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Behind-the-scenes with Paul Grabowsky and Chloe Hooper

Our 2017 Writer-in-Residence Chloe Hooper recently sat in on Australian pianist Paul Grabowsky’s concert rehearsal in the Salon. After observing the musician at work, Chloe penned the below piece.

Paul Grabowsky has taken off his tattered jacket with its Order of Australia pin, and sits behind the grand piano in the Recital Centre’s Salon, riffling through sheet music. J. S. Bach’s preludes from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, rest against the music stand—as do pages of the notation’s exact reversals. In two nights, Grabowsky is debuting a work in which he will reorder Bach’s first six preludes and fugues, while interposing his own compositions. Now under the salon’s full lights, he’s about to rehearse the piece with some musicians he admires: the percussionist Eugene Ughetti; the recorder virtuoso, Genevieve Lacey; Erkki Veltheim on viola; and Ben Grayson, with a digital signal processor—all stars themselves of Australia’s classical and experimental music scenes.

“Each of your voices is totally independent,” he counsels the musicians, who are playing fragments of Bach, or Bach-inspired parts, including the reversals—a disorientating adjustment causing phrases to start rather than end with an attack, followed by decay. “Get into the headspace that what you’re doing is absolutely right.”

The preludes have been a touchstone in Grabowsky’s life since his piano teacher, Mack Jost, introduced him to Bach, the master. Jost, a debonair but painfully shy man, was a teacher of the Melbourne Conservatorium, and usually did not take on children as students, but he saw something different in Grabowsky. When he began private lessons at Jost’s East Hawthorn house, the seven year-old would wait in the library for his teacher, and look through a leather bound set of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. It was this precocious study of comparative mythology, he says, that got him thinking music could be filled with ideas.

Surrounded by empty black chairs, the musicians play Grabowsky’s interventions and turn Bach’s pure architecture into a labyrinth of sound. There are blind corners, and wrong and right turns. At times Grayson’s processor transforms the Steinway into a piano accordion; Ughetti runs a bow along the crotales and it sounds like a blade shearing through the music; or Veltheim’s viola makes a rusting hinge-like creaking.

Grabowsky’s music is marked by a sense of searching for something, a kind of yearning quest, and, here, what guides us is the pure, clean line of Bach, which Grabowsky plays while signaling to the others when it’s time to move on. He brings the language of jazz to his playing, leading us in this work through the vagaries of memory, its distortions literal care of Grayson’s sampling … Until it is almost as if in our mind’s eye we can hear—if such a thing is possible—an old house and its uncanny breathing. (Lacey’s contrabass recorder—an instrument she almost has to dance with in order to play—makes a subtle but otherworldly sequence of echoes.)

Music can, of course, bend and alter time: it can take us back to the place we first heard it. And maybe Grabowsky is taken to a dark Edwardian hallway, past the library, to his teacher’s music room with its Rembrandt drawing and the two pianos. Now the viola becomes a wattlebird singing outside the window. Ughetti makes a wine glass ring with his fingertip, and we can almost see the dust motes in the air, and sense a young piano student’s total immersion in the music.

Grabowsky, whose hair and beard are white now, is playing in C major—the first key that children learn in music. As he nears the end of Prelude 1, the last in the inverted order, for a few transcendent moments it seems by following Bach’s harmonic thread he’s stripped back all the years, and been brought safely home.

“We don’t need to rehearse that again,” he tells his friends.