Allora & Calzadilla’s Eviscerated Piano Plays MoMA

12/08/2010 4:00 AM |

Around 9:30am on the Monday after Thanksgiving, MoMA is its typical hub of pre-opening activity. Employees rush through the smaller of its 53rd Street entrances and into the waiting elevators. Conservation and installation staff pace the galleries, washing dirty fingerprints off the white walls, checking that artworks are in their intended states.

Coming up the escalator to the second floor an unexpected sound rises above the din: a piano, playing fragments of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” A black grand piano sits in the imposing MoMA atrium alongside pieces by Kara Walker and Yoko Ono that have, by now, been removed. At first the instrument seems to be playing all by itself. Coming around to face it, one gets the full effect: a young man (a Juilliard student, I learn later) dressed in all-black with stylish white-rimmed glasses, stands in a hole that’s been cut into the piano, playing it upside-down and inside-out. His slumped, stretched pose reminds me of Dali’s overhead angle on the Crucifixion in “Christ of St. John of the Cross” (1951).

Nearby, another slightly older man dressed entirely in black speaks into his cell phone as he paces the walkway above the museum’s ticketing area, where eager tourists are gathering. That’s Guillermo Calzadilla, one half of the artist duo Allora & Calzadilla. He’s been there for hours already rehearsing “Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy for a Prepared Piano” (2008), which will be performed by five different pianists in the MoMA atrium every hour for a month (December 8 through January 10). He’ll be back for more rehearsals that evening, after the museum closes and a private event wraps up. Before going to get some sleep he sits down to talk about the piece, the venue’s specific demands, and what he and Jennifer Allora have planned for the 2011 Venice Biennale, where they’ll be representing the United States.

The L: How did you find the pianists for this piece?

Guillermo Calzadilla: We did a casting and selected the pianists who were interested in doing this very challenging, very different, absurd task of playing a piano from within and moving it. So they needed to be interested not only in the challenges of the work, but what the work means, what it represents, and it takes a very unique type of trained pianist to be able to do this. Luckily we got amazing pianists, five of them, and each of them is doing a different musical arrangement. Each one is doing a completely different choreography, which means the way they move through the space the way they begin, the way they end, where they stop, each of them has a completely different itinerary. So we have five pianists doing five different choreographies that can be seen as drawings of sorts, especially from the upper floors of the museum when you’re looking down.

How much of the performance did you have to modify to fit this space?

It’s almost a new exhibition. There’s new acoustics in this space and so we have to work with that. We’re using speakers in this case; it’s our first time using speakers. We’re gonna have a concert piano technician come and wire the piano, but of course it’s not the same because the piano is moving, so it has to be a wireless mic. Because of that, as the piano moves the sound moves, so we need to find a way to make the sound still feel like it’s coming from the instrument, but at the same time be slightly amplified to deal with the acoustics of the space.The space is also completely different, so we needed to design a completely new choreography.