Zubin Kanga always drags half a dozen new works in his wake as he criss-crosses the globe in search of the bleeding edge of piano repertoire. Kanga’s last tour of Australia entitled “Piano: Inside/Out” explored the inside of the piano, either through playing the piano strings directly with the hands or by preparing the strings with objects like paper and Blu-Tac to change their tone. In his current “Dark Twin” tour, Kanga extends the piano outward through live electroacoustic manipulation and video projections.
Premièring new music necessarily runs the risk of performing a “bad” or “unsatisfactory” work. Saying that a work is “beautiful,” “successful,” or that it “works” would be meaningless if the reverse were not possible. Composers are often their best critics and will revise works after a first hearing. Andrew Ford’s recent book Earth Dances tells of how Stravinsky struggled to find a satisfactory ending to The Rite of Spring. On the other hand—to continue the Rite example—audiences and critics have often failed to appreciate how a work is beautiful or successful upon first hearing. Knowledge of the multiplicity of ways in which a piece can be “good” is perhaps the reason why critics can shy away from negative judgements. However, I feel particularly emboldened to make critical judgements this morning because George Brandis has just funneled $104.8m away from the peer-review-based Australia Council for the Arts and into his own ministry, where who knows what sort of evaluation process will take place. Consider this review a battle-cry for judgment over cronyism. In this review, the success of a work is judged according to how well it achieves what the composer or performer set out to do in writing and performing it. I will try to bring other qualities of the works to light as well, in spite of the creators’ stated intentions.
Stefan Prins, Piano Hero
In Stefan Prins’ Piano Hero, Kanga plays a MIDI keyboard that triggers video samples of a man playing with his hands on a stripped-back piano frame. The minimal gestures of the keyboardist contrast with the full-body movements of his avatar in the video, who strums and strikes the strings. The avatar also uses subtler gestures, including conjuring a smooth tone from the body of the piano with a cork on the end of a stick. He bounces and throws a handful of piano keys onto the strings, scattering them across the frame.
According to Kanga’s programme notes, the work seeks to “explore the modern trend of the virtual replacing the real while deconstructing the relationship between pianist, instrument and observer.” The work achieves the first of these goals, while leaving the second in the air. The starkly-lit, beautifully-textured surfaces of the piano frame make the video seem more real than the poorly-lit keyboardist. The avatar’s movements are also more visceral than those of the keyboardist.
The second goal, to deconstruct the relationship between the pianist, instrument and observer, is barely addressed. Yes, the keyboardist’s gestures and the audience’s attention are decoupled from one another and directed towards the avatar on the screen. To stress this point, the screen occasionally switches to a camera trained on the keyboardist silently playing away. However, to deconstruct is not just to take apart (unless one is ordering a deconstructed polenta stack at a Melbourne café). Literary deconstruction reveals underlying assumptions and arbitrary norms that are inexpressible within the frame of a particular discourse. Piano Hero reconfigures the performer-instrument-observer triangle, but it does not tell us anything about concert conventions that we don’t already know. [EDIT: Kanga has since pointed out that Prins originally used the more appropriate term “recontextualise.” “Deconstruct” was Kanga’s paraphrase.]
One of Piano Hero‘s greatest strengths is the compositional use Prins makes of his technical apparatus, whatever its rationale. The piece begins with the keyboardist triggering only the resonance left after the piano strings are struck. The performer’s hands hover above the strings, seemingly conjuring the resonance out of them. As more violent gestures are introduced, with the performer striking the strings, the speed of the gestures are modulated by the MIDI keyboard. This creates striking contrasts as the physical intensity of the performer attacking the strings contrasts with more balletic, slowed-down gestures.
Julian Day, Dark Twin
Julian Day’s Dark Twin is the result of a long-term collaboration between Kanga and Day. Day describes the piece as stemming from his experience learning the piano as a child. Instead of the solitary experience of piano practice, he imagined a situation where a pianist plays against a ghostly other. As Kanga paraphrases Day’s intentions:
At first [the electronic part] matches the pianist closely, but then begins to slide in pitch and distort in colour –techniques that are impossible on a piano. Over the course of the piece, the electronic part shifts from being an indistinguishable electronic ‘twin’ of the pianist to becoming a grotesque rival.
The piece begins with the minimalist gesture of two rapidly-alternating notes. At this point, the live part does indeed sound almost indistinguishable from the electronic part. As the piece progresses, the electronic part becomes deeper and seems to spread around the room. The timbre of the electronic part also becomes more distorted. The impression is less a “dark twin” of the piano part than an expansion of the piano part. The two parts are indistinguishable in the muddy and saturated air.
Benjamin Carey, _derivations
Benjamin Carey’s _derivations provides a much more convincing example of a pianist duelling with an electronic other. I have previously reviewed a recording of Carey’s _derivations system and it was a pleasure to see it in action for one of the first performances of the system with a piano. _derivations is a program intended to improvise with a live performer. The program listens to and analyses the performer’s musical gestures. These gestures are stored in a database, drawn upon and manipulated to contrast with or complement the live performer. The program may also respond through several voices or channels at once, even responding to itself. In some ways the program’s responses to Kanga were predictable and gave a sense of balance to the performance. When Kanga played high on the piano, _derivations introduced a bassy hum. When Kanga ran his hands over the piano strings, _derivations turned this sound into a glassy cloud of sonic fragments. I had the impression in this performance, as I did when listening to the recording above, that the system was playing material straight back to Kanga rather than strategically introducing large-scale formal contrasts. It would be nice to hear a longer performance where the system was able to exert more control over the course of an improvisation.
Cat Hope, The Fourth Estate
Cat Hope’s The Fourth Estate uses electromagnetic interference in the form of pocket radios and EBows to represent the disruptive and filtering political effects of the free press. As Kanga’s programme (once more a paraphrase of the composer) reads:
As the Fourth Estate is thought to be an element of society ‘outside’ official recognition, here the radios and e-bows (small electromagnets on the strings) act as static sonic barriers, interfering with the mercurial and lively piano part.
What a great idea! Unfortunately it was not one that I found represented in the performance. It seemed to me that Kanga’s runs and key-mashing in different registers were more to “get the strings moving” rather than to provide pianistic gestures that the EBows and radios would then corrupt. I cannot say whether this was the result of the specific directions on the graphic score or its interpretation. The EBows and radios then failed to interfere significantly with the sound of the piano. Occasionally one could hear the jangle of an EBow or a radio physically bouncing on the piano strings, but they did not appear to intermingle with or modulate the piano’s sound. Surely the media is not that ineffectual, bouncing along the titanic reverberations of politicians? Now, I am fully aware that I am about to fly to Perth to review the Totally Huge New Music Festival and will no doubt spend a lot of time in the same room with Hope, but this only goes to show how seriously I take reviewing.
Michel van der Aa, Transit
In Transit by Michel van der Aa, an elderly man fights loneliness through a series of repetitive acts. He struggles to open doors and open the window. He drags a chair back and forth and bottles steam from a kettle that he can barely lift. The noir-like film captures the claustrophobia of physical weakness and the importance of memory. The live piano and electroacoustic parts are integrated into the rhythm of the film. Kanga’s silent movements, such as raising his arms to play, or reaching to one side of the piano but not striking a key, are accompanied by electroacoustic sounds. This gives the impression that Kanga is a magical piano samurai, which is not too far from the truth.
Daniel Blinkhorn, FrostbYte: Chalk Outline
Blinkhorn’s FrostbYte: Chalk Outline is an audiovisual piece contrasting pristine Arctic waters with industrial infrastructure. The Chalk Outline of the title refers to the climate change, exacerbated by industrial activity, that is rapidly transforming the landscape. Blinkhorn created the piece with video and audio material he collected while travelling in areas of the Arctic. The musical accompaniment to the footage of the Arctic landscape is fittingly tinkly, high and “icy.” Blinkhorn begins to introduce sounds from dubstep, with wobbly bass and dramatic, booming punctuations as the footage moves to cranes, which are processed through abstract mirroring effects on the video. The stunning video footage was inexplicably processed through a filter that broke it up into beveled windows. It seemed to me that this was unnecessary as the beautiful landscape spoke for itself.
Steve Reich (arr. Vincent Corver), Piano Counterpoint
Steve Reich’s Six Pianos is difficult to mount due to the problem of gathering six pianos together in the same space and still having room for the audience. Pianist Vincent Corver has opened the door for more (partially) live performances of the work by arranging it for one live pianist and five pre-recorded parts in the retitled work Piano Counterpoint. Kanga performed the live part with bravado and flair. We will no doubt hear this piece many more times in the future.
See also Charles MacInnes’ thoughtful review.
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
8 May 2015
Stefan Prins, Piano Hero; Julian Day, Dark Twin; Benjamin Carey, _derivations; Michel van der Aa, Transit; Daniel Blinkhorn, FrostbYte: Chalk Outline; Cat Hope, The Fourth Estate; Steve Reich (arr. Vincent Corver), Piano Counterpoint.