Speak Percussion (plus 100 friends) make a quietly epic splash at the Melbourne Festival.

Can you remember the exact moment you fell in love for the first time? Or when you realised you were in pain after experiencing loss. For most of us, it’s impossible to pinpoint the precise instant. Realisation begins as a small, delicate trickle that grows over time – you only recognise it once you’re caught up in it: once you’re riding the wave.

When Michael Pisaro relates this potent aphoristic gem, we’re only just starting to rehearse his colossal sound work, A wave and waves. It was obvious before we’d even started this was a significant undertaking: calling together one hundred individual performers and engaging the creative and logistical expertise of some of the country’s (and the world’s) most inventive musical minds. But that’s Speak Percussion for you.

It was August when they issued the call, asking for performers to be a part of this groundbreaking project. My interest was piqued. I’m not a percussionist, but that didn’t matter: Speak was looking for any muso looking to join its giant multiplayer percussion organism. It’s this sort of inclusivity that sets Speak apart. New music might have a reputation for alienation (completely unjustified and close-minded, frankly), but not for Speak Percussion – access to genuinely unique auditory experience is their modus operandi.

Information packs went out in September, and when mine arrived I found a part with the words “player number 21”. And my instrument? Seeds (actually dried peas) on a wooden bowl. It might not sound that sophisticated, but if any section of the orchestra can elevate the status of found objects like sticks and stones to high art, it’s percussion. And playing with peas, it seems, is not without its challenges. 

I arrived at my first rehearsal to find a hive of people arranging trays and stands with their unique setups. Snare drums, gongs, and an assortment of vibraphone, marimba and xylophone bars, bowls of wood, ceramic, and plastic, granite tiles and glass dishes. People were preparing pieces of sandpaper, and taking out household brushes of various sizes. Some were tightening bows you’d usually draw across a stringed instrument. And others still were collecting packets of rice or small pebbles.

Our sounds were already in the air – we just had to free them from the silence

Pisaro’s piece calls for one hundred unique combinations with no duplication. The sheer number might sound like auditory onslaught, but A wave and waves is all about silence and subtlety. No one actually ‘hits’ anything. Some stones might be struck, or a chopstick used to activate a guitar string. But otherwise all instruments are activated softly and with extreme delicacy. And while we were all responsible for shaping our individual sounds, it was Speak Percussion artistic director Eugene Ughetti’s role to shape the work as a whole.

“Release your sound.” That was Eugene’s direction. Our sounds were already in the air – we just had to free them from the silence, as it were, and then release them back. Under Eugene’s guidance and with assistance from other Speak members, each of us spent the rehearsal period really getting to know our instrument, and the subtle intricacies of its technique. Creating a steady stream of crackling friction by rubbing sandpaper over a granite tile, for example. Or dropping rice onto a bowl while managing an even, trickling flow of grains.

It was an impressive feat on Speak’s part: overseeing the hundred of us in the polishing of our pianissimo playing. Frequently, we were encouraged to open our minds and ears, joining our individual parts together with the sea of other sound sources. We became something like a collective consciousness, performing this multifaceted piece at once mammoth in scale, and microscopic in detail.

Pisaro’s structure in waves is simple. Two sections, representing two distinct approaches to sonic combination. The first, a sporadic environment with sounds gradually entering and dissolving back into silence. Beginning with the momentary soft, delicate rasp of a bow on metal before the instrument emits its clear, resonant hum. Then the gentle, circular grating of stone on a granite tile. Tiny seeds cascading gently onto metal. A brush on a drum skin. Pebbles on a bowl. A vibrating guitar string. One hundred unique combinations of these most basic and elemental materials.

In the second part, these various sound sources combine in a series of waves. Various sized groups of instruments perform steady, collective crescendi, beginning with hushed trickles which grow into powerful swells to form a ‘crest’, before they gently relax away again into the void of silence.

Imagine standing in the shallows at the beach, waves breaking on the shore with their gentle regularity, and every so often comes one that’s larger and stronger than the rest. So it is in Michael Pisaro’s work. Every wave has a distinct ‘personality’ – that is, no two waves are exactly the same. Each comprises a different combination of instruments, so has its own unique timbre. The result: an iridescent aural landscape (or seascape), not to mention a truly magical, and deeply meditative, listening experience.

A wave and waves began its life nine years ago as a recorded composition. Meaning our performance as part of the Melbourne Festival was its first live performance with the full complement of instruments and players. Pisaro was stoked. “Its incredible, having the hundred players interpreting the piece. I have a feeling that there’s a special character to this group of people – there are things shaping the music that I don’t see, and that’s just totally fascinating. It’s about much more than the sound, and indeed any individual performance.”

In the original electronic composition, all one hundred sounds were performed by the one percussionist, Michael’s long-time collaborator Greg Stuart. Greg joined Speak Percussion during the rehearsal process and for the Melbourne Festival performances.

Greg was clearly excited when I spoke to him in the lead up to the performances. “It’s simultaneously surreal and incredibly moving,” he said, “to look around and see all of these parts playing, that at one time I had played. And to see the dedication to the sound that each person is making is truly fantastic. You know, this is not something that I thought would happen, to have a performance of this piece. But to be here and to hear it is just unbelievable.”

I think we all felt the gravity of the event as it approached. From the initial workshopping and rehearsal process, to its installation at the North Melbourne Meat Market, A wave and waves grew more refined and more intricate with each play through. And once we were in place in the great interiors of the old market building, there were new set of elements to consider. Namely the intricate lighting display.

During each performance the sounds of our wavers were accompanied by a gradually shifting lighting design. Silence was accompanied by darkness. Soft streams of light ushered in the first sonic disturbances, gradually filling the hall with a gentle interplay of light and shadow as more sounds entered the acoustic space. The hundred of us were arranged in a grid, and amongst us sat a curious audience of intrepid musical travellers.

No doubt their experience was a mixed one. I got to hear a few first and second-hand reviews, which ranged from the ecstatic and overwhelmed, to the confused.

With our final performance already fading into memory, the aftershocks of the music are still present in my mind

But I think for us the players, and at least for me, the experience was like something close to ritual. With all senses engaged, and our eyes, ears and minds attuned to the fragile frequencies of the room and our instruments, not to mention each other, the piece enveloped us like a great tidal wave. I don’t think I’d anticipated the supreme focus required for letting dried soup ingredients cascade onto an upturned bowl – no joke. I found each handful deeply reverential. Peaceful. I’ve never been more aware of every little movement I make.

And the concentration. Nearly an hour and a half of standing still, reanimating only to play our instruments before returning to stillness as our sound dissipated into silence. Screw colouring books – performing this music was the ultimate practice in mindfulness. For a composer like me who doesn’t have many opportunities to perform, this wasn’t just a unique musical experience: it was also a deeply affecting one.

With our final performance already fading into memory, the aftershocks of the music are still present in my mind. I think what Michael told us during rehearsals really rings true – we can’t often pinpoint exactly when something becomes significant to us. Waves wash over us with familiar regularity, and our experience of their initial impact is generally blurred with memory and time.

I’m not sure when I knew this project was going to be significant. When I first saw the application? Or when I first heard the bristling detail of Pisaro’s piece firsthand?

Or maybe it was when I took my first handful of dried peas?