by Jason Cotter
Legend has it that when an elephant becomes aware its own death is imminent, it leaves the herd and travels alone to a final resting place known by instinct, an arched cathedral of bleached bones and ivory known as the elephant graveyard. Here all past elephants have converged, creating a reverent repository of sorts.
The graveyard is thought apocryphal but some facets of the myth ring true: elephants do venerate the bones of their dead, especially the ivory, carrying the tusks about or gently rolling them back and forth beneath their sensitive feet. And elephant remains are often found en masse; perhaps due to ivory-poaching massacres or the tendency of older elephants to congregate around waterholes where plants are soft on the palate.
The myth conjures a mysterious place, heavy with memory and metaphor, where one might ruminate on lost things, the majesty of life, and the inevitability of ruin. And on treasure.
As I slow for a discreet turnoff just short of York at the fringe of Western Australia’s wheat belt 80 kilometers east of Perth, I might have similar notions in mind if it weren’t for my anticipation.
Through an iron gate, up an untended drive, and on toward a forest of brilliant orange-trunked eucalypts, I ease the car over washouts and ruts, with last night’s rain trickling along the runnels and making the tires spin in the odd soft patch. Grass trees are in there too, the thick stems charred and twisted from past bushfires among tumbles of conglomerate rock. Then, glimpsed through the trees, a partial view: an undulation of pasture with patches of trees and shrubs in the folds, and finally, as I broach the open land, swathes of planted olives.
Then a piano. A ruined one, weathered grey like a suburban paling fence, its lid ajar, the keys all higgledy piggledy like a poor man’s teeth. The ivory veneers have come away, splayed across the keyboard and on the ground in front, as if a dentist had botched the bonding agent and left the patient spitting a mouthful of stiff flakes. The burled laminate of the piano’s wood peels away in sections and blisters in others. The sun and rain, cold and heat, and the industry of microorganisms slowly pull this least organic of instruments and symbol of culture and civilization inexorably back to earth.
Kim Hack and Penny Mossop’s Wambyn Olive Farm is the world’s first ruined piano sanctuary, a place where old pianos go to see out their final days in an environment of quiet appreciation. Kim, the sanctuary’s curator, is pressing oil as I arrive. A piano sits atop the press shed like a beacon, a jaunty upright that looks as if pulled from a bawdy Gold Rush saloon. Kim graciously lets me help lay out the raw olives, mashed like an unbrined tapenade, onto the pressing mats. We talk of organic farming, mining, foxes getting into the chooks, surf beach flotsam, and, of course, the ruined pianos. “It’s funny,” he says. “Sometimes Germans or Austrians turn up, having heard about it somewhere or another, and they’re expecting a proper retreat, a place for serious rumination on the way of all things. I give them a map.”
Perhaps a few find what they are looking for. Kim is at turns deadly serious about the poetic and inspirational possibilities of the sanctuary—“all fine things go back to the earth”—and pleasantly bemused by its eccentricity. “We need to spread this kind of madness. The world could do with more of it,” he says, grinning. He tells me it’s something else when the wind caresses the pianos with a resonant hum of strings, and talks about the possums and bush rats that have made homes among the felt hammers, and the termites that can hollow a piano out in weeks.
Later, Penny tells me of her favorite ruined piano moment: after rain she walked past one playing wildly, like a rollercoaster pianola. When she lifted the lid she found all these green tree frogs, plinking and plonking about, frolicking like the upright was some kind of musical apartment block. “There was no other reason for them to do it, other than they liked making the sound.”
The map is hand-drawn and I trundle off in search of the other 20 or so ruined pianos that have converged at Wambyn. A few have already gone up in flames at annual concert cremations, but the others sit in various states of ruin and repose around the 160-acre property. Each has a particular history, some having spent generations with the one family before being cast, beyond tuning, into back sheds and rubbish pits, onto tennis courts gone to seed and back lots now fallow, and at various other points of neglect before making their way here.
Ross Bolleter, pianist, experimental composer, improviser, Zen roshi, author of The Well Weathered Piano, and cofounder of the World Association of Ruined Piano Studies (or WARPS, formed in 1991 with American Stephen Scott), finds the oral histories of the past owners and the story of each piano one of the most fascinating and privileged parts of ruined piano research and collection. “Like unhappy families in Tolstoy, every one is ruined in its own way,” he says. The piano sanctuary was established following a concert and “piano labyrinth” installation at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2005, a “ruined piano convergence” for the Tura New Music Festival. Ross and Kim and Penny met through a mutual friend after Ross had no more room in his kitchen for all the instruments and had to start eating breakfast on his back veranda instead.
Following a recent open call for ruined pianos before a similar Tasmanian installation and concert, Ross toured the island as he had the West: He looked at and played 88 ruined pianos, one of which came from India on a whale boat in the 19th century (a “Raj piano,” he says) before selecting those with particular provenance and sound. It is surprising so many existed—and that so many owners came forward—but as early as 1888 there were 700,000 pianos in Australia, according to an estimate by French juror Oscar Comettant in Au pays des kangourous et des mines d'or (In the land of kangaroos and gold mines, 1890) though only three million inhabitants. All little pieces of home so important to settlers so far from their past selves. Or perhaps such abundance was a sign of early Aussie aspirationals; piano ownership and playing skills being a significant marker of social standing and good breeding.
Each ruined piano Ross considers a found object and prefers those far beyond tuning or repair. He has carved out a particular musical niche with compositions based on the discarded pianos and has discovered they produce sounds according to the climate in which they were found; the hot dry conditions of the Outback tend to keep pianos articulate, producing a crisper sound, and while those in damper climes aren’t as muted and soft as one might expect, the wet does foreshorten the lives and notes of each.
As a result, Ross has developed a particular ruined piano note lexicon. Among the “sweet ringer,” “after shudderer,” and the click, buzz, or doomp of a “non-worker,” there’s the “dead ringer,” which sounds then abruptly stops, the “long ringer,” which sings on insistently long after the player has walked away, the “yum” for notes rich in sub-harmonic warmth, and the “ghost tone” for when the keys are depressed and there’s no sound at all. The bass strings are also plucked and the hammers flicked, the lid tossed aside.
Ross has used the first piano to arrive in Central Australia (on the back of a camel as the Overland Telegraph was being put through) and other ruined pianos found in the center and west to compose Secret Sandhills and Satellites, named after and inspired by a painting by Western Desert artist Timmy Payungka Tjapangati. It incorporates a smattering of ambient birdsong among the strange music coaxed from the piano ruins and sounds like a kind of aural dreamscape. Listening to it gives me a strong sense of vast interiors, the places in which the pianos were carted, settled, and finally ruined, and the attendant histories and hardships of Outback Australia’s inhabitants.
The first piano I find is not merely ruined but “devastated:” it lays beneath a windmill in an olive grove, fallen over and overgrown with grass, the tessellated black and white keys a stuck chunk. Others I find sprawled across the farm but intact and upright, though only a few have keys articulate enough to play. Many are without lids or front covers, the feltless hammers exposed to the sky. I run my fingers along them and the inner workings still shuffle, like a magician’s rolling knuckles or the chattering mechanics of an elaborate telegraph exchange. The bass notes drone on like a light plane trying to land in wind, the top notes have the hard ting ting of a level crossing awaiting a train.
However, it is not the possibility of their sound that grabs me, but how they can appear at once to complement the landscape, as if they’d grown there, and in contrast to it, like alien obelisks descended in the night. One piano sits in the cleft of a salt scour, bits of it busted off and trailing down the eroded slope, like cut branches weeping in a creek’s flow. Another, a tiny horizontal, is legless and flat across some boulders, its angle following the natural weather of the rock. Yet others are beneath trees, shedding thin ply like the bark of the surrounding gums, or stand tall under the expansive sky, overlooking a breeze-flurried sea of ungrazed grass. They look natural outside and, dare I say, at peace. The sanctuary is somewhere between an elephant graveyard and a sculpture park, but it feels in no way morbid.
Ramon Gomez de la Serna, writer, avant garde rabble rouser, and surrealist precursor, wrote early last century, “A piano store looks like a funeral parlour for music.” I can imagine what he means, all that shiny coffin black and expensive guilt, all those straight-backed kids locked in to daily practice to honor their parent’s outlay. But in this state, in absolute ruin and beyond death, the pianos remind me less of a funeral and more of a life well-lived.
I wend my way back down the slope from the hill pianos farthest from the shed and pass another with half its case ripped away, the rest peeling and dilapidated. The hammers no longer work, let alone the keys, and the vertically ordered innards remind me of a grinning skull.
Someone else might see it as junk, but to Ross, Kim, Penny, and so many others who have come to the sanctuary and left inspired, it is treasure too good for a suburban tip or back lot landfill. And in this state, a continuous study in ruin, it will surely rouse others and tonk at their thoughts. French maxim writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld said that “In the human heart there is a perpetual generation of passions; so that the ruin of one is almost always the foundation of another.” This holds true for me, though it seems that what grows from ruin is never what one expects.
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