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

Danius Kesminas - Interview

Published Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Introduction

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

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

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

Process

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

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

The Archive

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

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

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

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

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

What is a slave piano?

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

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

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

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

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

Interviewed by Mark Ashkanassy (in 2000).

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