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.