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These two musicians are uncovering the hidden music in some of history’s most iconic speeches

When Joseph Stalin died in 1953, a record of banned and exiled Russian pianist Maria Yudina performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 was found on his record player.

Despite being a loud critic and defiant rebel against Stalin’s regime, Yudina was a favourite artist of the Premier of the Soviet Union. This artistic and political irony sets the tone for the magnificent speech-melody performance, Stalin’s Piano. Composed by Robert Davidson, and performed by Ukranian born Sonya Lifschitz, Stalin’s Piano features iconic speeches and film clips from political figures throughout history.

From Gillard to Trump, the pair uncovered the music hidden in countless leaders and performed their project to wide critical acclaim in Canberra last year. The piece was so well received, in fact, that they will once again perform Stalin’s Piano, this time, at MOFO in Hobart on the January 19 and 20.

MOFO is the powerfully provocative annual Festival Of Music and Art held by Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). Entering its tenth and final year at MONA, the festival has built a reputation for showcasing an extremely diverse range of international artists across an equally diverse range of art forms.

We interviewed Sonya about how she and David found and framed the music, and the state of classical music in the 21st century.

What was the process like whilst you and Robert Davidson were developing Stalin’s Piano? Did you develop styles or motifs around the speeches or their speakers?

“It has been a fascinating and rewarding journey creating Stalin’s Piano with my dear friend and colleague Robert Davidson.

“Kicking off from my life-long fascination with the Russian pianist Maria Yudina and her extraordinary courage in defying Stalin’s tyranny, Rob and I began dreaming about this project on our long bus trips while touring with Topology and The Kransky Sisters in North Queensland. So for me, this work will always be associated with the image of looking out the window at canefields, glorious mountains, picturesque country towns and giant sculptures of cane toads.

“Whilst Rob is the mastermind behind the music and the genius behind the musical design of the project, it’s been a genuine composer-performer collaboration, with my creative vision very much tied to that of Rob’s in selecting the stories and themes to weave together. The work is about a complex interplay between the roles of creative artist and politician – roles that often seem to overlap and mingle in diverse ways.

“Artists may concern themselves with plans to change society, inform policy and influence the way that we live. Politicians get involved in artistic projects, subjugate artists to political agendas, and see themselves as artists working with populations as modelling clay and architects of public life.

“There’s no set meaning to the work, but there are many themes and motifs running between the pieces within the project, highlighting the big themes of modern civilization. The hope is that audience members find dense layers of meaning for themselves in considering these striking slices of history.”

From Robert Davidson:

“Part of the project is also about finding empathy. When we focus on words, as our thinking brains are so much in the habit of doing, we sometimes miss the deeper, emotional communication that is going on behind the words in the intonation of speech – the melodies, rhythms, timbres that communicate a lot more than just the dictionary meanings of words (as Oliver Sacks so eloquently described in “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”).

“I find that hearing the speeches as music assists me in hearing these meanings, and hearing the person rather than just their words, or the category they represent.

“How does speech become music? It’s not through editing the speech, forcing it into a pre-conceived musical mould – rather, it’s done here through carefully attending to the speech, finding the music that is there, and using the piano as a frame in which to place the music I find – creating an accompaniment that primes perception to hear the music that was always there.

“Such an approach builds on those of predecessors such as Janáček (who was fond of collecting speech melodies in his notebook (starting in the 1870s) and letting them inform his operatic writing), Mussorgsky, Harry Partch, Hermeto Pascoal, and most importantly Scott Johnson, whose 1978 “John Somebody” had an important influence, both on me, and on other composers such as Steve Reich, whose “Different Trains” is one of the better known speech-melody works. In Australia, Sherre Delys is a great example.

“To me, it’s a kind of portrait making – careful observation of a person’s voice (rather than their face) and a kind of extraction of the essential, distinctive musical style they project into the world. It’s treating everyone as a composer – they create melodies spontaneously, unconsciously, with their spoken utterances. Sonya’s piano helps the rest of us hear those melodies.”

In recent years, you have pioneered the boundaries of classical performance culture. Has this always been reflected in your musical ideology, or is it a more recent development?

“The biggest question I face as a classical musician trained in the elite conservatory tradition, now working within the complex and rapidly changing 21st century, is: “What can I do as an artist to ensure the longevity and relevance of this art-from, which is in an increasingly precarious position?”

“As I questioned and challenged the essentially “heritage” ways Western classical music is often practiced and thought about, where preservation and reproduction seem to be valued above creativity, innovation and risk-taking, it became increasingly important and even urgent to me to seek new ways to create, design and curate music performances and concert experiences that better reflect and engage with contemporary culture and with the developments and innovations in other disciplines and artforms, such as theatre, contemporary dance, visual art, and sound and media arts.

“Looking for ways to forge new directions, find new languages, and re-think ways in which classical and contemporary classical music is created and communicated, from composer to performer and from performer to the audience, led me to building collaborations and relationships with a growing number of composers and artists from different disciplines as a kind of laboratory I suppose, for creating new collaborative, often multi-media/cross-disciplinary works that either recontextulise and reimagine works of the past, giving the audience a new and fresh experience of these works, or create new, original work that pushes the boundaries of conventional concert practices.”

You have collaborated with a very impressive and diverse range of artists over Australia and abroad. Are there any Australian artists you admire that you haven’t had the chance to work with yet?

“Oh, there are so many Australian artists that I admire, whom I would adore to collaborate and make work with!

“I have several theatre directors on my radar, they are such a special breed of artists – visionary, strategic, wildly imaginative yet pragmatic and able to realise the most seemingly intangible ideas.

“Contemporary dance is also an art form I deeply admire and I am currently working on a two-piano project that lends itself beautifully to a creative partnership with a dancer-choreographer, which I hope to pursue this year.

“Lighting designers are, again, an amazing breed of creatives and working with light is becoming more and more important to me in creating performances. And of course, there are many Australian composers and sound designers that I hope to get a chance to work and bring new works into being with.”

Can you tell us about any other projects you have in the works ahead of 2018?

“Many exciting projects are in the pipeline for 2018 and beyond. “Handwork”, with the extraordinary pianist Lisa Moore, is a two-piano project celebrating two seminal American composers – John Adams (Hallelujah Junction) and Martin Bresnick (Handwork), together with one of the greatest masterpieces of classical music, Bach’s Goldberg Variations arranged by Stephen Emmerson for 2 pianos. We toured a similar program last year in the United States and this year have an exciting Australian Tour coming up.

“Another two projects in the works are Canzone, which integrates musical performance, visual art, and animated projections to re-imagine the music of Claudio Monteverdi through a contemporary lens; and Cosmic Mechanics, a fully staged, multi-space performance of all four books of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos in collaboration with Australia’s leading theatre and lighting design artists.

“Perhaps the most exciting project, and the most creatively challenging and stimulating for me, is my collaboration with unique and exceptional performance artist Christine Johnston, whose work I admire greatly.

“Together, we have interviewed the elderly women in our lives, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, friends and asked them simple questions. From that, extraordinary, heartfelt stories poured out.

“Part theatre, part documentary, part concert, and part oral history, this project will be a multimedia, cross-art work that tells a story of six ordinary women, living extraordinary lives in the time before home computers, Internet or mobile phones, before the society’s growing obsession with mapping their lives onto social media platforms.”

If you are ready to see new life breathed into some of the most defining moments in history, make sure you get down to MOFO to experience Stalin’s Piano.

Tickets and more information can be found on Mona’s website.

Sonya Lifschitz-1
Stalin's Piano
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