Stuart Koop Slave Pianos, art/text, #86, 2001


Stuart Koop Slave Pianos, art/text, #86, 2001


Artext No.75

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

Alistair Riddell

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

Clive O’Connell Enthusiasm no substitute for gravity, The Age, 25 June 2001


Chris McAuliffe Art. Isn’t it the kookiest thing?, The Age, 2001

Art. Isn’t it the kookiest thing?

By Chris McAuliffe

Is ART a laughing matter? The hushed atmosphere of art museums, the sobriety of art historical texts and the intellectual’ intensity of art magazines suggest it is not. It is as if the caption of that legendary Australian cartoon “Stop laughing, this is serious” had become a kind of high cultural commandment.

But art is often the butt of humor. Perplexed or pretentious responses to abstraction have fuelled many a New Yorker-style cartoon; “His spatter is masterful, but his dribble lacks conviction”. And Tony Hancock’s 1961 film, The Rebel, established the bohemian farce as a cinematic genre, later employed by greats such as Scorsese (AfterHours, 1985) and, less successfully, Paul Cox (Lust and Revenge, 1996).

Two very different variants on these themes have recently been staged in Melbourne. David Williamson’s play, Up For Grabs, still showing at the Melbourne Theatre Company, revolves around fierce bidding for a Whiteley painting, orchestrated by a dealer whose tactics include infidelity, bisexuality, hyperbole and deceit.

An opera, The Broccoli Maestro, produced by the Slave Pianos collective and staged as part of Chamber Made’s recent program, From the Lip, hovered between parody and homage in its treatment of Melbourne artist Tony Clark. If the plays have in common their willingness to laugh at art, the different ways in which they construct their humor is telling.

Williamson’s play joins Art, Six Degrees of Separation and sundry others in using the competition and status-seeking of the art market to reflect on both the decline (moral) and inflation (commercial) of value in contemporary culture. Seeing the two as synonymous is perhaps where the weakness of the argument lies; the risk is that art will be seen as the corrupter rather than the corrupted. When the market is the whipping boy, the sins of the middle class — ambition, avarice and amorality — are visited upon art wholesale.

If Williamson’s medium is broad parody, Slave Pianos’ is the construction of an elaborate in-joke.

Consisting of artists Danius Kesminas and Mike Stevenson, and composers Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape, Slave Pianos appropriate the arcane languages of avant-garde art, and, by inflating the scale and formality of their presentation, hope to see them collapse under their own weight.

The humor, smelling suspiciously of the emperor-has-no-clothes variety, lies in the translation of Clark’s deliberate amateurism into a medium in which the expectation of profound metaphor leaves the audience hanging on every word or gesture.

But The Broccoli Maestro is beyond a joke. So elaborate is Slave Pianos’ involvement with Clark’s oeuvre, so willingly do their performers adopt his position, that what might have begun as parody concludes as homage. Constructing a libretto from published comments by Clark and his colleagues, Slave Pianos paints a picture of an artist acutely conscious of the conceptual and cultural limits of his work.’ Where Williamson focuses on what should not be done with art, Slave Pianos throws the spot on contemporary artists’ sense of what art can no longer do. The negative tone of The Broccoli Maestro lies not in Slave Pianos’ pastiche, but in Clark’s own refusal to be swept away by the transcendence of art. It is the latter that Williamson’ throws to his characters as a lifeline; redemption dawns when it is realised — in a suitably awe-struck epiphany — that there is more to art than its dollar value. There is no such lifeline for The BroccoliMaestro, only an art prepared to engage with the threat of inadequacy.

Williamson’s humor lies in the failure of his characters to live up to the standards of art. Slave Pianos’ success, inadvertently but more productively, emerged as their subject transcended the standards of their humor.

Chris McAuliffe is the director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne.

Chris McAuliffe Art. Isn’t it the kookiest thing?, The Age, 2001