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9 April 2009

The Glass Percussion Project

'Because of this organic process of discovering each instrument's voice, the music develops through improvisation.' Image: 'Because of this organic process of discovering each instrument's voice, the music develops through improvisation.'  
© Emily Heylen

The most beautiful aspect of the Adelaide Festival Centre's Artspace is the tall, floor-to-ceiling windows that complete one side of the room, opening the space to the blue summer sky. Watching the Glass Percussion Project playing blue pieces created by 25 local glass artists, the cerulean tones of inside and outside stand comfortably side by side. The music echoes the blues of nature; I hear the sea swirling with marbles in a glass bowl, and whale calls emanating from a bowed glass platter. Since I'm already thinking of the ocean, the glass objects themselves make me think of the greeny-blue chips of broken glass one finds at the beach, edges softened by the surf.

Place is important in this narrative: the Artspace was opened in late 1975 to a recording of the sound of breaking glass. The connection between the aesthetic aspect of glass and its sonic potential is rare enough now; in 1970s Adelaide it was positively groundbreaking. Some thirty-odd years later, during festival season and by complete coincidence, the same connection was made again, and in the same place.

Blue Collection was a joint project'It starts as pure exploration – play-time in the true sense of the word – befriending the instrument and trying to understand the relationship you can have with it.' between Melbourne's Glass Percussion Project, and the glass studio of the JamFactory, a centre for Adelaidean artists, and collaboration is the defining feature of this particular event. While the Glass Percussion Project usually works only with colourless glass, blue was chosen for this particular project with reference to its place in Eastern philosophy, an important influence for percussionist Eugene Ughetti and installation artist Elaine Miles. Blue represents the fifth chakra which in turn corresponds to the throat and the concept of communication, underpinning the emphasis placed on collaboration and the collective nature of this project.

The Glass Percussion Project seems like it was an inevitability for Ughetti, a classically trained percussionist, whose father was also a percussionist and whose mother was a visual artist who worked with glass. The project began a few years ago when Ughetti met Miles, who had long been thinking about the sonic potential of glass, and who had already developed a large body of work which was ready to be explored musically. The pair began working together, merging glass installation with live performance, and the project now boasts a collection of over 1500 glass objects, a commission at Melbourne's Federation Square, and a regular team of percussionists, sound artists and lighting designers.

Much time was initially spent conceptualising the direction of the Glass Percussion Project to ensure that it goes beyond what Ughetti calls the 'novelty factor' of the combination of glass and sound. Fundamental to Ughetti's vision for the Glass Percussion Project is to bring the sound of each object to life, and to let each instrument speak. 'I try to generate the music through dialogue with the instrument itself,' he says. 'That means that I'm not bringing a preconceived idea about music to the rehearsal studio, I'm actually interested in how the instrument behaves, the kinds of qualities that it displays and how best to explore those qualities in a musical way.'

Miles expands on this a little. 'The early part of the process is to test out all of the instruments to discover what they offer in terms of pitch, timbre, resonance. The objects are not made with an effort to achieving a particular sound, so the selection process is important.'

Because of this organic process of discovering each instrument's voice, the music develops through improvisation. 'It starts as pure exploration – play-time in the true sense of the word – befriending the instrument and trying to understand the relationship you can have with it. After that it's a question of generating material,' Ughetti explains. This material is gathered together to form a palette of sounds to work with, and ideas are then notated, either in literal Western notation, or in the form of text-based descriptions of characters and textures.

This approach to performance was new for Adelaide percussionist Fleur Green, who joined Ughetti and long-time Glass Percussion Project percussionist Matthias Schack-Arnott for Blue Collection, in an extension of the theme of collaboration. Although Green is an experienced musician, both as a percussionist, well versed in contemporary music practices, and as a composer, she found this approach to music making a welcome challenge. 'It was very open, very creative,' she muses, 'it taught me a different level of musical communication'.

For the Adelaide glass artists, the project offered a different perspective on their everyday work. Stephen Skillitzi, the artist whose shattering glass heralded the opening of the Artspace, and one of the first studio glass artists in Australia, is still a practising glass artist, and contributed to Blue Collection. The intersection between glass and performance has always interested him; however, it's not something that most glass artists have the opportunity to participate in. Skillitzi thinks that the artists who offered their works for the project see a different potential for glass material. 'If you are a glass-blower, you sometimes inadvertently hear the crashing of glass as something falls off the blowpipe onto the floor, so we're acquainted with the sound,' he laughs, 'but to have it used as an artform in its own right is probably not so commonly understood.'

Miles agrees. Even though her work centres around the sonic potential of glass, the collaboration with a new community of glass artists not only allowed them to see their work in a different way, but allowed her to hear different sounds from new objects. 'Everyone works aesthetically and it's all about this beautiful object, or this aesthetically pleasing object, but for me it was an opportunity to hear what it sounds like,' she says. 'It's also that working with other artists who use different techniques to me opens up the possibility for sounds that we wouldn't have had access to otherwise.'

Each performance by the Glass Percussion Project is defined by specific parameters – in some cases it is the physical limitations of the performance space, but in the case of Blue Collection, the unique nature of the project was that each of the objects used in the performance was new to the performers. The collection contained around 200 works, worth up to $6000 each, by Miles and 75 by JamFactory artists; however, an effort was made to emphasise the local works in the performance. Many pieces were displayed purely aesthetically on shelving along the white walls, whilst those works used as instruments were laid on benches like little blue islands. The instruments ranged from bowls to plates to bottles to hanging bells, and were played mainly with mallets, but many were also bowed, blown across and scraped. The common factor was that all of these instruments were new to the musicians. Green enthuses about the glass xylophone, calling it an 'amazingly beautiful instrument'. 'It's beautiful to look at,' she continues, 'but it has a beautiful sound too, and very unique. It's just so interesting working with such a variety of different sound properties'.

Blue Collection was presented over almost a month in a variety of '... glass is such a seductive material that it's usually related to sculpture or vessels; it asks you to admire it, but it doesn't very often challenge you or involve the emotions and the ear...'different ways. The installation of blue glass itself was open to the public during the days, and two rehearsals were also open to the public. The collaboration culminated in a free performance late in February, which was so well attended there was barely standing room available. The performance showcased an hour of complete musical ideas, developed over one week of intensive rehearsals. The sounds were amplified by tiny wrist microphones, allowing the delicate tones of the objects to be heard by all, and the percussionists moved delicately around the space, lending a slightly theatrical aspect to the performance. For music which was strikingly modern and very free-form, occasional touches of other styles crept in. Miles explains 'often what comes out of the glass is reminiscent of other things – Indonesian Gamelan music, for example. It's nice to hear these touches, but the day that we try to create those sounds is the day that we've lost the potential of the glass'.

Blue Collection as a collaborative project opened this very potential of glass to a number of new participants: local artists, musicians, and of course the public. Skillitzi, unsurprisingly given his long history of exploring the different possibilities of glass, explains the success of the project best: 'glass is such a seductive material that it's usually related to sculpture or vessels; it asks you to admire it, but it doesn't very often challenge you or involve the emotions and the ear'. In Blue Collection, it did.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Emily Heylen is an Adelaide-based writer, bassoonist and teacher. She has just returned home from a year in Paris, and her byline, like her life, is a work in progress.


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