Jesse Budel is an environmentally-conscious Australian composer and sound artist based in South Australia. In his latest project, The Murray Bridge Piano Sanctuary, he breathes new life into old and derelict pianos, by leaving them outside and allowing them to decay gradually through natural environmental processes. As time passes, this affects their structure and the sound they produce. Visitors passing are invited to play them. There was some controversy from people living in the area when the project was announced. He talks to Jennifer Trijo about the installation, Buddhism, nature, and art.

Jesse Budel. Photograph © Jakub Gaudasinski

Why have you pursued music composition as a career?

Composition came out of a marriage of interests I had in high school. I was learning piano, voice, and guitar from a young age, but there were also interests in engineering and philosophy. Composition brings together all of those things; obviously the music but also the interest in building things out of sound and exploring some of the deeper questions that we have in life.

You specialise in composing ecological music and sound art. Why is the environment a catalyst for your work?

I could go on about how it’s important to me as an individual growing up regionally, and how my involvement in Scouts Australia implies engagement with the outdoors. But over the past few years I have recognised that sound in an environmental context is perhaps the most accurate representation of the activities happening in that place. The understanding of the connection between sound, activity, and behaviour in an environmental context fascinates me at an artistic level. We can then start to look at how the world around is interacting with itself and also how we, through our activity as humans, are impacting it.

Growing up in Murray Bridge, South Australia, what opportunities did you have to develop and practice your art?

Within regional communities you need the assistance of other people in order to get stuff happening. Having a childhood in scouting, and in various music organisations I valued community artistic practice and development. I was also on the youth advisory council. That [influenced] my artistic practice. There’s a strong component of community engagement in listening to one’s environment or getting assistance with projects like the Murray Bridge Piano Sanctuary.

Can you describe the artistic concept of the Murray Bridge Piano Sanctuary?

Pianos have an important place in Australia’s heritage. In the 1880s it was purported that 700,000 pianos were imported into the country for a population of three million, that’s about one piano per household. They were social and entertainment fixtures, but in recent years many of these antique pianos got to a point of not being functional – they don’t play in tune or they can’t be tuned – because of the way they were manufactured. There are no tools to tune them with anymore and restoration jobs would cost [more than] what most people are prepared to pay. [The sanctuary is] giving these pianos a new life, beyond collecting dust in a back room, allowing them, as objects made from natural material like wood, metal, and ivory, to be reclaimed by environmental processes, eventually returning back to the earth. As a student of Tibetan Buddhism, my work often looks at ideas of impermanence and change. Nothing is static no matter how much we might uphold it.Cultural artefacts and family heirlooms [will] all break down over time and change; embrace that.

You have been on the receiving end of some backlash in connection with your piano sanctuary, with one Facebook user describing it as ‘rubbish’. How do you deal with such opposition to your art?

My practice often involves going to strange and unconventional areas, at least for the communities where I live and work. I’ve had to build up resilience to negative feedback and backlash over that time. I trust my ideas have some merit, enough that they’re going to make a positive impact in spite of knee-jerk reactions, but I also think that these ideas have to be backed up by strong aesthetic or artistic reasoning. In terms of addressing the negative feedback, I was asked to produce a Piano Management Plan which would allow a strict policy governing the installation to be enforced, which included maintenance, and removal of pianos, and within that management strategy I addressed the concerns around pests, noise, and unsightliness.

How does your spirituality influence your artistic practice?

Often understood as a religion, a spiritual path, or ‘way of life’, I think [Buddhism] is actually a really profound ontological, epistemological reflection on the nature of reality. It draws on a significant heritage of philosophical investigation of the way that reality works. One of the resounding features of it is the idea of impermanence. Everything is in a constant state of flux and is changing. In terms of the way that my spiritual proclivities impact my work, I’m really interested in creating works that are ephemeral and have some integrity, whether it be in the formal structure of the work or the materials that I’m working with. Each performance is always different, the composition is essentially never able to be performed the same way twice. That might mean working with modular materials for live performers. [Performers] have little motifs that they can choose from, or a series or bird calls that they can select to play, or it might mean designing computer programs, and how [these] end up manifesting their behaviour is up to probability and randomisation.

Can you explain why the text on your tattoo is important to you?

It’s the 1952 score for David Tudor of John Cage’s 4’33” [which featured the musicians not picking up their instruments, and the score consisting of the sounds of the environment around them. The tattoo reads] I TACET, II TACET, III TACET and for me, there’s an obvious musical significance. After my second year at university, I became quite interested in Cage’s philosophies on sound and music. It also ties into a number of changes that happened in my life, my father’s passing away and some quite profound personal changes. Cage, through his philosophies, asks us to consider our acoustic environment on its own merit not just as background noise, but continuously listening and interrogating it. Since the invention of the printing press, the written word has become the dominant means of knowledge communication in society, and that requires vision as a sense in order to ascertain that knowledge. With that there’s been a lessening in aural acuity, where people aren’t listening to receive information as our forebears may have done in aural traditions.

As Adelaide City Library’s inaugural Composer-in-Residence collaborating with Zephyr Quartet, what did your installation reveal about the city?

Adelaide city soundscape is much like many others. The traffic sounds, the regulated signals like sirens, pedestrian blips, and air-conditioners lead to monotony and hegemony in urban environments. That means that people don’t connect with those spaces. It also demonstrates to me that there are certain things that are unique about Adelaide, like the Victoria Tower Bells iconically sounding on the quarter hour. You can play with particular sounds of a place like air conditioners’ tones, or dynamics of a space to create a unique experience within the monotony.

Do you intentionally avoid the status quo?

There’s so many ways that I can talk about this. Is it because of market forces and needing to distinguish yourself with a unique identity? Is it the fact that I proudly identify as queer and, in a political sense, embrace that aspect of my identity necessitating going against a heteronormative cis-sexist society? Is it just for the sake of it? It sounds like a resounding ‘yes’.

Jesse Budel’s Murray Bridge Piano Sanctuary took up residency in Carey Park, South Adelaide on May 9 and will run for a six-month trial with potential permanence thereafter.