The nine-metre, copper clad Piano Mill is situated on a beautiful property in the remote region of Wilson’s Downfall. And yet, walking to the site, there were cars aplenty threaded through a thicket of trees. The devotees’ enthusiasm was tangible as the rugged-up punters, on a cold, dank Easter Sunday, followed the clockwise trail of performances situated in varied outdoor spots. A percussive ‘clang’ every fifteen minutes signalled it was time to move on.
Classical art music is rule bound, perfection is paramount and blockbusters by enduring superstars like Bach, Beethoven and Brahms still dominate 21st century concert programs. Piano Mill’s success has been due to it offering an alternative means of experiencing fresh, original music in the spirit of a sonic adventure staged outdoors.
The Piano Mill’s environmental ‘stage’ is a powerful leveller in which traditional hierarchies are dissolved. Boundaries between performer and composer, architect and musician, audience and performer, raw sound and tunefulness are refreshingly eased. And so too are the often closely guarded borders between jazz, art music, world, folk and experimental genres and, between improvised and notated music. In this event, the random sounds of nature such as carolling butcher birds contribute additional texture.
It’s no surprise the entertainment featured creative dance by movement artist Jan-Baker-Finch and Artistic Director Vanessa Tomlinson in Down From The Arch, and accomplished visual art through the eco-themed optics created by Renata Buziak and photographer Greg Harm.
The first micro concert was in Lagavulin, an intimate recital hall ideal for solo and chamber performance. Here Louise Denson played her own music at a cool pace, an introspective ‘telling’ gilded by her gift for rhythmic variation and silvery tone. Michael Hannan, composer and pianist, who has been involved in each year’s event since it began in 2016, delivered his bespoke Birds Calling On Harrigans Lane (2021) a touching tribute to Jocelyn and Bruce Wolfe, Tomlinson and Artistic Advisor Erik Griswold.
In four episodes, the work explores the signature calls of five birds recorded on the Harrigan’s Lane property. The atmospheric tableaux in Hannan’s compelling delivery essayed the vocals of the pied butcherbird, the lewin’s honeyeater and grey butcherbird, the golden whistler and finally the grey shrike-thrush.
In Bowmore flautist Hannah Reardon-Smith played live in conjunction with field recordings on the unusual ‘recital platform’ of a giant granite boulder. Erik Griswold’s ingenious flair for prepared piano was revealed in Hibiki, a toy piano set. The Boundary Riders’ wild murmuring of folk and jazzy conventions on the Suntory Stage featured a blaze of trombone, bagpipes, a flute, a tin whistle and a call and response contribution from woodblock players planted in the crowd.
Nostalgia and a poignant ‘lost and found’ sentiment permeated this piano-centric pageant. Alfresco performance was de riguer in mediaeval Europe and yet found again in this unique entertainment which was inspired by Bruce Joyce’s fascination with lost Australian pianos produced during the early 20th century when ‘uprights’ were as coveted as the iPhone is today.
Bruce and Jocelyn Wolfe, piano rescuers if you like, found exhausted instruments manufactured during the nation’s lost era of superb piano production and Griswold enshrined the instruments’ broken strings, tinny timbres, dud keys and off kilter tuning into visceral driving music. His creative leaning explores the tipping point where ‘one discipline, genre or resonance merges into another’ and this inclination was acute in the thrilling finale, All’s Grist To The Mill.
In gathering mist, this twilight concert occurred within the illuminated Piano Mill, itself an instrument, which can accommodate sixteen pianos and players. The piano team included Colin Noble, Caleb Colledge, Cara Tran, Stephen Emmerson and Rebecca Lloyd-Jones. Baker-Finch’s theatrical descent from the mill swathed in blue silk was the prelude for the keyboard force to begin its densely layered shimmering sonority, reminiscent of thousands of cicadas sawing the air at dusk.
Through the piano choirs’ multiple textures and eco-triggered soundscapes several eerie quotations surfaced. For instance, Beethoven’s Fur Elise, out of time and out of tune, a hobbled Chopin waltz and a wilfully stilted airing of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Griswold’s achievement lay in how glorious these parodies sounded having risen from a bed of bold contemporary language in celebrating these pianos.
There’s something irresistible, magical and laudably accessible about stumbling across relatively informal music-making in unexpected places when the element of risk is alive and welcome and not regarded as a threat to a flawlessly executed performance. This was a special and revelatory day. While Piano Mill was presented for the final time last Sunday, the precedence of quality music-making in the environment will hopefully inspire others to create the same. And the notion of an architectural frame itself a sound-maker and instrument and performance space, lives on for instance in the giant immersive guitar in Brisbane’s recent Curiocity Festival.
Easter at The Piano Mill 2021
Venue: The Piano Mill | 323 Harrigans Lane, Willsons Downfall, NSW
Dates: 4 April 2021
Gillian Wills is an author and arts writer who has published with Australian Stage Online, Limelight, Griffith Review, Australian Book Review, The Australian, Weekend Review, Good Reading, The Strad (UK) Cut Common, Loudmouth, Arts Hub and Artist Profile. Her memoir Elvis and Me: how a world-weary musician and a broken racehorse rescued each other, Finch Publishing, was released in Australia, America, Canada, The UK and NZ in 2016.