Q&A/What to SEE/Music

What to SEE: The West Australian Piano

17 September 2021

Adam Pinto shines the light on local piano music with a recital on a unique Australian piano.

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Adam Pinto is putting West Australian music in the spotlight this month with a recital performed on the Australian-made Stuart & Sons piano. Pinto chats with Rosalind Appleby about life as a pianist, rediscovering some iconic pieces by local composers and the process of commissioning new music for an unusual piano.

Rosalind Appleby: At what point did you decide you wanted to make a career as a pianist? And what does that look like nowadays?

Adam Pinto: I don’t think that there was ever a particular point in time when I decided to make a career as a pianist, and it almost seems strange to consider that I actually have made a career of it. I have always loved music and playing the piano and I simply kept doing this as nobody told me to stop. So, undergraduate studies rolled into post-graduate studies and then into playing the piano locally, around Australia and across the globe. My family has always been supportive, and I was lucky enough to have some great teachers who were as equally inspirational as they were immensely skilled at their craft. Whenever a challenge, either as a student or professionally, was presented to me I just worked hard and enjoyed the ride. 

I am a lover of music – of all genres and forms of music – and writing about it, talking about it, and teaching it has allowed me to enjoy a huge diversity in what I do. Whether it’s working with students in a performance class, preparing a recital with a local or visiting musician, rehearsing and performing with the Perth Symphony or West Australian Symphony Orchestra, practising, working on contemporary music with Mix’t Trio or reworking older music with the Or3nda ensemble, the piano is usually at the heart of what I’m doing.

Teaching at the Conservatorium of Music is also a significant part of my life. I’ve always considered teaching a central part of a musician’s art and teaching all aspects of music holds endless fascination for me. I also spend my time examining for the AMEB and adjudicating at various eisteddfods and festivals around the country. Life is never dull.

RA: How did the concert on 21 September, “The West Australian Piano”, come about?

AP: As part of my Doctoral studies, which I completed only a few years ago, I performed the entire solo piano works of pianist-composer Roger Smalley. One of his later works for solo piano called 3 Studies in Black and White contains an intriguing few bars at the end of the first study which has an optional part to be performed on the Australian made Stuart & Sons piano. These few bars take advantage of the extended lower range of the instrument and include notes which can’t be found on other standard concert instruments.

I think there is more to this than just a few extra novelty notes at the end of a piece of piano music. The timbre created by these lower notes, and the unique resonances and interplay of overtones of the Stuart & Sons piano created by all those extra strings actually have the potential to turn the piano into an even more colourful instrument. I am sure Roger was taking advantage of this, not just in the final few bars, but in the entire work. These sounds almost hark back to the live-electronic works Roger composed in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s before he moved to Perth. The first movement in particular, titled “Gamelan”, requires a very liberal use of the sustaining pedal which on a standard instrument can result in a rather muddy and unclear texture. Although this can also occur on the Stuart & Sons piano, the richness and clarity of the tone on this instrument allows for the creation of a sound world which can really capture the “Gamelan” idea.

This inspired me to look for more music that would suit the instrument and although there are obviously existing works that could be performed on the instrument, I really wanted to find local composers who would work with me to explore the possibilities of the instrument in a more ‘hands-on’ creative process. The piano was made in New South Wales, and this would be West-Australian artists creating music on a unique Australian made instrument.

RA: What was the process of curating the program? There seems to be some themes running through it of grief, processing and also the exploration of really low piano sounds…

Composer Rebecca Erin Smith worked with Adam Pinto to write a piece for the Stuart & Sons piano. Photo supplied

AP: One aim I have whenever I put a programme together is balancing the existing and the new. We we seem to then ignore many new works after their initial premieres, so  I wanted to balance the new works by Lydia Gardiner, Katherine Potter and Rebecca Erin Smith with a couple of the many significant works by West Australian composers written in the past couple of decades. Stuart James’s work Negative Tendencies Is a pertinent example of an astounding work that, despite having a poignant impact in performance, has gone largely unplayed since its premiere.

I really wanted there to be no limits on the creative process which my initial idea presented. I did have early discussions with each of the composers I commissioned about the types of music which I enjoyed performing the most, so I am sure that this had some impact on the works that emerged. We discussed Roger’s 3 Studies in Black and White, which has the coda of the first movement marked “In Memoriam” in commemoration of the Bali Bombings of 2002. Stuart James’s work also explores the darkness and emotional trauma of loss so this set up the possibility of a programme exploring grief and trauma. However, I did find it fascinating that these themes seemed to emerge almost coincidentally. Perhaps, music is the best medium to capture the intensity of these emotions.

In one of the rehearsals with Rebecca on her work we discussed the way the Stuart & Sons piano was actually controlling the way the music was unfolding. The unique qualities and resonance of the instrument itself, particularly those really low piano sounds from that bass register not found on other pianos, forced the music to be performed and presented in a way that wasn’t in the direct control of either Rebecca or myself. In some ways the piano itself was “in control” of the final result.

RA: Tell us about the Stuart & Sons piano you are using for the recital – how is it different to a standard grand piano?

AP: I’m not a piano technician, however, it’s a massive instrument, and actually still not the biggest that the Stuart’s have produced. It has 97 keys from the low F below the usual A, to the high F above the usual C. Some of the extra strings are triple strung rather than just double strung as in most standard concert instruments. This presents the obvious extended range, but more significantly all those extra strings resonate when you play the instrument, creating unique overtones and resonances. There are four pedals instead of the usual three pedals. One of the pedals moves the hammers closer to the strings which alters the attack and tone the instrument makes. At many points in the performance I use three pedals simultaneously to combine and create extra possibilities and to exploit as many colours that seem appropriate to the works in the programme.

RA: You have spent much of your career supporting other artists – as a recital accompanist, an orchestral musician with WASO and in various ensembles. It’s a role that requires exceptional listening skills, technical flexibility and humility. What does it feel like to be stepping into the spotlight as a soloist for this concert?

AP: I love performing in small ensembles. However, in many ways, there is less external pressure when I perform as a soloist. No one is relying on me to set their tempo, balance a texture with clarity and nuance, shape that phrase as they would like it, or get my entry right so that the work flows properly. Having said that, I am still in service to the music and in many ways the composer is always there with me on stage guiding my performance. My interpretative choices are still directed by what the music demands. However, the pressure then comes from my awareness that as a soloist my connection with the audience needs to be particularly strong. When there is only one person on stage behind, or holding, an instrument, an ability to connect, engage and directly communicate with each individual audience member is what creates a meaningful and rewarding experience. 

RA: What do you hope the audience will experience?

AP: There are going to be some really unique and entrancing sounds in this concert, also visual art to explore and consider, as well as beautiful, anguished, exciting music written with great skill for the instrument. However, above all, I really hope that the audience enjoys the journey that this programme takes them on. It is a journey through time and history, with works composed from the turn-of-the-century through to the night of the concert. (The meaning of that statement will become clear to everyone who can make it along). And it is a journey through a diverse range of musical styles and compositional process. Yet, despite this diversity there is a cohesion in the programme which perhaps comes from nothing more than the link between musicians, artists and instrument makers all influenced by the country in which they work.

‘The West Australian Piano’ is on 21 September 2021 at the John Inverarity Music and Drama Centre.

Pictured top: Adam Pinto is the curator and performer of ‘The West Australian Piano’. Photo: Travis Hayto

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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