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Zubin Kanga: musical trials and tribulations

At the centre of Zubin Kanga’s hcmf// 2018 performance is a piece called WIKI-PIANO.NET. It’s a new work by Alexander Schubert, but he hasn’t finished it: that’s your job. The piece lives online, accessible and editable by anyone who wants at it. The score for WIKI-PIANO.NET is found at a website of the same name, and changes with the editorial whims of the people visiting it. An open source piece, anyone can delete instructions, type in their own or select actions from a dropdown menu. With it, Schubert has created something deliberately unreliable, and potentially agonising, for his performer: ‘When the pianist schedules a performance of the piece’, he writes, ‘they will open this website and perform the piece according to the content at that given moment’. Or, to translate, all hell will break loose.

A whole host of very online possibilities open up: you might be opening the webpage to an instruction to play allegro from a generous community member, or you could be getting a series of nonsense Youtube videos born from an out-of-hand in-joke. At the time of writing, the first editable sentence on WIKI-PIANO.NET reads: “Strap in my dudes, things are about to get fucking neo-dada-ist up in here oky oky oky bobobobobobobo minore tre cock”. Nice. The pianist subjected to this – contemporary music’s answer to an unreadable Reddit thread – is not reading an average score. They’re only helped by WIKI-PIANO.NET as much as they’re hindered by it, the idea of the score as an ‘instructive’ tool revoked in an endless sprawl of scroll-down junk. If you’re playing it, WIKI-PIANO.NET is trying to get a rise out of you – its users are getting you way out of your comfort zone.

Dramatic, performative and expressive, the piece is a perfect fit for Zubin Kanga. The Australian-born pianist has previously tackled a host of works at the intersection of piano and, well, something else. Throughout his career, he’s seen a window for antithesis in the solo piano concert, embracing the endless possibilities of graphical notation and character acting. He’s already performed WIKI-PIANO.NET a few times, proving himself an out-of-the-box dramatist and, all things considered, a good sport; discussing previous iterations of the piece, he describes his experiences dabbing, ordering a Martini, having personal conversations, playing along with videos of dance pop band the Knife and, finally, performing in sync with one of his previous performances. Kanga plays the piano. He plays the part. Sometimes he even plays himself.

In fact, WIKI-PIANO.NET is only the latest in Kanga’s series of musical trials and tribulations. It joins works such as David Young’s Not Music Yet, an interpretive watercolour painting which the composer must make specific readings of, as if formalising a completely abstract template. Released in 2014, it was one of Kanga’s largest artistic undertakings to date, a massive shift of headspace that requires a complete reapplication of contemporary music norms. In an interview with Cool Perth Nights, Kanga likened this alternative approach to scoring and notation to ‘choreography’ – a crucial part of his practice. Scores are not just producing the sounds you’re hearing, but the way they’re delivered, the arrangement of the performance itself.

Kanga’s interest in this ‘choreographed’ form of concert came in part from studying alongside composer Rolf Hind, who he later played with in a duo. ‘Playing repertoire that was written for him, I began to think about the visual aspect of performance, because music is not just a sonic medium – it is an audio-visual medium’. Another influence was Schubert himself, who shares Kanga’s interest in the physicality of music – its ‘gesture’. An interview between the two artists revealed a common desire to produce works that transcend contemporary music’s hiding place from ‘behind the sheet music’, emphasising the crucial, emotionally informative role body language plays in other genres.

For Kanga, these tools of performance are vital. Some might call them disruptive: expressing yourself within the material, or interpreting a piece through your body, could potentially diminish its authorship. But Kanga thinks works like WIKI-PIANO.NET, in which the composer makes room for other people, prove the opposite: ‘To some extent, the work affirms that social distribution of creativity doesn’t eliminate the voice of the composer – in fact it can enrich it’. In this work and others, Kanga has proven that a piece is only as good as the performer who finds themselves within it, or an audience that’s open to being part of it. The open and willing belief in the project comes in waves. Schubert trusts Kanga to, in turn, trust – to embrace the tabs some stranger on the internet has opened for him.

Much like fellow hcmf// 2018 feature Heather Roche, Kanga is deeply invested in composer-performer relationships, in how best to foster pieces that make sense for both artists. His academic studies focused on the differences inherent in working with composers from different generations. In the course of his research, he found that composers using graphic notation invited more collaboration – dialogue was required to parse the contingencies of the music. On top of this, Kanga is fascinated with the way modern technologies disrupt the sanctity of ‘composer’ and ‘performer’ — talking to Cool Perth Nights, he notes that ‘if you are working with technology, the technology takes so much of your focus’. His concert at hcmf// 2018 is profoundly wary of this: he says that it looks at ‘the augmentation of both piano and pianist using new technologies’, the ways in which new media presents our established practices as inconclusive.

A self-described ‘cinephile’, Kanga loves to craft concerts with an almost directorial sense of theme and structure. His concert at hcmf// 2018, created in collaboration with the electronics artist Nicholas Moroz, is an audio-visual anthology focused on what he calls ‘screen cultures’. Kanga has become increasingly interested in the connections between sound and film, moving beyond their traditional intersection and into the great unknown. The visuals are not serving sound, per se – instead, Kanga and his composer counterparts are studying the feeling of sound in digital spaces.

Workshopped between Kanga and composer by discussing common interests, these works speak to the difficulty in adapting and relating to technology. ‘Working with new technologies presents particular challenges and opportunities, and you need to be able to adapt your technique to fit the needs of the work, as well as master entirely new skills.’ The visuals of Claudia Molitor’s hand movements in You touched the twinkle on the helix of my ear create an illusory effect; it becomes unclear whether Kanga’s movements across the piano – physically emphasised – are actually connecting with hers. Meanwhile, in Christopher Fox’s Five characters in search of a form, Kanga ‘dances’ with visuals of himself, dressed up for a formal performance of famous piano works. Wires get crossed, notes Kanga: ‘Is the stage version a rehearsal for what’s on screen, or vice versa?’.

These pieces are, in themselves, about the pianist, and the unique roles they play from their instrument. Kanga plays forum moderator to a community of composers in WIKI-PIANO.NET, and becomes the visual ‘map’ for his instrument in Scott McLaughlin’s new work In the unknown there is already a script for transcendence. In Nicole Lizée’s Scorsese Etudes, he exists in service to the life of director Martin Scorsese, his piano work building a looped tribute to a collage of the director’s iconic scenes and characters. Through a series of digital materials and physical directions, Kanga goes from conduit to protagonist, purposely pointing to the erasure and presence that comes with being a performer in a digital world that is both hyper-specific and fiercely anonymous. As music becomes digital, ephemeral, and online, Kanga reminds us of the person that dances, logs on, and plays notes.

See Zubin Kanga perform at hcmf// 2018 on Saturday 17 November, 4pm, at Phipps Hall in The Richard Steinitz Building.

Wikipiano

Saturday 17 November
4:00pm at Phipps Hall

Book tickets online
2018-11-05T11:07:36+00:00