Tuesday, October 22, 2013

16 hands, 1 prepared piano, 4 John Cage Sonatas – experimental music but still tuneful #BelFest

When I hear the phrase experimental music my brain conjures up the sounds (and perhaps noises) of tonally discordant whines, crashes and shrieks – more noise than sound

But Sunday night’s performance by PianOrquestra in QUB’s Sonic Arts Research Centre (part of the Belfast Festival and the outcome of a British Council creative partnership between UK and Brazil) was an altogether more pleasant and tuneful affair. The ten piece programme was based around four of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes using a “prepared” piano and a saxophone.

In the musical score, John Cage specifies the alterations necessary to prepare a piano for the performance.

Different lengths of screws and bolts need to be placed at different depths between particular strings along with strategically positioned pieces of rubber, plastic and a rubber. The effect is to distort the piano’s natural tone, often creating a sharper metallic sound, with the soft pedal used to further vary the instrument’s output.

Despite all this DIY, many of the notes still sound like a familiar piano – so the while the tune is disguised and unexpected, the sound isn’t so alien that you can’t follow the music. Here's a sample from one piece.

Alongside John Cage’s Sonatas, the Brazilian group performed works by and with SARC’s own Prof Pedro Rebelo and Justin Lang.

Earle Brown’s short piece December 1952 was performed three times during the one act programme. Each player interpreted Brown’s alternative music notation – horizontal and vertical lines varying in width, spread out over the page – in a different way, creating three remarkable unique pieces.

As one or more players would “play” the piano – some at the keyboard, others picking strings, dragging wood or rubber over strings – a large screen would often show the score.

During the penultimate piece – Perk, a composition by PianOrquestra themselves – a camera mouted on the camera showed the many hands at work creating the sound, darting back and forward across the strings.

While the final item aRound Cage proved to be the largest auditory sensation – with SARCs surround speaker system (above and below as well as all around) put to good use – Justin Yang’s Webwork was perhaps the most involving.

A little like an arcade or Wii dance game, short coloured lines moved clockwise inside a circle on the screen, a little like a clock. As each player’s line passed over another object in its way, the appropriate musician would play something.

The audience followed the score on our big screen at the same time as the players craned their necks to watch their monitor. With variation in the speed of each player’s line and the kind of shapes they passed over, the music morphed and adapted.

And afterwards we discovered that Justin Yang was controlling and changing the flow in real time, simultaneously conducting and composing.

The hour long programme was a fascinating insight into alternative musical notations as well as an education into the sounds you can get out of a piano if you’ve two hours and a few pounds well spent in your local hardware shop! You never know, maybe PianOrquestra will be called up to play at the opening night of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games!

I spoke to Pedro Rebelo afterwards about the performance, the piano and experimental music.

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