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26 May 2020

84 Pianos: Pandemic Edition

Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson (aka Clocked Out) Image: Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson (aka Clocked Out)  

Vanessa Tomlinson's 84 Pianos - Pandemic Edition has already grown way beyond the initial figure of 84. In this article she explains the background to the project as well as how you can get involved. The performance itself will take place at 6pm AEST on 12 June 2020 - deadline for those who want to join in is 5 June.

Back in early April, only a couple of weeks into lockdown, I was involved in my first online performance - part of the Full Moon Opera by Pauline Oliveros, presented by Opera Povera and CalArts in LA. I was performing with my videographer Greg Harm filming, in my backyard for six hours straight, and I felt excited, connected and completely on edge. I knew then that this was the part of performing that I really missed - knowing I was connected to other people. I imagined others might be in the same situation, and so 84 Pianos: Pandemic Edition was born; a way to connect musicians from across Australia in one single sounding of our pianos.

The original composition was made by Erik Griswold, in 2017, to simultaneously sound all the pianos in-situ at the Queensland Conservatorium - there are 84 pianos in the building. This performance was part of '100 Ways to Listen', directed by Leah Barclay, John Ferguson and myself as part of World Science Festival (you can watch the performance on Vimeo). The nine different sections of the work are all designed to sound the building, the studios, and the pianos, as the audience navigate various densities of pianos while walking across three levels of the building. Over the duration of just 30 minutes, thousands wandered the hallways being attracted to locations with 10 grand pianos in close proximity, or discovering one lonely upright piano at the end of a long hallway. Vincent Plush described it in the Limelight magazine as 'a thirty-minute tour de forceā€¦ The pianists played from a single score, artfully laid out to create fragmentary echoes and ricochets of ear-catching euphony...'.

For the Pandemic Edition, a totally different approach was needed. Having brought together the outstanding team of Leah Barclay (sound artist, composer, livestreaming pioneer), Greg Harm (video artist, live VJ), composer Erik Griswold, and myself as Artistic Director, the potential of the idea to sound Australia's pianos began to come into focus. What if 84 pianists from across the country simultaneously performed the work, coordinated through stopwatches sending their live audio through Leah, who mixed the event to create a sense of navigation between cities and locations: A cluster of pianists in Brisbane, a lone pianist in Mount Isa, four pianists in Alice Springs, and a spread of pianists across Victoria?

Composer Erik Griswold describes this as 'sounding the wires'; bringing his composition into conversation with another genre of works that are exploring artefacts of technology, such as Lucier's I am sitting in a room, which is about technology and architecture interacting. 'In 84 Pianos it's like sounding an "infrastructure." The cables under the ocean and the cables under the streets, it is a kind of architecture - it's a web. Leah's got this digital structure and interesting concept for the mixing, so actually the performance is about sounding a digital architecture. The sound result is going to be unique - something that you can only achieve this way."', Erik says.

This work is closely connected to the ongoing sonic investigations that take place at the Piano Mill - a dedicated structure-cum-instrument that houses 16 pre-loved as-is pianos. Erik Griswold composed the inaugural composition for this event back in 2016, and in many ways 84 Pianos is related, especially in terms of compositional ideas around asynchronous performance, droning arpeggios, soft ambient soundscapes and blues syncopations gone mad.

With the 5th live Piano Mill event cancelled due to the pandemic, Greg Harm took the reins and presented a 3-hour live video mix using footage from the last four years of Easter events at the Piano Mill. It was riveting. It was not live documentation, but instead a live reimagining of the music, the site and the ideas. This was the invitation we needed to think through the visual element of the Pandemic Edition. Rather than a Zoom screen filled with tiny rectangular frames of all the pianists, we are asking performers to send in photos of them at their pianos, the inside of their piano, and the view from their pianos. This material will then be live-mixed to the audio feed, and sent out as a live stream on YouTube. I imagine it will be a fantasy for the piano, a reading of the instrument across the country, and an entry into the dreaming space of the pianist.

To add another layer to this event, audience members can choose to listen and watch the live mix, or they can use the Locus Sonus site developed by an international research group whose main aim is to explore the relationship between sound and place. In this instance, pianists will be geo-located on a map of Australia, pinned by postcode, with the audience navigating across the map, turning on and off any number of pianists. You can listen to an Adelaide, Perth and Broome piano trio, or a Manly-Parramatta piano duo. This project builds on the work of organisations like SoundCamp in London, who have pushed the boundaries of real-time technologies to reveal hidden connections to audiences. As a long-term collaborator with SoundCamp, Leah believes the technology that underpins this edition of 84 Pianos looks at the possibilities of livestreaming as a dynamic performance and compositional tool, offering similar adrenaline-inducing unpredictability of a live performance.

One of the first pianists to sign up for this event was Tasmanian-based legend Michael Kieran Harvey. I asked him why he chose to get involved. 'The simple answer is: you, and Erik. Clocked Out represents the sort of ensemble that can keep music of all descriptions functioning and indeed flourishing through any crisis that the world throws up. Instead of desperately hanging on to old models subsidised by old hegemonies, and hiding like ostriches till "normality" returns, Clocked Out instantly adapted to the new paradigm, offering a way forward and therefore hope to musicians otherwise trapped in their blinkered live music/touring mindsets. What musician would not be encouraged to take part in such a visionary and dare one say fun project?', Michael said.

Sydney-based pianist Sonya Lifschitz has also joined in: 'I wanted to be involved in this project as it feels particularly important to support creative projects that facilitate and encourage collaboration and a strong sense of community - across different generations, musical backgrounds and geographical locations. I also admire the beautiful, whimsical, poetic imagination and the cutting-edge experimentation Clocked Out bring to all their creative work. This project is an opportunity for me to play together, with many of my beloved piano colleagues and former teachers and mentors. I'm really excited to be part of this wonderful experiment!', she said.

The title of the piece will change to reflect the exact number of performers involved. At the time of printing we are in-excess of 84 pianists, but where we are heading, we do not know! To be part of this special performance it is recommended that you are the equivalent of minimum AMEB grade 6 standard, have access to a smartphone to livestream audio of their performance, and be willing to attend at least one virtual training session before the performance (dates and times tbc.). More information about the event including registration to perform, access to the score, performance tutorial with the composer, and drop-in sessions is available at 100waystolisten.org.

I hope this is an opportunity for us to connect across the country in new ways. I have certainly reconnected with many of my favourite pianists across Australia in putting this together, and met many people for the first time. For me, that is already a huge outcome - participation, sharing and a new way of listening.

*The number of pianos currently 100+. This performance will be co-presented by Clocked Out, Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, Tangible Media and University of the Sunshine Coast.

Further links

More information and registrations: http://www.100waystolisten.com/
Clocked Out https://www.clockedout.org
Vanessa Tomlinson - AMC profile - see also https://www.vanessatomlinson.com
Leah Barclay - AMC profile - see also https://leahbarclay.com
Erik Griswold: AMC profile
Listen to a segment about 84 Pianos on ABC's New Waves podcast (from 34'00'' into the program).

Vanessa Tomlinson is Co-Artistic Director of Clocked Out and Deputy Director of the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre.



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