Most of us are familiar with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the famous chorale from the fourth movement of his beloved Ninth Symphony. But few of us are likely to have experienced this work as a captivated audience at the Art Gallery of New South Wales did yesterday.

Luca Ieracitano. Photo © Jenni Carter

Huddled around a Bechstein grand piano, they watched as Italian pianist Luca Ieracitano performed variations on the Ode to Joy from inside the instrument itself. Standing in a large hole cut through its case, Ieracitano played backwards and suspended over the keys, occasionally wheeling himself around the gallery space to a delighted crowd of unsuspecting gallery goers.

Over the next two weeks, American artist duo Allora & Calzadilla’s Stop, repair, prepare: variations on ‘Ode to joy’ for a prepared piano will be performed at scheduled times in the gallery by a rotating group of musicians, some of whom are students and alumni from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Free to the public and presented as part of the Kaldor Public Art Projects’ 50th anniversary celebrations, Stop, repair, prepare was last seen in Australia in 2012, when it was originally performed as Project 26 at the State Library of Victoria.

Described as a “performance-sculpture-recital-dance piece”, Stop, repair, prepare was unveiled at Munich’s Haus der Kunst in 2008, with subsequent performances at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Gladstone Gallery. Inspired by Gordon Matta-Clark’s “building cuts”, the hole eliminates the piano’s two central octaves, meaning the pianist’s interpretation of the Ode to Joy must only make use of the top and bottom ends of the range.

Photo © Jenni Carter

Ieracitano himself has performed the work between 400 and 500 times all over the world since 2011 and has been working closely with the pianists involved in the Sydney performances since March. Helping them to develop and refine the technique and choreography required by this unique performance piece has been rewarding, he says.

“I’ve played a lot of Beethoven – I’ve studied maybe 20 or 22 of his piano sonatas as well as his concerts, and I know his last symphony very well,” Ieracitano told Limelight. “The first time I performed it this particular way, from the inside and from behind, it was another experience altogether because of course this is a very famous piece of music. Even those who don’t know Beethoven know his Ode to Joy so it’s very interesting to bring your previous knowledge of something to this kind of situation.”

Photo © Jenni Carter

“When I first began working on this project for Allora & Calzadilla, I focused on all the differences – [you’re playing] in not such a great position and you feel a little frustrated because you think you’re not able to really express what you might want. But after a while you get confident and realise you instead have a lot of new tools to use.”

Among yesterday’s audience members was a group of primary school students on an excursion to the gallery, many of whom were transfixed by the sight of Ieracitano.  Small groups were forced to scatter at a moment’s notice as the pianist propelled himself towards them, while others trailed after him, allowing themselves to become carried away by the music.

“The most beautiful part of each performance is the contact you can establish with other people,” he says. “Unlike most live performances, the public is encouraged to take part because they are forced to move as you move. So although you have worked out a choreography, you can never know precisely their reaction.”

Stop, repair, prepare: variations on ‘Ode to joy’ for a prepared piano is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until October 30

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