Feature M meets the acclaimed Norwegian classical pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who joins the South African artist Robin Rhode in a unique performance inspired by Modest Mussorgsky's epic Pictures At An Exhibition, as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival.
Drowning the piano: a marriage of music and art
Jasper Rees meets the acclaimed Norwegian classical pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who joins the South African artist Robin Rhode in a unique performance inspired by Modest Mussorgsky's epic Pictures At An Exhibition, as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival. There will be those who see it as sacrilege. In the floor of a dry dock stands a grand piano. The dock doesn't stay dry for long. Water comes gushing in through opened floodgates. First it laps at the piano's legs, then gradually rises until it floods the strings and hammers of the instrument. Still the water rises, coaxing the soundboard to float free as the entire piano sits submerged. And all the while, the climactic moments of Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition swirl and pulse.
What, precisely, might the drowning of a piano have to do with Mussorgsky? The short answer is Pictures Reframed, a brave new marriage between piano and video installation, which will be performed as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival on Wednesday. The longer answer starts with Leif Ove Andsnes, the acclaimed Norwegian concert pianist. "Classical music is a little in despair," he says. "It feels sidelined, it doesn't feel contemporary enough. There is a need to find different ways of presenting it. What does one do to create more interest, to make classical music seem more contemporary, apart from just commissioning new pieces?"
Andsnes's idea, incubated over several years, was not to commission new music, but a new kind of accompaniment. It didn't take such a huge leap to arrive at Pictures At An Exhibition, a piece of music famously inspired by another art form. his idea of combining a staple of the canon with a visual art component was encouraged by the Lincoln Center in New York, which put him in touch with Laurence Dreyfus, a Parisian gallery owner. Dreyfus showed him the work of various artists and the one whose catalogue stood out was the rising young South African, Robin Rhode. "I saw two or three of his short films and said, 'This is really something. There is such musicality to it and such a poetic feeling.'"
Rhode's name meant nothing to Andsnes. When they met in Munich in 2007 at Rhode's first solo exhibition in Europe, the ignorance turned out to be mutual. "I had absolutely no idea about classical music," recalls Rhode. "I had never gone to classical performances before. But I watched endless YouTube videos of Leif Ove and I was completely blown away." They talked a lot. Or rather, as Andsnes recalls, Rhode talked a lot.
"I had to convince you [Andsnes] I was the right person for this project," Rhode explains. His interest fired, he had done his research, not only on Mussorgsky but also on Viktor Hartmann, an artist whose posthumous show in Moscow had inspired the composer. Pictures At An Exhibition reimagined Mussorgsky's tour of the gallery on the piano. The piece is structured as a set of his personal responses to individual drawings, interspersed with the splendidly purposeful "Promenade" theme.
"That was my interest," says Rhode, "that this entire composition was based on sketches. I looked at all the works that inspired Mussorgsky's music. They're very open to interpretation." And this, explains Andsnes, is equally true of music that has been reinterpreted by figures as diverse as Ravel, Duke Ellington and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. "This has always been a piece in a sketch-like state," he says. "Mussorgsky's ability to write for the, piano is not as great as his incredible vision for the piece. This is the only piece where I would take liberties with the score."
Music had already featured in Rhode's work. For one of his trademark wall-graffiti performance pieces he daubed a jazz ensemble on a New York wall, then mimed playing along to the music. That visual signature was the starting point for the Promenade's visual accompaniment. As in much of his work, Rhode uses a stop-motion animation featuring a tall, thin male figure - usually himself - interacting with two-dimensional images. In this case the figure wears a suit and tie, identical to the one Andsnes will wear onstage when playing the piece.
As in work, so in life. When I meet them in Paris, Rhode, rangy and wide-eyed, is animation incarnate. Andsnes keeps the fireworks for performance. And yet for all their differences, it turned out to be a meeting of minds. While Rhode wouldn't dream of telling Andsnes how to play the piano, he proved open to intervention as he went about creating the visual element to Pictures Reframed. Not that Andsnes, who admits to being only an occasional gallery visitor, dared to open his mouth to start with.
"I was very insecure in the beginning how much I should say," says Andsnes. "In the first months I thought, 'I can't even start to think creatively the way he can about concepts.' But then when we got to know each other better I just said very often what I thought." "There's been a lot of instances where Leif Ove has given feedback," says Rhode. "It also allows me to understand the music more clearly."
Andsnes describes the marriage of art forms as "a bit of an impossible project, but also very challenging". No challenge was as great as the moment Rhode had to jump in the water to film the climactic drowning of the piano for The Great Gate Of Kiev. "If I didn't get in Leif Ove would have thrown me," says Rhode. "It was an extremely painful experience. Whenever I went underwater it felt as if nails were being hammered into my face. It was absolutely unbearable."
He only had himself to blame. Rhode had proposed the idea of murdering a piano when they first met. The more they talked about it, the more the idea of some kind of pianistic sacrifice appealed to the pianist. "I just thought it would be a beautiful image," says Andsnes, "and it is. I am showing I am sacrificing something big for this project. There is a sacrifice for the music in a way. But you have to challenge the status quo."
Leif Ove Andsnes and Robin Rhode will perform Pictures Reframed as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival at the Emirates Palace auditorium on Wednesday, March 31 at 8pm. Tickets, from Dh95, from Time Out Tickets or the auditorium box office.