Dark Twin Impressions

Review of the first concert of a tour by London-based Australian pianist Zubin Kanga that featured technological interactions with the piano as a path to extending tonal possibilities.
Right from the first note of Piano Hero by Stefan Prins, we are shown how this extraordinary instrument can be made to buzz, vibrate, resonate and zing. The hammers do more than instigate pitch, and the hands are a rapid blur of activity. The player himself is the calm master at the MIDI keyboard triggering projected video and amplified samples with Malkovich malevolence. At one stage the screen goes dark, affording us a moment to see beyond the artifice and hear the almost noiseless tips and clicks of real fingers on keys. The filmed soundboard jolts and jitters and rolls and rocks; I sense that this is going to be a turbulent trip but I trust the driver. Travelling through sound is a solitary activity -- composers, artists, musicians and listeners know this only too well. And as listeners we are next caught in the fibrous fabric of Julian Day’s Dark Twin. A constantly oscillating interval in the middle register has started and now that it’s been glimpsed you can’t look away. It becomes an obsessive microscopic examination of every sonic strand and sinew. The proportions become disorienting as the range starts to shift higher but then lower and much lower, before climbing to precarious heights. The pre-recorded material is a synthetic replica; an image that comes in and out of focus as far as the ear can see.

Benjamin Carey, in _derivations, has developed software that samples the live notes and phrases, before returning them intelligently to the musician courtesy of algorithmic analysis. The soloist’s choice and placement of notes and phrases are in turn influenced by what comes from the software. We observed how the opening inside strum was mimicked and manipulated, followed by a single wire of sound twisted backwards before landing somehow back on the piano itself. But now the conversation has escalated quickly and we are in a sound-field that is invigorating but reminiscent of early electro-acoustic experimentation. On the way home I asked Siri about this but I think she has misunderstood “ineffability of dialogue”. In Transit, composer and film maker Michel van der Aa explores the repetition and alienation of ageing. Short melodic impulses coexist with jarring footage of an elderly man struggling to get the door to his apartment to close securely. With jolt upon jolt we begin to realise that this is his entire day. Bottled steam from the kettle is preserved in the fridge, and when he opens it we too feel his ailing sensation for hot and cold. A major 7th stings his left eye as light pierces the Venetian blind. The cycle begins anew; this time his suit laid out funereally in the small bed and with sudden noiseless lunges of the player’s right hand we are left with little doubt that the mundane is life itself. Van der Aa expertly combines film, narrative, audio effects, movement and notes to form a brilliantly cohesive composition.

The interval may have been partially responsible, but the remaining pieces failed to maintain the velocity of the first four. FrostbYte: Chalk Outline by Daniel Blinkhorn sets out with a sonically and visually politicised ancestry of ice and the environmental threat to our future. The sounds (with the first appearance of a 4-speaker array) and pictures were a little too self-consciously defined by the effects, which makes me want to ask if technical newness in isolation carries aesthetic value? The colour-saturated images would have been more at home on an oil rig safety presentation video, and the mainly diatonic piano writing of the first section only managed to stay afloat due to the shiny audio treatment and spatialisation. The second section lurched into action with refracted funk and distorted piano Ligeti-isms that I would have loved to have heard further developed and exploited, on the proviso that the Nordic slideshow be dimmed. The Fourth Estate by Cat Hope was not as convincing as it might have been. The diligently cued radio sounds were not sonically identifiable as radios and came across as grey noise masking the piano instead of the composer’s stated intention of pulling it into a different sound world. I missed the crackle of static and mistuned stations of voices broadcast from afar. The piano playing relied on an interpretation of a graphic score, however the resulting sounds were a little generic -- washes of arpeggiation without much harmonic fencing, dynamic scope, or variation of articulation. The placement of the e-bow came across as a hesitant ‘preparation’ that didn’t offer any distinct colour shift. We were told that the score was rendered on a specially developed iPad app, but how is this information important to understanding the performance? And, if it allowed the viewing and scrolling of a score in realtime, why then was this not used for the other pieces in the program to replace the anachronistic presence of Pete Dumsday as page turner?

Sonic blandness was also the overriding feature of the final work, a play-along arrangement by Vincent Corver of Steve Reich’s Piano Counterpoint. The gradual and subtle shiftings and phasings of the original went missing in a sound design that smacked us aggressively from the front. Here, if anywhere, would have been a compelling case for using the 4-speaker set up again. As it was, the acoustic piano had no tonal space left to occupy in the dense mix, and we only became aware of the player when the synchronisation occasionally faltered. The eddies and encirclings of the repetition brought my thoughts back to Dark Twin and as the sound softened and the last echoes subsided, I saw again the hammers and felts being flicked across the piano’s inner frame. Zubin Kanga is an excellent pianist who is prising open a wormhole into the future of the piano -- inside and out. Yet, for all the mystery of the delays, echoes, distortions, and pictures presented comes a reminder that in the eye of the imaginative listener these are the very things that have been around for as long as sound itself.

Zubin Kanga - Dark Twin
Friday 8 May 6pm Salon - Melbourne Recital Centre
2015 Metropolis New Music Festival
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