15 December 2020
In December 2020, Rae Howell finds herself stranded in the UK, with a piano workshop as her safe haven. In the planning is also a series of works for solo piano, thanks to the inaugural MOMENTUM commission.
Opportunity knocks when you least expect it. Well, that's what they say. And I think I may have proven just that, even during these most strange and difficult times. Strange and difficult certainly as a composer-performer, and strange and difficult when a 'normal' overseas project turns into a multiple-month long stint (and counting) due to a pandemic. What the? Huh? Where did the work go? What about money? And my return flights to Australia? Whilst it's not over yet, as a freelancer who loses both their way of living, and quite literally their way home, the journey has been rather bitter-sweet. Bitter-sweet in a most fantastical, tragic way, that somehow couldn't have been better timed. Somehow.
Pi-a. Pia-n. Piano! It was probably my first word from a young age. And now most certainly #pianoismyforte ... It is the one constant that has kept me positive and breathing calmly throughout this year, even if at times I've felt buried.
Parallel to my past musical adventures with the Sunwrae Ensemble, electronic outfit Rabbitsss and my countless music projects in the UK, USA, and further afield over the past decade, I've always loved pulling apart pianos. Primarily for fun things to do in my downtime from projects away, I'm also formally trained in piano technology (repairing, regulating, voicing and tuning pianos). While this began purely as a self-indulgent quest to recondition my beloved antique grand piano in regional Victoria, it has become a vital activity to immerse myself in whilst I wait patiently for a flight home to Australia.
Oh my. What an amazing, challenging, ever-learning obscure art form and trade piano technology is, that has transformed this strange and difficult year. Buried under the ebonies and ivories, I've wound my way into a whirlwind, hands-on technical adventure (gladly no computer in sight) to realise my perfect sound and feel of a piano. The opportune moment came when I turned up to the local piano workshop to keep myself busy once I realised I couldn't return home. The more I turned up, the more I couldn't keep away, so they gave me the keys and my lockdown began, resurrecting hundreds of neglected pianos that still have many years of tunes yet to be played.
Recently, I was honoured with the inaugural MOMENTUM Commission through the AMC, thanks to a generous gift from an anonymous donor. Piano compositions! It was an obvious choice, and since all future projects, and performances for my latest large-scale project fell through (Bee-Sharp Honeybee for string orchestra and live honeybees, synchronised with animated projections), writing and playing the piano was the only thing I could motivate myself to do.
Travel has obviously been a large part of my project work. Artist residencies have also taken me around the globe and back many times. It might be a while between drinks for those ventures now, so tinkering with pianos until I can return to my own grand is the only option.
Up to this point, I know what you're thinking... and it does sound glamorous, all that travel and adventure (aside from the grim outlook in the UK currently!). I believe I do have a kind of 'magic carpet' working for me, and whirlwind overseas projects have become very common. But things don't come easy. It hasn't come without hard work.
Not without working excruciatingly long hours at the computer, writing project submissions and funding applications, creating ambitious projects that take years of development. Then there's the healthy heartbreaking moments, missing family and friends, constantly living out of a bag, wondering where my next home is, and the absence of having the 'normal' life that many of my friends have.
Even the most joyous and successful occasions can be thwarted by months in between of planning the next project, or obsessing over business admin. Ebb and flow. That's nothing new to many musicians and artists I know. It's just that this year there's been a whole lot of Ebb… keenly felt when marooned in another country.
Perpetual forward motion is what I've chosen, in whatever form I can take. Mostly, it's been by bicycle, to and from the piano workshop that I've made my oasis over the lockdowns. Afterall, piano technicians have been social distancing for 300 years!
It's been brutally cold though. And my early morning bicycle ride along the river to the workshop this morning (it was f-f-f-freezing!), was insanely beautiful - the perfect reminder to be thankful, even in these most strange and difficult times.
After all the months this year of loss, disorientation, and isolation so far away from family and friends, I am glad to have found this little niche for myself. Even if it means another Christmas away.
North-South-East-West, where shall my magic carpet take me next? I'm dearly hoping that it's South to the Land Down Under, and to my home sweet home. For now, I'll hunker down for the cold weeks/months ahead, enjoying the small things that make this away-trip manageable.
'Opporknockity Only Tunes Once'. Well, that's what they say. I've been lucky (eh rather hardworking enough) to take every opportunity I can, plus creating some of my own chance moments along the way. Let's say that there were enough flights to get all the Australians overseas home... now that would be an opportunity I'd take too.
So. Thanks for indulging me with reading this. Assuming you still are (!), and glance back above, you'll notice that each paragraph starts with the letter name of my new venture to come out of this strange and difficult time: Opportune Pianos. Beyond my usual staple of composing and performing, Opportune Pianos is all about pianos. I'm adding another string to my bow in the form of a mobile piano technology workshop, tinkering with pianos as a piano technician, repurposing old piano parts, and of course, reconditioning my antique grand. How's your piano?
On a final note, stay safe and best wishes from somewhere in the English countryside.
> Rae Howell - AMC profile
© Australian Music Centre (2020) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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