Monday, February 09, 2009

One of the shows I saw in NYC on Saturday was Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s prepared piano piece, Stop, Repair, Prepare, currently on view through February 21 at Gladstone Gallery. Originally created for and shown in the Haus der Kunst in Munich last year, the piece consists of an early 20th century Bechstein piano through which the artists have cut a circular hole just large enough to accommodate a human body standing in the instrument’s center.

Concerts are given with the piano hourly, Tuesday through Saturday, with one of a rotating cast of six pianists basically wearing the piano and leaning forward across it, straining to reach the keys—which obviously must be played backwards and upside down. Additionally, two octaves in the middle of the piano’s range have been excised in order to make room for the performer, making for an effortful performance, interrupted by occasional quiet plunking, odd percussive sounds. As they lean forward, the performers can walk the wheeled piano through Gladstone’s circuit of spaces. (When no performer is present, gallery goers wander from room to room, a little mystified until they finally manage to locate the piano, or take the time to read the gallery statement.)

The piece each performer is directed to play is the Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—the “Ode to Joy”, which, in addition to being the European Union’s current official anthem, was also favored by the Nazis, and was notably once performed for the Fuhrer on his birthday. Adding to the music’s strange pedigree is the element of Turkish music that crops up in this movement, as ArtDaily noted last August:

The lively beat and the unusual instrumentation (bass drums, triangle, cymbals) in the "Turkish style" was popular with composers, who found inspiration in the marching janissary military band of the Ottoman Empire that went to war against European armies. "Turkish" music was so popular at the turn of the 19th century that piano manufacturers made pianos with a "Turkish stop", also known as a military or janissary stop. The musician would step on a pedal that then rang a bell and/or caused a padded hammer to hit the sound box, imitating a bass drum… Literally mobilising this famous melody, the performance sets into motion a sonic journey from modernity’s beginning towards an uncertain horizon, where the emblem of European brotherhood resides; a brotherhood to which, strangely enough, Turkey’s status within this universal embrace remains uncertain.

Personally, I thought the piece was brilliant, though it's an odd fit for a slick commercial space in Chelsea: It must've made a heck of a lot more sense--and had a lot more historical resonance--in the space in Munich. Below is a video of the mobile Ode, via YouTube:


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