In 19th and early 20th century Australia, the piano played a surprisingly prominent part in the development and proliferation of Western, non-aboriginal culture. Colonists and immigrants, flush with money from the Victorian Goldrush, bought unprecedented numbers of them to garner a bit of prestige for themselves, leading to a boom in Australian piano manufacturing that lasted up until the 1930s. At one point, there were more pianos per capita in Australia than anywhere else on the planet. However, the novelty of player pianos and the hulking, unwieldy bodies of pianos themselves – as opposed to, say, guitars – led to their eventual decline in popularity. This also resulted in a lot of pianos being repurposed as shelf space or simply dumped.
There’s something uniquely painful about a neglected or abandoned piano. Darwin referred to ginko trees as living fossils. To me, an old, disused piano is like a living dinosaur – something that should be looked after, not forgotten about.
Clearly, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Architect Bruce Wolfe designed The Piano Mill, and it stands in the forest in the intriguingly named Willsons Downfall in Australia.
Housed inside its versatile yet utilitarian structure are sixteen upright pianos, gathered from nearby towns and packed in side-by-side, two per wall. Far from perfect, the pianos exist in varying states of playability, with the mostly in-tune pianos on the upper floor and the more questionable specimens occupying the lower. (The third level of the building is left empty and open to airflow.) Owing to the compact nature of the Mill, audiences have to stand outside of it during a performance, with pianists being the only interior occupants, though a few translucent windows provide a partial view in. Wolfe installed eight louvers in the walls that can be opened and closed to release or manipulate any sounds that emanate, making the building itself as much of an instrument as the instruments inside. For more information and some nice visuals, there’s an interview/article here.
In 2016, pianist and composer Erik Griswold wrote and took part in All’s Grist That Comes To The Mill for the Mill’s inaugural show, and this year, Lawrence English’s forward-thinking label for experimental music and sound art, Room40, has happily seen fit to re-issue a recording of that performance.
After kicking off with a thunderous blast that recedes in decay, the album quickly plunges into the aptly named “The Hive.” Sounding at first like a Cocteau Twins B-side, “The Hive” soon heats up into a menacing, swarming froth of sound. Yet as it progresses, one hears the quirks and personality traits of individual pianos rising to the surface before they get swallowed back into the turbulence. The track serves as a convocation of musician and instrument, a conjuring of the latent histories in each piano, and a palate cleanser for the adventurous array of music to follow.
“Forest Birds,” a spry, playful duet for piano and bird, courtesy of the bird life in the surrounding forest and the natural sounds filtering in through the open third floor, is followed by the first of three interspersed interludes: “Plucking,” “Grader Blades” (a piece for hammered, tuned grader blades – a nod to the work done to clear the forest area), and “Strumming.”
“Nancarrow,” named for legendary composer, Conlon Nancarrow, who famously wrote music for player pianos, and “Crashing Waves” are up next. “Nancarrow” is appropriately manic, with bright, banging chords flitting from one piano to the next, cut through by a series of random, soured scales before coming to sudden stop and then a resolute plunge into a psychotic, vertiginous cacophony that’s somehow strangely liberating. “Crashing Waves” picks up this theme, sending up cascades of chalky, ascending notes that build to a blistering peak before being cut short by the air-clearing ring of struck grader blades.
“Magic Square,” with its 12-tone, stochastic structure, comes off as a spiky, destabilized jig while “Lightning and Thunder” features frantic glissandi, pounding, upper register notes, and vigorous percussive effects produced by the players slapping, whacking, and practically tap-dancing on the bodies of their instruments. (In a certain way, it sounds like the collective temper tantrums of children everywhere who’ve been forced to practice their scales when all they really want to do is play outdoors.) The gentle hiss of rain heard between the impressively timed, furious bursts provides a striking counterbalance.
“Three Great Parlour Themes” is a highlight of the album. It offers a revealing sampler of some of the individual qualities of each piano through renditions of “Für Elise,” Chopin’s “Prelude in E Minor,” and “Claire de lune” – piano recital classics, all. As each piece unfolds, the melody is transferred from piano to piano, with some doing a serviceable job of hanging onto the imperfect-yet-recognizable intonation and others dissolving into wobbly, waterlogged semblances of the original, all while a steady rain drips throughout in the background. Wince-inducing humor is balanced by a mournful, haunted quality. That mournful quality put me in mind of Leyland Kirby aka The Caretaker’s devastating Everywhere at the end of time project, with its songs of another era exposed in their brittle finery yet slowly falling prey to faulty, damaged memory. Griswold’s themes of crumbling histories, the fragile finitude of human life, and the restorative powers of art are all on display in this powerful track.
Suitably, the album closes with “The Lift,” and its ascending, hymn-like melody drifting up from some very tired-sounding but still standing pianos. There’s a well-earned moment’s rest at the song’s end, then the steady applause of a satisfied audience drifting off into the night.
Thanks go to Michael Hannan for his review of Michael Atherton’s, A Coveted Possession: The Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia, which provided me with information about the piano’s early prominence in Australia. Thanks also go to Erik Griswold for his time, patience, and technical assistance.