The Piano Transformed

By Nancy Tousley on July 23, 2013

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Charles Stankievech, Una Nota Sola (Asylum Session for Scelsi) [2007], HD Video with sound, 1 hour loop. Courtesy Charles Stankievech. Photo: C. Stankievech

Da da da DUM, da da da DUM! Whether a grand piano or upright, the popular stringed keyboard instrument was an icon of culture, social distinction and class well into the 20th century. Gleaming black grands graced the salons of aristocrats and the wealthy. Middle-class households with aspirations to culture had an upright in the living room and the children took lessons. Pianos were at the centre of social life in the home, and a prominent feature of public entertainments. Over the centuries, the 52 white and 36 black keys have shown off their versatility. Under different hands, they bring forth highbrow classical music, dancehall ditties, art songs, roadhouse boogie-woogie, the blues, ballads, jazz, rock anthems and the compositions of the avant-garde. In the 20th century, the piano was a ubiquitous cultural fixture. By the 1940s, the figure of the classical pianist/composer had come to represent the romantic image of artistic genius at its tormented best. It didn’t stop there: since then more than 50 films, from Five Easy Pieces to Great Balls of Fire and The Piano have featured pianists and pianos.

Now, however, it is the piano that is tormented, transgressed and transformed. At the opening of The Piano, on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta through 18 August, Nic 7 of the Edmonton dance punk/electro band Shout Out Out Out Out reenacted George Maciunas’s 1962 performance, Piano Piece #13 (for Nam June Paik). During the work’s 30-minute duration, the performer nailed down each of the piano’s 88 keys, first white, then black, effectively silencing the instrument while noisily destroying it and sending ivory and ebony splinters flying. As the young musician, who tired visibly, found out, to destroy a piano with a hammer and nails is hard work that produces a different vocabulary of sounds.

In the exhibition are Pete Moore’s still photographs of George Maciunas performing his Piano Piece No. 13 (aka Carpenter’s Piano Piece), Fluxhall, 359 Canal Street, N.Y. [hammer down], May 9, 1964. Nearly 25 years later, Gordon Monahan ordered a helicopter to airlift a piano to the top of Gibbet’s Hill near the harbor in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and then pushed the upright over the edge of the cliff. Monahan’s action, Piano Airlift (1988/2006), is represented here as a video that combines two separate piano airlifts that tested the ability of nature and a piano to produce “aeolian” tones with only the wind as the performer. While the video runs, a synchronized composition “plays” on a piano in the gallery.

Artists, as The Piano—curated by Catherine Crowston and Barbara Fischer—so amply demonstrates, are fascinated by the piano as a machine, an instrument and an object, and by its sound, its sound-producing mechanisms, its structure and its status as an icon of “high” culture. To witness its destruction is both dismaying and thrilling. Since the 1960s, part of the interest artists have taken in the piano has been directed at questioning the models of culture it has come to represent, as in, the curators propose, “the canons of European classical music, the idea of expressive subjectivity and the role the piano played for a middle class aspiring to high culture.” In destruction, new creative energies are unleashed. The sheer variety of continuing post-war investigations of the piano as subject/object is abundantly present in the works of the 13 artists whose work is on view, as well as their predilection for composers such as Beethoven, Bach and Erik Satie.

The overlapping sound spills of a dozen video, film and installation works fill the exhibition with cacophonous energy. Carole Itter’s Grand Piano Rattle: a Bosendorfer for Al Neil, although it is an instrument made of found objects capable of producing sound, is the show’s only work without a soundtrack. Each work emerges from the cacophony individually; each of them is unexpected. Recalling Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924) and Soviet film montage, Euan Macdonald’s 9,000 Pieces (2010), features a piano-testing machine in a plant in Shanghai, China, which subjects the 9,000 component parts of the instrument to the stresses of a lifetime of use. Rhythmically intense, the film compresses time and accelerates its passage at the same time that it displays the piano’s production-line manufacture. Michael Snow simultaneously deconstructs and builds a quartet in Piano Sculpture (2009). A jazz pianist as well as a visual artist, Snow projects four videos of solo performances, each composed as variations on his signature “glissandi” and “clusters,” onto the four walls of a dark room, thus creating the improvisational quartet and pointing to the sculptural—read: spatial—properties of sound.

Charles Stankievech’s Timbral (2006) embodies the soundwaves produced by a hand repeatedly striking a single note on a piano keyboard, in the form of a 20-foot-long sculpture made of industrial felt. Formally, it resembles a mountainous landscape. Katie Paterson transmits a Morse code version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to the moon, which reflects it back to Earth, in her work Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected From the Surface of the Moon) (2008). Shadows of the moon’s mountains and craters absorb some of the information in the radio transmission; thus the reflection is a new composition, altered by the “moon-bounce” and played on an elegant, computerized self-playing Yamaha Disklavier.

Tim Lee brilliantly returns music elevated and made famous by Glenn Gould to its original status as a piano exercise in The Goldberg Variations: Aria, BMV 988, Johann Sebastian Bach,  1741 (Glenn Gould, 1981) of 2007. Videoed separately, his hands are seen playing on side-by-side synchronized monitors, with the viewer standing where one would imagine the untrained pianist’s body to be. The effect, further enhanced by the fact that each hand’s performance is a digital composite, is oddly disjunctive, emphasizing the very nature of piano playing, with each hand performing separate and different tasks simultaneously.

The Piano is a bracing exhibition with all the pleasures of witnessing well-wrought variations on a theme, which open a subject to wider and unexpected possibilities. Here, these also include Dean Baldwin’s Bar Piano (2012), a piano bar from which the artist served cocktails at the opening; Patrick Bernatchez’s 180° (2012), in which a pianist sweating under duress performs a concerto while suspended upside down; Stan Douglas’ Onomatopoeia (1985), in which similarities appear in the mechanical operations of a player piano and an industrialized textile loom; Rodney Graham’s droll A Reverie Interrupted by the Police (2003), in which the state’s infringements upon artistic freedom are raised; and, finally, Rober Racine’s Vexations (1978–1979), a video in which Racine performs a non-stop, 14-hour concert of a work by Erik Satie, in which a score of 152 notes is to be repeated 840 times, and probably never was performed by the composer himself.

The Piano is on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta until 18 August 2013

By Nancy Tousley| July 23, 2013
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Nancy Tousley

Nancy Tousley

Nancy Tousley, winner of a 2011 Governor-General's Award in Media and Visual Arts, is a senior art writer, critic and independent curator based in Calgary.


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