I remember as a young student taking my first double bass home from school and spending hours with it, not practicing or playing repertoire in the traditional sense, but trying to see what sounds I could coax from the instrument. Bowing the tailpiece and behind the bridge, tapping the strings with the shaft of the bow, bouncing a small mallet off the sides and top of the instrument, slipping paper between the strings, tapping them with a pencil, all kinds of rich sounds and textures produced with what I would come to relearn more formally, many years later, as extended techniques. By this time, however, the inherent curiosity and playfulness of these ways of approaching the instrument had been lost; they had become formal techniques to be learnt properly, examined approvingly, and henceforth applied rarely.

Zubin Kanga, Piano Ex MachinaZubin Kanga. Photo © Raphael Neal

It is a great loss to creativity when young musicians are not allowed do whatever they can to make truthful, expressive music with whatever tools available to them. I suspect Zubin Kanga, the acclaimed London-based, Australian composer and pianist, appreciates the value of playful curiosity in the world of music making. Kanga is a leading innovator of new approaches to the piano, and he has introduced a range of novel forms of interaction between live musicians and new technologies, including film, artificial intelligence, motion capture, 3D modelling, animation, and virtual reality. Along with these extensions of the piano and performer – extended techniques, for lack of a better term – Kanga is a staunch proponent of contemporary new music, drawing in works that explore the world and our culture from its most profound to its most absurd.

He opened the Melbourne concert of his Piano Ex Machina tour with a bold statement in the form of Alexander Schubert’s WIKI-PIANO.NET, an ever-evolving, interactive, community-based work that is a centrepiece of the program. Visitors to the composition’s website can freely edit the work, altering text, music, videos, and performance instructions, prior to the concert and in real time. The performer reads and plays everything on the webpage, as it exists at the time of the concert; no two performances are the same. The Melbourne premiere ranged from the beautiful to the sublime, and from the absurd to the comedic, with cat videos and selfies featuring, along with photos of Kanga and videos of Schubert discussing the piece. As Kanga told Limelight recently, music such as this “reflects what’s happening in our culture, with technology being integrated into our lives at every level, and the boundaries between different types of culture and art forms breaking down.”

Kanga is also interested in music and gesture, a relationship which, in more intentional forms, extends back to ancient liturgical music, through to early modern European art music and beyond. With new technologies, gesture can become more than a dimension of musical performance. As in Jon Rose’s Ballast, in which motion-sensing devices coupled with samplers and synthesisers transform a performer’s bodily movements into music. Kanga was fitted with a motion-sensor, and throughout the performance alternated between technically demanding but traditionally played passages, and moments of “wild interactive gestures”. The composer notes that the piece represents “a classic dichotomy – the technically disciplined and the free expression … creating dialogue, contradiction, and disruption.”

Film, animation, and video also featured prominently in the recital. Composer Kate Neal’s A Novel Instrument, adapted from a longer work of musical theatre, was accompanied by stop-motion animation from Sal Cooper that synced with the live performer’s hands – a remarkable technical and artistic feat. Tristan Coelho’s Rhythm City drew on sounds from footage of everyday life, chopped, spliced, slowed-down, and sped-up, and all controlled by an electronic keyboard while the performer also responded to the images and sounds in the piano part.

Kanga’s collaborator, composer and technologist Ben Carey, premiered an immersive work, Taking the Auspices, that pits pianist against an unpredictable audio-visual environment, which itself responds to, transforms, and re-produces the acoustic performance with sublime results. Transformations were also the theme of Kanga’s own Australian premiere, combining acoustic sounds from the body of the piano with analogue synthesiser, taking sounds, processing them, combining them, and transforming them across the composition.

There were no pretensions here, however, and Kanga has as much a grasp of music as entertainment as he does of conceptual depth and technical complexity. The evening, hosted at the new Melbourne Conservatorium of Music building, ended with a comedic journey through film, animation and music in the form of Adam de la Cour’s Transplant The Movie! 2, a fun piece that finds inspiration in action and spy films and videos games from the 1980s. Kanga is cast as the secret agent, working through a series of challenges to infiltrate the Steinway Clan and steal top secret blueprints.

Kanga’s Piano Ex Machina is a rewarding experience, rich in possibility, infused with curiosity and playfulness, and not afraid to explore conceptual and expressive horizons well beyond the boundaries of a traditional piano recital.

Zubin Kanga’s Piano Ex Machina plays in Sydney on April 13, Perth on April 24 and Brisbane on April 26

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