful forces of katabatic wind.
Q: The field recordings capture extreme weather events, including katabatic winds. What are these and how were you inspired by these recordings?
We draw on completely original, high fidelity and multi-channel recordings made in Antarctica of mass ice melting, the cracking stresses of a frozen lake, the rubbing of glaciers up against each other, a blizzard (which was the fiercest summer blizzard on record) and the sounds of the build environment of Australian base stations.
First and foremost I was inspired to work with the materials of high pressure wind, ice and water. I was inspired to unlock their sound characteristics and behaviour in performance. Philip’s recordings are extremely beautiful and evocative, they have inspired me to think about musical structure in new ways, to hear landscape and place rather than musical form and the sheer natural beauty of both the sound colours and how they behave in nature.
The work is about the interaction of the core materials as they are heard in nature vs how they are manipulated by humans through quasi scientific sound research.
Q: Polar Force places the audience within an inflatable, chilled space and offers an experiential, sensory invitation. Tell us more about this focus on the body of the audience, their physical relationship within the space, and why this became a driver of the work?
The inflatable space is reminiscent of an Antarctic base station, something like a completely white Nissen hut. This space was chosen to give the work a clear sense of place but also a consistent and, to some degree, neutral visual backdrop. The space has allowed us to control the light, temperature and to create a performance space in line with life in Antarctica.
Originally I had imagined the audience immersed within a cold and gusty environment but as the work developed, we discovered this was not necessary for audiences to experience the work.
Q: The live sound in the work is generated by yourself and Matthias Schack-Arnott through intricately designed instruments that have specific methods of creating sound. Talk us through the process from concept to design and the unique apparatus created.
In response to the purity and complexity of the field recordings, I sought a system to enable the live manipulation of wind, ice and water in performance. No off-the-shelf musical equipment was suitable so I embarked on the creation of new instruments fit for purpose. Design principles, influenced by the Antarctic built environment aesthetic, aimed to create what would appear more like scientific research equipment than conventional musical instruments.
RMIT Industrial Design students collaborated with me to explore ideas and concepts for new musical instruments. Lead by Dr Malte Wagenfeld, students worked on two related explorations into the acoustics of the Antarctic environment.
A pivotal instrument in the work is Lusca (affectionately named after a fictitious octopus). It takes air from a fan and distributes it to tubes of differing lengths and diameters.
Lusca produces up to eight note chords, with each pitch shifting independently along it’s own unique harmonic series, depending on the air pressure/flow. Inside each tube is a pair of rotating discs. One is manually operated, acting like a flow control or on/off valve. The second disc is motorised and can rotate continuously at variable speeds. Each tube can also pulsate and slide between harmonics with the movement of the discs.
Lusca uses three different speed motors, each emitting electrical energy as they spin. With the use of electro-magnetic coil microphones this energy is converted into sound and can be modulated through the variable speed of the motors.
Sitting at the centre of Lusca is the main air distribution system, which also houses the motor control dials and manual knobs. Fanning out from each side of the centre stretch the corrugated tubes, along a Perspex desk so as to be played like guiros.
Q: Another instrument in the work is the element of water. You’ve talked about making weather ‘audible’. How does this manifest?
Water of course is inevitable when working with ice in room temperature so this was a necessary evil but importantly many of the field recordings and live performed sounds are made under water.
We are able to hear the sound of cracking ice, turbulent water and air escaping into water both in the field recordings and in live performance. The points of interest sonically often come when the materials are put under stress and this is both true in nature and through our percussive techniques.
Q: You worked with Clare Britton, who comes from a theatre background, as a co-director. How did her involvement shape the work?
Clare has been across all aspects of this work and she has brought her very strong experience in making performance especially from a visual and conceptual perspective to the project.
Here are some words Clare has said about her involvement:
“The principles at the centre of Polar Force are site-based practice, experimentation, collaboration and listening.
The production design process has been focussed on bringing these qualities out in the different forms that make up the work – the sounds, the space, the instruments, the images.
The staging of Polar Force has come about through collaboration – all of the artists involved have contributed to and shaped the visual language of the work.
The production design in Polar Force is intended to allow us to consider the edges of our understanding, to listen to things we can’t usually hear in places we can’t easily go. Polar Force allows us to listen to the mechanical sounds of human activity as well as the immense and awesome environmental forces that shape our world and to consider them all as signs of life.”
Q: You’re also doing a 1 day workshop on 23 January. What will you be sharing with local artists?
We are going to give an insight into how Polar Force was created, a behind the scenes look at what we do when performing this work but also what went into achieving the results and making the decisions. To some degree this will be shaped by the participants themselves and the kinds of questions and conversations that emerge.
Q: What was your last memorable art moment that inspired you?
I have two young kids who sing, draw and paint a lot and I’ve learnt to be inspired, through their eyes, by some of the simplest things, many things at ground level that unless we slow down and get down onto our hands and knees would completely pass us by.
Q: It’s a new year. What needs to be said in 2019?
In 2019 we must address many questions. What does ‘my culture’ mean in an age of globalisation but also mass migration. How should and can art exist within contemporary life in the west? We must stop talking and thinking about art through market based mechanisms and begin to see it functioning across a much broader spectrum of our lives.
Image by Bryony Jackson