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Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
October 22, 2016
Zubin Kanga lifted his hands off the piano and over his shoulders, slow-motion, Matrix-style, the fading resonance of the instrument twisting and morphing through electronics. Attached to the pianist’s hands were sensors – gravimeters and accelerometers – that triggered and controlled live electronics, allowing Kanga to shape the sounds with theremin-like conjurings. Shimmering piano gestures kaleidoscoped and accumulated in Patrick Nunn’s Morphosis, the work that put the cyborg in Kanga’s Cyborg Pianist programme.
While the name evokes the future, Kanga’s programme of works for piano, electronics and video – accompanied by Ben Carey controlling the electronics – looked back as often as it did forward, with 20th-century films providing fodder for much of the performance.
Zubin Kanga performing Nicole Lizée's Hitchcock Études, photo © Zal Kanga-Parabia
Nicole Lizée’s set of five Hitchcock Études combined piano, film and electronics, riffing on both musical and visual moments from the director’s films. Three etudes were from Psycho, while the remaining two drew on Doris Day’s rendition of Que Sera, Sera from The Man Who Knew Too Much and the school-house scene in The Birds. Stuttering, repeated film excerpts focused right in on individual moments of the films, pulling them apart and finding new music in voices, sounds and rhythms.
Adam de la Cour’s Transplant the Movie! drew on two transplant horror films – The Hands of Orlac from the 1920s and Hands of a Stranger from the 60s – with more or less identical plots in which a concert pianist loses his hands in an accident and has them replaced with the hands of a murderer. Opening with Chopin’s C Minor ‘Revolutionary’ etude (Op 10, No. 12), Kanga provided the soundtrack – like a silent film accompanist – but he was also spliced into the films as the protagonist. The work is wonderfully playful, Kanga flinching back from the piano when the film-pianist’s fingers are pricked with a scalpel (to slapstick sound effects: foghorn, car engine, etc.) and at the dramatic climax the film-pianist declares bitterly “Listen. Behold the wonders of medical science and your kind doctor,” before launching into Webern’s Kinderstück – the horror!
Film also played a key role in German composer Johannes Kreidler’s Study, Kanga performing alongside multiplied video versions of himself while the electronics seemed to evoke another pianist inside the piano trying to escape. Kanga drew sounds across the air with his hand, the line between live pianist, video and electronics fascinatingly blurry. A slight syncing problem in this performance didn’t detract from the quirky joy of the work, Kanga creating a dynamic, theatrical performance.
Similarly theatrical, Neil Luck’s 2018 is a kind of pianistic dystopia, in which genetic experiments have led to mutated hands designed for different piano techniques. A coughing, burping, yawning and sweary narrator described the new hands – the idiosyncrasies of his reading reflected in bleeps of electronic sounds – as Kanga acted them out at the piano, contorting and writhing across the keyboard, even lifting his foot to the keys at one point. Self-aware, the narrator admits, “This isn’t about the future, it’s a pathetic metaphor for virtuosity.” While Kanga's hand-acting was excellent, the work as a whole felt a little rambling at times.
Cyborg Pianist also featured the premieres of three new works commissioned for the project. Damien Ricketson’s The Day After Drowning for piano and live electronics was a beautifully wrought aquatic seascape, based on the image of “Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No 1 played by Reinbert de Leeuw from the floor of the ocean.” The work opens with pure Gnossienne that gradually refracts and distorts, sparkling dissonances glistening around the edges as the music gradually disintegrates like light passing through deep water. After Kanga’s final notes, pitches continued to sound, drifting away like ghosts in the electronics.
Marcus Whale’s Frontier, which opened the programme, featured drone footage from the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, against music based on the pitch material of Parry’s Jerusalem. A brooding condemnation of English colonisation, Whale’s work was textural, the video a dizzying blur of grass-scapes and scrub, rarely slowing down enough for details to come into focus while the soundscape was a hiss of wind and light distortion.
The concert finished with Kate Moore’s Bestiary, a throbbing, immersive piece in which the piano was extended with powerful synth sounds that surrounded the audience. The audience was wrapped in the sound of the piano in front and electronics from behind, creating a vast, three-dimensional texture with an organ-like gravitas. Kanga drew a connection between the synth sounds and film soundtracks of the 70s and 80s – such as Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange – neatly linking it to the earlier works in the programme.
Overall Cyborg Pianist was slick and incredibly fun. Kanga is a dynamic and versatile pianist, bringing both virtuosity and a sense of play to his performances, deftly juggling the technical and dramatic requirements of the diverse works. Intermittent flashes from the idle projector were a distraction at times – this was particularly visually jarring during the Ricketson – but apart from this the technology seemed to work perfectly. From the sepulchral beauty of Ricketson’s The Day After Drowning to the delightful B-movie antics of Transplant the Movie!, Zubin Kanga’s Cyborg Pianist was a fascinating exploration of piano, theatre and technology.