Slave Pianos, A Schema and Historo-Materialist Pro-gnostic, Interview

Danius Kesminas - Interview

Published Tuesday, June 14, 2005


G‘day, welcome to the Slave Piano’s laboratory - this is the headquarters for research into visual artists’ soundworks. It’s a collaborative project involving another artist Michael Stevenson and two composers - Rohan Drape and Neil Kelly. And you can see the work is primarily a form of archival research dedicated to the preservation of visual artists sound works throughout the century.

Artists from Duchamp through to Tinguely and Joseph Beuys and even in Australia artists like Domenico de Clario and John Nixon, have made music works as a side project. We’ve bracketed out those sound works and re arranged them, transcribed them and recomposed them for piano. This process involved Neil’s and Rohan’s expertise to extract what was musical from the original performance, which in some cases was purely noisework, possibly improvisation or some kind of performance, even video soundtrack work..

This music was notated for piano and performed by the Slave Piano which is a form of mechanical reproduction.


Just to explain the process and the way the collective functions: here is a difficult to find record released by CBD Gallery (an artists run space in Sydney), it’s a whole program of visual artists’ recordings. One piece here by Hany Armanious and David.M.Thomas sounds a little like this - you can hear the piece in the background (plays the recording). Here is the piece now transcribed for piano by Neil and Rohan.

In actual fact it is being performed by the jazz pianist Barney McAll. So you can hear there is a correlation between the original guitar noise work and the final piano arrangement. It is a way of extracting the essence out of the original piece but transferring it to piano. You could say it is a literal translation of one piece to the other. And here is the final art work, where the final product is presented as sheet music. Michael and I have done the art work, here’s Hany and here’s David - and clearly if you are competent enough or that way inclined you can actually play this piece yourself at home. It’s a way of making the original work accessible.

The Archive

All of our archive material has taken this form - here is a piece by George Brecht, from 1959, Comb Event - now you can play this on piano. All of this work is now expanding and is being adapted for string quartets and jazz ensembles. Finally, all of our archive has been transferred to acetate vinyl - this is a way for DJs to perform our archive and spin grooves over the top of this historical work.

The collective has actually had the opportunity to present our work in Edinburgh, Kassell in Germany, in New York, Los Angeles, Auckland, Melbourne and Sydney obviously, and we have just most recently worked with the Krasny Quartet in Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia. In fact here is the program from the Russian exhibition, with a kangaroo on the piano holding a Malevich painting - here we see Ricky Swallow. What connects all of this work is that it is visual artists’ sound works.

In New York, we had all of this archival material performed over three nights. [Shows various ephemera to the camera].

If it makes a noise we can transcribe it for piano. Look this is where we keep a lot of our research material - look up here we’ve got incredibly obscure and difficult to find records by - a compilation of Dutch Recording Artists. Here is Stuart MacFarlane, the Brisbane artist, I mean this material is incredibly rich for future treatment - the possibilities are endless and limitless. Yet all of this work is a component of the visual artist’s side project - a blind spot on the artist’s practice.

Look here’s a recording from 1996, recorded by David Thomas - as you can see it’s incredibly fantastic clear transparent record - a work of art in itself. 1998 David.M.Thomas , Sydney, well he’s an expressionist, and here he is performing a guitar duet, I think, with Simon Cumming, both visual artists. The music you can hear here will be transcribed for piano.

What is a slave piano?

The one constant in the presentation of this project is the mechanical piano - the slave if you like. The idea is that the musical notation is to be performed on the piano, because a lot of it is impossible for a human to play - even a virtuoso pianist is incapable of performing a lot of this material.

So we’ve devised a computer program, that is able to drive a robot, which sits on top of the keys - if you can think of the pianola, this is a sort of anachronistic prototype which we have used to develop this new equipment.

It’s not essentially our complete idea - we’ve worked with the QRS Pianomation research division, in Florida and they’ve provided some of the hardware.

The computer sits off stage and a disc is inserted, and this robot flays the ebony and ivory of the keys. And it’s actually a question of how much the piano can endure.

Look, you may ask, why the piano? Why not the guitar, why not anything else? Simply throughout history, as a visual metaphor or an icon, the piano appears constantly - right through from Dali to Australian installation artists like Ken Unsworth. So we’ve taken the piano, as a model, as a repository, to return a lot of this sound work to. Clearly the piano musically is a pure form - composers from Bach, Beethoven, Mozart wrote for the piano - so we ourselves have returned this avante garde work to its pure musical state.

Interviewed by Mark Ashkanassy (in 2000).

Art Right Now No. 2, Discovery Media, 2000.



Two art collectives - one from Melbourne and one from Yogyakarta, Indonesia - have teamed up to stage The Lepidopters. Based on a comic, it tells the story of an alien moth invasion of the Indonesian archipelago, who plan to colonise Earth through inter-species reproduction. WARP was lucky enough to chat to Punkasila member Uji Handoko Eko Saputro a.k.a. “Hahan”.

Can you tell us a little about collaborating with Slave Pianos? How did it come about?

Once upon a time in 2005, Yogyakarta have one big phenomenon, a extraterrestial phenomenon, it was the landing of a UFO. Then one of the alien, his name Danius, was living four month there. He tried to communicate with people, made conversation and be part of local scene. Then he took seven person from Yogyakarta, students from the art school, for doing kind of world peace music and art project which purposed to save the earth. So that how the project started. After this we have landings in Australia and Cuba and in 2014 we doing another save earth project with Slave Pianos who try to save another earth. Together we will save the energy for good living for human in all earths.

Can you talk about how a comic can become a Science-Fiction Space-Opera?

Comic is maybe part like Ramayana or Bible. So it is like the prophet who writes Bible or Quran to share with another people to concentrate on good things and how to live on earth. We multi-faith and we mystic punk band and we with Slave Pianos and we share the comic together so it can be science fiction space opera. It is possible to be that, why not?

Is the comic itself available to buy?

Just like religion, so everybody can buy for their religion. You can spare money for mosque and church. So more money is more good for religion. Its good for selling this comic to you. The comic tells the truth and secrets for the future. Please buy and you will live better.

It would be interesting to get some context around what it is like to be an artist living and working in Indonesia… what is the art/music scene like in Yogyakarta?

Now, Yogyakarta is again getting popular for UFOs to come. If you look in early 60’s to 70’s is a lot of UFOs coming here. Now, in the early of millennium, there is new trend about UFO coming in Yogyakarta. We think that because aliens maybe interested about gamelan. You know, Yogyakarta is more like tropical island, and the alien is feel bored to going to desert. Alien is become tropical now so Yogyakarta is good place. Indonesia also has open relationship with them, and in Yogyakarta we have visiting program, not only for human, but also for another creatures from space. In Yogyakarta’s art scene, we have alien residency program. Some alien is getting married and have a family in Yogyakarta. Some other, falling in love and take Yogyakartanians to the outer space.

How did The Lepidopters end up on the MOFO program? Are you looking forward to coming to Tasmania for the festival?

We think it is possible for us to going to Tasmania for the festival because we now have one door with parallel dimension, like a Wormhole. So it is more easy for us to go to place we want to go. MONA FOMA is just take 2 or 3 minutes. We will going there, so don’t worry about that. We can meet at MONA FOMA. C u there.



Thursday Jan 16, 7.15pm & 9.15pm, MAC2 Backspace, Hobart, included in Festival Ticket.

Fairfax/Mark von Schlegell

  • The Saturday Age: Spectrum
  • Questions by Michael Dwyer
  • Answers by Mark von Schlegell, 25 March 2014

Was The Lepidopters commissioned of you or was it an original idea?

Slave Pianos, through Danius, Rohan and Neil, approached me about writing a comic. I had worked with them in the past; they published some of the most experimental writing I’ve ever done. This would be illustrated by an Indonesian from the band Punkasila, perhaps appearing only in Indonesian — in a magazine edited by Helen Hughes, who I already knew and respected very much. I’m not sure they expected the sort of pornographic, Alan Moore style comic script I sent them. Certainly it took so long to draw it never ended up appearing the magazine.

Still, Lepidopters 1 was very fly-by-moment; all I knew was Indonesia and comic in this case. My knowledge of Indonesia was limited, but a visit to the Met in New York and the “Oceania” room convinced me of the centrality of the Moth to this project.

Can you describe your intentions with it?

I knew comics work less well when they are confined to small numbers of pages. I planned a Part 1 of a 3-part series. If SP didn’t want to move forward, it would be interesting as a stand alone, without the other two parts ever actually existing. I decided to make it very “over the top”, implying a nuclear explosion etc. — knowing I probably would never finish the story.

As I investigated Indonesia a bit I noticed the impact of technology and the internet. The sorts of stories that could be told about there from here (I live in Western Europe) today were entirely different from what they were before. I was also noting more and more the phenomenon of young people going about the world chatting on their cell phones. A good number had to be talking to people they didn’t know they were talking to… What the hell was going on? Some kind of invasion? This was one idea that sparked the story of Cheryl.

How did collaboration with illustrator Iwank Celenk work?

Slave Pianos was our go-between. I scripted Part 1, with little idea what was going on. I had written a comic before and read a lot of them (when I first worked with the Slave Pianos in fact I was working as librarian at an art/ design school, in charge of buying comics) so I sent him a rather standard sort of organizational script. I knew him only from the Punkasila videos. He has a lot of charisma, but who knew he would end up drawing what he did? He worked with an interpreter, so got all instructions via translation. That way he was able to make the vision and characters entirely as much his own as mine.

I saw Part 1’s first drawings when I was asked to write 2 and 3, so I was actually inspired by them to develop the comic in the ways I eventually did. The drawings in fact were so good they made everyone (including me) to want Parts 2 and 3 to exist. I wrote Part 2 in upstate New York and there were lots of real moths about. It was hard not to note their interest.

Did you envisage it having a life on stage and did that influence your writing?

When I visited Melbourne I got a sense of the rich theatrical possibilities. Danius introduced me to the actors Richard Piper and Rod Mullinar. So I might have had secret ideas; certainly I did not dissuade the SPs in these directions. But it was their idea and it was only as I was half-way through scripting Part 2 that I heard about the possibilities of stage and opera. I thought immediately of Gilbert and Sullivan, and comics I had seen of Wagner’s Operas etc. I suddenly realized how the story could end. By creating songs and refrains for animals like “Hooray, Hooray! Man has gone away!” I was able in fact to finish the comic as if it was a stage show starring Punkasila. I actually haven’t seen the drawings of Part 3 yet.

Have you seen or had any involvement in production?

No. It all seems unreal. The night it premiered I suddenly found the idea of The Lepidopters opera beginning that same moment in Tasmania utterly bizarre, frankly. I have seen properly scattered and difficult-to-find images that remind me somewhat of the strange and misunderstood performances put on by Raymond Roussel in Paris exactly one hundred years ago. It’s hard for me to believe this is happening.

What do you hope audiences take away from it?

Roussel’s roundly beautiful “bizarre” productions ended up inspiring all sorts of strange developments in art history and culture — including the systems that have brought me and Slave Pianos and Iwank together in this way. As a small number proved able to do in Paris in those days, I do hope some people take away a renewed conviction that anything is actually possible in our arts.

Frankly, I still believe more in the comic than the stage production (which is still indistinguishable for me from a Slave Pianos hoax). So I hope people seek the comic out too….

all the best,