Sunday, 10 September 2017

Assembly Operation review

Our ticket for Speak Percussion's Assembly Operation is a Chinese one Yuan note, but this isn't just for novelty. The program tells us the inspiration for the show comes from the image that is printed on this note, and it allows us an opportunity to see the image and to better understand the show's concept. On it is an image from the West Lake in Hangzhou, which depicts three pools reflecting the moon. A body of water, a bridge and three ceramic stupas (pagodas) are also shown, and it is these items that influences Assembly Operation.

Walking in, we see three rows of tables facing the audience, each row adorned with different items. The one furthest to the back holds three small electronic keyboards whereas the middle one has a variety of traditional looking ceramics and a number of instruments, including drums. The front table is where the three percussionists, Kaylie Melville, Matthias Schack-Arnott and Eugene Ughetti, sit motionless. They are surrounded by crumpled up tissue paper, and knowing what we know about the show, it looks like a sea of water is surrounding them. A recording in Chinese plays through a PA or a megaphone and what its saying is lost on me, but I believe it to be sprouting cultural propaganda. Suddenly it stops, and the three percussionists begin.

With the three rows of tables, the performance is divided up into three distinct parts. This first part begins with each performer running their tissue paper through a conveyor belt like table. They crush, tear and manipulate the paper to create a hypnotic rhythm, and if you close your eyes you could swear you're hearing a running stream. Their positioning also brings to mind sweatshop workers who spend their days tirelessly creating worthless goods for the consumerist culture we live in.

Gradually the three move to the middle row, where they begin striking, scratching and strumming the various pieces on display, eventually moving the items around to create three statues, similar to the ones on the one Yuan note. As they do, a video projection shows the crumbling and decay of the pagodas, perhaps hinting that culture is dying and the only way to retain it is by manufacturing new culture for the masses.

In the final part, things take a more contemporary turn with the trio playing on electronic keyboards, creating sounds that are loud and fast but also exciting and adventurous. Accompanying the music is an impressive lighting design by Richard Dinnen consisting of flashing red, blue and green lights illuminating both the performers and the crumpled sea of paper from part one and thus suggesting how easily culture can be recycled and reinvented.

There is no denying the skill and innovation that comes from performing a show like this. Melville, Schack-Arnott and Ughetti retain excellent unity and synchronisity throughout the performance and their ability to create beautiful and mesmerising sounds with simple and "low culture" objects is inspiring. When it comes to creating musical performances that challenge what music can mean and translate into, Speak Percussion deliver the goods. Assembly Operation has us questioning the impacts of mass production and culture in a unique and engaging way that only this innovative company can do.

Assembly Operation was performed at Arts House between 5 - 9 September 2017. 

Photo Credits: Bryony Jackson

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