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Carleton to Stage Rare Performance of Controversial “Piano Burning”

April 28, 2009

Carleton College will be the stage for a rare live performance of renowned avant-garde composer Annea Lockwood's controversial yet notable work for piano, "Piano Burning." First performed in 1968, this ground-breaking composition centers around the actual burning of a piano—one that is beyond repair and ready to be discarded—allowing the listener to hear a variety of pitched and unpitched sounds as the piano strings heat and break. The performance will take place Thursday, April 30 at 8:45 p.m. on the “Bald Spot,” the central open area of the Carleton campus.

Carleton senior Caitlin Schmid (Shorewood, Minn.), a music and English major, originally came up with the idea of bringing “Piano Burning” to the College, after viewing a recording of Lockwood’s original performance as part of a music class. “’Piano Burning’ plays a very significant role in the development of what is now known as ‘performance art,’” she says. "Watching Lockwood’s performance really generated a lot of interesting discussion among the students. Some of us were really moved by the piece, while others were deeply offended. They couldn't get past the idea of destroying a piano and calling it 'art'."

A pioneer of performance art in the 1960s and considered to be one of the world's most important conceptual composers, Lockwood herself will visit Carleton for this unique event, participating as part of a panel discussion to be held just prior to the performance at 8 p.m. in the lobby of the Carleton College Concert Hall. The panel will also include assistant professor of music and composer Alex Freeman and lecturer in art and art history Laurel Bradley, who serves as the director of exhibitions and curator of the art collection at Carleton. “This is not about the ‘shock factor,’” adds Schmid. “The panel will provide a clear context for the performance and hopefully generate conversations about avant-garde art.”

Complementing the performance, Schmid has created an evocative and thought-provoking visual installation in the Concert Hall lobby, incorporating images of the piano in the 20th-century. “There's something very symbolic about a piano,” notes Nicola Melville, pianist and professor of music. “It's not just a musical instrument. We all have this sort of universal respect for pianos—and seeing one on fire can be quite difficult to watch, yet quite mesmerizing at the same time. It's both beautiful and disturbing." She continues, "We are particularly pleased to have the original composer participate in the performance, and to lend her insight into what compelled her to compose the piece, and to help illuminate its meaning. Lockwood’s perspective will certainly enhance this very unique performance experience."

A native of New Zealand, Lockwood received her degree from the Canterbury University (New Zealand), later studying at the Royal College of Music in London. During the 1960s, she began to develop a reputation for her innovative use of non-conventional musical materials and techniques—from glass tubing to moss to burning—as a means of creating what she called “sound sculptures.” By the 1970s, her interests led her to focus on performance art pieces inspired by the natural environment, and later into the relatively new field of electro-acoustic music. After moving to the United States, she served as a member of the music faculty at Vassar College from 1982 to 2000.

Lockwood's progressive ideas and immense range of compositions -- from microtonal, electro-acoustic soundscapes to vocal music -- push the boundaries of what is called "art," and this is exactly why Schmid is so thrilled to have this eclectic composer come to Carleton. "Her work forces us to look at art in new and different ways," says Schmid. "I look forward to the dialogue that will be generated by this performance."

This event is sponsored by the Carleton College Department of Music, with support from the Committee for the Arts and the Carleton Student Association. For more information, contact Nicola Melville at (507) 222-5745.