Stop, repair, prepare…

Allora & Calzadilla Kaldor Public Art Project

16th November – 6th December

Cowen Gallery, State Library of Victoria

A pianist strikes the opening chords of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, well-known to many but still stunning. More remarkable though, is that they aren’t seated at the ¬†instrument. The piano for this public art installation has been transfigured, or should I say disfigured, to hold the player inside it.

The clever thing about this project is that there are many reasons that it is intriguing and catches the imagination of those passing through the state library’s gallery space. Visually, the whole concept is bizarre. The piano has a gaping hole right where many of the strings should be – complemented by one cut in the lid for visual effect. The player leans out over the keys, playing them backwards and upside-down to create a dazzling contortion of technique. Not only that, but the usually stationary instrument is dragged round the gallery while playing, with the pianist using their body weight to drive the instrument.

All this is clever, and certainly draws an audience, but I think that if this was simply a visual spectacle with little-known music it would be less effective. The power of the project comes from the use of Ode to Joy – indeed the pianist is playing the whole 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony – a piece that is almost universally known and loved. The listener is drawn into the musical and physical struggle of the performer as they do battle with their constricting position. Even those who had no musical training, it seemed, had some idea of what came next, of the magnitude of the music being performed. And, I think, this is one of the reasons they stayed.

Just as the instrument is incomplete, so is the music. Drawing on the idea of a ‘prepared’ piano with nuts and bolts inserted, the piece makes full use of the instrument’s percussive nature. The central two octaves – with strings removed – are nevertheless explored, adding thuds and taps where one would except Beethoven’s melody to continue. The performer also plucks strings – why not, they’re right there? – and even the sound of the instrument moving round becomes an eerie accompaniment to the music. The pianist seems utterly compelled to make this music, otherwise the physical constraints of the upside-down piano would render it impossible.

Audience reactions to this are incredible and diverse. Of course, many film it on iphones, wanting to share the bizarre nature of the performance. Some follow the piano as it moves round the room, others feel that they should stay still and appreciate the piano from a single angle only. Still some whistle or hum along, caught up in the drama of the music.

Stop, repair, prepare is only on until Thursday 6th December at the State Library of Victoria. If you can go, go! Bizarre, indescribable, this is also deeply touching and a reflection on the power that music has on us both as a listener and a performer.