Thursday, January 6, 2011

Holey, wholly, holy


In the middle of the vast atrium of MoMA stands a lone baby grand piano. This is not just a normal piano; the Bechstein has a large hole carved out in the center of its case! Is this a sculpture then, like those by Gordon Matta-Clark or some sort? But you know it's more than that - the reversed pedals give it away. The object seems like the wire that Philippe Petit put between the twin towers, quietly awaiting some magnificent performance to occur.


A performer approaches the piano, puts his hands on the rim and pauses. He ducks under the piano, and reemerges from the hole. Then he bends over and starts to play, from inside the piano, upside down and backwards. The relationship between the musician and the instrument is far more intimate than ordinary music performances. Here, the musician is part of the instrument. He inhabits it, like a hermit crab finds its shell. The two become a hybrid whole.

Once in a while, the performer pushes the piano and moves with it to a new location, causing the audience to move along. Seen from the upper levels, it almost looks like a shepher herding a group of sheep. Through collective choreography, the viewers/listeners participate as part of a spontaneous group dance.


This is the performance piece by artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. Maybe it's because of the Christmas/New Year season, they picked Beethoven's Ode to Joy. By altering the instrument, they alter the music, in a way that reminds me of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol's manipulations of Mona Lisa. The hole removes two octaves of strings, so the music is recognizable but incomplete. When it gets to the middle section of the keyboard, the notes are reduced to mere percussive sounds produced by the fingers hitting the keys. Due to physical constraints, the performance itself is by no means perfect. But it's exactly through this imperfection you see the performer's effect and vigor. Someone from the audience says, "Poor guy! He has to unlearn everything he learned to do this." This is precisely why the performance is so charming. On top of the physical challenges, there are psychological endeavors involved. This is a true ode to joy - the joy of passion; the joy of love.

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