Last year, when Peter Garrett announced the withdrawal of funding from the Australian National Academy of Music, he must have been startled by the response. He received an open letter signed by Sir Simon Rattle and JM Coetzee, among others; convoys of musicians descended upon Canberra; benefit concerts were held; “save ANAM” groups flourished on Facebook, with memberships in their thousands; and more than 11,000 people signed the online petition. Who would have expected ANAM to be so popular?
Founded in 1994 as part of Paul Keating’s ‘Creative Nation’ policy, it initially smacked of that dread word, ‘elite’, permissible only in relation to sportspersons. It was resented by its rival institutions for its steady stream of government funding, and by its neighbours for its appropriation of the South Melbourne Town Hall. “Historically, ANAM was a bit of an enclave,” admits general manager Nick Bailey. “It was this place where special kids went and did their thing.” But in 2006, composer and violist Brett Dean was appointed artistic director. “Brett’s view of an artist is someone in dialogue with the community,” Bailey explains. Things started to change at ANAM. By the time Garrett made his ill-fated announcement, the academy had repositioned itself by stealth: initial resentment had given way not only to tolerance but to a kind of love.
This year’s ANAM piano festival, held in August, offered some explanation for this change of attitude. Under Dean’s leadership, ANAM’s programs have become some of the most interesting in the country. Titled simply Piano! – like an expletive, or a sneeze – the festival arrived with no curatorial explanations or program notes. But over the course of the week, its performances revealed a binding theme. The festival‘s title proved less an assertion than a question: Piano? What is the role of the piano in today’s world, displaced as it has been from the centre of our living rooms, first by television, and now by the internet?
On the Wednesday evening of the festival, jazz pianist Paul Grabowsky performed an improvisation on the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Grabowsky is a brave man: Bach’s variations would seem a last word on the subject. After observing the Aria’s repeats –with more antic embellishments – he took leave of its harmonic reassurances, and peeled away its orderly edifice to reveal a chaos beneath. He constructed an arc in loose parallel to Bach’s variations, generated by texture and density rather than harmonic progression. His variations were not only polyphonic but polylinguistic: Cecil Taylor gave way to Ligeti, who gave way to Prokofiev and Messiaen. An hour after he sat down, the Town Hall clock chimed eight; he wove these tones into the texture of his improvisation, finding his way back to a statement of the theme. This arrived like a blessing, a reaffirmation of order.
The following day, pianist and ANAM Faculty member Michael Kieran Harvey was ecstatic: “The next revolution we have is the prosthetic and robot revolution, but that spontaneity is a comment on what it is to be a musician.” That evening, pianist Joe Chindamo offered his reading of this spontaneity. Chindamo’s range of reference is no less encyclopaedic than Grabowsky’s, but where Grabowsky’s art is cerebral, Chindamo’s is tender; his virtuosity never hectors, but disarms. He began his recital with Puccini’s O mio babbino caro, shifting it around in his hands and shining his multicoloured light on it. He then wandered vagrantly through a mixture of standards towards his ARIA award-winning Something Will Come to Light. The previous day, he had shared a lecture-recital with Grabowsky. “I love that feeling of having an audience staring at you with their ears,” he said, to which Graboswky had replied,“Music is about owning the moment.” Listening to Chindamo, the moment seemed a fine place to remain.
Both Grabowksy and Chindamo are uncomfortable with the term ‘jazz’, fearing that it “trivialises” their art. In fact, both men are closer to the model of the complete musician of Bach’s time – composer, performer, improviser – than classical music’s modern custodians. Perhaps this is what Michael Kieran Harvey found so compelling about their performances. “In classical music, with all the encrustations of history around the notes written down, students spend so much time trying desperately to work out the correct way to play them,” he explained. “What I’m seeking in performance is this spontaneity and fluidity.”
Harvey himself is most comfortable performing repertoire from the last hundred years, to which he brings a restless intelligence and an animal physicality. His sound has a granite-like quality, carved of pure will; it is music of combat rather than seduction, the opposite of Chindamo’s. At his recital on Saturday night, Harvey announced that he had just returned from a conference on Darwinism where he had “shared a urinal with Richard Dawkins, which was a memorable experience”. He was inspired by the coupling of Darwinism and the arts because “this is what I’m interested in: pushing the envelope”. Such a position scarcely needed articulating: his program unfolded like a musical expression of survival of the fittest. It was framed by Ligeti’sfirst book of Etudes and his Three Pieces for Two Pianos (for which Harvey was joined by ANAM pianist Tim Young) and also incorporated galvanic readings of sonatas by Bartok, Peter Mennin and Humphrey Searle, alongside a virtuosic set of variations on La Folia by Australian composer Andrew Ford, ‘Folly’.
In contrast to this monumentalism, the Singapore-born Margaret Leng Tan operates on the smaller canvas of the toy piano. This instrument is essentially a dressed up glockenspiel of tinkling, gamelan-like timbre; however, Tan invests her performances with a forbidding dignity and the intense seriousness of her approach broaches no irony. On Saturday night, she proceeded to the stage clanging a pair of toy cymbals. “I no longer consider myself only a toy pianist,” she declared, “but a toy instrumentalist.” As she gave an exuberant performance of John Cage’s 1948 composition Suite for Toy Piano, I sat by the door, ready for a sudden exit with my eight-month-old baby; but he listened in rapt silence, and let out an exuberant “hooray” during the applause. Tan bowed and squinted imperiously across the auditorium: “In case your baby gets restless, can you please take him out, because it makes it difficult for me.”
Tan claimed that “everything I can do on the real piano I can do on my toy piano”, but later that evening, as I listened to the Russian-born pianist Boris Berman perform, I was not sure I believed her. Berman began with an urbane performance of Chopin Nocturnes and the Polonaise-Fantasie. After interval, he turned to Debussy – Chopin’s successor in sonority – performing the two sets of Images and the Estampes. Berman is not a personal pianist; rather, he is a great magician of sounds. He gauged the acoustic perfectly, transforming the hall into his canvas. An exaltation arose that was not emotionally generated but was instead an exaltation of beauty, and although this was not improvised music, it ‘owned the moment’, which was enough to make it new. Staring at Berman with my ears, I felt secure about the piano’s future: surely even the internet could not compete with this transport.
Late the following night, I was less sure. A small audience had gathered in the darkness to hear Ross Bolleter, co-founder of the World Association of Ruined Piano Studies. “The piano was a great agent of social cohesion,” he explained. “Social gatherings took place around the piano until the advent of the television in the 1950s.” Our social gathering took place around five ruined pianos, sourced from around Australia, and felt like a cross between a séance and a campside yarn. Lit from above, the ruined pianos hovered like ghosts; Bolleter’s face floated among them, his hat casting shadows over his eyes. “Your first ruined piano is a little like your first love,” he whispered, with savant grace. He then introduced us to his charges one at a time and told their stories of abandonment and rescue. Nature had “prepared” these pianos better than anything John Cage could have imagined; their strings, having absorbed history, no longer spoke diatonically but with unearthly harmonics, with plangent moans, with the clicks and whistles of whale song. There was something post-apocalyptic about being in darkness, surrounded by these beautiful wrecks, while Bolleter spoke of the piano in the past tense. “The piano was home and brought home with it,” he murmured hypnotically. Were we celebrating or mourning the piano’s demise? Was this a wake? Why was it so beautiful? “When a piano was sold or dispensed with, it was proof of imminent ruin and disgrace.”
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