Kim Hack had never heard of composer and improvisation artist Ross Bolleter when he took a call from a mutual friend asking if he would like to give a home to 14 ruined pianos on his olive farm near York in Western Australia’s Avon Valley.
“I didn’t have to think about it for a second,” Kim recalls. “The concept of extending the life of a clutch of pianos in various states of disrepair instantly appealed.”
And so, in 2005, Kim and his partner, Penny Mossop, became the custodians of Australia’s, perhaps even the world’s, first ruined piano sanctuary. Today, they’ve lost count of how many disused and decaying pianos are scattered around their farm, but Kim estimates there would be at least 50 or 60 of them. Yet others have been claimed by the dam, disintegrated entirely from exposure to the elements or reduced to a pile of ash by the burnings that conclude musical events held on the farm.
Ross Bolleter is a Perth composer, jazz pianist and classical music teacher. For almost three decades he has been interested in the non-conventional timbral and rhythmic possibilities of “prepared” pianos [which have objects placed between the strings or on the hammers or dampers]. The potential of the ruined piano, which has been left to weather at the whim of the sunshine, rain and extremes of hot and cold, was not too great a leap from there.
In 1991 he teamed up with Colorado College music professor Stephen Scott to found WARPS, the World Association for Ruined Piano Studies. As Ross reports, thisaugust body has a worldwide membership yet has never had an AGM. “It tends only to move into action from a whim or a rush of blood,” he explains in the organisation’s online manifesto.
One such action was the Installation of the Piano Labyrinth at PICA (the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts). Ross collected 14 ruined pianos in the main display space of the gallery to be improvised upon by all visitors. At the end of the event, however, he found himself with a collection of pianos and nowhere to store them. Which is how he came to team up with Kim and Penny. Since then, the collaborators have struck a deal with a Perth piano agent to accept all pianos that would otherwise end up on the streets, in back sheds or in landfill, and the collection has grown steadily.
This story was originally published in Australian Country issue 15.5. Subscribe to our magazine here.
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Words Kirsty McKenzie
Photography Ken Brass