Ross Bolleter is an Australian composer who specializes in working with ruined pianos. He was born in 1946 in Perth, the capital of Western Australia. As a youth growing up in Perth in the 1950s and 1960s, he learned the accordion which was a very popular instrument in that era. He learned tangos, waltzes, marches and polkas mainly from Italian method books and anthologies, as well as classical music and jazz. He eventually went on to study at the University of Western Australia from 1964-1967, and received a B.A. degree in Music and English. After finishing University, Ross worked as a school-teacher for four years. He then took a job playing the piano with the house band at the Parmelia Hilton for six years. The last year of that stint he played solo piano in the Millstrasse Bar, the front bar of the Parmelia Hilton. From the later 70’s into the early 80s, he played jazz, drifting leftwards through modal jazz, free jazz, and into free improvisation, where he played both piano and accordion. His improvisations with Polish double bassist Ryszard Ratajczak led him to preparing the piano, which is to say inserting objects between the strings of the piano to radically change the sound of the instrument, a technique developed by the composer John Cage in the 1940s, and whose work Ross had studied at university, along with that of Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In 1984 he produced a cassette consisting mainly of prepared piano pieces called Temple of Joyous Bones. While on vacation at Nallan Sheep Station, some 800 kms north east of Perth, Ross discovered his first ruined piano. The owner of the property informed him that there was a piano in the tractor-shed. The piano had spent a year on the sheep-station tennis court, and had been exposed to searing heat and a flash-flood. Ross couldn't believe the sounds that were coming out of it. So of course he set up the tape recorder he had brought along to record birdsong, and recorded the piano instead.As he puts it: “During the eighties I had been preparing pianos – altering the sound of them by inserting objects between their strings. This one, however, without the familiar festoon of guitar jacks, rubbers, coins and pegs, was “prepared” beyond any piano I had ever played or heard. Prepared by weather and neglect – prepared by the radiant earth, and the by how far off the stars are.” This was the start of a lifelong passion of seeking ruined pianos and creating avant-garde compositions with them. In 1989 Bolleter set up the Synchronicity Project where he devised a series of intuitive pieces where musicians improvised simultaneously but in different centres in Australia and across the world. In several instances these pieces were set up to cast a net for synchronistic events, especially musical synchronicities. The Synchronicity Project produced a series of radiophonic works, including That Time/Simulplay 2 – an intuitive piece for two musicians on opposite sides of a continent, playing at precisely the same time but unable to hear each other, while a radio audience hears both of them – involved Ryszard Ratajczak playing double bass in Studio 210 of ABC FM Sydney with Bolleter playing prepared piano and piano in ABC’s Studio 621, Perth. That Time/Simulplay 2 was released on the Pogus label, New York, as part of the album Crow Country in 2000.
R.V.B. - Hello Mr. Bolleter?
R.B. - Yeah, is that Rob?
R.V.B. - It is. How are you today? Are you guys going into summer over there now?
R.B. - Yes we are... we're heading that way at the moment. We're in the last third of spring here. You guys are heading into winter.
R.V.B. - We are going into the opposite direction, yes. It's getting colder although today is pretty nice out. It's about 55 degrees so we'll take it.
R.B. - That's great, it's so good to hear you.
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for taking my call, I'm honored. I think that what you've done and accomplished in your career is fantastic. It's a great idea, what you've done. I'd like to start by, when you were young what was Perth like? Was it still country?
R.B. - I was born in 1946 and I it was often thought of as a large country town, but actually it's a city in the technical sense. It probably had from 800,000 to a 1,000,000 people... it's closer to 2,000,000 now. On a scale of Australian cities, it's a small city, by comparison with Sydney or Melbourne for instance. It's very isolated. You look to the north and it's Timor, you look south and it's Antarctica, You look west and it's Madagascar, and if you look east, it's 2,000 miles to the nearest big city which is Adelaide. So it's a hugely isolated city.
R.V.B. - So basically anywhere on the outskirts was untouched, unspoiled land?
R.B. - Yeah, the suburbs were starting to push into the bush when I was a kid. It was sort of yellow sand country but yeah, there were heaps and heaps of bush around. I remember walking to school through the bush. Interestingly, in terms of our dialogue here... I remember walking a couple of miles through the bush through a huge rubbish dump. American troops or armed forces had blasted out... at the end of the second world war, and had dumped their of armored cars, Jeeps and other equipment into it. Then it became a local rubbish dump, but that was sort of deep in the bush. That was sort of where I used to play as a kid. Loaded with symbolism. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - Did you come across wildlife on your walks
R.B. - Yeah. snakes. there was a snake called the dugite. Those snakes are very common in this area and they're quite venomous. There's lots of goannas, bobtail lizards... lots of birdlife. I grew up with magpies and honeyeaters and I saw Parrots. Yeah, it was sort of suburbs in the bush so to speak.
R.V.B. - I got you. Now obviously it's a seaside town did you take in the beach a lot?
R.B. - Yeah, my nickname was "Boong" because I looked like an aboriginal as I spent so much time on the beach. I was burnt black.
R.V.B. - (Hahaha) How did you first get exposed to music and how did you get started playing an instrument?
R.B. - My parents were not wealthy. In fact we were lower working class, and my parents couldn't afford a piano but they loved the accordion. They heard accordion on the radio. The first instrument I learned was the piano accordion. It was a wonderful instrument to learn because I didn't have to learn educational piano with "Clementi and Czerny" and all that stuff. You learned little operatic excerpts, Italian folk songs, German folk songs, a little bit of jazz. You were playing heaps of simple music from the beginning. There were marches and polka's and I sort of had an Italian kind of accordion upbringing. It was primarily Italian in style.
R.V.B. - It's used in a lot of Italian music.
R.B. - The 50's was sort of the heyday for the accordion. A lot of serious music was written for the instrument. I had a very good teacher. He used to employ me to work in his studio, to answer the phone on school holidays. It just set me free to practice. I played heaps and heaps of music including quite contemporary pieces that were written for the accordion.
R.B. - No, but my father could sing very nicely. He had a good sense of harmony. He could sing Vaudeville songs (including the harmonies!), but neither of my parents played an instrument.
R.V.B. - After you learned the accordion, did you play at any establishments?
R.B. - Not much on the accordion. I was interested in classical accordion, so I was playing Bach's Toccata and Fugue on the accordion and things like that. I did a couple of accordion gigs. In fact, I paid for my first date by playing a barbeque in the nearby elite suburb of Floreat Park. They asked me how much money I wanted for playing. I wanted five pounds (£5) as it was in those days. (Hahaha) I wanted to take my girlfriend by taxi to the dance so my gigs were very instrumental.
R.V.B. - Did you sing at all?
R.B. - No, (Hahaha) I sing very badly. My dad was a natural singer but I wasn't.
R.V.B. - When you went to school, did you play in the school band?
R.B. - No... there was nothing really interesting happening at school in those days. That's changed over the years. When I was in school there was almost no music to speak of in the school. I was lucky to have a good private teacher who really encouraged me a lot, and gave me many opportunities.
R.V.B. - Right... I see you had a gig at the Hilton, did that come before or after college.
R.B. - I went school teaching for four years in country centers like Esperance and Katanning. When I came back to Perth, I decided to do music rather than school teaching. I got a job at the Parmelia Hotel (it was several years before the Hilton bought it), playing piano in a quartet in the Garden Restaurant. I had been playing piano during my teens. In the studios where I worked there was a piano. I used to sit there and play classical piano and a little bit of jazz and stuff like that. I discovered I could improvise on the piano, which was a good discovery. I also played organ at the local Congregational Church, but there was an old piano in the church hall out back that I was more interested in. I used to improvise on that piano.
R.V.B. - What kind of set up was it over there? Was it in the lounge?
R.B. - We were in the restaurant for the first five years. I played five days a week, four hours a night, and I learned hundreds of tunes. I played with a very good guitarist and a drummer and a double bass player.
R.V.B. - Oh that sounds like a nice quartet.
R.B. - Yeah. it was really good. A lot of musicians despised that kind of gig because they said "Well it's just stuff" but actually it's very skillful. You have to play at low volume and you have to play rhythmically at low volume... which is quite challenging.
R.V.B. - And you have to know a whole bunch of songs.
R.B. - Yeah, preferably from memory. I learned how to play with other musicians, and that takes a while to pick up those skills. I think it was invaluable and during that period I had my children and I had a mortgage, so having regular work was really important.
R.V.B. - When did you start noticing Cage, Boulez and the other avant-garde composers?
R.B. - I did a music degree at the university from 1964-1967. I majored in music and English in the third year we had this very up to date kind a course. We had this guy John Exton, who was a contemporary composer and had come from England. He early on got me interested in Cage, Boulez and Stockhausen and other European avant-garde composers. That was very inspiring, but I didn't do anything with it at the time. So after I left the Hilton, I started playing with jazz musicians... jazz slowly turned into free jazz and the free jazz turned into various modal approaches, and then finally into improv with no structure... the structure being created as you went. I think it was then that my interest in Cage, Boulez and people like that was sort of manifested, really because I've been exposed to that music and those ideas.
R.V.B. - So when you tackled your first piece like that, did you do it on a regular piano?
R.B. - Yeah, I did it on regular piano initially. I had met this double bass played named Ryszard Ratajczak... a Polish double bass player. He and I became friends. I'd go pick him up in my van with his double bass and bring him up to my place and we would record. He would criticize my playing at great length, and eventually to match the kind of effects he was getting out of the double bass - he was using mallets and all kinds of extended techniques on the double bass – I started putting things inside the piano and playing inside the piano. Then I started to prepare the piano in order to get the effects that I wanted and all that happened fairly rapidly. I prepared the piano in order to create a whole set of colors to correspond to what Ryszard was creating on double bass. I loved the kind of prepared piano I was doing back then which doesn't sound anything like Cage's Sonatas and Interludes. There are different ways of preparing the piano. I fell in love with that technique. I did lots. and lots, and lots of that
R.V.B. - What did you use? Nails, and clothes pins, and spoons and those kinds of things?
R.B. - Yeah, I used guitar jacks and placed them so that when you hit the key and the hammer came up... this is on the grand... for instance the guitar jack would hit the cross strut of the piano and create a rhythm in itself. I also used big erasers in the bass and I would play on top of the erasers with mallets. I used clothes pegs as you were suggesting which make wonderful sub-harmonics. I used American one cent coins and slipped them between the strings so that you lift the middle string and you slide the one cent coin in and put it on the harmonic points of the string and you get this gorgeous gong sound.
R.V.B. - So you did a lot of experimenting and tried a lot of ideas.
R.B. - Yeah, over a period of time, and that actually prepared the ground. I had been doing that for a few years and playing in different ensembles with prepared piano, and with accordion by the way. Everyone wants to play piano in free improv ensembles, so I used the accordion in that context because it gave me something to do when other people used the piano.
R.V.B. - There is no way of preparing an accordion, I gather?
R.B. - You can de-tune accordions by adding solder to the reeds to lengthen the reed and you can also file the reeds to make the pitch sharper. You can create Arabic scales and all kinds of things on the accordion, which sounds really good. But preparing them, I haven't been able to find anything that really does anything much that's interesting.
R.V.B. - Where did you find your first ruined piano.
R.B. - Well... I've been preparing pianos as I was saying and the family went on a holiday in 1987 up to an old gold mining town called Cue...up in the Murchison gold fields about 800 kilometers northeast of Perth. It's in outback country and we stayed on the sheep station and when I was on the sheep station the owner said to me "We hear you're a piano player. There's a piano over in the tractor shed.". I wasn't really interested because I was on holiday, but after three or four days, I wandered over and I took a tape recorder because I was trying to record birdsong up there, just to bring back some of the sounds from that area. When I sat down and played the piano, I was sitting on the toe part of the tractor and this piano had dusty louvers stacked all over it and when I played, all these white ants came out of the piano and were churning in concentric circles on the front of the piano. I couldn't believe the sound of this instrument, it was just amazing. So I slung my microphones over the rafters and turned on the tape recorder and I started to play. When I got it back to the shearing shed where we were staying, I put it on I thought there must be something wrong with the batteries because there was all this pitch bending. I thought "God, you know, something must be wrong with the tape recorder", but it was actually what was happening. I was pulling the bass strings on it, the soundboard was split on the piano, so when you pull the strings, it opens up the crack and the strings slacken. (Hahaha) The pitch goes down so to speak. When you released the strings, the soundboard crack would close up and the pitch would change. It was totally wild.
R.V.B. - I like the fact that you found use out of that. It's very imaginative.
R.B. - Thank you. I think that all that work with prepared pianos, prepared me for this. If it hadn't been for that backround in getting really strange sounds out of the piano, I probably couldn't have accepted this imaginative field. I managed to get April... the wife of the owner, to turn off the generator for an hour. She said "You want us to turn off the generator? We've got a ton of meat in there.". (Hahaha) She said "You've got an hour". So in that hour, I recorded stuff that became really significant for that genre in that first hour.
R.V.B. - So I gather you released that piece?
R.B. - Yes, It goes under two names. One is "Unfinished Business" and that's available on the album called "Crow Country", which was released in 2000. That was released on Al Margolis’s label Pogus, in New York. R.V.B. - I remember listening to one of your pieces and I heard birds chirping.
R.B. - That might be Unfinished Business, because there was a lot of birdsong. Actually many of the pieces do have birdsong but in that piece it is particularly strong. I think that song would be accessible on Youtube.
R.V.B. - It was very good... I enjoyed it. My wife and I sat at breakfast and listened to it.
R.B. - I feel honored and touched that you would do that.
R.B. - That's probably the strongest of all of them. I'm glad you heard that piece. That was primarily recorded in Alice Springs. I recorded three or four ruined pianos around Alice Springs and it was inspired by a painting by Timmy Tjapangati... an Aboriginal western desert artist. His painting was called Secret Sandhills. I brought those recordings back to Perth, and I combined them with recordings of the five pianos in my kitchen... five ruined pianos. I recorded those and I went into with a fabulous producer called Anthony Cormican who's working in L.A. in Studio City these days. He and I spent months creating Secret Sandhills, with him doing the high-end digital editing and production (including some beautiful sound work), and me doing the ruined piano improvisations, and the compositional shaping of the piece. It was a huge journey to make that piece.
R.V.B. - So getting back to that first piano. Did you wind up taking that? Is that one of the pianos that you have?
R.B. - Yeah, it sits in my kitchen. April Peterson's husband Dave died of pancreatic cancer and she was selling Nallan sheep station and she notified me and said "Look, the new owners will just push that piano out into the runway and torch it. So if you want it come and get it.". So I got a four wheel trailer and drove up with a friend and we put the piano on the trailer and brought it back to Perth.
R.V.B. - I noticed that you have names for your pianos. Does that one have a name?
R.B. - That one is "Jeff". (Hahaha) It's a Jefferson piano from Chicago. It's from the 1920's. I just call it Jeff for short.
R.V.B. - How about some other pianos that you have rescued... any interesting stories?
R.B. - Oh yeah, there was one that also came from the Murchison gold fields from a place called Sandstone, which is further out in the outback... almost on the edge of the desert. That was brought down to Perth by the Publican. He had a huge utility pickup truck. It was in this darkened shed so you couldn't see anything but I managed to find my way into the back of this truck. I was sitting on a bag of wheat or something and playing this piano, it sounded just amazing. The story is not as interesting for this piano but it eventually made its way to my kitchen. There's one that's an 1850's piano... you've probably read the story in my little book "The Well Weathered Piano.". When there were storms you couldn't get into the port of Fremantle. Passengers had brought their own pianos from England and those pianos were pushed overboard.
R.V.B. - For weight reasons right?
R.B. - Yeah, and those ships were in danger of sinking because of the weight of the pianos lashed to the deck, so the first people to play some of these pianos were probably Aboriginal kids, when these pianos fetched up on the beach. I'd like to think that one of the little pianos I've got in the kitchen... this 1850's Cramer from London as one that might have washed up from one of these ships. (Hahaha) I don't know if there's any validity in that. I like to think it could have been.
R.V.B. - What are the names of all five of your pianos?
R.B. - Sarah from South Perth, Ronnie from Liepzig - she's a Ronisch Piano, Jeffrey - the Jefferson piano from Cue, there's a piano which is called Monkey because the guy who owned it left on his front veranda for 35 years. It was exposed to a lot of wind and rain. Little Nel is the little 1850's piano. It was named after Little Nel from the Dickens novel of the same name from the mid nineteenth century.
R.V.B. - Now, the piano sanctuary that's east of you... were you involved in the planning of that?
R.B. - I was involved in the planning. What happened was, I did an installation at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. I had seventeen ruined pianos and people came in and played them. They were in a gigantic curve in this huge space. Once the festival finished, I had to get them out. I rang a friend of mine and he put me on to Kim Hack who had this olive farm. I asked him if he would be prepared to take up to 20 ruined pianos and he said "sure, of course". So we hired this huge truck and put all the pianos on it and dumped off a couple to friends on the way, but brought up about seventeen of them. Kim put them on a crane and drove to different parts of the property and I was with him on the tractor. We put them on roofs, in damns, on rocks, in gullies, you name it.
R.V.B. - It looks very beautiful and very relaxing.
R.B. - It's a wonderful environment. I 've done a lot of recording up there over the years. We've done concerts there as well. We would get 100 people up there for a ruined piano concert.
R.V.B. - Now you said you had approximately seventeen pianos at the installation. Did you own all of them?
R.B. - No. The installation was supported by a company called Tura New Music as part of their Totally Huge New Music Festival, and they advertised in newspapers all over the state. I drove out to check the pianos, to see how ruined they were. The more ruined the better. Then we had them transported into the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts . Basically people donated their pianos... their old and hopefully ruined pianos.
R.V.B. - I found the idea interesting to actually let the people play them and touch them, while you recorded them inside the room.
R.B. - That's correct... we let people explore. It's wonderful... people lose their fears and inhibitions really quickly and improvise quite happily. I think they realize that no matter what they play, it doesn't sound like the Moonlight Sonata or Blue Moon.
R.B. - Yeah, yeah, we just recently... with my partner Antoinette. She just had a show called "Piano", down in Fremantle. It wasn't quite as big. We probably had a dozen pianos and people just came in and played them. They just enjoyed themselves and we recorded a great mass of them on the first night of the launch. People were just improvising away. Back in 2010 I did an installation of 18 ruined pianos at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery as part of the 10 Days on the Island Festival. I travelled all over Tasmania, found 88 ruined pianos, and selected the best 18 of them.
R.V.B. - Right... I see you worked with recording musicians who were far apart from each other. The Synchronicity Project.
R.B. - I did a lot of that work in the period of 1989 to about 1991. With the internet, it doesn't sound so exciting, because we do all that stuff in the distance without even thinking these days. But back then it was done by radio. It was very exciting stuff at the time.
R.V.B. - Now for example, Simulplay 1... you had piano and plastic sax in one location and flute in another?
R.B. - That's right. Jim Denley was at the Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. I was playing piano in the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Commission in Perth. It was at night in Linz and it was a public performance and people could hear me somewhat coming via Austrian radio station ORF Austria . It was 7:00 in the morning in the radio studio in Perth, but they managed to get a hookup, so that Jim could hear me some of the time and I could hear him some of the time. Then there was That time/ Simulplay 2 where Ryszard Ratajczak and myself in Perth because we played together for twenty eight minutes but neither us could hear each other at all, but the radio audience which was all over Australia could hear both of us.
R.V.B. - How were the reviews on that? How did everybody take to it?
R.B. - People absolutely loved it. West Australia is two hours behind Sydney so I was able to go home and listen on the radio. (Hahaha) It was really weird. It's a perfectly coherent piece of music. If you get Crow Country, which has got the Unfinished Business on it. It's also got Simulplay 2, which is Ryszard and myself not hearing each other but the radio audience hearing anything. I've got a university student to actually listen out for synchronistic musical events between the two of us. I've got an article here... an analysis of the piece and it's quite extraordinary in its coherence and weird overlaps. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - I noticed you put out a few publications. Did you ever have this in a publication?
R.B. - Yes, it's in something called New Music Articles which was published through Melbourne and it's number 9 in that series. The magazine is not easy to get a hold of these days.
R.V.B. - So as far as your writings... I understand you write a lot of poems.
R.B. - Yeah, that seems to always be happening one way or another.
R.V.B. - Do you get inspiration from daily events?... staring at the wilderness? How do you go about coming up with ideas?
R.B. - Some of it comes from traveling for ruined pianos. As I've gotten older, I haven't been traveling as much these days. There's the classic things: love, sex, and death and I guess they're there whether you travel or not.
R.B. - Absolutely (Hahaha) but I found a lot of stories and poems happen when I'm on the road. That's a really good way of getting stuff. It gets you out of your routines and it gets your imagination happening.
R.V.B. - Right... Can you tell me a little bit about Buddhism and how you practice?... and what it does for you?
R.B. - Look... I think the pieces like Sacred Sandhills would have been unthinkable without Zen meditation. I don't mean that the piece literalizes Zen notions or anything like that. I think that Zen meditation, which is strongly geared to sound, fuels the intimacy between the instrument and the environment... the person and the environment. That intimacy is really at the core of the music that I do. Zen practice is immeasurably helpful for composing it and improvising.
R.V.B. - I can see that. I noticed that at some classical performances, the audience closes their eyes and you hear the music differently.
R.B. - Indeed you do.
R.V.B. - So you started this World Association of Ruined Pianos. Do you have considerable membership?
R.B. (Hahaha) It was an idea dreamed up by Stephen Scott who was a composer and professor of music in Colorado college. He has retired but that is where he worked a lot with bowed pianos. With bowing the strings of the piano. He had these bowed piano ensembles and they're very wonderful, Rob. He and I linked up. I was going to New York and I flew through San Francisco and I went into the Haight Ashbury and I bought a cassette of this ensemble from Colorado College. When I listened to the playing, I couldn't believe my ears. This stuff was so wild... I couldn't work out what in the hell it was. So we eventually linked up. I came to Colorado College and I did a couple of concerts and workshops with the students. It was Stephen's idea really. We should call it "The World Association for Ruined Piano". It's not a formal body but people are interested in ruined piano. Everyone is an honorary member.
R.V.B. - Oh good, so I'm a member now.
R.B. - You're a member of WARPS
R.V.B. - I feel honored (Hahaha)
R.B. - We're honored to have you on board. You can attend general meetings.
R.V.B. - Can I be on the Board?
R.B. - Ah well (Hahaha) We don't seem to have a board either. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - What else do you like to do?
R.B. - My hobby is playing classical piano. I don't regard ruined piano as a hobby, I regard it as a vocation. It's what you devote your life to. If I had something called a hobby it would be playing classical piano, which I really love doing. I play Bach and Chopin, Beethoven and Schubert and when I'm doing it fully, it keeps my technique and my musical reflexes alive so that when I do improvise on ruined pianos, it helps a lot.
R.V.B. - Do you play around the town at all these days?
R.B. - Yeah, I do some things on accordion. I recently did a classical gig on piano with a singer singing one of my compositions and one of hers. I get a lot of quite varied work. I've got a prepared piano concert coming up next Friday.
R.V.B. - So you're staying busy and you're enjoying yourself. You're still creating music.
R.B. - I've got two grandchildren... two little girls. My son has got a daughter and my daughter's got a daughter. Do you have grandchildren Rob?
R.V.B. - I wish I did. My son is 28 and nothing yet. My daughter is 24 and she has a steady relationship so there's hope in that direction.
R.B. - Good, because I think grandchildren are great.
R.V.B. - Yeah, I could imagine... and I could also imagine that you don't want to be too far away from them.
R.B. - No, they live just down the road.
R.V.B. - Well Ross, I'm so happy that I had this time to speak with you... I'm honored and I love your music. I can understand it because I dabble in avant-Garde music myself a little bit, so when I heard your music I thought to myself "I got to talk to this guy".
R.B. - It's been such a pleasure to meet you. It was actually great questions and this time was hugely fun to do
R.V.B. - Thank you, and good luck to you.
R.B. - Good luck Robert.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
All photos are by Antoinette Carrier
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form with out permission.
For more information on Ross Bolleter visit www.warpsmusic.com
Also see Wikipedia article on Ross Bolleter
For advertising information on this site contact email@example.com