The Piano Mill story

Bruce Wolfe

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The Piano Mill project

I have known Jocelyn most of my life and Erik and Vanessa for the last decade. Between them they have coloured what I think of as music and have certainly expanded my boundaries of appreciation when it comes to the experimental. Both as Clocked Out and as individuals they richly deserve reputations for innovation, and Jocelyn has coaxed me into an exploration and then a sheer delight in following their ever more adventurous exploits.

That would certainly explain some of the background to this current project.

My Architectural thesis in 1975 was titled “Some Societal and Historic Influences affecting the Australian Environment and the Architect’s Response”. One particular read was Australian History 1788 to 1888 in which I recall noting that during a significant part of that 100 year period, Australia possessed more pianos per head of population than any other country. I remember being more than a little amazed by that statistic but thinking on how the population was distributed it made a lot of sense.

Every homestead was a centre of entertainment, every town had a number of pubs and in each case, the piano was that vehicle for entertainment.

That notion obviously lodged fairly securely in my memory.

Move forward 35 years and Jocelyn, with her own interest in music, pianos and musical experimentation introduces me to the music and adventures of Clocked Out and to Erik Griswold who actually composes for prepared piano. It takes a while to really come to terms with owners of highly expensive instruments allowing Erik to tinker away inside their pianos to change their tonal qualities and actually accentuate their nature as a percussive instrument. And that he is quite famous for this is another revelation.

At some stage I obviously linked the two ideas and thought of all those pianos in rural Australia and elsewhere, quietly pre-preparing themselves to be written for by Erik.

So I guess this is why the collection of pianos, the story behind the number of pianos in the out-back, decentralization, pubs galore and  every home becoming a centre for music- the parlour and its piano; Age and disuse preparing them for a new life.

The metaphor for this venture obviously had to carry the notion of their being many pianos so I thought of a collection of pianos. Not so much as one off instruments but as forming a complex instrument in its own right. So it was that I started to draw up arrangements for a piano room. I also needed to consult with the composer to see if he was willing to write a piece for what has come to my mind as a building powered by sixteen pianos.

The idea was to have these pianos packed fairly densely into a space and the design result is something of a cube; a floor plate of about 4.5 meters square allows 2 standard size upright pianos against each external wall. Two stories height produces sixteen pianos. Raise the cube off the ground to allow the pianos to be moved in and raised up through a hole in the middle of the floor and place a clearstory at the top and we have the basic shape.

Large vents on the side allow the sound to be modulated and these could be operated with large levers on the outside which could add more theatrics to the performance. The arrival of the musicians too would be quite theatrical as they bow to enter under the building and start their ascension to the two levels of pianos. Translucent slots on the sides of the cube would allow some visibility of the musicians to an outside audience.

It was not surprising to me that Erik was immediately on board and so it then became an issue for me to continue the design and of course find the pianos.

It is simply amazing how many people have pianos that are not in use. It does give further validity to that notion of a land over-run with old pianos. Most come with an interesting story and there are also many stories about picking them up, hiring trucks, unloading with a tractor and uncomfortable trips to Stanthorpe in an old Ute with two pianos on the back making for a fairly slow trip as well. There are pretty interesting scenes of a garage full of pianos at home in Paddington and an even more crowded shed at Harrigans Lane as the pianos multiply.

The design has also progressed to be ready to start construction. Copper clad to allow the building to age as gracefully as the pianos, a very stiff frame of Ironbark with seasoned ply to provide a resonant diaphragm and bronze toned acrylic slots to give the obscure view in and the warm glow internally. But every part of the construction too has a story. The 7m long ironbark corner posts had the saw-miller searching for trees straight enough to cut these 175mm square posts and extending a kiln to dry them in.

We were pretty catholic in our piano collecting and one or two of the pianos may be a little too pre-prepared so the search for more pianos continues. There was also the request from the ever willing composer for pianos to be placed in the bush while he was seeking inspiration. One of these was taken by tractor, high up on the forks at the front of the tractor trundling down a bush track, to what was at one stage optimistically called the boat shed. It is a shelter beside the property’s main dam. It was rechristened the gin and tonic platform when the water in the dam went down. With the arrival of the piano it has been renamed The Piano Bar and with the renaming the water level in the dam returned.

So the project commencing as a series of vague ideas a couple of years ago is now well underway and we have a target date for the performance of the piece for this peculiar instrument. At Easter 2016 it will be the 10th anniversary of our acquiring the property at Harrigans Lane and 10 years since we started to promote the idea of using the property for arts events and encouraging artists to use the land and buildings as facilitators for innovative arts.

The relatively early commencement of the building and the collecting of the pianos at this time should allow the composer reasonable time to get to know his instrument as it will be an amazing feat to write for what are very individual and eccentric components. It will also allow time to refine the performance of the building and its acoustics.


For me it will be a time to work on the other ideas that inhabit the instrument, a collection of tuned grader blades that can be struck as chimes or played with a bow. Bass strings suspending the heavy grader blades another opportunity and there are other notions that may or may not be utilized by Eric for this piece for sixteen pianos.

We liked the notion of just calling this building the piano room: understated and then also surprising when the idea gets unpacked; but as a fairly common expression, there was no way it would stand as a domain name so other names have been proffered. Hyper-cube, Piano Fort, piano cubed etc. but we have settled on the Piano Mill, Jocelyn’s idea:

A mill conjures up a tall building made of lovely raw materials like stone, brick, timber, and even raw metals like copper. It’s full of machinery that clanks, clinks, bangs, beats, strikes, hammers, and grinds, and transforms things—changes things from something raw to something refined: timber to paper, grain to flour, coffee beans to grounds, iron ore to steel.

What if the machinery were pianos, and the grain were pitches, and all the pitches, beaten, struck, and ground were turned into music?

The pianos sit, stacked, waiting to be assigned their milling tasks. The miller arrives. Yes, the missing piece: How can machinery operate without a driver, or a brain? (ERIK)

The adventure begins!