This article was first published for Artery on 5 February 2014
Percussionist Eugene Ughetti has been known to trawl $2 shops looking for objects that make interesting sounds, like mixing bowls and ping-pong balls. Over the past 10 years, he has created works with glass objects, microphones, even pasta, and he plans to investigate in upcoming projects making music with squeaky toys and the interstellar sounds picked up by radio telescopes.
One of Ughetti’s artistic interests has been to challenge the very notion of what a percussionist is and what a percussion instrument can be. ‘As a percussionist any physical object can become your instrument,’ he explains. He see the challenge of forgetting all conventional instruments and starting from a place where he must rethink his whole craft as an approach that is artistically honest.
His planned toy and space projects are just two of four large-scale interdisciplinary projects Ughetti is developing as part of his Australia Council for the Arts Creative Australia Fellowship for an emerging artist.
A classically trained percussionist, composer and conductor, Ughetti has many ‘strings to his bow’. Ughetti has performed around the world, working with some of the world’s finest composers and conductors, as well as instigated numerous international arts projects, consulting and teaching. He is also the artistic director of the highly regarded Speak Percussion, a collective he helped found and steer over the past 14 years in numerous roles.
It was another oppressively hot summer day when we met at Ughetti’s home in Melbourne’s inner north; thankfully it had air conditioning. He opted to prepare us affogato, as we chatted about his Italian background and childhood.
Ughetti grew up in Melbourne’s west. His mother studied fine arts, and there was always a studio out the back where she would be making work while Ughetti’s father was a drummer and ran a music store. ‘Dad was my first teacher,’ Ughetti says, ‘And I think he just made it very normal to play drums around the house.’ He sees his parents’ influence as assuring him that it was very normal to be an artist and as why much of his work is hybrid art.
As a youth, Ughetti would spend school holidays and sick days hanging out in the store, watching people come in and try out the instruments. It was also something of a musical smorgasbord, a place where he could consider the instruments in an objective way.
This considered exploration of instruments is an interest that has stayed with him. Ughetti uses the word phenomenological to describe his methodology. A philosophical term, it refers to an approach that studies first-person experienced consciousness on or about an object. To Ughetti that means taking the object as a starting point, exploring and experimenting with it to find how the object itself ‘wants’ to be used in a musical context.
The first of Ughetti’s Creative Australia Fellowship projects, Transducer, a collaboration with mentor and new media artist Robin Fox premiered last year at the Totally Huge New Music Festival in Perth. Taking German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1964 composition Mikrophonie 1, as its ‘point of departure’ the work explores the musical potential of microphones to create an electro-acoustic spatialised performance work.
‘We came up with some really beautiful material I think, which was essentially just looking, in quite phenomenological way, at how microphones behave.’
Ughetti’s ‘toy’ project will use a similar approach. Currently titled Toy Consciousness, it has developed from his involvement with the Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital HUSH Music Foundation. Ughetti plans to make field recordings of the mechanical and clinics sounds experienced within the hospital’s operating suites, then to augmented and accompany the sounds with music played upon children’s toys; thereby re-appropriated the clinical into something fun and play-like.
Ultimately Ughetti hopes it will be a performance and art installation work, with the manipulated field recordings accompanying percussionists playing amongst thousands of toys. The piles of toys will also underscore a deeper disquiet about mass-production, consumption and waste.
The other two projects that Ughetti’s Fellowship is providing the creative development for are: a project that will explore the sonic potential of tiles; and a sound installation that maps the sound and scale of interstellar objects inspired by Gerard Grisey’s 1990 work The Black of the Star (Le Noir de l’Etoile), which he performed with Speak Percussion at last year’s Melbourne Festival.
Last year, Ughetti’s Fellowship also enabled a mentorship with drummer and composer Fritz Hauser and participation in the development and performance of Hauser’s new work Machine Maximus. Ughetti was particularly interested in following how Fritz makes such large-scale works. ‘It’s the sort of work… of the magnitude and of the gravity… that I would like to be making,’ he says.
‘When you really boil it down…I want to make work that has impact… that makes us deeply inquire into who we are… and challenges our perception of the world.’
Speak Percussion will be performing as part of Tectonics Adelaide at the 2014 Adelaide Festival.