Acclaimed Australian Pianist Michael Kieran Harvey knows his way to Theatre Director Barry Kosky’s heart - a heartstopping piano ostinato. Paul Andrew speaks to Michael about accompanying Austrian actor and singer Martin Niedermair in Kosky’s adaptation of Poe’s classic gothic short story.

Michael Kieran HarveyHow would you describe Barry's adaptation in seven words?
"Psychopath's Bach worse than his zeitgeist".

Why this particular Poe short story?
I don't know the answer, you'll have to ask Barry, but I guess it was the challenge of making the Poe story relevant today.

We're a bit cynical after the various 20th century psychopaths from Stalin and Hitler through to Patrick Bates and Johann Fritzl to be too concerned with a fairly Victorian gothic melodrama about a crazed pensioner murderer giving himself away through guilt.
This production concentrates on the schizophrenic nature of the protagonist - but in this case voices are replaced by music as the murderer's reality and state of mind.

Poe's short story was first published in 1843 - what specific mood and motifs are evident in Barry’s version?
The overall mood is of the darkest menace and rumination. Catalysing this are shocks of lighting and music which indicate where the obsessive-compulsive control of the psychopath breaks down. The character is a tic-ridden salivating volcano, immensely proud of his achievements, but terrified of his inner demons.

The piano is a featured 'character' in The Tell Tale Heart?
Although the selection of music - Bach, Purcell, Wolf - is familiar, sometimes even soothing, the interpretation is very perverse. This music is intended to be heard through the fractured prism of the psychopath's paranoid/grandiose state of mind.

The improvised sections also reflect this state of extreme psychological stress by at times obsessively repeating ostinati as if through static interference, and at other times subjecting the repertoire above to stylistic and interpretational anarchy. A very
refreshing approach if I may say so to music which is often served up in "authentic" for which read "anodine" interpretations.

I relish experimenting with the mood and audience and indeed Martin in a different way each night. The music in some magical way remains recognizable however.

Martin's singing voice has often been described as angelic?
Martin is a genius - his ability to schizophrenically shift in an instant from mania to stillness, from vocal exigency to Faranelli coloratura is just astonishing. I don't know any singer or actor like him. I just try to keep up!

I must say that the level of intensity is at times almost smothering and I have to be on guard not to get so engrossed in his antics as to miss my cues.

Barry's original score?
Barry has cleverly hit on repertoire which is fractal in its possible interpretation. I hope the use of that word doesn't sound too pretentious, but this is precisely the reason that musicians stay engaged with music, sometimes even the same music, for their entire lives.

The music constantly refreshes one's imagination because its landscape is constantly shifting. I'm sure this is because it is contrapuntal, which lends itself already to sound perspective depending on the number of lines. Add in the variables associated with an actor, lighting, audience, live musician and you have unlimited scope for variation. I enjoy shifting also from repertoire to improvisation - this is always exciting as one never knows the outcome.

Martin NiedermairAs the piano really was conceived as a type of computer (in itself a long story, but basically the piano is simply a glorified machine for hearing many voices or instruments simultaneously that got sidetracked by virtuosos) opportunities that would confound a machine I find increasingly consoling.

What fascinates you about Barry's imagination?
Above all his courage in taking risks.

I can't imagine him being depressed for long either...he seems to derive incredible energy from exploring the outsider. He is one of the bravest artists I know.

The Tell-Tale Heart is now playing at the Malthouse Theatre until December 2, 2010. Further details»

Image Credits:-
Top Right - Michael Kieran Harvey
Bottom Right - Martin Niedermair. Photo - Jeff Busby

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