Q&A/What to SEE/Music

What to SEE: Two piano concerts with Gabriella Smart

11 November 2021

Audiences have come to expect the beautiful and the extraordinary from Gabriella Smart. The award-winning South Australian pianist will present two concerts at WA Museum Boola Bardip that promise both slow listening and visceral pounding.

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Tura and the WA Museum Boola Bardip present two immersive concerts featuring South Australian pianist Gabriella Smart. She chats with Rosalind Appleby about performing music that reflects the spirit of our times.

Rosalind Appleby: The program for your first Perth concert on 26 November features a work that tries to convey desert Australia using piano and electronics. PRIMORDIAL, by Tasmanian composer and opera director Constantine Koukias reflects the immense landscape of the Ediacara Fossil field on the edge of the Australian desert. How is this translated into music?

Gabriella Smart: I’m very excited to be performing PRIMORDIAL in Perth for Tura. This piece is a unique merging of science and art, a soundscape that condenses several million years of shifting Tectonic forces as the first complex life form on earth emerged. For piano and electronics, PRIMORDIAL is a visceral listening experience that re-enacts the shifting of tectonic plates to form the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, a journey through time to the first sign of life on earth with the appearance of the Ediacara.

RA: How does the piano depict the shift of tectonic plates that formed the Flinders Ranges?

GS: Composer Constantine Koukias imagines the sound of shifting tectonic plates through manipulated piano preparations and electronics to create cascading waves of sound. The piano as we know it is reinvented, its resonance reflecting a haunting, fragile sound world. Throughout the performance, I pound and caresses the piano, cajoling beautiful and extraordinary prepared sounds that are symbiotic with Koukias’ electronic score.

RA: PRIMORDIAL is one of over 60 pieces you have commissioned from a huge array of composers. Why have you chosen to focus so much of your career on the work of living composers? What is it they have to offer you and us?

GS: Contemporary music reflects the spirit of our times – what could be more exciting and engaging? I’m passionate about interpreting new works by living composers, of analysing their psyches and philosophy through their musical scores. And I am continually surprised and inspired by their ability to create and realise new ideas, to expand what is possible. Music is, after all, a spiritual manifestation of the greater collective consciousness. For this same reason, I have begun to compose myself, and I find it as fulfilling and all-embracing as playing the piano.

Gabriella Smart performs ‘Inner Cities’. Photo supplied

RA: Moving from desert to urban landscapes, tell us about your second concert, on 22 January, which will be a marathon five hour performance of Alvin Curran’s epic work Inner Cities.

GS: This will be my tenth performance of Inner Cities. It is one of my favourite musical works of all time. I’m energised and inspired every time I perform it.  Composer Alvin Curran describes this epic five-hour solo piano work as “…a series of disconnected autobiographical fragments (that is)… maybe my best music.” Inner Cities is a celebration of space, light, meditation, contemporary culture and the transcendence of time. I am also, unsurprisingly, passionately in love with the piano and have a life-long fascination with pianists who are also composers. The piano is emancipation itself, with the composer pianist enjoying unlimited freedom of expression through a multitude of voices; they conduct their own distilled orchestra. Alvin Curran is amongst a long line of quintessential pianist composers whose instrument allows them to be philosopher, poet, dancer, comedian, lover, the instrument itself. Their love of their instrument is palpable.

RA: Some of Beethoven’s concerts went for five hours but in our bite-sized digital world listening to something for five hours is quite counter cultural. How do you want audiences to experience this performance?

During the performance of Inner Cities people are free to wander, absorbing the different architectural and acoustic perspectives of the space. Audiences have been known to meditate, bring their yoga mat, or simply sit or lie down. The audience is invited to stay for as long as they wish, or to leave and return later; there is no expectation that people stay for the entire duration, allowing them to control their engagement with the artistic experience.

Expectation of the formalised tradition of concert going is suspended, with a five hour celebration of space, light, meditation and transcendence of time beyond our normal conception. The audience are invited to participate in a slow listening experience where the music unfolds over a protracted time-frame, moving away from the formality and limitations of the condensed, static listening conventions implicit in the classical traditional concert experience.

RA: USA/Italian composer Alvin Curran is self-described as “Democratic, irreverent and traditionally experimental, [he] travels in a computerized covered wagon between the Golden Gate and the Tiber River, and makes music for every occasion with any sounding phenomena.” He has written over 200 works – what does Inner Cities sound like?

In Inner Cities, the narrative unfolds over five hours with the same visceral intensity as traveling through a desert landscape, revealed in all its calm beauty and brutality. Inner Cities is at times uncompromisingly brutal. In “No. 10”, for example, the pianist is instructed to improvise as fast and loud as possible, on the edge of being out of control, and leading to total exhaustion. But the work is also rich in delicate sounds, where one note becomes a profound transition for an hour over a gently unfolding landscape.

Curran describes each piece as “starting with a single idea, chord, or cellular pattern, which serves as its own source of narrative and history. The pieces are a set of contradictory etudes – studies in liberation and attachment, cryptic itineraries to the old fountain on the town square whence flows all artistic divination and groping for meaning in the dark.”

In Inner Cities, single ideas are unravelled and revisited at the thoughtful, immersive pace that is so alien to contemporary culture. The slowly unfolding beauty of the moment is all there is, like a flower opening itself to the world.

Gabriella Smart will perform PRIMORDIAL Friday 26 November at 7:30pm and the free concert Inner Cities on 22 January 10am – 3pm.

Pictured top: South Australian pianist Gabriella Smart. Photo Ben Woods

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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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