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Raydale Dower - Piano Drop

“Anyone who has ever played a piano,” Tom Waits declared in a recent
interview, “would really like to hear how it sounds when dropped from a
twelfth-floor window.”

Waits probably hasn’t heard of Raydale Dower, but if the gravel-voiced
troubadour can bring his wonkily-inclined junkyard orchestra over to
Tramway this week for the Glasgow-based artist and musician’s new
three-dimensional audio-visual installation, he might just be able to
find out. As its title suggests, Piano Drop is a Sensurround record of
what happened when Dower let loose a winched-up keyboard from the
venue’s ceiling, filming it as it smashed into a million match-stick
size pieces.

The result, slowed down by up to forty times and relayed through a film
loop and an ambisonic speaker arrangement, aims to enhance the hidden
musicality of such a seemingly destructive action.

“It was a simple piece of musical curiosity,” Dower explains of Piano
Drop’s roots, “just to explore the straightforward absurd and anarchic
enjoyment of dropping a piano. It’s like a performance piece, but
without any performer, so it becomes this gesture. The only other way
you could do something like this would be in a war-torn city, where you
could push a piano off a building, but you’re not going to be able to
document it in the same way. My sole interest was to find out what
happened sonically if you dropped a piano. I just wanted to hear it.”

Enabled by a Creative Scotland Vital Spark award and with Tramway on
board, Dower teamed up with Glasgow School of Art’s Digital Design
Studio world renowned sonic consultants, ARUP Acoustics.

“That’s when it became a much bigger event,” Dower says. “Dropping a
piano all happens in a few seconds, so you want to slow it down so you
can witness it in full and explore the repercussions. So we brought in
these really fast cameras that take a thousand frames a second. What’s
funny is you start with an absurd proposition, and you end up with this
near scientific documentation of what I think of as a sculptural
composition.”

Both Waits’ comment and Dower’s action echo the words of proto
Surrealist Tristan Tzara, who in 1918 grandly pronounced that
‘Musicians smash your instruments’. Other precedents come via Fluxus
artist Nam June Paik destroying a violin, Al Hansen’s similarly
inclined Yoko Ono Piano Drop, and even Jimi Hendrix’s very public
burning of his guitar. The Who’s Pete Townshend, meanwhile, had already
looked to Gustav Metzger’s notions of auto-destructive art by reducing
his own guitars to splinters.

Yet the smashed piano is also something of a slapstick staple. On more
than one occasion in their prolific film career, iconic comedy double
act Laurel and Hardy explored the perils of piano removal to hilarious
effect. The appeal of watching buildings being demolished is another
form of spectacle informing Piano Drop. Dower also mentions the power
of dub reggae sound systems, the covers of classic Blue Note jazz
albums and Samuel Beckett as influences on Piano Drop.

“Slowing sound down isn’t the same as slowing images down,” he says.
“An image freezes, but with sound, you just get this kind of sub-atomic
rumble. It’s like a catastrophe. You’re exploding the moment. Then when
you see it at normal speed, it looks like a Charlie Chaplin film.”

Piano Drop isn’t Dower’s first artistic exploration of sound. His first
solo show, On Memory and Chance, at Stirling’s Changing Room gallery in
2010, used chance compositions. Dower had also previously piled four
pianos on top of each other at the Talbot Rice.

In terms of events, at last year’s Glasgow international Festival of
Visual Art, Dower created Le Drapeau Noir, an ad hoc avant-garde social
space that became the festival’s informal hub. Prior to this, Dower was
bass player with Glasgow-based raw blues hollerers Uncle John &
Whitelock, and currently provides clarinet and other noises for the
more experimentally inclined Tut Vu Vu.

“I wanted to make a visual equivalent of music,” Dower says, “then I
went to art school and came out with a bass guitar and started a band.”

Dower recently found out from his mother that, as a child, he couldn’t
talk properly. To explain the world around him, he made noises,
impersonating the sounds he heard around him. Dower may be
hyper-articulate today, but Piano Drop is a logical extension of his
early behaviour.

“It should sound like an earthquake,” he says, “which is a fairly
primitive thing to hear. I want it to have an impact.”

Piano Drop, Tramway, Glasgow, November 3-6
www.tramway.org

The Herald, November 1 2011

ends

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