SARU’s sound art and music festival, renamed this year ‘Audiograft’ from the previous ‘Sonic Art Oxford’, happened this year on Feb 14th – 20th. A very strong collection of work by Ray Lee, Max Eastley, Stephen Cornford and Shirley Pegna amongst others at Brookes and a series of events (live music; electroacoustic music; performance pieces) around Oxford.
I created a new piece for the show, ‘Piano Arrangement (low – high)’. I had recently visited SAM’s ‘Off the Page’ conference in Whitstable and it had got me thinking about the words we use to describe music, and sound. I wondered if there was an instrument where the high notes are higher in space than the low notes*. I initially thought about creating a piano where each key is successively taller than the previous one, from left to right along the keyboard. But then I realised the easiest way to achieve this with piano is to tip it on its end, so the bass notes are near the floor.
After a bit of soul searching – this idea seemed too simple really to be of any worth, on (over)reflection – I decided to go with my instincts, and let people decide, and that I would try and get it set up for Audiograft. Initial results were encouraging – my requests were met with disapproval, meaning there is something about the idea which merited persistence. On reflection it is the ‘properness’ and establishment-connotations of the piano which is subverted, and the sense of this not being ‘proper’ which captures the attention (compared with a synth on its end, which is often seen, and would certainly not have the same visual effect). After a little politics it was sorted (tipping pianos on their side is not nearly as bad for them as the vast temperature changes wrought by turning the heating on and off in winter, it turns out) and the tipped-up piano was exhibited in the RHB foyer for the duration of the show.
The name is a vital component of the piece; in fact, the name is the piece, in many ways. It plays with what we think we mean by a piano arrangement, by low and high in regards to music, and even the hyphen (low and high? low to high? low minus high?). The implication being, what is the gap between music and the words we use to describe it? What might we find in that gap? What do we mean by a ’round’, ‘sharp’, ‘hollow’, ‘thin’ sound? Why are these phrases universal (if they are)? Where did the concept of low and high come from wrt pitch? I figured the number of cycles per second in a frequency; Trevor Wishart thinks the fact that high things – birds – have to be small to fly and hence high pitched, while ground-based things tend to be low pitched (whale song, earthquakes).
An entertaining side-effect of the re-arrangement was the sight of people playing the piano on its side, my favourite being co-operative piano; one person played the keys while the other operated the pedals.
* A facebook question resulted in these suggestions: harp, penny whistle, recorder, drumkit, dulcimer, yamgquin, pipe organ, violin and viola. I can’t vouch for all of these personally as I don’t play them…