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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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Features, Music, News, Performing arts

Hacking the piano

At Seesaw we enjoy publishing a range of voices. In this feature WA Academy of Performing Arts student Mae Anthony offers her insights as a Gen Z and a pianist in an interview with experimental pianist Zubin Kanga.

Have you ever wanted to control what a performer does on stage? International experimental pianist Zubin Kanga is taking the idea of improvising on a theme to a whole new level, inviting audiences to hack his piano recital by uploading ideas to a website. The piece is called WIKI-PIANO.NET and will be performed as part of his recital at Subiaco Arts Centre, the penultimate leg of his national tour.

PIANO EX MACHINA is the third in a series of unique programs (DARK TWIN (2015) and CYBORG PIANIST (2017)) containing pieces that merge elements of theatre, cinema, gaming, internet culture, and advanced technology. Nearly all of these pieces have risen from discussions and collaborations between the Australian/UK pianist and artists from around the world, resulting in funny, ironic and entertaining incarnations that offer insights into everyday life.

WIKI-PIANO.NET by German composer Alexander Schubert is arguably the most exciting piece on the programme in the way that it attempts to provoke a genuine human engagement between performer and audience members. Its praxis is the embodiment of the kind of work that Kanga is pioneering through performance: the interaction between art, specifically the piano, and technology.

Hacking the music

Over the phone Kanga described the process Schubert used to create WIKI-PIANO.NET.

“It is like a Wikipedia page that anyone in the public can go visit. The website is comprised of texts, sounds and audio, videos and images that are embedded by the public into the page, and that serves as the notation for the score. It is a piece that is always changing and dependent on the content that is posted.”

The multimedia content is shown to the audience and then the performer must act out, and respond to, what is being shown.

“It is always quite funny to perform because it’s got memes and things that people have done on the internet and can provoke me to react in surprising ways,” Kanga remarked, “There have been instances where I had to yell out lines from that really bad movie The Room or sing along to a pop song. A few weeks ago there was something in there about Will Smith in blue paint in that Aladdin trailer looking really ridiculous.”

Growing up in Sydney, Kanga pursued studies not just in music but also in philosophy and computer science. His music studies from this well-rounded education included the opportunities to explore musical projects with a vast amount of freedom. From as young as 22 he worked with Damien Ricketson and Ensemble Offspring. This opened up possibilities for him to work with experienced senior musicians in other projects.

Zubin Kanga is at the intersection of technology and piano. Photo Raphael Neal.

Collaboration is key

Kanga says that building these relationships between himself as the performer and the composer is so essential to the outcome. One of his significant collaborators is Sydney saxophonist Ben Carey who will be performing in PIANO EX MACHINA. Carey’s piece taking the auspices is inspired by the flocking of starlings and uses artificial intelligence and 3D scans of objects to merge audio and visual elements live on stage. Carey is a technologist but also a saxophone player which gives him insight into Kanga’s performance practice.

“Carey knows how to read my body language and respond in a very organic way, which I think is really important to the sound of the piece,” says Kanga. “Often when you’re working with all this technology there’s so much risk in terms of what could go wrong so it’s essential to have someone you trust.”

Australian Works

The program contains four other Australian works including a piece by monumental Australian composer and improviser Jon Rose, titled Ballast, a work comprising a whirlwind of sound using a 3D hand sensor. The use of new technologies in piano performance is where Kanga feels most at home, and it is also the essence of his research as a Leverhulme Research Fellow at the Royal Holloway, University of London.

“Working as a soloist with new technologies has become the big focus in my work. It’s what I love doing and the kind of work I like commissioning.”

Continuing the theme of new technologies, A Novel Instrument by Australian composer Kate Neal, in collaboration with stop-motion animator Sal Cooper, explores the kinship between cars and pianos. One movement from this large music-theatre work will be premiered in PIANO EX MACHINA. It combines music, images, film, electronics, and piano to create a mixture of musical counterpoint, visuals and movement.

Tristan Coelho’s work Rhythm City amalgamates looped urban film scenes with music. These visuals can be manipulated by the pianist using a midi keyboard and then is responded to at the piano.

International networks

The union of video and piano can also be seen in Adam de la Cour’s Transplant the Movie 2!, a piece that presents as a short film and is a comical take on low-fi action and spy movies from the 1980’s. This piece is the sequel to Transplant the Movie! by the same composer based on early 20th century horror movies.

Kanga resides in London for part of the year where he is able to immerse himself in the vibrant contemporary music culture in the U.K. He works closely with a number of British composers including de la Cour. Kanga says collaborative relationships of this kind create a space where he can merge other styles and interests, such as film, theatre, comedy, and movement on stage with music and work at the piano in particular.

“Hopefully a few of these pieces will be quite funny, as well, rather than being just intense and serious which I think a lot of contemporary music can be,” Kanga said.

Kanga has also contributed a composition to the program, a piece titled Transformations that manipulates sounds from the inside of a piano with those of an analogue synthesiser. It draws inspiration from the lives of his friends, family and colleagues who are experiencing changes to their internal, and in some cases external, bodies. It’s another aspect to Kanga’s adoptive process where his creative outcomes are grown from the seeds of input from others.

His unique methodology enables Kanga’s performances to both provoke and amuse audiences and PIANO EX-MACHINA promises to continue that proud tradition.

Zubin Kanga performs PIANO EX MACHINA at Subiaco Arts Centre on April 24. Be sure to visit http://wiki-piano.net leading up to the performance to add your own unique voice to the show.

Pictured top: Zubin Kanga. Photo by Raphael Neal.

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