Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Exhilirating! Thrilling! Frustrating! All for the price of a ticket.

When I booked the tickets to Quasi Una Fantasia this evening, I didn't know that I'd be working at Dandenong all day and would have been awake since 5am.  As I finished up an intense leadership development day, the last thing I really felt like doing was going to a concert.  But this wasn't just any concert.  One of the pieces on the program was John Cage's 4' 33" which at least said something about adventure and perhaps a sense of humour.

Mechanical piano - Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre
(c) divacultura 2012
The concert was presented by the Melbourne Recital Centre and Speak Percussion as part of the Melbourne Festival.  Waiting in the line for general admission the audience didn't seem particularly avant garde, or nuts, for that matter.  I had come straight from the corporate world and so was disguised in my suit and discreet silver earrings.  At 6pm it may have been reasonable to assume that we were all disguised to an extent.

In the Salon was an array of instruments.  They looked familiar, but strange.  The grand piano had a mechanism set over the keyboard.  A toy piano stood majestically centre stage, all be it on what looked like an Ikea coffee table.  Boxes with loops of paper were set behind it.  I scanned the program and concluded that these were the nine music boxes which would join the toy piano in a world premiere of "Pandora's Box" by Australian composer Adam Simmons.  (It was gorgeous; whimsical and fascinating.)
Toy Piano surrounded by 9 music boxes - Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre
(c) divacultura 2012

Audience members were eagerly examining instruments and trying to name them determine what was what based on the program listing.  I spotted some violin bows and was curious about how they would be used.

The first piece was played on (by?) the mechanical piano which seemed to be controlled from a computer at the rear of the stage.  It was indeed a mechanism sitting over and pressing the keys from above.  Initially I was a little surprised at the music.  It seemed random and incoherent. At the end we applauded the playerless piano.  My juices were going - this was interesting.

Next on the program was listed as a piano piece for "piano, hay and a bucket of water".  A young man with hair reminiscent of the 1980's (think Flock of Seagulls) and a terribly patterned shirt, wheeled out a bale of hay on a wheeled platform.  He was solemn as he parked it near the piano.  He then fetched a metal bucket of water and placed it near the piano.  The piano made no move to eat or drink.  The man moved made some adjustments to placement, slightly adjusting the positions of the hay and the water.  Again, the piano made no move.  The man placed his hands in the bucket, scooped up a handful of water and let it fall gently back into the bucket.  The phrase of music made as the water fell was lovely, made even lovelier by the fact that it will never be heard again.

The bows were used on the ends of the bars of the vibraphone.  The sound was perfect for the score of an atmospheric science fiction film.

Next was "Evryali" written for solo piano by Ianni Xenakis.  The mechanism was lifted from the piano's keyboard and we then witnessed the capacity of the piano as an instrument.  The piece was described by Speak Percussion's artistic director, Eugene Ughetti, as "the Everest" of piano pieces. It is apparently not possible to play every note that is written, which leads to some difficult and interesting artistic and philosophical choices.  It was a feast - one minute tinkly and playful, the next menacing in its fury.

I was particularly interested to see how John Cage would be approached.  There was a crinkle of humour around the eyes of the musicians as they took their places on the stage, but they were serious in their intention.  A stop watch was drawn.  We were advised that there would be four minutes and thirty-three seconds of the piece and it would be broken into its three movements.  We were assured that it would be clear where the movements began and ended.  They had also chosen to perform the piece as an ensemble - something that is not often done.  The stop watch was started.  A set of xylophone mallets was raised and placed down.  The audience played its part, seriously contemplating the performance.  The musicians were intent and held their performance on stage.  As each movement ended, the stop watch and the mallets were passed to the next musician.  Audience and musicians relaxed a little between movements.  During the movements we were surrounded by ambient sound - paper rustling,   breathing, a thud, a man said "it's very quiet", an electrical hum, myself swallowing....the woman next to me swallowing...the rumbling stomach of the woman on the other side....At the end of the four minutes and thirty three seconds the musicians took their customary bow.

We were then introduced to the forte piano (after the harpsichord, but before the grand piano), the marimba and the use of click tracks to keep the musicians who were playing in different tunings, in time.

One of the highlights for me was "Guero" written for solo piano by Helmut Lachenmann.  "Guero" can be translated as "guirro" which is a South American percussion instrument which is shaped like a fish.  A stick is dragged over the ridged body to make a sound.  It can also be tapped with the stick.  The piano was transformed into a gigantic guirro.  Keys were scraped.  Strings were hit directly, plucked with the fingers.  Keys were pulled upwards, rather than pressed, to create a vibration.  It looked like hard work for the pianist - no wonder he was wearing sturdy looking bandaids on almost every finger! I found this tremendously exciting.  Imagine taking something which has a very particular and universally understood way of being used in the world.  Turn that idea on its head and do something completely different.  Such audacity!

This concert was thrilling, exciting, challenging, eccentric and a little bizarre.  I'm glad I decided to make the effort to make it on time from Dandenong.  I feel that I heard music tonight that I will never hear again, and if I do, it will be a completely different experience.  One of the things I loved best is that it challenged the audience to reconsider "music".  What is it? How is it made?  How is performed? How is it heard?

I came home and ripped off my disguise.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds very interesting. I remember being very skeptical about this sort of music when we were taught about it in high school. Now, I'm more open to the idea of challenging what music is and how it is made. For me half the fun of seeing a live performance is watching the technical aspects of things moving around the stage.