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18 December 2012

Reflections of a trapped, rewired pianist

Installation view of Kaldor Public Art Project #26: Allora & Calzadilla, Stop, Repair, Prepare..., at the State Library of Victoria from 16 November – 6 December 2012.  Pianist: Peter Wilson. Image: Installation view of Kaldor Public Art Project #26: Allora & Calzadilla, Stop, Repair, Prepare..., at the State Library of Victoria from 16 November – 6 December 2012. Pianist: Peter Wilson.  
© Andrew Curtis/Kaldor Public Art Projects

Pianist Leigh Harrold writes about his recent, rare challenge: how to unlearn some of the pianistic technique hardwired in the musician's brain - all for the sake of art (or was it for the sake of a spectacle)?

In May 2008, approximately 1000 Zimbabweans made the pilgrimage to the town of Bulawayo for a rare performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Many had travelled several hundred kilometres for the privilege. For an auditorium that seated only 400, this meant overwhelming crowding, but no-one was deterred. Excited people spilled into the aisles, and out into the streets; many had children who had trained for months to sing in the choral finale. The one thing that all performers and audience members had in common was a desperate emotional need to be unified by life-affirming music in defiance of a country wracked with civil atrocity. And it worked - at the end of the performance, the audience cheered and cried. The deafening applause lasted half an hour.

This, seemingly, has little to do with a phone call I received two months ago, asking if I would be involved in an Australian staging of Allora and Calzadilla's Stop, Repair, Prepare…: Variations on Ode to Joy for a prepared piano. The instructions were straightforward but bizarre: we had to play a transcription of the last movement of Beethoven's 9th while standing in a hole cut in the body of the piano itself, thereby facing the keyboard from behind; simultaneously, we had to push the piano around the performance space with us.

I agreed because I was intrigued (and these guys seemed to have cred - the installation was last staged at MoMA). But - was it art? How could a spectacle like this evoke anything more than derision or mild amusement from onlookers?

The first clue to the work's multi-layered nature came when the six pianists selected for the task began learning the 'Backwards Beethoven'. 'Difficult' doesn't begin to describe it. It took me 15-minutes to work out how to play the first chord. Many tears and swears ensued as we eked out, note-by-note, 25 minutes of music where our left hand was where our right should be and all D-major triads looked like G-minor triads. It seemed impossible to play it without error. Our backs hurt. Our brains hurt. 'No offence, but you sound like a beginner', said my housemate encouragingly. But, like a strange addiction, the more of the piece we assimilated the more we wanted to learn. The sheer defiance to rewire our brains and 'get it right' became a highly motivating factor.

The second obstacle occurred when we entered the State Library, where the work was exhibited (every hour, on the hour, for three weeks). While our brains were gradually getting used to the task, our bodies now had to contend with standing, bending and contorting as we pushed the heavy piano with us. Physical exhaustion gave way to mental delirium, and our carefully planned executions failed us amidst stiff backs, bruised forearms, and the odd collision with the gallery wall. Yet, again, this just made us all the more determined.

The exhibition opened, and the public reaction was alarming. Many observers were outraged, actively yelling their displeasure. Others were moved to tears: 'You were like a sad turtle, articulating the hopes and fears of the world on your shoulders'; 'You're a character from a Beckett play, doing the only thing you can do without knowing why'; 'Darkly disturbing'; 'Utterly uplifting'. Clearly Allora and Calzadilla were onto something.

By this stage, completely convinced by the work, I was explaining it to an interstate musician friend, who was incensed: 'This goes TOTALLY against Beethoven's intentions! With all these restrictions, how can you possibly phrase and emote as Beethoven intended? How can you POSSIBLY BE FAITHFUL TO THE SCORE?'

'Well, it's almost impossible', I said. 'But we have to try'. And at that moment the penny-dropped and the work clarified itself to me. Just as those people crammed themselves into the Bulawayo Academy, overcoming the division around them to unite in a moment of overwhelming joy and hope, so does the trapped pianist attempt to get out - against all odds - a message of ultimate optimism, made all the more powerful for the barriers it has to overcome in the telling.

Further links

Vimeo video: John Kaldor (Director of Kaldor Public Art Projects) discusses Project 26: Allora & Calzadilla's Stop, Repair, Prepare...

Leigh Harrold is a full-time concert pianist and part-time writer, currently on the associate faculty of the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM).


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