No-one plays the piano anymore

Slave Pianos' Sedular Gamelan

catalogue essay for Slave Pianos' The Lepidopters, Arts House, Melbourne, 2014
Slave Pianos with Michael Keiran Harvey, Punkasilla & the Sedular Gamelan (2014)

Arbitrary culturation No.1

How did things end up this way? This is the question to be asked incessantly should one wish to penetrate the conditions by which sound and music is made manifest.

Consider this random snapshot of how music exists today. An ‘early music’ ensemble: young and fresh out of college, dressed in black for that mix of edginess and formality so beloved of Melbournians who call themselves ‘Melbournians’. Performing at a Yarra Valley winery on a Sunday: how spiritually secular, what with the day, the blood of Christ, and the transubstantiated bourgeois cuisine in place of the pasty Eucharist. Keeping alive the art of music: attended nonetheless by hordes of the grey dollar, subscribing to ABC Classical-FM on their death-beds, their Volvos hard-tuned to the station for their slow cruises into the gentrified rural prettiness of greater Victoria. Advertised by well-designed flyers: depicting things like strawberries dipped in chocolate (how Viagra-sensual), Photoshop layers of sepia-toned grape vines (how digital-rustic), wide-screen sunset vistas (how symbolic-autumnal), and printed on eco-correct paper. The event is likely supported by some ethical tax-dodge hedge-fund operation of upper-tier professionals who now channel their dollars into ‘the arts’ like Philip Adams preparing his grand tomb for the financial afterlife.

Attending such an affair, one could listen to the music. But is that music really there? Are the ensemble even playing music? There might be the wafting presence of some archaic language floating as coded vibrations across the air, but there is equally a deafening silence unleashed by the affair’s mechanics, posturing and site-specificity. I hear no pre-Baroque chordal flirtation; I hear the stomach acids of the audience digesting their Stephanie Alexander-style repast, intermingled with the gurgling forensics of heartburn, acid reflex and irritable bowel syndrome, all exacerbated by quality wine and fine local produce. What is the function of music here? What is the reason for the theatre of its presentation? What is the relational effect between its sonority and its social reception? It’s all like a scene from a scripted movie – but, as per cinema’s ambivalent and amoral linguistic operations, it is simultaneously celebration and damnation. It could be written by Joanna Murray-Smith or Hannie Rason as a witty acknowledgement of their audience (as per the undying ‘quality’ template Australian cinema and ‘realist’ theatre has rehearsed ever since the likes of Hotel Sorrento). Or it could be a septic posterization of how vulgar, tacky, ignorant and self-centred ‘the arts’ has become in the over-marketed, over-accessible, over-neutralised 21st Century. That ‘early music’ ensemble could have been constructed by me – right down to that fucking strawberry dipped in chocolate – as a solipsistic exercise in registering the tenor and contemporaneity of how music has ended up this way in this instance.

Whatever. The monumental conflict in perspectives on such an innocent manifestation of music is never uncovered, never sited, never sounded. For the description, evaluation and postulation of music today remains profoundly dumb in regards to its acknowledgement of how it has ended up the way it has. Musical discourse – if indeed it even exists – today reads more like a series of Wiki-fied descriptions prised from press-releases derived from Wikipedia-entries about music’s declared purpose and the aspects of its alignment. That ‘early music’ ensemble, for example, thus plays music from history, keeping it alive, making it accessible, and providing people with access to an unassailable definition of ‘beauty’, an encounter which is deemed to be therapeutic for the soul, the spirit, and one’s all-round well-being. Me – I get labelled as a nihilist just because I venture how deadening and decrepit such a display is. While so many champion the naïve dribble of Julian Assange and his retro-90s ‘information warrior’ shtick (which is now the province of millennial Hollywood script-teams of late-30s goatee-sporting nerds), they seem to be unaware of how they are drowning in the glut of all that ‘free information’ which queries nothing, states nothing, declares nothing, and evidences nothing. The childish prescription that information and its determining systems should be ‘transparent’ only nurtures an inability to discern the great opacity which makes up culture. That ‘early music’ ensemble is a deafening din of discursive density, rendered ‘transparent’ only by the paucity of critical analysis afforded it.

Arbitrary culturation No.2

Herbie Hancock (1988); Daft Punk (2004)

How did things end up this way? This is the question enabled by Slave Pianos’ Sedular Gamelan. The wish to penetrate the conditions by which its sound and music is made manifest is openly interrogated by this strange musical object-event. Officially described as “two interlocking wooden structures that reconfigure elements of traditional Javanese architecture through the De Stijl philosophical principles of neoplasticism to create an abstraction of an 18th century double grand piano”, the weird gamelan amalgam resulting from this design procedure leaves one querying its purpose. Essentially a modified gamelan hybrid into which has been incorporated electro-mechanics to trigger ‘keyboard events’ for sounding the Yogyakarta gamelan components (much as a piano can be sounded by the incorporation of the ‘player piano roll’), Sedular Gamelan answers that its purpose is to perform “musical transcriptions of drawings by American artist Robert Smithson”.

You don’t have to ask this of Sedular Gamelan: it asks of itself for you. If musical discourse were in a healthier state (openly intellectual, problematising humanistic assumptions, querying the materiality of musical language and the immaterial significations unleashed by music’s apparition) you would already be asking these questions as a matter of course. Consequently, Slave Pianos’ multivalent projects are predicated on intellectual assemblages of references, consequences and collisions of musical and ‘amusical’ signification. Sedular Gamelan casts an especially wide net to define its rhetoric and logic. But its allusions and associations are neither random, collagist or absurdist. Indeed, the modus operandi of Slave Pianos is to tacitly suggest that it might be impossible to not uncover density of content and opacity of form in anything aligned to music.

Standing in front of Sedular Gamelan and experiencing its audiovisuality like a ‘theoretical hologram’, I start with a sensation of the work channelling Harry Partch. But that’s very ‘101’: all nouveau instrument design acknowledges the hobo-visionary of Partch, musicologically sounding the world around him via just intonation and repurposed materials to generate an alternative harmonic manual to those born of European ideologies from Baroque to Romantic. Equally known is the historical silence accorded non-European tuning systems which augur as rigorous a symbiosis between tonality and harmonics as purveyed by Bach at his most ‘temperamental’. The gamelan became a key musical object-event that inspired 20th Century modernist excursions in mapping out non-European compositional terrains and auditory sensations. So Sedular Gamelan is clear about its base, both musicologically and sonically.

The shimmering tonality of the auratic gamelan timbres and their patterned harmonics and overtones notably evokes less a language – something authored and scripted according to a grammatical system – and more a space – an environment wherein sound frequencies collude to articulate a harmonic mirage that is far greater than the sum of its parts. This richness in tonality in gamelan music is regarded as extant and evident: it does not require authorial excavation to unearth its marvels, but in place requires training in hearing the interconnectivity between the associated gamelan components and performing a ritualistic score to honour the instrument’s internal and ‘living’ tonality. Slave Pianos cross-wires such a machine of tonal aura with its polar opposite: the precision mechanics of robotic performance and scripted event-control. But the result is not a disingenuous artsy gesture typical of the Fluxus legacy: the sound emitted by Sedular Gamelan is the gamelan – something greater than either its performance or its appropriation. It is precisely this surfeit or abundance of its tonality which inspired 20th Century adventures in alternative tuning systems.

Now we throw into that musicological mix composed interpretations of a series of Robert Smithson drawings, many of which read as proto-manuals or proposals for sculptural works and interventions with land. The result in Sedular Gamelan is a series of meta-pastorals which materialise or make manifest via the gamelan’s distinctive spatialization effect (we could call such tonality a concretization of harmony) mirages or apparitions of land masses potentially imagined by Smithson. While the history of pastoralism in music is predicated on Euclidean physics which describe optical assessments of land in terms of mass, scale and distance, the Sedular Gamelan compositions evoke that Partch-like ‘transient hobo’ just intonation inhabiting the vast spaces between the diatonic keyboard’s determining topography. The absent or invisible composer (here interred as the executor of the compositions sounded through the modified gamelan’s electro-mechanical triggering) becomes a proto-Smithson, or at least an aural ghost of his imaginary, utilizing a harmonic approach maybe unthought-of by Smithson, but to which his visionary drawings are suitably aligned.

In 1988 at the Munchner Klaviersommer Jazz Festival, Herbie Hancock performed for the first time on a Bosendorfer grand piano modified by IBM to record the keyboards hammers’ events and dynamics as he plays, and then replay that recorded data to engage electronic mechanisms to re-trigger the hammers as they had recorded Hancock’s performance. (Hancock introduced it as “a piano that would remember exactly what you played”.) After performing an improvisation on one Bosendorfer, Hancock then moved to a second one, hit F2 on an old IBM keyboard, then ‘played along with’ the original recording, now overlaying a secondary improvisation in concert with the mechanical reproduction of his initial improvisation. The 2 grand pianos prefigure the Sedular Gamelan configuration – each facing the other, though in not so Futurist or Surrealist a flaying of the grand piano’s exposed ribbing – but more importantly, Hancock’s live duplication demonstrates another instance of how compositional strategies engage ‘master/slave’ relationships in the act of sounding music.

Hancock’s notion of ‘playing with himself’ accords with an African-American lineage of sonorised flights of liberation to which jazz testifies. Jazz’s frenetic chromaticism and dense tetra-chordality is spurred by symbolic endeavours no matter how corny to free up harmonic space in severely restricted ‘40 acres and a mule’ zones (i.e., European equal temperament). Hancock’s mannered and quite daggy ‘playing with himself’ back in 1988 still speaks volumes when compared to the current vogue of ‘Free Jazz’ played by white bearded noisy-wannabes and their dicky little fuzz boxes. Theirs is a most phantasmal form of music, pumped up by a delusional Assange-like rhetoric of ‘freedom’. For all music today is supremely defined by ‘master/slave’ interpolations – as anyone who wasted money on a concert by Daft Punk could testify. Indeed, Slave Pianos might be an inverted Daft Punk: constructing sci-fi and pseudo-science musical object-events which provide the staging for a self-inflicted slavery to the mechanical constrictions of their chosen instrumentation. After all, is that not what every performer is engaged in? Andre Rieu smarmily half-smiling with cocked-head on his 1667 Stradivarius as he scans the millions of Euros represented by the packed stadiums before his gaze. Kate Bush desperately and clumsily flipping around a bass cello while she enacts a fey-feminist interpretive ecumenical dance about a faux-folksy babushka mother-daughter tussle. Daft Punk donning retro-futuristic cargo cult costumery and camping up their l’amour des robots Francaises while pressing F2 on an old IBM keyboard. Slave Pianos turning on their Sedular Gamelan. This is how things end up the way they do.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.