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Review: Zubin Kanga ‘Piano Ex Machina’ ⋅
State Theatre Centre, April 24 ⋅
Review by Eduardo Cossio ⋅

Many contemporary composers have sought to create works that are not just for the ‘ears’ but ones that also incorporate visuals, new technologies and invite audiences to interact with or influence the performances. London-based pianist Zubin Kanga was in Perth last Wednesday to present Piano Ex Machina, his third instalment in a series of concerts exploring mass media and new musical interfaces. Presented by Tura New Music at the State Theatre Centre, the recital featured new Australian works as well as a piece by the German composer Alexander Schubert.

WIKI-PIANO.NET is part of Schubert’s Community Pieces, a series of works whose content can be edited by online users. The piece recreates the disparate world of cyberculture by having a website as its score. Kanga becomes a conduit for a series of disjointed actions, visuals and musical fragments where the strands of a Beethoven piano sonata co-exist with Tom and Jerry videos. Kanga’s delivery is deadpan as he follows the absurd instructions on the webpage, like hitting his forehead with the palm of his hand and then facing the audience to apologize repeatedly. The eccentric stunts are interspersed with musical material that ranges from atonal classical music to commercial pop. The performer’s body and the situation are in the foreground and Kanga is convincing at harnessing the energy and irreverence of the work.

A focus on physicality and the absurd is also present in Jon Rose’s Ballast, an updated version of his work with motion-sensor technology in the eighties and nineties. It starts with Kanga playing several runs at fast speed. The mechanical-like patterns are reminiscent of Conlon Nancarrow’s works for player piano and its digital counterpart in the nineties, Black MIDI. Along with the dense, dissonant playing, Kanga triggers electronic samples by waving a motion-sensor ring in his right hand. The performance builds into to a frenzy before Kanga starts pacing around the piano flailing his arms like a man possessed. Ballast is all that you would expect from a Jon Rose composition; it is virtuosic, in your face, and full of wacky antics.

More use of sampling comes in Tristan Coelho’s Rhythm City, which sees the performer manipulating everyday sounds and video-clips with a MIDI controller. Kanga makes the videos stutter and glitch, looping them forwards and backwards. The piece is a feature for his virtuoso keyboard technique; he pummels the piano during the jazz-inflected passages and regains his composure in the minimalist figures. Despite an effective synchronization of the visual and piano parts, I found the electronic samples became overly familiar after a while.

Kate Neal’s A Novel Piano features an animated film by Sal Cooper along with theatrical props on stage and an acting role for Zubin Kanga. The work is adapted from the hour-long music-theatre piece, While We Sleep. The video presents whimsical sequences of books morphing into a piano and onstage Kanga breaks the third wall by leafing through paperbacks and drinking from a mug. Apart from the brief theatrical section at the beginning, A Novel Piano functions more as a soundtrack to the animated film. Visuals, theatre and sound are an ongoing concern in Neal’s work; however, they do not seem fully integrated in this standalone work.

A real sense of exploration with the sonic material is present in Zubin Kanga’s Transformations, which in contrast to the more art music oriented pieces in the program, delves into electronic dance music with a decidedly experimental bent. Low clusters of sound are contrasted with arpeggiated patterns on a synthesiser, and the stark mood pervading the work makes it revelatory of Kanga’s musical personality. The exploratory streak continues with Benjamin Carey’s Taking the Auspices, a piece of computer-generated visuals and semi-improvised playing. Carey has devised an artificial intelligence environment where the performer is in interaction with computer algorithms that listen to and respond to the performance. The interactions yield sympathetic results and push Kanga into an abstract musical language. On a screen, fractal-like visuals follow the ebb and flow of the performance. Taking the Auspices is a work combining complex programming technology with a warm and sensitive realization.

Closing the concert is Transplant the Movie 2! by Adam De La Cour, a short film that parodies eighties action films and video games. Despite the crude visuals (think Adult Swim and Troma Entertainment) the feature has a strong narrative line, including a memorable AMEB spoof featuring the Australian composer Neil Luck.

As entertaining as these works are, Piano Ex Machina relies a bit too much on irony and pastiche. In my opinion, the most affecting moments in the concert come during the works of Zubin Kanga and Benjamin Carey, for these engage with the audio-visual medium in more exploratory, inquisitive ways.

Picture top: Zubin Kanga at the intersection of technology and piano. Photo Raphael Neal.

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