Festival

David Sornig’s piano will be engulfed in flames next month as part of RISING's “Piano Burning”, in a performance resonant with both personal and historical significance.

By David Sornig.

A bonfire of the piano keys

Worn out pianos committed to the flames at West Melbourne Swamp, 1914
Worn out pianos committed to the flames at West Melbourne Swamp, 1914
Credit: Courtesy National Film and Sound Archive of Australia

There was no country in the world, it was said in the late 19th century, that had more pianos per head of population than Australia.

Whether or not the statistic is true, what’s certain is the piano’s ubiquity at the vanguard of European cultural self-assertion across the continent in the 1st century of its colonial occupation.

The upright piano especially, as an affordable, mass-produced consumer commodity about which lingered the aura of genteel bourgeois prestige, became the vehicle that carried all the traditions of Western song – popular and bawdy, sacred and sophisticated. Pianos were played across Australia in homes and concert halls, in hotels and churches, from the largest cities to the farthest-flung sheep stations.

But by the early 20th century, many pianos that had been imported into the country over that first century were falling into disrepair. While some were junked, many others continued to circulate in the market.

For the iconic Melbourne retailer, Allans Music, the problem of having to compete in a market that was so adulterated with obsolete pianos had, by 1914, become so great that it organised the wholesale disposal of 51 uprights that it had stockpiled in its Collins Street warehouse.

Rather than doing away with the instruments quietly, the company made a public spectacle of their destruction. It paraded the pianos out of the city in a horse-and-cart procession that ended just a few kilometres away, on the wastelands of the West Melbourne Swamp. There, they were piled up eight metres, to be engulfed in an enormous bonfire.

I wrote about this event some years ago in a chapter for Blue Lake – a history of the dismal fate of the once-pristine wetlands of the lower Yarra Delta upon which the bonfire had been made.

I surveyed the 1914 bonfire and, by way of trying to better imagine it as a visceral experience, also drew on “Piano Burning”. In this experimental improvisation, devised in 1968 by New Zealand-born composer Annea Lockwood, an upright piano that’s beyond repair is installed in an open space, set alight and played until playing on it becomes impossible.

When it was announced that a performance of “Piano Burning” would be staged at this year’s Rising festival in Melbourne, I couldn’t help but return to thinking of the resonance I’d imagined between the 1914 bonfire and Lockwood’s work. I thought also that I’d written about both of these at a desk that had itself once been an upright piano.

The instrument from which I’d made the desk, which was built in England early in the 20th century, had been passed on to me by a friend who’d owned it for 30 years. When it came into my possession it was in such poor condition that it was barely playable. Its keys stuck, it was grossly out of tune and one of its broken hammer shanks had been replaced with a chopstick. By making it into a desk, I figured that I was preserving it from complete ruin.

But the piano, as desk, wasn’t really much chop either. I spent so long hunched awkwardly over it that I developed a permanent crick in my shoulder and ended up abandoning it to the deck outside, where it sat for a couple of years – idle, rusting and beginning to rot.

When the Melbourne staging of “Piano Burning” was announced, I saw an opportunity to complete the circle of my piano’s connection to the work. I contacted Lawrence English, the Brisbane artist who is curating “Piano Burning” for Rising as one of the three parts of Lockwood’s Piano Transplants suite. I donated the piano, restored to its flawed playability, to the burn.

When the burning is staged, on June 10 on Birrarung Marr by the Yarra River, the performer will be the sound artist Vanessa Tomlinson.

Tomlinson, who first performed “Piano Burning” at last year’s Brisbane Festival, has an intimate respect for the sonic qualities of decaying instruments. She is involved as well with the Piano Mill, a purpose-built mega-instrument in northern New South Wales, which houses 16 pianos that are all exposed to the elements and in slow states of ruin.

When I speak with her ahead of Melbourne’s “Piano Burning”, I ask how she prepares for her improvisation. She tells me it’s almost impossible. While she’d entertained the “romantic” preconception of playing a “duet with fire” ahead of the Brisbane burn, it was quickly overwhelmed by the dynamic facts of the flames.

“The acceleration happens,” she says, “and suddenly it’s like a child growing up. It’s always a few years ahead of you. Just when you adapt to something, it’s transformed. It was like that improvising with fire. It doesn’t speak human language. It’s not responsive to you. You have to be with it.”

While “Piano Burning” begins on this note of anticipating the critical moment of “complete danger”, in which the performer is forced to abandon the instrument, it continues well beyond it. Once the spectacle of the fire taking full and terrific hold of the frame dies down, the gutted instrument and its hot metal harp and strings eventually collapse.

It’s during the long, gradual cooling of the fire into embers – when, as Tomlinson describes it, “you spend a lot of time in your brain” – that “Piano Burning”, which deliberately eschews a performance manifesto, opens up a space for reflection.

When I’m in the audience on Birrarung Marr, watching the burning of the piano that for a few years was in my care, I’ll mostly have in mind that other burn that took place further along the river more than a century ago, in the place from where the wetlands and the river itself have been erased.

I’ll be thinking too about the place of the piano in colonial settler society. About the way it served the same function as a hearth. A place, as Tomlinson suggests, around which settlers gathered for a sense of safety. A place where they did not feel vulnerable but instead, as the piano was played and its music erased the sound of the surrounding bush, it was possible to maintain the illusion that the distance from “home” had been erased as well.

I’ll be reminded that at that other burning in 1914, one man dared to climb to the top of the pile of pianos to briefly play one of them for the last time. He was never vulnerable to the fire that was to consume it. Once the kerosene had been poured and the blaze was lit, it was impossible for any human to come close.

On Birrarung Marr, where my piano will literally become a burning hearth, I’ll be aware that in her improvisation, Tomlinson’s vulnerability will not be erased but exposed. It’s her willingness to be present, both with the piano and with the fire, that will make “Piano Burning” so vitally distinct from the piano bonfire of 1914.

“The human keeps the scale,” Tomlinson says of being at the piano as it is burning. “Having someone actually physically play it puts that tenderness back into it and makes you understand its memory as an object, that it’s not a sterile object. It’s a sounding object that’s always negotiated with. That’s what’s so beautiful.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "Burn this for me".

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David Sornig is the author of Blue Lake: finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp.

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