Eight Hands: Variations on the Theme 'Piano'

Left - John Cale

This one-off event represented a rare teaming of pianists from four corners of the musical landscape:  Andrew Legg with gospel, Gabriella Smart interpreting contemporary composers, Paul Grabowsky with a jazz take on Bach and, finally, John Cale, doing his experimental thing.

Despite the formal setting of the Theatre Royal, a grand piano at centre stage, the evening had a spontaneous feel about it. Festival director Brian Ritchie, chatting to the audience by way of introduction, explained that he had found himself with a wealth of piano talent and had decided to kill four birds with one stone: hence ‘eight hands.’ Each musician (with the exception of Grabowsky) also had a few words to say in lieu of program notes.

First up Andrew Legg, well known locally as leader of the Southern Gospel Choir, shared some of his favourites, including two songs from Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace album and two arrangements by Horace Clarence Boyer (with whom Legg worked when he visited Hobart in 2005) – “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” and “It’s My Desire.”

Legg is a skilled musician and attacks the piano with religious zeal (in both meanings of the phrase). He also brings a tremendous depth of knowledge to the stage and his comments between songs were instructive – such as his explanation of the use of the song “Steal Away to Jesus” (it was a secret signal to slaves planning an escape on the underground railway). Legg ended his set with a jubilant rendition of “Great Day.”

Gabriella Smart commenced with “Five Bagatelles,” written in 1994 by Australian composer Carl Vine – a lyrical, melancholic work delivered by Smart with a supreme lightness of touch. This was followed by the extraordinary series of short pieces, “Diary 1” by Xiaoyong Chen.

One of these, “Clockwork Chicken,” involved Smart having to stand and delve into the innards of the piano, while tapping out simple rhythms on the keyboard with her other hand (at this point she more closely resembled a mechanic than a classical musician). While the autobiographical context of these pieces, mentioned by Smart, remained obscure to most of the audience, you couldn’t miss how “Clockwork Chicken” got its name. Who knew a piano could so closely simulate the irritating peck-peck of a compulsive fowl?

Finally Smart played “For Cornelius”, which was written by Alvin Curran in 1982, inspired by the sudden death of British avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew. It starts off with a beautiful sweeping melody that brings to mind Philip Glass, before getting stuck on a series of notes, a disharmonious clanging (somehow the piano becomes a bell) repeated over and over and over. It’s as though we’re hearing Cardew’s career encapsulated. He’s stuck on an idea, it seems, he’s getting somewhere – and then, abruptly, the experiment is cut short, and then the earlier melody recommences. At the finale someone in the audience dropped a bottle on the floor – annoying for the ABC Classic FM sound mixers, no doubt, but symbolically rather poignant.

Next up was Paul Grabowsky, with a piece loosely entitled, “Some Goldberg Variations,” as indeed it was. Beginning with Bach and then veering into at first subtle and then increasingly bold musings on the theme, Grabowsky demonstrated at length why he’s won just about every jazz award there is to win and is the man behind many memorable scores from film and television.

The charm of the Eight Hands, beyond the obvious talent of the participants, was as a striking demonstration of the versatility of the piano, with radically different attitudes and processes creating diverse musical experiences.

Gabriella Smart, dressed in white, flaxen hair piled atop her head, reminded me somehow of a druidic figure, perhaps a weaver, as she worked away at her instrument (loom) with dexterity and a sort of intense watchfulness. She swayed and at times crouched over the keyboard, as though her struggle was to communicate to us an unseen force.

John Cale
, meanwhile, the final performer, was a benevolent Rumpelstiltskin, his piano not a loom but a spinning wheel, as he nodded his sleepy head and paddled his right foot up and down. He, like Smart, sits at the piano as a sort of matter-of-fact necromancer, making magic happen. And, indeed, Cale did create a literal sort of magic: his piano was hooked up to a synthesiser, which set forth random and fascinating patterns (a call and response, perhaps somehow akin to what gospel music does?), as though the music had taken on a life of its own.

Cale presented two improvised pieces – “Peace in the Rigging,” dreamlike and sentimental, “Glenn Gould at Work and At Play,” sprightly, whimsical and with a more direct use of synthesiser effects. At 67, renowned as a living icon, it’s nice to know that Cale, in fact, doesn’t take himself too seriously. With his skinny jeans and pink and bleached hair, he’s an ageless figure, full of energy and ideas and as relaxed in front of an audience as you or I might be in front of our TV at home.

Eight Hands may not sit well with classical purists (or any kind of purists, for that matter) but is in keeping with the philosophy of MONA FOMA, which is all about the earnest exchange of ideas – between music and art, between artists from different backgrounds, and between artists and audiences.

MoNA/FOMA Festival 2010
Eight Hands: Variations On The Theme 'Piano'

John Cale
With Paul Grabowsky, Gabriella Smart, Andrew Legg

Venue: Theatre Royal | 29 Campbell Street, Hobart
Date/Time: 7pm, 22 Jan 2010
Tickets: $42
Bookings: www.theatreroyal.com.au | Theatre Royal Hobart (03) 62332299

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