Stephen O’Connell Slave Pianos, art/text #67, 1999
art/text #67 1999 : REVIEWS
Slave Pianos LOVERS, MELBOURNE MAY 15 — MAY 23, 1999
Slave Pianos is an ongoing collaborative project by two Melbourne-based artists, Michael Stevenson and Danius Kesminas. It has already been exhibited at the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel and Stills Gallery in Edinburgh. Following its presentation at Lovers in Melbourne, it tours to the Auckland Art Gallery, Darren Knight Gallery in Sydney, Lombard/Freid Fine Arts in New York, and China Art Objects in Los Angeles.
The centerpiece of this exhibition is a player piano: a traditional piano fitted with a mechanical arm which rests across the keys and performs programmed music on demand. The play list consists of avant-garde or experimental “sound art” by artists ranging from Jean Tinguely and Louise Bourgeois to contemporary Australians and New Zealanders such as David Thomas and Ronnie van Hout. Most of the sound tracks were originally produced by visual artists and consequently generated in the context of gallery performances or by kinetic art works. With the assistance of Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape (musicologists from La Trobe University in Melbourne), Stevenson and Kesminas have uploaded original recordings of these transientart happenings to the computer and transcribed them as conventional piano scores. In effect, performances that were intended as one-off events have been rarefied and digitally re-recorded so that they can be played over and over again. Accompanying their electronic player piano is a range of merchandise which includes copies of the CD, a set of beautifully rendered sheet music, and an archival cabinet filled with collectable EPs, posters, production notes and photographs. This fan-boy paraphernalia helps to frame the self-playing piano as a ghostly incantation of unique historical happenings.
In his solo career, Kesminas has a reputation for mocking the seriousness of the art world with irreverent antics. For example, he often sets out to annoy his contemporaries by appropriating their work in ways that erode artistic aura. Given Kesminas’s modus operandi, it is tempting to view Slave Pianos as a puerile, Simpsons-style parody of avant-garde pretense. And this is reinforced by a LED text box installed above the piano which flashes snide remarks about art world “operators.” Stevenson is also concerned with making art about art, yet his practice is inflected with self-doubt and apprehension. In the past, for instance, he has reproduced quintessential images of twentieth-century art in pencil, but then withdrawn from the intimacy of these painstaking homages by presenting them as cynical investigations into the machinations of the art world. In contrast to Kesminas, who plays at being an uncouth rascal, Stevenson has styled himself as a paranoid white Protestant who knows too much to let himself enjoy simple pleasures.
From the perspective of Stevenson’s oeuvre then, Slave Pianos deals with the complicated sentiment of longing for an avant-garde purity which has been tarnished by critical knowledge and historical hindsight. But, by collaborating with Kesminas, the former has also been able to emphasize the showy element of his paranoid persona. Conversely, by sidling up to Stevenson, Kesminas has drawn attention to the anxiety that lies beneath the surface of his animosity. Working together, they express intensely tortured love/hate relationships with the art world. At face value, then, Slave Pianos is an intriguing, performative document of “sound art” in the twentieth century. But the particularly interesting aspect of this collaboration is the way that it explores a compromised economy of desire and fear.
SLAVE PIANOS Installation detail, Lovers, Melbourne, 1999.
Charles LaBelle Slave Pianos, Frieze, #53, 2000
Mike Stevenson & Danius Kesminas
China Art Objects, Los Angeles
The key question to Mike Stevenson and Danius Kesminas’ on-going project, Slave Pianos (2000) is who or what is subservient. Driven by a seemingly selfless desire to ‘broaden the knowledge appreciation and understanding ofworka in sound’, the two Australia-based artists have collected audio worko from artists as diverse as Stephen Prina, Joseph Beuys, Jean Dubuffet and Martin Creed. Transcribing each work into a score for piano, the resultant compositions are then played mechanically with the aid of a sophisticated computer program.
Slave Pianos takes the form of a white grand piano to which the artists have added two giant X-shapes representing the cross-bars used to manipulate marionettes. These hover ominously over the piano, attached to the ceiling with black plastic chain. During the premier of the work in LA, the gallery was filled with thick, white fog a la Liberace. Indeed, there’s a high degree of showmanship involved in the piece, a performative aspect (without the performers) that seems to have paid off. Like Tom Jones or the Rolling Stones, Slave Pianos is a touring animal, having played Germany, New Zealand, America, Scotland, and Sydney, Australia. After its stint in LA, it moves onto Russia.
The success of the project is timely. Finally, after decades of neglect, aural artworks seem to be getting their due. A number of good books on the subject have recently come out, while Sonic Youth - perhaps the most avant of pop bands - released Goodbye 20th Century last October, a double CD which features, among others, renditions of seminal works by John Cage, Georges Brecht, and Yoko Ono.
Given our current cultural fascination with fluidity, leakage, slippages, displacement and nomadism, sound is a model worthy of more thorough investigation. Immediate and invisible, receptive to chance operations and capable of pausing through walls, it naturally exercises strategies of formlessness. The antithesis of architecture, sound is a violent stirring of molecules - entropy made manifest. It can embody both the abject and the spiritual, the concrete and the nebulous, is at once completely of the moment and timeless, site-specific and ubiquitous. As a strategic operation, sound art stems from both utopian aspirations (Cage) and nihilistic impulses (Japanese Noise). Rebellious by its very nature (even at its most quiet), it is a form in which every note and decibel is a gesture of defiance, a small step towards liberation.
However, the inescapable problem with Slave Pianos is that the convoluted process of ‘recomposing, arranging and translating’ the source material ultimately consigns a lot of anarchistic noise to the prison-house of ‘music’ and leaves formerly biting works toothless. In the hands of transcribers Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape, works radically disparate in both form and intent end up sounding strangely similar. In fact, much of the music sounds like mid–20th century Modern - minimal, ethereal, sometimes beautiful but ultimately, painfully generic. Martin Kersels’ fax machine track (from Objects of the Dealer 1995), a Katharina Fritsch recording of frogs croaking (Unkeu (sic), 1990) and Chris Burden’s attempt to breath water (Velvet Water, 1974), are all boiled down to an awful Erik Satie-like ballet score. Is it any wonder that Australian artists John Nixon and Marco Fusinato have demanded that their work not be included in the ‘Slave Archive’? Given this woeful shortcoming, one starts to view the project as a clever careerist manoeuvre or Dadaesque prank poking fun at a lot of pretentious sound art.
Merlesu-Ponty said that to turn something upside down is to deprive it of its meaning. Unfortunately, Slave Pianos neither succeeds in turning the source material on its head nor furthering our understanding of it. In fact, if anything, the project makes you yearn to hear the original works. Despite Stevenson and Kesminas’ stated intentions Slave Pianos is, at best, a dubious tribute to a lot of important work by a lot of other artists. Viewed as an art work, it is, at the very least, perplexing and irresolute.
Mark von Schlegell Slave Pianos, Flash Art, May-June, 2000
Mike Stevenson & Danius Kesminas
China Art Objects
At China Art Objects, the traveling Slave Pianos, collaborative project of Australian and New Zealand artists Mike Stevenson and Danius Kesminas, made a suitably LA stopover. Part sound-art, part cultural investigation of the piano, part conceptual rumination on the relation of art historicism to contemporary art, this complicated piece presented a single, self-activating performance.
A white baby-grand piano sat majestically on a bed of white smoke while a black metallic bar fixed over the keyboard hammered out digitally transcribed sound works of post-war international art.
Sound art peaked in the 70s and faded into the image-based technologies of recent art. In Slave Pianos this silenced genie found a path through digitalia back into an art world far changed from the idealistic milieu from which most of the sound works cited sprung. George Brecht’s Fluxus-induced recording of a thumb buzzing through a plastic comb emerged from a mechanical Liberace soaked in irony, commodification and politics.
In its use by artists from Salvador Dali to Joseph Beuys to Sherrie Levine, the art piano has always produced an aura of Enlightenment grandiosity. But in a chiasmic reversal worthy of Frederick Douglass, the Slave Pianos are finally free. Shining white, held by a massive black chain, riding a cloud of stage smoke and hammering out works composed for toilet bowls, plink bands, and plastic combs, the nineteenth century’s pop inventiveness may have finally vanquished its own pretensions to grandeur.
This machine proved full of ghosts. When the android piano poked out the notes of a duet by Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys, the artists’ presence was palpable. And without explanation, the gaudy confederate markings of the underside of the piano-top’s black cross opened a dark historical fissure into the work’s ironic celebration of contemporary art.
Mark von Schlegell
Mike Stevenson & Danius Kesminas, Slave Pianos. Installailon view. Photo Kent Williams.
May-June 2000, Flash Art, pp.117–118
Stuart Koop Slave Pianos, art/text, #86, 2001
NORTH MELBOURNE TOWN HALL, MELBOURNE
JUNE 22 - 23, 2001
Slave Pianos has been mixing things up for several years. Its four members - Danius Kesminas, Rohan Drape, Neil Kelly, Mike Stevenson - have transcribed well-known as well as marginal recordings by twentieth-century artists for all sorts of wide-ranging re-mixes, using anything from a player piano to world-renowned Krasnyi or Flux quartets to Dj Olive and the Burley Griffin Brass Band. And they’ve amassed a substantial archive of recordings and scores, too (a collection forthcoming through Revolver publications in Frankfurt later this year): Brecht’s hair-comb music scored for piano, or Kippenberger’s New York Auschwitz for string quartet.
Their latest “opera”, The Broccoli Maestro, performed at the North Melbourne Town Hall by Chamber Made, is based on the esoteric Australian painter Tony Clark (indeed, the work absurdly realized Clark’s own ambitions at one time to pen an opera on Aquinas). Clark was a linchpin of Melbourne’s art and music scene in the ’80s, blending his interests in classics and Sufistic philosophy with a rank, punk amateurism. His paintings combined classical motifs and Cyrillic script within sfumato landscapes, becoming increasingly abstract in later years, and celebrated in a 1998 survey at the Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Melbourne.
An early, 14-panel Clark “masterwork” provided the formal structure both of the opera’s staging, complete with large copies of Clark’s paintings, and the libretto, which derived from a colloquium held at the time of the artist’s retrospective. The roles of soprano, tenor, or baritone conformed to one or another local artist talking about Clark’s work (“I think he wants to be Eva Hesse”; “He paints beneath himself”; “I loved the show!”) or otherwise quoting from Clark’s extensive writings (“My figure is present with its absence”).
The music was a heady brew of obscure artist forays into music (A Constructed World doing pop songs, or Marco Fusinato playing noise guitar), which was first of all sourced, then transcribed for orchestra and set amongst “classical” bits from such pieces as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde or a Bach chorale. The whole was performed by Melbourne’s leading chamber opera company, and was a surprisingly affecting experience - despite the composition-by-numbers structure. Familiar classical motifs were partially obscured by throbbing guitar feedback (here transposed for strings and percussion), while the occasional artspeak rang out in operatic fortissimo. Many more things were “extruded” through the singers, cellos, violins, bassoon, and trumpet. Indeed, there were grand, fulminating moments where the sheer excess of material seemed like the giddy whorl of culture itself.
A clever, gentle mocking of high-art seriousness on one hand, The Broccoli Maestro revealed the constitution of local visual art culture on the other, since the even instrumentation and voices rendered everything in consistent high camp, suffusing the incidental details of the local milieu with the generic passion of grand opera. Local hero Clark, his work, his influences and his peers were all stark features in this eccentric and unauthorized portrait of 80/90s Melbourne.
The transposition from one context to another, however, released something else, something atmospheric, a texture appealing to other senses; it left behind a kind of ozone or some other thrilling smell, no doubt arising from the rapid turnover of references in the mixed score and libretto. Perhaps the excess in the Slave’s rampant, fever-pitched citation is the burning of that ether in which art and culture usually function more slowly.
SLAVE PIANOS, The Broccoli Maestro, concert performance with Chamber Made, North Melbourne Town Hall,June 2001, projected paintings by Tony Clark.
Alistair Riddell From the lip: myth, word, aesthetic recycling, Real-Time Arts, September, 2001
Alistair Riddell From the lip: myth, word, aesthetic recycling, Real-Time Arts, September, 2001
From the lip: myth, word, aesthetic recycling
This concert proved a fine example of a hidden jewel in Melbourne’s winter cultural world. Buoyed by an enthusiastic and substantial audience eager for that magic which breaks the bonds of musical convention, the second of the from the lip concerts (produced by Chamber Made Opera) tackled issues of authenticity, integrity and originality. In an historical sense it was not experimental but each work contained elements that seemed to reference the idea of the experimental, while being set within essentially conventional contexts.
The concert began with Narcissus and Echo, an opera by Robin Fox and Elizabeth Parsons. Here the myth found a sympathetic interpretation through a range of challenging sounds and performance practices. Rich in detail, the work utilized a bewildering array of sound sources including pre-recorded sound, traditional instruments, turntables, fans with records on them (yes, vinyl!), a tape loop, speakers and singers. The theatricality of the performance effectively suggested ‘too much’ and, of course, ‘obsessiveness.’ The visual feast and complex sound established a compelling momentum of excess with which the audience could readily empathize, perhaps to the detriment of those moments of subtlety.
In stark contrast, Ania Walwicz’s solo reading of her text, Diana (a reference to Princess Diana), was equally spellbinding. As a delirious, self obsessed, verbal barrage, punctuated by changes in tone and subject, Walwicz’s accomplished performance was dearly a part of the experimental performance tradition of the last 30 years. Solo readings by Chris Mann came quickly to mind because of the musical treatment of the text. In many ways, Walwiczs performance was both refreshing and passionate and moreso through the raw and powei-ful experience of witnessing the composer as performer.
Finally, The Broccoli Maestro. This visual and aurally impressive chamber opera in 2 acts, for 6 voices, 6 players and tape by Slave Pianos, unfolded as a challenge to contemporary musical thinking. An aesthetically complex work and perhaps exemplary of how the reputation of Slave Pianos is spreading as their working methodology becomes more widely appreciated and understood. This methodology may be summarized as: the use of re-composition, in this case, composing with other people’s music; the use of other art forms and intellectual subjects including literature, painting, philosophy, religion and politics; explicit reference to other artists (in this case Tony Clark) and a complex performance context which forms a nexus and crucial point of originality. All of this adds up to a sophisticated means of substantiating and legitimating the immediate work.
The effect in performance was as a massed force which advanced on the audience from all directions, forming a convincing experience through the sheer weight of the artistic evidence. The musical component was reminiscent of digital sampling, which is often a crude and frequently short lived experience in comparison to the juxtaposed instrumental material found in this performance. As a collaborative enterprise, The Broccoli Maestro was a formidable example of aesthetic recycling with its many levels of reference and representation. A product of an institution, or society in this case, it was also a fantastic work of synthesis, of the moment and worthy of further discussion.
ChamberMade 2001: from the lip, Concert No.2, The Experimental, North Melbourne Town Hall Melbourne, June 22
RealTime 44 August - September 2001 p.42
Slave Pianos, The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader, Review
Mitch Spee. “The Voyage, or Three Years at Sea: Part II_.” Frieze, 145, March 2012. [Review essay]
Charles H. Scott Gallery, Vancouver, Canada
’The Voyage, or Three Years at Sea: Part II’, is the second in a three-year trilogy of exhibitions curated by Cate Rimmer, which focuses on the relationship between humans and the sea. In both shows to date, this procedure was broadened through the inclusion of a selection of artefacts borrowed from Vancouver’s Maritime Museum and from private collections. While the proximity of the gallery to the ocean lent the exhibition a certain resonance, its antiquated lighthouses and sailing ships stretched that intimacy out to give a broader historical perspective.
The first work viewers encountered was one in a series of drawings by Los Angeles-based artist Karl Haendel, depicting Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914 mission to the South Pole, which ended in 1917 when his ship was crushed between two ice floes. Here, several of these drawings were installed – high, low and upside-down – in the Charles H. Scott Gallery’s deepest and tallest room, which had been painted grey. A familiar strategy of Haendel’s, this style of installation diffused the emphasis put on singular images by implicating them in a broader experience.
Shackleton was also the subject of Nina Katchadourian’s video Endurance (2002), wherein an image of his sinking ship was projected onto the artist’s tooth. For ten minutes the ship descends, as Katchadourian holds a clenched smile. Also on display was Bas Jan Ader’s Bulletin 89/Bas Jan Ader In Search of the Miraculous (1975), an unfolded broadsheet featuring a spread depicting the young artist sailing away from the camera and, on the other side, the score to the 19th-century sea shanty ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’. Originally distributed by Art and Project – an Amsterdam gallery active between 1968 and 1989 – as part of a project for which artists produced information bulletins to be sent through the mail, the work wove the image of the artist beginning his fateful voyage across the Atlantic into the reality of the mobile conceptual document.
Slave Pianos’ The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader (2001) comprised a radio play, a musical score and a collection of documents drawn from an interview with Ader’s widow and the ramblings of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst. This breathed new life into Ader’s historicized romantic conceptualism, and Crowhurst’s lesser-known story. Having died after abandoning his course and reporting false positions while competing in a one-man, round-the-world yacht race in 1969, Crowhurst was fitting company for the Dutch artist’s melancholic spectre. Viewers were invited to listen to the radio play, broadcast from a shortwave signal, the script of which was mounted on the adjacent wall. But, because it was difficult to coordinate one’s position in the convoluted story with the script, and because the play was read in English as well as Dutch, the experience oscillated between cohesion and dislocation.
Inevitably, the inflections that accompanied the anthropological artefacts included in the exhibition – a chunk of driftwood bearing the last words of a doomed sailor, newspaper clippings recalling the details of disastrous journeys – rubbed off on the art works. In positioning film, journalism, anthropology and art-making in relation to one another, Rimmer gave her audience cause to observe the susceptibility of each discipline to the influence of the others. Delivering a constant pattern of illumination and disappearance, the lighthouse featured in the first chapter of the series – in the work of Rodney Graham and Tacita Dean – served as an apt metaphor for the general operation of these exhibitions. Artefacts and art works alike appeared only momentarily as discrete objects before dissolving into a kind of darkness represented by a sea of competing histories, and meanings.
Slave Pianos, The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader, Review
Rachel Kent. “Pun to paradox: Bas Jan Ader revisited”. Parkett, 75:177–181, 2006. [Review essay].
Crowhurst and Ader together form the subject of Danius Kesminas and Michael Stevenson’s chamber opera, The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader (2001). Performed in Germany in October 2001, under the artists’ collaborative rubric, Slave Pianos, the work blends the satirical humor for which both artists are known with a deeply integrated understanding and exploration of musical structure, which, mirroring the lives of its protagonists, “tapers into a diatonic oblivion.” 1 Drawing on extracts from interviews, diaries, and other printed materials, the voices of Crowhurst, Ader, Ader’s widow, and her interviewers are interwoven to create a layered piece about their search for enlightenment, with its inherent frustrations. Ader’s voyage into oblivion
Quoted from program notes produced by the artists to accompany the opera and its performance in Aachen and Düsseldorf, October 2001. The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader formed the second of a twopart chamber opera. The other component, The Broccoli Maestro (after writings by Tony Clark), cast an Australian slant on the notion of “failure.” ↩
Anthony Gardner The Same River Twice, Art & Australia, 2009
The Same River Twice
By Anthony Gardner
‘The Same River Twice’ was a strikingly ambitious project helmed by two curators from Brisbane’s leading public art galleries. The Institute of Modern Art’s Director Robert Leonard, and Angela Goddard, the Queensland Art Gallery’s Curator, Australian Art to 1970, drew together eight international artists and collaborations in a two-part exhibition that spanned five months of Brisbane’s summer and autumn. More significantly still, it focused on one of the core concerns of recent contemporary art practice. This was the notion of the ’re’ as it has affected contemporary culture, from the restagings and re-enactments of historical events in a number of movies and theme parks worldwide (think Merchant Ivory period films or the earnestness of Old Sydney Town), to the so-called ‘historiographic turn’ of artists as they revisit and revise art’s past so as to rethink or even resolve the problems of the present.
These themes have often weighed heavily in other exhibitions, such as the revolutionary drives in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s 2008 Biennale of Sydney or Marina Abramovic’s development of protocols for reproducing performance artworks in her 2005 series ‘Seven Easy Pieces’. For ‘The Same River Twice’, however, Goddard and Leonard brought a more playful and humorous spin to the topic, mixing renowned and less expected works from this relatively new art genre. This was evident from the project’s first instalment, which combined works by key figures from the emerging canon of ’re-enactment art’ — Irish and English artists Gerard Byrne and Jeremy Deller (working with filmmaker Mike Figgis), Thomas Demand from Germany and Pierre Huyghe from France — together with the high jinks of the Melbourne- and Berlin-based collective Slave Pianos (a group comprising Rohan Drape, Neil Kelly, Danius Kesminas and Michael Stevenson). Their installation, The execution protocol, or pianology: A schema & historo-materialist pro-gnostic, 1998—2008, continued their practice of mechanising grand pianos and transforming them into high-end pianolas playing experimental sound pieces from the historical avant-garde. The repetitive plinkety-plonks emanating from the robotic ‘piano, and the instrument’s presentation within an oversized execution chair a la Claes Oldenburg brought a vicious cutesiness to the surrounding works. Recounted in Byrne’s three-monitor video installation Newsexual lifestyles,2003, the tales of liberated sexuality drawn from a roundtable discussion printed in a 1973 issue of Playboy magazine’ including details of some women’s engagements with their dogs that go far beyond a walk in the park ’ became more silly than scandalous or sordid. Similarly, Goddard and Leonard brought a pathos and futility to the mix-ups between memory and fiction in Huyghe’s The third memory, 1999, and between re-enactment and performance in Deller and Figgis’s The Battle of Orgreave, 2001, that have been difficult to experience in other presentations of these works.
This combination of the amusing and the pathetic was extended in part two of the exhibition. British artist Emma Kay’s Shakespeare from memory, 1998, abridged each of the Bard’s plays according to the details remembered by the artist; some summaries remained completely blank, as though the relevant text had not yet been read, while others were relayed in colloquial English, riddled with blatant errors and the ever-so-slightly misremembered. American Omer Fast’s two-channel video projection Godville, 2005, directly tackled the tourist industry of ‘living history’ museums, presenting a series of interviews with ‘interpreters’ from a theme park in Virginia called Colonial Williamsburg. Fast had fractured and re-edited the interviews so that words taken from different discussions some conducted in historical character, others more personalised and emotional ’ were combined like a videoed ransom note, making the interviewees appear locked in a netherworid between lived and re-enacted histories, projection and experience, and hostage to cultural memory. In a side gallery, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s video FreshAcconci, 1995, showed naked porn stars re-enacting Vito Acconci’s seminal performances from the 1970s, an odd yet fitting conjunction that ultimately teased out the fine line that both porn and performance art tread between the earnest and the ridiculous.
Indeed, it was precisely this path between that ‘The Same River Twice’ identified as the core of contemporary re-enactment cultures. Such remobilisations of the past are never simply nostalgic, just as they are not inherently full of potential. They cannot be boiled down to pathos, to memorials, to a long-dead past or a sense of amusement garnered from the naivety of our forebears. As this two-part exhibition correctly revealed, aesthetics of restaging and re-imagining operate instead between these various positions, perpetually countering the ease of forgetting while ensuring that the rethinking of history can be a continuing font of wry pleasure.
The Same River Twice, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Part 1:6 December 2008 28 February 2009; Part 2:7 March’25 Aprii 2009.
Rachael Watts sound suspension: slave pianos, broadsheet #39.2, 2010
Slave Pianos, Penalogical Pianology, Review
Juliana Engberg. “Artful Excess: The 17th Biennale of Sydney”. The Monthly, June 2010.
The Slave Pianos collective hangs an antique grand from a gallows scaffold, referencing the penal origins of the Cockatoo Island venue, and the musical history of the Sydney Biennale itself. The piano is regularly hoisted and lowered in a cycle of damnation and redemption. Despite the reference it makes to public hangings, though, Penalogical Pianology is one of the more spritely offerings.
The Monthly, June 2010, No. 57
Slave Pianos, Penalogical Pianology, Review
Tom Rivard. “Things Of Desire: Art, architecture and the (pre) occupation of space.” Architecture Australia, September-October 2010
And so to Cockatoo Island, major venue for the biennale, and perhaps the premier example in a series of locations around Sydney that alter our perceptions of what public space is and what it can be. Despite well-meant attempts to sanitize the island, it defiantly retains both its tectonic grandeur and the scars of its barbaric history, a perfect location, one would think, for the insinuation of art that is not Art. The current discourse about these emergent spaces ought not to be with the architecture (existing or new) or the spaces themselves; beyond allowing a pastoral appreciation of Sydney’s natural wonders, the problem remains that it is unclear exactly what should take place in these spaces. Sites like this, though, can engender a more productive approach to making art that is both resistant and relevant, focused on the work’s relationship to environment (natural, human-made, social, virtual), a rejection of a second nature that exists only in the work. As the particulars of culture are elided by globalization, strategies for re-engagement of the local become more valuable as the field of art is subsumed by both commerce and critique. Reconsidered relationships between art and the public realm have the potential to provoke, to illuminate these new possibilities.
Cockatoo’s character, though, is the curator’s curse; its visceral reality easily overawes any work of questionable reality – and questioning reality is a leitmotif of contemporary art. Video art, in particular, suffers from incorporeality and placelessness all at once; most of it is hardly there at all.
The same might be said of much displayed on the island, disembodied Art longing for a proper home where it could be, if not appreciated, at least consumed.
There are notable exceptions. Penalogical Pianology – an installation by Slave Pianos in a dirt-floored interstitial space, in which a condemned piano is “hung by the neck until dead” – resonates within the site, while presenting its own evilly witty industrial machinery of movement and death.
Slave Pianos, Penalogical Pianology, Review
Adrian Gebers. “Slave Pianos”. adriangebers.com, 2010.
It’s a little difficult to know where to start with Slave Pianos, which is why most articles about them start by listing the members; from where you can begin to understand the extent of their work. Slave Pianos is made up of artists Michael Stevenson and Danius Kesminas, composer Neil Kelly, musicologist Rohan Drape and inventor David Nelson.
Slave Pianos deals with the interrogation and integration of art and art history through the medium of the piano. Who the slave is remains uncertain; the piano is played by eighty-eight solenoid fingers fed by a MIDI track, but it could just as easily be the artists, slave to the task of investigating the musical history of art (or at least the history of art through music).
Penalogical Pianism: The Timbers of Justice (2010) is the work created for the Biennale, situated in building 142 on Cockatoo Island. It’s a gallows, built specifically for the odd task of executing a piano. It’s magnificent in its construction, with no detail overlooked; from the arrow styled truss connectors to the studio lighting that so many artworks on the island lack.
The work references Cockatoo Island’s history as a penal colony. Although it did not serve as a hangman’s lair, arriving on Cockatoo Island for many resulted in the same fate.
An important part to understanding the work is the performance that occurred on Sunday the 16th of May The Fatal Score Or The Spectacle Of The Scaffold (The Way Up And The Way Down Are One And The Same). The Piano was captured at slipway one, carried to the gallows and sentenced to death in a quite unfair trial. A fifty-piece band from the navy accompanied the procession as well as a quartet in authentic period costume. After a final piece played by Michael Kieran Harvey the piano was then hanged. However, instead of crashing to the ground the piano’s fall is arrested, where it begins to play itself.
The ‘fatal score’ comes out of Robert Hughes’ 1987 novel Fatal Shore on the founding of Australia; a further example of the ever-expanding layers of meaning in the works of Slave Pianos.
The falling and rising (‘the way up and the way down are one and the same’) is repeated for the duration of the biennale. The counterweight to the piano serves as a platform for a two-channel video and sound installation. The video shows a judge sorting through piles of ‘evidence’ (artworks and transcripts) that are later used to sentence the works for “crimes against humanity.” In conjunction with the sentencing, each work listed is ‘played’ by the piano on the other side of the scaffold, where after a short while, the works are all hanged. Through the work of Drape and Kelly, each work has been transposed from its audio or physical form into a musical composition for the piano to play; some are more literal translations than others.
And here is where most articles on Slave Pianos end, at a point without conclusion, having only begun to skim the surface on the work.
Slave Pianos, Punkasila and Pipeline to Oblivion at MUMA, by Dan Rule
Slave Pianos, Punkasila and Pipeline to Oblivion at MUMA
AK–47 shaped guitars, lo-fi video works and a performance by an Indonesian punk band are just a few pieces of this collaborative show at MUMA with Japanese artist Midori Mitamura and Danius Kesminas.
By Dan Rule, 13th May 2011
Running alongside Midori Mitamura’s stunning series of shifting domestic installations and breakfast gatherings and a succinct exhibition of works from the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) collection, Danius Kesminas’s suite of projects might appear a tad convoluted at first glance.
A vodka still and automated PVC pipe organ that plays the traditional Lithuanian drinking song Gerkit Gerkit, Broliukai (Drink Brothers, Drink); an installation of revolutionary murals; AK–47 shaped guitars; lo-fi video works and the odd performance by an Indonesian concept punk band; and a self-playing grand piano perched on a giant electric chair and controlled via an audience-operated computer console: the uninitiated could hardly be blamed for evacuating the building in a bewildered terror. But there’s a disarming coherence to these incredibly intricate, painstakingly conceptualised and engineered works – a kind of collaborative bind.
Indeed, it’s a sensibility that emanates from Kesminas’s Pipeline to Oblivion project with every blocky note puffed from the PVC pipe organ. It takes its cues from a myriad of narratives surrounding Lithuania’s independence from the former USSR, Eastern Europe’s alcoholism epidemic and an illegal series of underground pipelines pumping black market vodka or “moonshine” across the border to Lithuania from neighbouring Belarus.
Kesminas’s organ effectively snuffs the process. By utilising the vodka distillation process to power the organ’s Lithuanian drinking hymn, he subverts the drink’s devilish effects. The binding power of song – the same social glue that helped facilitate Lithuania’s “singing revolution” and eventuated in the country’s successful pro-democracy movement – is re-enabled and re-activated.
In the adjoining space, a very different kind of collaborative musical creation hammers out its distortion-prone, luridly coloured attack. Punkasila (which translates to “punk principles”) are a Yogyakarta “post-disaster” punk band who play hand-carved AK–47- and M16-shaped guitars. Formed by Kesminas whilst undertaking a residency in the city during 2006, the band represents a mash-up of traditional and post-Suharto Indonesian ideologies, politics and iconography. The space is garnered with giant, revolutionary murals and posters depicting the band in a kind of heroic stance. Their guitar weaponry perch on mechanised tripods, swinging about the room, ready to unleash a wave of distortion on anything that moves. Video works and an interactive music box take the place of fold back monitors; waves of sonic and visual noise pre-empt a diverse, playful, empowered new Indonesia.
In the third space, the latest incarnation of Keminas’s longstanding Slave Pianos project – which sees avant-garde sound works by visual artists reconfigured into the classical form – consists of an automated grand piano positioned atop a gigantic electric chair. Audience members can then control the piano by selecting a composition via an adjoining computer consol. On selecting an artist to be “executed”, a mechanical plotter with video screen moves across a wall-mounted world map, landing on a point of geo-political relevance to the artist. It’s a kind of arcane, hilarious and slightly sinister surveillance process. Artists are selected, tracked and musically executed.
That said, what’s most striking about Kesminas’s selected projects is their very collectivity. Indeed, ultimately, these works seem to preface the power and potential of community. Though inherently complex – even convoluted – in their sprawling forms, justifications and artistic and political logic, these are works that have been built from the ground up.
Be it an Indonesian punk militia or a swathe of artists willing to be executed, the catalyst for each of these projects is a convergence – or at least a consideration – of many heads, hearts and hands.
Slave Pianos | Punkasila | Pipeline to Oblivion runs until July 23 at Monash University Museum of Art.
Punk rocking the old order, by Robert Nelson
Punk rocking the old order
Reviewed by Robert Nelson
June 1, 2011
Indonesian art band Punkasila attacks the pomposity of acronyms at MUMA.
Slave Pianos, Punkasila, Pipeline to oblivion,
MUMA, Monash University, Caulfield Campus, 900 Dandenong Road, Caulfield,
Until July 23
PREPARED for its final chord, a piano has been secured to an electric chair. As visitor to the Monash University Museum of Art, you become a witness to its execution and can participate in its death throes. The chair is huge and of asymmetrical shape to accommodate the grand musical instrument.
How the piano came to merit a death penalty is a long story. The macabre work by Danius Kesminas and an art collective called Slave Pianos sums up the avant-garde history of stressful relations with the keyboard. Advertisement: Story continues below
Representing melodic music as if it were universal, the piano stands accused of cultural arrogance. On a keyboard, all the chromatic tones for metrical music are laid out with the air of regular and invariable rules, like destiny. With this system, you can substitute for a whole chamber ensemble and still express individual subjectivity as a performer.
As for the piano condemned at MUMA, it doesn’t even need hands to make music, much less subjective interpretation. Along the keyboard there is a register of pistons that press the keys by electronic signals, like a digital pianola. A range of sources can be selected, which will cause the piano to play and testify, in its final moments, to the case against it.
The idea that musical instruments belong to a theatre of destruction is further investigated in the next room. Here Kesminas teams up with an Indonesian art band Punkasila, which he helped to form. In their dress and gestures, the members adopt the language of guerillas, taking music to an extreme of violent hyperbole by crafting their guitars as guns.
The war they wage is political in a funny, deconstructive way. At stake is the status of certain acronyms, which proliferate in Indonesian as much as promises or loan words from other languages. In Bahasa Indonesia, and even our own language, an acronym - no matter how recent - already sounds like an official institution.
Any pretentious idea can be given an acronym and automatic authority is conferred upon it, as if long established, like NATO, which suggests a body originating with the very birth of Western civilisation.
Acronyms give plans, hopes and ideologies a rhetorical mechanism for appearing sturdy and determined, when they may be nothing but a hollow shell for vanity and folly. So Punkasila wages the Acronym Wars.
Kesminas produces a final anarchistic critique of false order in /Pipeline to oblivion/, also with collaborators. A beautiful organ operates by an old-fashioned mechanism - a large drum has intervals recorded on separate tracks and, as it rotates, armatures are shifted to release pressured air to pipes of different lengths, yielding a melody.
This vigorous work sits alongside a more inward installation by Midori Mitamura that also involves sound and chaos.
The artist has collected objects and conversations and assembled the disparate objects to form a narrative. In a sweet gesture, she links the themes by a fragile piece of yarn and also makes breakfast for guests in the gallery.
The installation sums up the thoughtful sense of self-possession that keeps us from vodka.
Critical Mass: Cultural Conduits, Translations and Provocations, by Shelley McSpedden
Critical Mass: Cultural Conduits, Translations and Provocations in the Work of Danius Kesminas and Collaborators
by Shelley McSpedden
Danius Kesminas is an artist who likes to tinker with arcane technologies and semiotic orders. His provocative experimentations with these systems function as a kind of critical mass, sparking creative chain reactions amidst an expanding network of collaborators that course out in seemingly inexhaustible manifestations, mutations and iterations. Slave Pianos, Punkasila, Pipeline to Oblivion: 3 Projects by Danius Kesminas and Collaborators (5 May – 23 July 2011), curated by Monash University Museum of Art’s Director, Max Delany, provides a raucous rendition of three of his major projects to-date.
Pipeline to Oblivion 2011 serves up an explosive blend of folk art, music, dissident production processes and a DYI mentality, all doused in a good soaking of moonshine liquor. In a distillation of a deliciously preposterous instance of backyard ingenuity in which a three kilometre pipeline for smuggling black market vodka in from neighbouring Belarus was discovered by Lithuanian authorities in 2004, Kesminas presents a pipe organ fashioned from PVC water pipes and other repurposed household equipment which also doubles as a fully functioning vodka still. Resembling the Lithuanian folk instrument, the skudučiai, this automated device pumps out the traditional drinking song Gerkit Gerkit, Broliukai (Drink Brothers, Drink) at regular intervals. The high spiritedness of proceedings is hampered somewhat by a cluster of paintings adorning the gallery walls which appropriate 1930s Lithuania posters promoting abstinence. Nearby, a bust of the Bishop Motiejus Valančius – a teetotaller who led the popular temperance movement in Lithuania in the mid 19th century – watches sombrely over proceedings.
As Boris Kremer evocatively attests, “If vodka is culture, and no doubt it is, then Kesminas’ still is the neo-rustic version of the alchemists’ melting pot and the art it spurts out is the panacea against museum fatigue.”1 Kesminas utilises the “social lubricants” of music, drink and subversive humour to grease the wheels of ethnographic encounters and the projects that they engender.2 Mining the crude cultural caricature of the vodka swilling Eastern European, this work reveals some sobering insights into the way the vodka trade flows through the history of Lithuania and its relations with neighbouring Slavic countries.3 The underground pipeline also functions as a potent emblem of economic and political concerns of contemporary Lithuania, as the recent increased demand for black market spirits is just one up-shot of massive inflation linked to the nation’s entry into the European Union in 2004. 4
Each of Kesminas’ projects is anchored by his role as agent provocateur. In a documentary video in Pipeline to Oblivion for example, he and a small film crew scour the streets of Eišiškės, a remote Lithuanian village, approaching locals to help orientate them in relation to a map of the underground network they have. At one point Kesminas even presents this map to Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania’s first head of state and later its representative to the European Parliament, asking him what he knows about the fabled network.5 This seemingly earnest attempt to locate and verify the existence of the system is, in fact, based on a ruse as the map is a highly speculative fabrication created by the artist. Here Kesminas’ irreverent cultural incitements come across as an affectionate in-joke in large part because of his own Lithuanian heritage, a lineage made evident to the viewer by his effortless grasp of the language (an old world version inherited from his grandparents) and numerous references to local diasporic manifestations of the culture, such as the inclusion in the installation of a painting borrowed from Melbourne’s iconic Lithuanian Club.
In Punkasila however, Kesminas takes on the role of the cultural interloper. This “high octane” punk band was formed as a kind of contingent structural improvisation – a tactic to penetrate a culture and country he had no real knowledge of whilst on residency in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2006.6 In a parodic nod to Malcolm McLaren he set about handpicking a ‘Super Group’ scouted from the vibrant local music scene.7 Their status as an art collective/punk band has seen them play across diverse forums – from official art events such as the Tenth Biennale of Havana in Cuba in 2009 to local music mainstays such as Melbourne’s Ding Dong Lounge.
Punkasila’s moniker riffs off Pancasila– a five prong ideology devised in the Sukarno era (1945–65) as the new order of Indonesian nationhood. The band makes further playful gestures to the state apparatus in Post-reformasi Indonesia through their irreverent embrace of military motifs. In the installation at MUMA we find alongside the obligatory paraphernalia accompanying any self respecting rock group – t-shirts, video clips, promotional posters, comics and even business cards – a sprawling bricolage of objects ripped from Indonesia’s cottage industries – custom-made mahogany guitars carved to resemble M–16s and AK–47s, camouflage fatigues fabricated from batik, hand painted bollywood style banners, and most strikingly a Garuda (Indonesia’s national emblem) plastered with band’s insignia and gripping their iconic gun guitar. These objects attest to a hyper-collaborative effort involving countless Indonesian crafts people and artisans.
Kesminas’ role amidst all this energetic Indo-centric production is slightly perplexing, what is this middle aged Australian man doing thrashing about with all these young Indonesian punks? He is brazen about this cultural disconnect and promotes the fact that he does not speak the language of his fellow band members and has only a rudimentary knowledge of their country’s political history gleaned from a copy of Damien Kingsbury’s The Politics of Indonesia.8 Rather than being “paralysed by taboos”, Punkasila instead embraces the generative potential of this culture clash.9 Kesminas claims there is a certain artistic license afforded to him as the “White Buffoon”, ignorant to Indonesian customs and cultural sensitivities, which allows Punkasila to sidestep political and cultural embargos, such as in their appropriation of the Garuda Pancasila.10
The productive miscommunications, linguistic slippages and chance formulations which occur in the personal intercultural space occupied by the band translates into their broader strategy of “semiotic guerrilla warfare” – with their song titles and lyrics consisting solely of Indonesian acronyms of government, military and religious organisations. These official insignias are recast as rousing new idioms; KORPRI (Civil Servants Corp of the Republic of Indonesia) becomes Korak Pringisan (Smiling Criminals); while RPKAD (Army Para-commando Regiment) is reinterpreted as Rampung Kenthu Anake Duwekmu (Let’s Have Sex! But the child will be yours). In the proud punk tradition, these seemingly juvenile semiotic shifts perform a poignant emptying out of state, religious and moral imperatives. As anthropologist Dick Hebdige suggests we should not underestimate the signifying power of the spectacular subculture, “as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation”11.
An assault on the symbolic order is launched on an entirely different front in the remaining section of the exhibition by Slave Pianos – a collective of artists and musicians Rohan Drape, Neil Kelly, Danius Kesminas and Michael Stevenson. Slave Pianos’ central mission is the recuperation of a range of avant-garde works using the protocol of the classical cannon. Archiving and transcribing these works into musical scores, the conversion exchanges the currency of radical singularity for repeatable legibility. This should not be seen as a complete taming of the original materials however for it also offers them the possibility of new and unimagined articulations. This long running project has seen Slave Pianos collaborate with a varied ensemble of musicians, artists, actors and writers in constructing and presenting these scores in a cacophony of operas, concerts and performances across the globe.
In a schlocky rendition of Cold War aesthetics, Slave Pianos presents The Execution Protocol III: Mutually Assured Production (The MAP room) 2007–11 at MUMA, an installation which situates the viewer inside a ‘war room’ containing an oversized computer terminal tracking data on an adjacent wall-map of the globe and connected to large scale electric chair in which a 19th century piano attached to a computer controlled solenoid device sits waiting passively. Viewers are invited to sentence an avant-garde artist to death by selecting them from a list of names on the console – at which point biographical data about the artist appears on the monitor and their movements plotted on the map. In a particularly perverse form of persecution these experimental trailblazers are then sent to their death as the mechanised piano ‘executes’ their work in automated tones.
Whilst an irreverent play on the artistic aura of the avant-garde, the work also functions as a form of homage – an animated archive of a diverse range of conceptual practices. Not only concerned with the artistic itinerary of individuals, the work can be seen to track the topography of complex networks of avant-garde production across the globe. As Max Delany observes, “Cartographic mapping – extending the tradition of Fluxus’ genealogical diagrams and the psycho-geographic cartography of the Situationists – is a feature of Slave Pianos’ methodology”12. In positioning local artists such as John Nixon and Ronnie van Hout alongside international luminaries such as Martin Creed, Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono, Slave Pianos provokes their audience to envisage artistic links, nods and reverberations across time and space. Thus, in each of the projects exhibited Kesminas and his collaborators can be seen to chart the subterranean cultural flows which refuse to be contained by national borders or official channels.
ReturningThe Gift: Slave Pianos and Conceptualising Music, by Philip Brophy
Returning The Gift: Slave Pianos and Conceptualising Music
Slave Pianos’ performance of The Gift – Redaction And Decontamination (2011) at the Monash University Museum of Art closed a partial survey of some of Danius Kesminas’ varied collaborative projects. The Gift specifically ‘performancised’ three rooms containing Kesminas projects – meaning, Slave Pianos elaborated the themes and references from each of these installed spaces into performed works.
Let me briefly sketch these complex spaces. The Slave Pianos room contained a Cold War-era fabrication of a global bunker for disseminating obtuse musical texts composed by contemporary artists. These were ‘audio-visualised’ via a huge wall-map across which an automated map-plotter bore a small TV screen which named a piece’s title, date and composer when it reached that composer’s country of residence, at which point a MIDI-controlled grand piano (affixed to a fashioned electrical chair) ‘performed’ the quoted piece. The Punkasila room contained numerous artefacts from Kesminas’ collaboration with the Indonesian agit-punk group Punkasila, displaying the bands ‘meta-batik’ costumes, hand-painted banners, and rifle-prop guitar constructions. And the Pipeline To Oblivion room projected Kesminas’ documentary interview with a Lithuanian farmer who illegally distilled vodka, while in the centre of the room a working still was hooked up to a pump organ to play a Lithuanian folk melody.
While the installations featured the objects and texts described above, the Slave Pianos’ staging of those objects and texts rendered all references musical. The rooms generated the score for the performance, and in turn illuminated their musical genesis. All of Kesminas’ art is wilfully and sardonically tainted by music and musicology, and while many of his performance projects have occurred in a variety of music venues and contexts, his Slave Pianos project often occurs within gallery and museum contexts. The Gift was an astounding declaration of the trajectory Slave Pianos has refined over decades.
Now if this were 1961, we could continue tra-la-la-ling down a Fluxus garden path. I could programmatically champion how the gallery allows space for contra-musical pro-conceptual investigations of music – a sort of music heavy on conceptualizing the performative and light on exploring the sonic. For those early Fluxus manoeuvres were warranted retorts to the academicism of notational avant-garde music – especially the revolutionary atonal/post-tonal modes which had struggled to define a post-war canon for the concert hall. Inspired by John Cage’s late 50s philosophising on musical eventfulness and procedures for activating a consciousness in musical practice, Fluxus were trans-medial in the true dada tradition, despecifying art forms and in the process welcoming actionist tactics and conceptual strategies.
Unfortunately, if one reads supposedly critical (let alone theoretical) writing on contemporary music sixty years later in 2011, it seems we are still living in 1961. Many things currently appear to be at stake – the drive to explore, the will to comment, the need to subvert, the power to startle, the mandate to re-orient – but a theatre of ideological gestures qualifies these views. Rarely has experimental/exploratory music/sound/art (pick your own T-shirt: one size fits all) evidenced conceptual rigour which opens up a critical and discursive space for discussing music. In place, experimental music enacts experimentalism as a series of codified tropes, almost as if the 60s is fetishised as some golden period where, well, experiments were undertaken. Sure – modulating nodes like punk, Max-DSP, globalism, the internet, etc. have changed a few things in the now, but as a survey of the names of the myriad new-sound/music festivals around the world attest, their claims to radicalism reside in their branded logos more than generative outcomes.
Yet Slave Pianos’ staging of The Gift achieved so much of what Fluxus only ever flaunted in its insular pseudo-utopian conceptualization of a revolutionary/liberating/empowering art. Far from making effete claims to being music of an exploratory post-Cageian form, The Gift instead uses music as a platform to articulate and vent a dense conceptualism of music as a textual force. Hilariously quoting risible bourgeois waffle about ‘the art world’ from a Joanna Murray-Smith play, an autobiography by Nikola Tesla, ruminations on Nietzsche’s pessimistic attraction to pianos, and Soviet journalist Vitali Vitaliev’s earthy embrace of vodka, The Gift plotted an obtuse series of incidents where music and creativity are treated as produce of ‘the gifted’. Kesminas seems bent on debunking creativity as a privileged act, and his conceptual interrogation of the muse in music – via his quoted texts performed by actor Richard Piper – ably queries musical production and its musicological reception.
There is boldness in this move. In the arts, few things are so upsetting to more people than shifting (more like dragging screaming) music into the conceptual domain. That most turgidly theoretical and nullifying abstract of places, wherein the sonic, the experiential, the exploratory should not venture. The fundamentalist tenets of music believe it to be somehow capable of mystically escaping discourse. I sense this in just about any writing on sound and music: the feeling that the words distrust themselves, that they are dreadful linguistic apologies for the supreme essentialism of ‘music itself’. Such a view verges on the theological: as if to speak about sound/music with any conceptual bent incurs wrath. This implies that music is mired by an awful iconic orthodoxy which prohibits discourse due to sound and music’s inalienable unutterability.
Cage – in a supreme stroke of authorial scripture which is rarely critically attributed to his oeuvre – actively halts discussion post-performance. It is as if the event – the thing which most excited Fluxus – allows conceptual birthing but forbids conceptual growth. Discussion about the Cageian legacy tends toward discussing the concepts behind the sounds of works like the Variations series (its instructions, their interpretation, the works’ eventfulness, etc.), rather than discussing the sounds conceptually. This has partially shaped the ongoing impasse of incisive writing on new/experimental sound/music: its critical writing enforces either humanist performance mechanics (paraphrasing traditional jazz ideologies) or reverts to authorial acquiesence. It’s a situation I find entirely conservative.
The thing is, Cage – via Duchamp – gave me license to accept that all material and plastic arts (i.e. everything but literature) are powerful enough to carry any conceptual weight thrust on them. Music especially seems that way to me. Far from shirking from the fear that one might ‘kill’ sound/music by being too analytical about its materiality – let alone its cultural semiotics – I’ve always figured sound/music to be an immersive world which activates critically reflexive thought while it incites psychologically responsive feeling. To write about music – to acknowledge its textual potentiality – is inevitable, exciting and productive. To continue invoking historically proscribed pseudo-radical truisms about music’s linkage to avant-garde, experimental and exploratory strategies seems quite the opposite.
Experiencing The Gift as an actual outcome of Fluxus practice, I was forcefully reminded that ye olde white cube still has power. This particular Slave Pianos event maximised the ‘void-space’ of art to consider music in a way that is unthinkable in the current social contexts for experimental/exploratory music-making. And while maybe a recording of The Gift would be played as few times in my collection as my Cage recordings, the eventfulness of the staging sharpened the conceptual precision of the project. More Godardian than Cageian, The Gift returned the conceptual to music. Think of it as a welcome home gift.
Un Magazine | Slave Pianos Review by Dylan Rainforth
Un Magazine | Slave Pianos Review | Dylan Rainforth
Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne
5 May – 23 July 2011
Curated by Max Delany
Review by Dylan Rainforth
Slave Pianos was formed in 1988 by Kesminas, Rohan Drape, Michael Stevenson and Neil Kelly, and also includes Dave Nelson. The group’s core business is the subjection of a geographically and historically diverse range of visual artists’ music projects to a process of translation and transcription; for example, an early ‘anti-music’ piece by John Nixon may be transcribed for pianola (the player — or slave — piano is the group’s exemplary instrument but they have also worked with a range of approaches, from chamber orchestras to turntablists). It is a forced fit, where dissonance, experimentation and non-standard instrumentation are neutered in order to, in Kesminas’s own words, return the avant-garde to the conservatorium.
At MUMA, The execution protocol: Mutually assured production (The MAP room) III 2007–11 presented a parlourgrand piano strapped to an oversized electric chair. The protocols consisted of selections from the Slave Pianos repertoire executed by a piston-machine (converting the baby grand to a pianola) that pummeled the ivories in response to audience selections on a retro-looking console whose Get Smart-Cold War aesthetics were borne out by a gloriously over-the-top final-day performance starring actor Richard Piper as an artistically minded Eastern European army general suffering from a Dr Strangelove-like monomania. The performance saw the piano sentenced to death and the execution presided over by an honorary member of the Punkasila junta; a wake was held in the Lithuanian-inspired vodka room.
In what I am confident amounts to one of the most significant exhibitions in Australia of 2011, Kesminas and collaborators have successfully mapped ‘execution protocols’ for folk-based lines (in the musical sense) with macabre motifs of death, anarchy and ruinous alcoholism. This is not done for shock value, or in a celebration of cynicism or pessimism, but as a process of knowledge production based in experimentation, research, performance and a testing of the limits of what might be thought of as a social epistemology based in various vulgar or popular forms, of which art, music and clear spirits just happen to be some of the most easily soluble.
W. H. Chong Melbourne Now: Envy and the Politics of Inclusiveness. December 10, 2013. crikey.com.au/culture-mulcher
Melbourne Now: Envy and the Politics of Inclusiveness
W. H. Chong
December 10, 2013
Slave Pianos (comprising Rohan Drape, Neil Kelly, Antanas Kesminas, Danius Kesminas, David Nelson, Michael Stevenson): Gamelan sisters (Sedulur gamelan) is a great crazy construction, like a Heath Robinson machine that’s a pianola with gamelan parts. With a long wall panel of music sheets and a Star Trek multichoice device to select the next sequence of harmonics — yes, I pressed it and a different set of soothing gamelan sounds were tapped out by the contraption. A woman and I stood there mesmerised while her husband blokily inspected the hammer mechanism.
Gina McColl NGV makes an art form of appealing to children. January 21, 2014. The Age
NGV makes an art form of appealing to children
By Gina McColl
January 21, 2014
Slave Pianos’ Gamelan sisters needs someone to select music from its repertoire for the electro-mechanical contraption, like a jukebox from Angkor Wat, to play.
John McDonald Southern stars. January 11, 2014. The Sydney Morning Herald
Christopher Allen National Gallery of Victoria becomes a crowded house with Melbourne Now. January 18, 2014. The Australian
National Gallery of Victoria becomes a crowded house with Melbourne Now
By Christopher Allen
The Australian (Review Magazine)
January 18, 2014
Other things that stand out include the extraordinary mechanical gamelan by Slave Pianos
Cathy Alexander Down a Slippery Slide, Indonesian Punk-Rock at Hobart’s MOFO Jan 17, 2014. Daily Review.
Down a Slippery Slide, Indonesian Punk-Rock at Hobart’s MOFO
By Cathy Alexander
Jan 17, 2014
One of the hits from last night was certainly out there. Indonesian punk-rock outfit Punkasila (pictured above) – who were inspired by Crikey‘s foreign affairs commenter Damien Kingsbury – teamed up with Melbourne art collective Slave Pianos to perform a “science fiction space rock opera”. The show tells the story of an alien moth invasion (the moths colonise the planet via inter-species reproduction, FYI).
The story started as a comic which was beamed up behind the musicians. The show was a curious mix of beautiful piano solos and inspired shout-rock from six Indonesians in silver space suits, who indulged in old-school stunts like leaping up on the amp and busting out the double-necked guitar. A soprano trilled throughout and there were strains of automated Gamelan (traditional Indonesian arrangements). It was sung in Indonesian.
Yes, it was a little gimmicky, but it was also 45 solid minutes of surprises. The gig had an unusual pace — veering between slow and frenetic — and the crowd of a few thousand loved it, screaming for more in the tarted-up old Macquarie Wharf shed on the Hobart waterfront.
Alex Needham Mofo festival swings with space jazz, moths and Mick Harvey Jan 17, 2014. The Guardian.
Mofo festival swings with space jazz, moths and Mick Harvey
By Alex Needham
Friday 17 January 2014
Tasmanian festival sees the Sun Ra Arkestra perform – not to mention an Indonesian heavy metal band singing about moths
Following that was one of the most out-there things I’ve ever seen. I now know from the program notes that it was a joint project between two art collectives, Slave Pianos from Melbourne and Punkasila from Yogyakarta in Indonesia. Within a relatively conventional band set-up (drums, piano, speakers) were two large sculptures, with a video screen overhead, announcing the band as the Lepidopters. Said band then marched through the crowd, a group of Indonesian men dressed head to toe in silver leather – one touting a twin-necked guitar – and one woman who was more conventionally attired – until she donned a moth headdress and started gabbling and wailing in otherworldly fashion.
At first it seemed like another ambient performance, but this was clearly to lull the audience into a false sense of security. By the time I’d been away to look in another bit of the venue and come back, the show had developed into a full-on rock show, with the Lepidopters stripping to the waist, climbing on the speaker stack and generally giving those twin necks a workout, while a dozen or so fans did 60s-style freakout moves and the video screen showed eye-popping moth-related pornographic images. Here’s an (admittedly terrible) picture which will hopefully give you a small taste of the madness being unleashed.
Few bands could follow such an extraordinary show, but the Sun Ra Arkestra is probably one of them. Sun Ra himself of course died in 1993 (or went back to Saturn, as he I guess he would have put it), but the Arkestra has marched cosmically on ever since, now led by the extraordinary Marshall Allen, surely the coolest 89-year-old on this or any other planet.
Chloe Mayne Live Review: MONA FOMA, Part One. January 21, 2014. Something You Said
Live Review: MONA FOMA, Part One
By Chloe Mayne
January 21, 2014
Next up was the intercontinental art-collective collaboration Slave Pianos and Punkasila, our first of many ascensions into the outer galaxies over the course of the weekend. There were silver jumpsuits, fluorescent headbands and custom made double-pronged guitars in gem shapes that must have been borrowed from MarioWorld – or at least, the cartoon landscape/video installation that played behind them. The sound itself was a mix of hollering, toothy-grinned punk-pop interspersed with Indian yodelling and long, long solos from the grand pianist, during which the other members stood motionless, frozen in paused video-game time. Just as we were lulling off and getting comfortable, they threw themselves back into motion and sound like cannonballs, thrusting us back onto our feet for a fiery, foot-stomping send-off.
Bob Baker Fish Mona Foma Festival – Hobart Tasmania 2014. January 25, 2014. Cyclic Defrost
Mona Foma Festival – Hobart Tasmania 2014
By Bob Baker Fish
January 25, 2014
Similarly the combination of Slave pianos modern composition and Punkasila’s all out punk rock attack feels like a combination that was so inconceivable on paper that curators just couldn’t resist. An art collective from Yogyakarta Indonesia, the last time I saw Punkasila play was at the Espy in Melbourne a couple of years ago and their instruments looked like machine guns. This time they’re positively space age, wearing silver suits with double necked guitars that light up.
The collaboration begins well enough, with some mystical music and chanting, yet before long Punkasila are stock still waiting whilst Slave piano plays an extended solo piano piece. Punkasila even miss their cue to come back in, but then when they do it’s relatively tokenistic, to sprinkle some cymbals or gently strum guitar guitar. Then the pianist leaves the stage and Punkasila go absolutely batshit crazy with over the top punk rock insanity, screaming about moths and atomic bombs and pulling every punk rock move you’ve ever seen and in doing so creating a much needed release and getting part of the audience on their feet and gyrating wildly. There are real links to early Boredoms in both their sound and energy, with the vocalist squealing like Eye and putting his voice through effects. It’s a sci fi opera; commissioned by Slave Pianos, about alien moths who invade Indonesia and engage in inter species reproduction. Whilst the piano may represent the aliens and Punkasila the more traditional Indonesia, we keep waiting for some significant coitus, and indeed they eventually engaged in a weird atmospheric collaboration towards the end of the set but it feels like the potential remains untapped. Apparently their second set involved a giant slave gamelan.
Audrey K. Hulm Festival Review: MONA FOMA. 24 January 2014. Lip Magazine
Festival Review: MONA FOMA
24 January 2014
By Audrey K. Hulm
Watching a guy who looked to be about 70 dance wildly with an 18 year old girl in a cut-off vest that screamed ‘CLITORIS’ across the back to Slave Pianos/Punkasila is what festivals are all about.
firstname.lastname@example.org Lycra versus goblins. 26 January 2014.
Lycra versus goblins
The Lepidopters (Australia/Indonesia). Seven silver space suits appeared on stage whilst an elderly man shouted ‘I’m ready to rave’ and I wondered if he’d even make it through the set. Behind the band moth chrysalises fill the screen on a superbly illustrated comic strip depicting an alien moth invasion over the Indonesian archipelago. The set didn’t release us from pounding 4/4 and 6/4 punk rock. At one point I had to save an 8 year old in a plaster cast from a wired raver in death boots, but I’m glad to report we all survived.
Alice Claridge Peace Crusade. 9 January, 2014. Mercury (Hobart), p.33
Mercury (Hobart), p.33 (250.04 cm²)
9 January, 2014
By Alice Claridge
The story of an alien moth invasion of the Indonesian archipelago will be told by two art collectives, SLAVE PIANOS and Punkasila who have teamed up to stage The Lepidopters.
The comedy is part of MONA FOMA 2014, written by science fiction writer and art critic Mark von Schlegell and tells how the alien moths plan to colonise Earth by engaging in inter-species reproduction.
SLAVE PIANOS are a Melbourne based art and music collective that formed in 1998. Their work encompasses performances collaborations, installations, exhibitions and large mixed-media/music theatre works.
Central to the staging of The Lepidopters is the Sedulur Gamelan two large interlocking wooden structures built to house a self- governing electro-mechanical Slave Gamelan.
Punkasila, from Indonesia, perform as a mystic-punk band and operate as a multi-disciplinary art collective.
They hope their audience will become their “people” said lead singer of Punkasila, “Hahan” Uji Handoko Eko Saputro.
“We are going to build a new culture that is connected from the outer space and bring the message of peace across the galaxy,” said Hahan.
He described The Lepidopters sound as mystic-alien, multi-faith, post-disaster creationist, just-intonation punk.
“[It’s] a gyrostasis light display of secret codes, custom illumination guitars, electric space drums, `keris’ microphone machine, projected video animation, costumes, erotic dancing and virtuoso alien keyboards,” he said.
The Lepidopters project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its art funding and advisory body.
For more information: www.slavepianos.org / www.punkasila.com
The Lepidopters will be performed on Thursday January 16, at 7.15pm and 9.15pm, MAC2 Backspace, Hobart, included in the MONA FOMA Festival Ticket.
Melanie Sano Blurred lines of MOFO. 9 December, 2013. Artshub
Blurred lines of MOFO
By Melanie Sano
Monday 9 December, 2013
Playing with cross-cultural hybridity is The Lepidopters, a collaboration between two art collectives from Melbourne, Australia and Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The improvisational production tells the outrageous story of an alien moth invasion in the Indonesian archipelago with the aim of total Earth colonisation through inter-species reproduction. Gamelan instruments and comic-book style projections will feature throughout the work.
Slave Pianos (
http://www.slavepianos.org) and Punkasila (
http://www.punkasila.com)’s The Lepidopters was funded by the Australia Council, and includes pianist Michael Kieran Harvey and vocalist Rachel Saraswati. It will be performed on Thursday 16 January, 7:15pm and 9:15pm, at MAC2 Backspace, Hobart. Price is included in a MONA FOMA festival ticket.
Lauren Healey MONA FOMA Thursday January 16. January 29, 2014. Aphra Magazine
MONA FOMA – Thursday January 16
Aphra Magazine ISSUE 10
January 29, 2014
By Lauren Healey
My friend the photographer in tow, we meandered into the Mac2 Backspace for Slave Pianos & Punkasila- The Lepidoptors. How do I describe the weird and whacky performance that followed?
The description read: 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.
This did not prepare me for the silver futuristic pants-suits, the ornate headdresses, or the raw power that blasted from the bands electric guitars. We were witnessing living, breathing art. Special mention goes to the band-member who chose to wear a hat decorated with two fine silver wings. Ready to take flight, they began. Sitting cross legged (and desperately craving the comfort of a bean bag) I likened the music to a soundtrack of something mythical; magical. The Grand Piano on the left of the stage opened the act, the ivory keys delicately stroked, before building into a deafening crescendo. The room was pregnant with expectation, and something else… bafflement.
The screen behind the performers showed four cocoons, delicately whirring, as they drifted across water, and vibrant landscapes. The journey appeared to be symbolic of the travels faced by the ‘alien moths’ on their way to earth.
As the piano faded out, the sound of electric guitars filled the intimate space. One lone dancer with pink hair stood up, amidst the sea of cross-legged watchers, and began to dance. She was quickly followed by an old man in suspenders, who grasped her hands, and whirled her around. The energy in the room was as electric as the instruments being played. More people joined, until a mini-mosh pit formed, a myriad of bright colours, stamping feet, and whipped-back hair. Tossing the microphone into the air, the lead-singer jumped onto a raised-block on the stage, towering above us as he hollered wordlessly at those below him.
The lone female singer changed her costume, placing a golden headdress on her crown of hair. Feelers protruding, large red eyes surveyed the crowd. It was an alien moth invasion mixed with improvisation. Moths seek light. We seek the crazed and unknown.
Gail Priest Hectic, eclectic, enthralling. RealTime Arts, No. 119
Hectic, eclectic, enthralling
Then we all troop to the Back Space to see Melbourne’s conceptual art group Slave Pianos collaborating with Indonesian art band Punkasila.
It’s not just that the overall combination of acts is eclectic, some of the performances are seriously varied within themselves. Take the Slave Pianos/Punkasila collaboration. It opens with Australia’s most renowned pianist Michael Kieran Harvey performing a virtuosic haute-classical solo for around 10 minutes. Punkasila, in silver suits, stand around waiting, offering an occasional guitar buzz or a drum skiffle. Harvey finishes and they launch into 20 minutes of playful punk rock over which Indonesian singer Rachel Saraswati ululates. Projected above is an animation of the comic The Lepidopters in which it seems moth creatures from outer space come to earth and somehow everyone gets all sexy. While the Kieran Harvey solo sits oddly at the beginning, the symbolic weight of the Western canon and its imperialistic overtones is powerful. Somehow, by the end, it all seems to make its own kind of sense.
Marcus Teague Report: Mona Foma Festival, Hobart 2014. The Vine, 13 February 2014
Report: Mona Foma Festival, Hobart 2014
[…] way more visceral for me was the trippy happening in the back room, where super wigged-out Indonesian punk band Punkasila caused causing (sic) trouble in The Lepidopters: A Space Opera. Joined by cross-arts mavericks, Slave Pianos, singer/dancer Rachel Saraswati and pianist Michael Kieran Harvey, the performance was…look, I don’t know what the hell was going on. But it involved a punk band in silver leather jumpsuits playing metal solos on double-necked guitars, pausing to let achingly beautiful piano music back Saraswati’s voice. Meanwhile, an animation of anthropomorphic insect creatures swirled on the screen above. I’ll take it.
Following on from that could only be a quick dip into the LSD, but instead we had […]
Lauren Haworth HAPPY MONA FOMA 2014. Australian Musician Network, 14 February 2014
HAPPY MONA FOMA 2014
Australian Musician Network, 14 February 2014
By Lauren Haworth
Out in the back space of MAC2 was ‘The Lepidopters’ performed by Slave Pianos (Australian) and Punkasila (Indonesian) , an amazing clash of two completely different musical genres. They started off sending the crowd into a musical spiral of piano and then ripping them out of it by the thrashing rock tones of Punkasila, telling the story of a Moth along to the projected cartoon story. Punkasila looked like they were spacemen from the 70s and their still silence in the very beginning invoked suspense, everyone was itching to see how they were intertwined.
Iain Excellent MONA FOMA 2014. Repeat Button
MONA FOMA 2014
repeatbutton.com, February 2014
By Iain Excellent
Another MOFO highlight included the coagulated efforts of Melbourne’s visual art collective Slave Pianos and Indonesian mystic-punk band Punkasila to perform The Lepidopters: A Science Fiction Space-Opera, a story about a plague of alien moths invading the Indonesian archipelago by breeding with their human adversaries.
Lisa, a nine-year-old MOFO attendee, said about the moth performance, “We could be friends with the moth people, but I would not like to be one of them.”
The Lepidopters: A Space Opera by Jennifer Kingwell
The Lepidopters: A Space Opera
The Lepidopters is a cross-art mashup tour de force.
by JENNIFER KINGWELL
MONDAY 14 APRIL, 2014
Both aggressively crass and tenderly worshipful, The Lepidopters is an astonishing exploration of polarities - from West to East, choral mass to punk band, animated porn to high art.
The Lepidopters is visually impressive before a single performer is in sight. Exhibited recently at the National Gallery’s Melbourne Now show, the Sedular Gamelan - an electro-mechanical ‘piano’ that plays tuned Indonesian percussion - holds court in the centre of the hall, like a filigreed dinosaur skeleton. As the audience settles in the traverse seating, each gong of the Sedular Gamelan is accompanied by a lighting shift in a hexagonal display, travelling through an angular spiral - a pattern which becomes a central visual motif throughout the show.
At times reminiscent of Arvo Pärt, at others like Sufjan Stevens, Herbie Hancock and Bikini Kill decided to play a triple bill in a museum, the music is boldly curated and composed by Slave Pianos and features Michael Kieran Harvey, the Astra Choir and Indonesian art-punk collective Punkasila.
The Astra Choir, conducted by John McCaughey, perform elegantly realised settings of text from sci-fi visionary Philip K Dick, Goethe, mass liturgies and author Mark von Schlegell, who wrote the text for The Lepidopters graphic novel (illustrated by Punkisila bassist Erwan ‘Iwank’ Hersi Susanto). Ranging from microtonal half-cooing-half-ululating to full-bodied choral mass, the vocal flexibility of the 40-piece choir is astounding.
Kieran Harvey is one of Australia’s most virtuosic and daring pianists, as his performance here demonstrates. His performance is delivered with poise and just the right amount of flair, showcasing some serious synthesizer chops on his own composition ‘Deaths-Head Mandala’.
Punkasila, joined by singer and dancer Rachel Saraswati, look like they might have come from Bill and Ted’s future with silver pleather outfits and just-intonation ‘gyrostatic’ guitars, and deliver furious surf punk. Vocalist Uji ‘Hahan’ Handoko Eko Saputro preemptively mocks the audience (some of whom were looking somewhat confused at this stage) with exaggerated clapping and faux-conducting the bass clarinettist who joins them wearing a moth-head helmet.
After the ethereal quality of the Astra Choir-driven Part I gives way to the visceral performance of Punkasila in Part II, Part III delivers a truly sublime moment as for the first time the entire company interlock, bridged both physically and musically by the Sedular Gamelan.
This is a sprawling feast of a show that at times threatens to overwhelm the ears and eyes of its audience. But like the best high wire acts, the performers and creative team show great assuredness and discipline while delivering breathtaking thrills.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
- Slave Pianos: Rohan Drape, Neil Kelly, Antanas Kesminas, Danius Kesminas, David Nelson, Michael Stevenson Punkasila: Uji ‘Hahan’ Handoko Eko Saputro, Rudy ‘Atjeh’ Dharmawan, Antariksa, Erwan ‘Iwank’ Hersi Susanto, Prihatmoko ‘Moki’ Catur
- Astra: The Astra Choir, John McCaughey
- Piano / organ: Michael Kieran Harvey
- Voice / dance: Rachel Saraswati
- Video artist: Terra Bajraghosa
- Narrator: Richard Piper
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
www.melbourne.vic.gov.au 12 - 13 April
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer Kingwell is a Melbourne-based performer, broadcaster, writer and composer. She presents the subversive cabaret program ‘Glitter + Doom’ on PBS FM 106.7. Follow her on twitter: @jenkingwell
Lepidopters: One Hell of a Mothful or The Moths of Invention by Peter Farnan, dailyreview
LEPIDOPTERS: ONE HELL OF A MOTHFUL OR THE MOTHS OF INVENTION
By Peter Farnan
Lepidopters was a fantastic night of music, at its best sublime, at its worst confounding but in a fun way. The press release was daunting: a choir, an Indonesian prog-metal band, a virtuoso pianist, a gamelan machine, a narrator, a Space Opera based on a comic strip derived from a sci-fi story, influenced by another visual artist … and that’s not all of it. What were we to make of this cross-genre, cross-cultural avalanche? Music and theatre, unlike literature and the visual arts, are experienced temporally; they moves through time and wait for no one. Witnessing Lepidopters might be like a speed Lego building competition, but we are assembling meaning on the fly, from disparate elements.
The program told us the story was about moths invading Indonesia in order to cross-breed with the human race. Rendered as a comic strip, excerpts were sketchily animated, creating a visual backdrop for the music. Trying to follow the story was a distraction; at times, I felt I’d have had more fun making my own meaning from the ‘mash-up’, than attempting to map the music to the story or the story to the music.
The narrative, rendered in fragments, was in no way programmatically or operatically explicated by the music. If anything, the music bounced off the narrative. At first blush I could make no connection between Robert Schumann’s God Is The Orient, God is the Occident and the tediously pulsating animated cocoons on the screen. The Astra Choir was sublime but the dissonance between the cartoon imagery and heavenly music reminded me of what I liked about Take On Me by A-Ha; the image and music kinda went together.
In fact the best music came from the superb Astra Choir. The broad, eclectic repertoire ranged from 17th century liturgical music to contemporary compositions, including excellent work by conveners of the project, the Slave Pianos. The collaboration is clearly very fruitful. The choir struck eerie and transcendent sonorities; drones, note clusters and evocative voicings that skirted and subverted Western harmony were performed with exhilarating precision and a lightness of touch. I loved it when the choir walked around, adding a dynamic spatial dimension to the sound (but these great singers might benefit from some physical performance work).
Set up at the other end of the room were Javanese prog-metal rockers Punkasila. Their custom built just-intonated guitars not only lit up, but one had two necks – wow! They were super entertaining, totally confounding and sadly let down by a sound system that seemed to pack it in. Their first extended piece, We Are The Lepidopters, showed their turn-on-a-rupiah expertise in the ferocious formal leaps required by prog. A later piece, Larvae of The Atom Bomb, (reminiscent of mid–70s King Crimson’s restrained pointillist improvisations), seemed to lack intent and was less successful. It didn’t work when they tried to get funky either. Overall Punkasila were skilled and great fun; I’d love to see them perform at the Hi-Fi bar.
I couldn’t make sense of Michael Kieran Harvey’s Deaths-Head Mandala within this story. Following Punksila’s prog flourishes, its floridness sounded like Keith Emerson on a sugar binge; perhaps the idea was to articulate a musical bridge between cultures and time periods. Guitarist Rudy ‘Atjeh’ Dharmawan joined Harvey at the end of this piece in an orgy of noodling. At this point the music was ‘talking’ to the music. I wondered what happened to the story.
Richard Piper’s ‘narration’, interspersed between the pieces, didn’t elucidate the narrative, but provided another fragmented element; as a musical piece subsided, he portentously erupted with statements including “A splendiferous night explosion!” and “Moths, moths, moths!” Its weighty anglophile tone reminded me of David Hemmings narrating Rick Wakeman’s ‘70s prog rock folly Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, but instead of connecting the dots, it just made more dots. At one stage Piper interjected with “What’s next?”, and a chunk of wood fell from the automated gamelan.
The mighty gamelan, a machine and sculpture beautifully crafted from wood and metal, dominated the middle of the room. It played pulses and ostinati over the Slave Pianos’ finely rendered electronic drones. These, combined with Astra’s choral clusters, comprised some of the most interesting and immersive textures.
It all came together in the final piece – the only true mash-up of the evening. The entire ensemble created a deftly restrained, hushed dronal sonority; the music came at us from everywhere and we were truly immersed. At this point Lepidopters was one of the most successful examples of blending live electronic, reinforced and acoustic sound I’ve heard, because it wasn’t afraid to turn the volume down and collaborate with the space.
This work was an enormous collaboration by over 40 people. It had a huge heart and – a saving grace in any opaque work of art – a great sense of humour. It was solemn and serene, explosive and wacky. In my opinion, however, the term ‘Space Opera’ was over-reaching. A fine night of music was unnecessarily overlaid with the ‘fact’ of the story. Perhaps slicing up a story works better if it’s one we already know (even a classic), so that it draws on established associations. Maybe I paid too much attention to the story. Or maybe the story drew too much attention to itself. Lepidopters’ various musical pieces spoke eloquently with each other; they didn’t need a story getting in the way. I’d have preferred less specificity of meaning. When the work is so full of skill, heart and humour, you can put the Lego blocks down and they will assemble themselves.
The Lepidopters: A Space Opera played at Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall on 12 and 13 April. Featured image by Selia Ou.
Review: The Lepidopters: A Space Opera by Margaret Wieringa, theatrepress
REVIEW: The Lepidopters: A Space Opera at ARTS HOUSE
By Margaret Wieringa
April 12, 2014
Aliens, in the form of moths, have invaded and are breeding with humans to create human-moth hybrids to take over the Earth starting in Jakarta. Wow.
This bizarre collaborative work has been created by Slave Pianos, Punkasila and The Astra Choir, based on a comic book commissioned from science-fiction writer Max von Schlegell.
When the audience enters the main hall at Arts House, they are immediately confronted by what appear to be two giant, deconstructed grand pianos dominating the central space. On a closer look, these are intertwined wooden structures containing a variety of gongs, and other percussion instruments, and they appear to be playing themselves.
These it turns out, are the Sedulur Gamelan or Gamelan Sisters, made up of a variety of redesigned traditional Javanese instruments. A little internet research reveals that this amazing contraption does indeed play itself. Even before the performance begins, Slave Pianos are creating ambient music. During the performance, they play a wide range of pieces both on their own and with the other performers, and this alone would have been enough to make attending this event worthwhile, but there was so much more!
Far from a traditional narrative structure, the performance is strung together over two hours with short spoken-word sections from Richard Piper who is playing a mysterious character reporting back on the events in Indonesia. The events of the story also play out in a disjointed series of videos, mostly strange animations, that run on large screens at either end of the hall. The audience is strung along the length of the room in an unusual pattern and, during the two brief intervals, is encouraged to change chairs and experience the event from a different angle.
The stunning work from the Astra Choir begins with some extreme discordant 32-part singing, and then journeys through far more traditional choral works. In the second act, we are introduced to Punkaslia from Yogyakarta, working with singer-dancer Rachel Saraswati to create their interpretation of the Lepidopters beginning the breeding process. We also get some jazz (not trad jazz, but a sort of post-modern insane style so appropriate to this performance) from pianist Michael Kieran Harvey.
The Lepidopters: A Space Opera is definitely not for everyone as this mysterious and remarkably busy show is extremely experimental and strange. In fact, a number of patrons clearly weren’t coping and left early… but it inspired a standing ovation from those who willingly remained to embrace the weird.
- Venue: Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
- Dates: Sat 12 3pm and 7:30pm and Sun 13 April 5pm
- Tickets: $25 full/$20 conc/$15 student
- Bookings: artshouse.com.au or 9322 3713
The Lepidopters: A Space Opera by Leonard Miller, Sunday 13 April 2014, Toorak Times
The Lepidopters: A Space Opera
Theatre Review by Leonard Miller
Sunday 13 April 2014
- What: The Lepidopters: A Space Opera
- Where: Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
- When: Saturday, 12 April, 2014
- Presented by Arts House, Slave Pianos & Astra Concerts
- Created by a Collaboration of Slave Pianos, Punkasila and The Astra Choir
The history of opera is opulence for the decadent rich. Bringing it into the twenty first century is a challenge. New creators must not only continue to explore their music, they must redefine their audience and find new ways to engage with them. Lepidoters: A Space Opera does just that.
The choice of staging the piece in the Main Hall of the North Melbourne Town Hall was wise. The impressive, Victorian, stone facade dominates the intersection. It is hard not to approach this building without anticipation. Once the main doors are opened, the eye was immediately drawn to the large red and gold gamelan machine which dominated the middle of the hall.
Chairs were arranged around the sides facing in toward the machine. The stage at the far end of the hall was set for a rock concert and light show by Indonesian punk band Punkasila. The Astra Choir was congregating creepily down the other end with other instrumentalists around two pianos. They all wore black. Some had headphones and some had small led lights for their scores, reminiscent of moths. There was an air of awe and menace.
Richard Piper started the show quietly climbing a ladder to a small balcony above the choir. He changed out of his climbing gear and into a singlet and sarong. From here, he narrated a story, set in Yogyakarta and written by German American science fiction writer, Mark Von Schlegell. The Piper proved his worth and he commanded attention with consideration when he spoke.
Projected at both ends of the hall for the entire performance were animations by Terra Bajraghosa. These also helped to tell the apocalyptic tale of a woman called Cheryl being used as a breeding mother for total world domination by space moths.
The Astra Choir filled the space and caught the breath with some beautiful harmonies and interesting resolutions. The choice and use of choral music, both old and new, helped induce an atmosphere filled with menace and terror.
Punkasila and singer/dancer, Rachel Saraswati made their first appearance in the second act. These people are worth the wait. Saraswati is mesmerising. In a gold skirt she lifted often, she danced voluptuously as she sang and yelled at us. Backing her up were Punkasila. As suggested by the name, this band is punk. Fresh from the Yogyakarta punk scene, they had coordinated costumes and light-up instruments including a double necked guitar. They were loud, fast and punk. Their energy was relentless and compelling. Their partnership with Saraswati was inspired.
Exciting and unexpected, these components worked together in a bizarre and off-putting way that leant itself perfectly to the sci-fi genre.