What drives my practice after 35 years as a professional musician? I am writing this article having just performed Annea Lockwood’s Piano Transplants (1968-1972), improvised my way through Sound Out, while preparing for the world premiere of Beacons. I am working through the logistics of moving and reinstalling The Immersive Guitar, making corrections on a journal article while directing the Creative Arts Research Institute, Griffith University. I am procrastinating about writing a new composition and have 17 open tabs on my computer of “articles to read soon”.
In Part 1 I attempt to understand the building blocks of my artistic practice, and in Part 2 I look at the specific case study of Rising performances of Lockwood’s Piano Burning (1968), Piano Drowning (1969-70) and Piano Planting (1972).
Part 1 – Building Blocks
I make and play so I can understand. Knowing through doing. Research in action. Artistic practice – lots of practising. Practising logistics, practising lighting, practising place, practising my body. The totality of this work is material knowledge. Through 35 years of professional practice, I have learnt to understand how to sound and excite objects, and how to disperse sound waves through spaces. My practice is a combination of refined embodied knowledge with seemingly improbable performance outcomes – always teetering around determined indeterminacy. I love that post-Cagean term – something I coined over 15 years ago when writing about my practice of working with found objects (Tomlinson 2013). In this instance I was talking about preparing the floor with objects, and physically generating sound with “rope-sticks”, setting up a kind of kinetic percussion sculpture. I could control the input generation part of the performance, but never the individual output of “notes”. I love the sense of active wonder that comes when you cannot control the system and must remain nimble and alert throughout the performance, as though on a tightrope trying to balance, move ahead, think ahead. I often play balanced on one foot, on my toes, or intentionally grounded on two feet. This provides the intersection of embodied playing guided by listening and dexterous sound generation that enlivens my work.
My work with Soundings (Tomlinson 2019) delves into site-specific environmental performance practice – where I investigate weather, topography, geology, and resonance through playing. This is not only about me playing into an environment; the environment itself is sonically active, listening, engaging, and responding. Again, this sense of inter-action comes to the fore. Every performance is about building an ecology, a language, a sonic environment and a way of listening. These elements are always in flux whether I am playing a piano, a cymbal, a mixing bowl, a carrot or leaves and whether I am in a concert hall, a sub-tropical gully, or a semi-arid desert.
Another crucial part of my practice is form – thinking through curated, embodied, emergent, improvised form. For me form is temporal logic – how material can unfold through time to create a kind of sense-making. It incorporates sonic awareness, with physical-spatial awareness. There is choreographic logic in form as we journey through space and time. This is as true in a solo improvisation as it is in a large-scale curated event. I intuit form, I intuit space. I intuit interactivity – with people, sounds, listeners, landscapes, the more-than human. For me it is finding the sweet spot in each performance for ideas to unfurl and become knowable. Again, this is determined indeterminacy – with just enough knowledge going into the performance, to be aware of the sweet spot as it emerges.
One of the elemental building blocks in my practice is imagination. I have been overtly interested in imagined sounds for the past 9 years – since I composed a piece called Nostalgia that asks the audience to perform the work in their imagination
- imagine the sound of your father’s voice,
- imagine the sound of your grandmother’s kitchen,
- imagine the sound of yourself – crying etc.
These are multi-sensorial prompts that act as gateways for one to reconstruct a sonic environment through memory. The active process of internal listening stimulated in this piece, is as close as I can get to sharing how I think about sound. Sound making is about conjuring vibrations, patiently waiting for an object to be willing to speak, working with materials while accepting them with their foibles.
- Imagine the sound of the pig-footed bandicoot dreaming;
- Imagine the sound of Zaglossus Hacketti’s spines rubbing against a tree(FYI this is a giant echidna, and the imagined sounds of its quills tinkling as it walks too close to a tree is an absolute favourite sound).
There are no right or wrong answers to these prompts, and performers are encouraged to do as much or as little research as they like. As in Nostalgia, the work itself is a gateway into an underground world of research, creative histories, environmental change, animal physiology, collective memory and more.
Teaching percussion, research and new music over the past 20 years has been a way of sharpening and transferring all of these skills, approaches and interests. Technique for me is about having the tools to allow an idea to speak. Developing a sense of touch, weight, effortfulness and effortlessness are all necessary to produce the sounds in my imagination. With dexterity and nuance in the stimulation of sounds coupled with active and curious ears, there are endless sonic applications for sound-making from wellbeing to kids games; examining the physics of sound to examining anthropomorphic changes in soundscapes; cultural sustainability to environmental sustainability.
Material knowledge, active wonder, determined indeterminacy, form, sculpture, imagination, listening, choreography, spatial design, creative histories and sound. That is my palette for curating sound which I utilised in performances including 8 Hits, the AAO solo series, The Oxbow, Still and Moving Paper, The Space Inside, The Immersive Guitar – in fact in every performance. When I have the freedom to actively engage in these aspects of embodied knowledge translation, I am at my most artistically content.
Part 2 – Piano Transplants
During Rising 2022 I had the pleasure of performing all three of Annea Lockwood’s Piano Transplants, curated by Lawrence English. When performing these works, what stayed with me was awareness. I played so I could understand where the instrument (the piano) was at. Deep engagement with the materials, the danger, the sound, the possibilities. I normally have a strong outward awareness of space, people and place when I am performing and can co-join these aspects with real time music making – improvised or pre-determined. However in the Piano Transplants, I had no brain space for people and place. All of my energy was needed just to execute the task at hand – sounding the piano. Micro-adjustments, surprise wind gusts, slippery steps, dead strings – everything was unpredictable. I was trying to create musical sense out of material in fluid, changeable form. The effort was always extraordinary.
I know that for many, the idea of intentionally transforming a piano is challenging – it is hard to accept that we have an excess of pianos, that people are desperately giving them away for free, that they are being taken to dumps or discarded in nearby fields. For me, the performative transformation in these works is an honouring of pianos, and more specifically an honouring of that particular piano. It makes me consider commodification, waste and excess; it makes me actively wonder about our cultural values and priorities; I am drawn to think about the makers of the instrument, its journey across oceans, the people who have played it, the environment in which the instrument resided; and I found myself paying particular attention to craftsmanship, skill, materials and effort.
The works are text scores – written instructions to enact a temporal process. In Piano Drowning one line states; “take photographs and play it monthly, as it slowly sinks”. In Piano Burning; “play whatever you like for as long as you can” (for me in this performance I played a duet with the sound of fire, and the imagined memories of the piano for 8 minutes). These are not works for the concert hall, but compositions that are experienced outdoors, in relationship to sky, sounds, weather, people and places. The works are simultaneously installations and performances. They create sites for communal listening. They are multi-sensorial works.
Improvisation is not anything, it is something. These pianos are not generic – they are particular, with their own histories, that in performance intermingle with my creative history. Pianos have always been in my life, generally as a formal object with an unspoken cultural guidebook attached; “Don’t touch it with sticky fingers”. “Don’t play the inside”. “Play it properly”. As a percussionist there is no proper, so I approached the pianos in this series with the same creative curiosity I discussed in part 1. I did not play just anything on these instruments, but explored how to play with the instrument as it transformed. I became acutely aware of the construction of the piano, the centrality of the strings, the importance of the frame, the resilience of the sound board, the variable function of the hammers, and the often disfunction of the keyboard.
The piano is the consistent starting point in the compositions, but the transformation process is completely different. In Piano Burning there are obvious challenges; the unpredictability of wind and fire, the burning of varnish, the smoke, the snapping of strings, the cracks through which fire and smoke emerge, and of course the heat. All of this is part of the larger awareness – the context of the music making. Playing, safety and sense-making put me in a heightened state of performance mode that I have rarely experienced. I was listening to the sound of fire, and trying to coax this particular instrument to play its last sounds. Poignantly, I was playing in the lowest octave of the piano when it simply stopped making sound as the hammers themselves had burnt through. I then stood up and walked away from the instrument as flames engulfed the keyboard.
In Piano Drowning water temperature was a feature as I walked toward the half-submerged instrument in waders, experiencing the dullness of the instrument, the slipperiness of movement, and the difficulty in accessing sonic possibilities. In these performances my goal was to find ways to get the instrument to sing, through the strings, the soundboard, and the frame. The keyboard had no real function except as a Lachenmann-like guiro, but as I progressed through four performances, more and more sound potentials emerged.
In Piano Planting there is no physical barrier to accessing the instrument, but the slow transformation of the piano laid bare to the elements means that on any single day the challenges could vary from stuck keys to no keys, resonant strings to dull, slack strings, wood with tone, to soggy wood. Again the sonic adventure here is to stay completely in the moment making sense of the materials available.
In each of these scenarios I became a servant to sound, trying to find form and shape, logic and beauty, while continuously conjuring possibilities. I thought about how every piano speaks differently within itself, and within the context in which it is placed. I thought about acoustics, projection, balance, voicing as well as brightness, dynamic range, touch and evenness. I experienced the shy and slightly muted piano in the burning; the drowning piano that would not easily reveal its potential; and the planted pianos, like any aging body, were sagging, rotting, and changing shape.
In the opening of this article I talked about my approach to sound-making and the elemental building blocks that are up for negotiation in my practice. In 2022, 50 years after Lockwood’s Piano Transplant were first imagined, they still stimulate discussion about the technological wonder that is the piano and its place in our cultural landscape. The works provide me an opportunity to deepen my practice as I think through material knowledge, active wonder, determined indeterminacy, form, sculpture, imagination, listening, choreography, spatial design, creative histories and sound.
Tomlinson, V. (2013) Music for the Banal. Balance/Unbalance Leonardo Journal http://www.balance-unbalance2013.org/uploads/1/3/2/6/13266267/balance_unbalance_2013_full_papers_e-book_.pdf
Tomlinson, V. (2019). Soundings: Making Sound in Place. Sonic Ideas.
Tomlinson, V. (2019) Intersecting Place, Environment, Sound and Music. Soundscape – _The Journal of Acoustic Ecology. Vol. 17.
 Beacons is composed by Lawrence English and Vanessa Tomlinson for acoustic musicians, electronics and ocean. The postponed premiere of this work is on June 30th, North Burleigh Headland.
 Piano Transplants at Rising was curated by Lawrence English and produced by the Substation. Piano Burning was also presented at Brisbane Festival 2021 with footage from that presented at the ISSUE project room, New York. Vanessa Tomlinson also participated in the burning of a piano by Bruce Wolfe and Jocelyn Wolfe at The Piano Mill 2022. Related piano-based performances include Piano Bloom, and The Piano Mill.
 Ropes were first used by Erik Griswold in his composition Strings Attached 1999. They have been featured in Clocked Out performances Lavender Mist and as part of my solo practice. This builds on other kinetic sculptures including my early work with rice in Practice and later work with rice in Spill.
 This work began with Erik Griswold’s Sounding Wivenhoe in 2007. It has continued in a series including Sounding the Condamine (2009) and Sounding Nudgee with Richard Nunns (2008) and then Soundings at Harrigans Lane (aka the Piano Mill) from 2015 onward.
 This work was first composed for Grey Wing Ensemble in Perth for any number of performers on any instrument. It examines extinct and critically endangered species from this area. It has been reworked for California, the Granite Belt, and Brisbane where I research and re-write the composition to expose the extinct and critically endangered species of the specific area.
Professor Vanessa Tomlinson is the director of the Creative Arts Research Institute at Griffith University. Her research places artmaking at the centre, exploring the role of sound and music in our lives, working at the intersection of musical genres and approaches, engaging in art-science collaborations, and using listening as a primary methodology in her practice. Key projects and collaborations include The Piano Mill, The Immersive Guitar, Clocked Out, The Australian Art Orchestra, Water Pushes Sand, and Sounding the Condamine, The Listening Museum, Early Warning System and Ba Da Boom Percussion. Vanessa has toured the world as a percussionist for the past thirty years creating a bold body of work evidenced in recordings, performances, projects and collaborations. For more information please go to vanessatomlinson.com and clockedout.org