The Piano Mill

Artist Statement,composer Erik Griswold (31 May 2015)

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The Piano Mill project


I first met Bruce and Jocelyn Wolfe in 2007, when they took a chance and commissioned my composition “A Wolfe in the Mangroves” (originally “Concerto for Prepared Piano and Percussion”).  Their support meant a lot to me and it inspired me to create something special - “A Wolfe” is one of my most played compositions to date.  In the years since, Bruce and Jocelyn have become integral members of the Clocked Out family, traveling from outback Queensland to Stradbroke Island to Southwestern China to experience and take part in many of Vanessa Tomlinson and my creative projects.

Since Bruce bought his bush property at Harrigan’s Lane, near Stanthorpe, I’ve watched his own creativity flourish through his imaginative architectural designs. The property has become a focal point for artistic exploration, and his own creative projects have expanded into new directions. At the same time he’s taken an increasingly active role in his support and encouragement of artists, musicians and performers, hosting mutli-media performance events and artist residencies.  The Piano Mill represents the ultimate expression of Bruce’s creative vision, a radical concept that is at once an intriguing architectural structure, a musical instrument, and playful invitation to collaborate.  And I’m super excited to be on the receiving end of this invitation!

As a composer, The Piano Mill presents an unprecedented musical opportunity, and although I am very reluctant to make the claim that “it’s never been done before,” I think it’s fair to say the project has some unique features!

First, the pianos:

There are sixteen of them!  Though there have been other multiple piano events (I have heard of two or three in recent memory), there is no extensive repertoire for sixteen pianos I can consult to find out how it’s done.  And while I’ve written for one and two pianos before, it’s difficult to envision (or “auralize”) the sound of 16 pianos. Bruce has set the general principal that the pianos are played “as is.”  These are old pianos with a bit of wear & tear.  Some with a lot of wear & tear.  Each piano has it’s own idiosynchrasies - some are out of tune, some have bung notes, broken action, or corroded strings.  Creating a coherent musical sound out of all these quirky and individual instruments will be a challenge.

Second, the architecture:

Bruce’s architecture has some really interesting implications for the music.  Aspects of the architecture suggest things about the musical stucture, spatialization, and tone.

The building is specifically designed around the dimensions of the piano.  There are two levels in the building, each containing eight pianos, with each wall holds two pianos side-by side.  Bruce and I have discussed the idea of the two levels having a different sound.  The concept is that the upper level would contain relatively in-tune, good quality pianos, while the bottom level would contain wonky, out-of-tune, prepared sounding pianos.  The symmetry of the design, with upper and lower levels, four pianos per side, has some interesting structural implications for the music.  The idea of antiphonal or spatialized, hocketing rhythms could bring out the qualities of the architecture – the sound could move from top to bottom, left to right, in circles or back and forth. In a great acoustical innovation, Bruce has fashioned eight louvers, or “sound vents” into the building, which can be manipulated during the performance to affect changes in dynamic and tone quality.  He envisions that one to four operators would manually open and close the louvers at different points to create softer and muffled, or louder and bright effects.  I also think they could also create an enhanced directionality in the music.

Third, the environment:

Since 2004 I’ve had a strong interest in the idea of “environmental music.”  This means creating music (improvised or composed) that responds to a natural environment.  In some cases I’ve improvised directly in a particular environment, listening carefully to the ambient sounds, and entering into a music dialog with them.  In other cases, I’ve spent time experiencing and listening to a particular environment, and then created a composition based on the natural sounds, which might be played in a concert hall or other venue.  At Harrigan’s Lane, I’ve been involved in several such performances and improvisations, listening and responding musically to environmental sounds such as wind, insects, birds, and frogs.  I hope to also reflect the sounds of the local environment in The Piano Mill.

Bringing together all these elements in one piece will be challenge,g, to say the least, but in a good way.  Can’t wait to put all this together in 2016!