The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Du Piano-Épave/The Well Weathered Piano

Ross Bolleter
(Editions Lenka lente;Nantes, France)

                                                                                                                     ©2017 Anoinette Carrier

Chapter Three:
A Cultural History of Ruined Piano in Western and Central Australia

I do not believe there is a country in the world where music is more widespread than in Australia. Certainly there is none that has more pianos per head of population. 700,000 instruments have been sent from Europe to Australia since the vast territory (of some three million people) became a centre of white settlement. Everywhere here the piano is considered to be a necessary piece of furniture. Rather than not have one of these sonorous instruments in the drawing room ... they would go without a bed. Custom demands that there be at least one piano in every Australian home; even in the most distant shacks, away from any centre of population, the humblest farmer will have the inescapable piano.

Way out in the outback they are not so expert in music, and the piano that adorns the humble dwelling will be cheap and nasty ... constantly going wrong. But the main thing is that they look like a piano, with vulgar moulding and ostentatious double candle-brackets; they make a noise when you strike the keyboard, and often that is all that is required. (Note 1)

The piano on the beach has become a defining image of the early days of white settlement in Western Australia. It anticipates by some 160 years the piano on the beach in Jane Campion’s film The Piano (1993) where – presumably to protect the asinine score – the beached piano is almost in tune after its immersion: hard to believe, considering the sea change it must have undergone. The tuning and structural outcomes for beached pianos in Western Australia in the 1830s would surely have been more disastrous, and a good deal more engrossing.

The piano was the bearer of European musical culture and the status that went with it. It was a treasured source of entertainment and edification – evenings of Schubert songs, and selections from Don Giovanni mixed with popular sentimental songs of the day. No wonder immigrants to New Holland clung to their pianos.

One story we heard at dinner concerned a ship in trouble at sea whose captain ordered the thirteen pianos on board with much of the cargo to be thrown into the sea – and there was almost a riot on the ship as the owners tried to prevent him and were shouted down by the other passengers, fearing for their lives. (Note 2)

I imagine that Aboriginal people may well have been the first to play these thirteen pianos. And that these strange arrivals on the beach – their soundings lost – would have been a source of much convivial music making. Importantly too, these encounters would have been some of the first Ruined Piano performances in New Holland:

the invasion begins
aboriginal kids hammer
on pianos pushed from ships
 in desperate straits

morning surf thumps
  these jangling mysteries
 onto the beach

a child kneels   strokes
the icy strings   lost
 in their booming cave

her friend swings his heels
 down onto the cold soaked keys –
clinkclinank ...
(Note 3)

Many of the early settlers lived in tents on the beach between Cottesloe and North Fremantle. Some had their furniture, including their piano, on the beach with them. The piano, rather than providing an occasion for convivial music making, would have been forced to serve as an inadequate windbreak. Often the early settlers’ tents were blown away in the gales, and – like some of their owners – pianos, especially those on the beaches, were destroyed by the harsh climatic conditions of Western Australia.

Back in 1989, when I was working late one night at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, I decided on a midnight coffee in Northbridge. I came back to find I had left the door open and in the dark auditorium an old Aboriginal man, wearing a Salvation Army great coat, was coaxing a shivery plangy tune from the Ruined Piano at the lonely centre of the auditorium. Immediately, security and the police (in competition as to who got there first) burst in through the open door. “Do you wish to prefer charges sir?” they asked. “No,” I replied. “Best piano improv I’ve heard this year.” The old guy gave me a grin and shuffled out, a Schweppes bottle sticking out of his left coat pocket. (Note 4)

Ruined Pianos in the Red Centre

The finest ruined pianos I’ve encountered have been in outback West Australia and in the Red Centre. The extremes of drought and flood produce great roaring hulks. Also, as elsewhere, pedigree is important. The brand names of those pampered aristocrats of the piano world: Bechstein, Ronisch, Steinway, Lipp appear regularly on the best ruined pianos.

At the Old Telegraph Station in Alice Springs I discovered the Camel Piano – reputedly the first piano in Centralia. It was a mid-nineteenth century Globe (Royal London Model), Ralph Allison made by Wardour and Sons, Soho. Innocent in appearance – a so-called boudoir piano with a sulky expression – it has a chintzy orange cloth under fine elaborate fretwork on the front panel. The top register sounds Chinese, the bass sounds like someone ripping up a kerosene tin with secateurs – heart stopping.

The story goes that this Globe piano was brought from the railhead at Oodnadatta to Alice Springs on the back of a camel. It occupied one side of the camel’s hump, while a drum of water occupied the other. This was shortly after the telegraph line went through from Adelaide to Alice Springs. Although it’s only a short upright piano, this was certainly an arduous, even heroic journey for the camel.

In 2002, when I was recording the Camel Piano, a tourist couple from the United States, thinking that I was a piano tuner (I occasionally usurp this role to gain access to ruined pianos in stately mansions, where otherwise, I would be unwelcome) – reassured me that I would be able to tune and repair this piano beautifully. Then the man asked, “Where’s the camel?”

Some 170 years after the Camel Piano arrived in Alice Springs, I encountered a Schwechten Piano at Hermannsburg Cultural Precinct, about 100kms from Alice Springs. Before it became the Cultural Precinct it had been the Hermannsburg Mission, and home to the celebrated Aboriginal landscape artist Albert Namatjira. As to the piano, it had spent fifteen years in the dressing room behind a stage where theatricals were mounted. While old codgers – their heavy guts bursting out of their pink tutus and tights – danced for the delight of the missionaries, their charges, the Aboriginal kids, would invade the dressing room and jump from the top of the piano onto the keys, creating unheard of clusters and undermining the pantomime up front. Subsequently, this piano was sent down for a season or two in the cattle yards.

Radio announcer and producer, Dave Richards, told the following story of this Schwechten piano as part of a radio program he produced for the ABC in Alice Springs. His Schwechten piano (serial no. 35846) was made in Berlin in 1907 (the company had begun production in 1853). In the story which follows, Dave tells the story of the Schwechten piano in the Northern Territory, and its transformation into a ruined piano:

As far as I know it came from Mataranka which is in the top end. Somehow it ended up in Central Australia in about 1983. It was advertised in the paper as a beautiful upright piano – walnut finish with candelabras, all that. It cost $1500, which was a fortune in those days, but I was utterly convinced of the beauty of the piano. You know the saying about a fool and his money.

I guess from there on it was a story of ruin. I quickly realized that the piano was going to need to be tuned every month or two. It was at that time I engaged the services of Roberto Marchesi, who travelled throughout regional Australia transforming pianos with problems into beautiful instruments that would last forever, or so he told me. A gorgeous Mauritian woman who always wore floral dresses was his constant companion. Roberto charged me a sum of money commensurate with what I had paid for the piano, to restore it to its former grandeur. He assured me that after the necessary repairs my piano would sound beautiful, and would be trouble free for some decades. The next time I saw Mr. Marchesi was on an episode of “The Investigators,” the ABC Consumer Watchdog program that exposed scams.

I kept going with the piano and not long after that I had the good fortune, or rather misfortune, to come across Roger Woodward’s piano tuner. Roger was doing one of his early concerts in Alice Springs. I met his tuner at a party and asked him to come back to my place afterwards to have a look at my beautiful piano. He took one look at it and said, “The sounding board’s cracked. I advise you to take it to the dump immediately.

The cruel shock of this expert opinion was quickly followed by denial. I found a less fussy piano tuner, a visiting American called Chuck, who also dabbled in hand writing analysis. For several years he kept my piano alive using a mysterious technique that no other piano tuner seemed to know about.

Meanwhile my girlfriend and I were living a gypsy existence, moving from house to house, caretaking other peoples’ homes. So that the piano was always somewhere else. I had to borrow keys and play it in lunch hours when kindly carers were at work. After moving it several times, reality began to bite. It was needing more and more frequent attention; mice were chewing the action, and Chuck was leaving town.

When I heard the Ntaria Council at Hermannsburg was restoring the original precinct created by German missionaries in the late Nineteenth Century, I persuaded Council President Gus Williams that my 1907 Schwechten piano would be the perfect ornament. The last time I had seen the piano had been on the back of a big truck heading for the mission home of Carl Strehlow, where Ross Bolleter and I now stood. I had the feeling then that it had some other destiny awaiting it. Perhaps it was this: to be played as a ruined piano.

Mice eat the felts of pianos regardless of their pedigree. It’s common to find bright little red and green felt nests inside pianos where mice rested up between snacks, and gave birth to their babies.

I asked the two young girls whose school-of-the-air room housed Dave’s ruined Schwechten, how come there were dead mice in the bottom of their piano. Caitlin replied, “The piano was their mansion, and they died there.” Celina, her sister continued, “They were walking over the bridge, then – aaaaaaaaaah!”

I found a piano scattered over the dirt floor of an upland shed overlooking the Southern Ocean. It lay in a chaos of chook feathers, oil drums and the bones of dead sheep. Its keys were stained yellow, chipped and broken, and shockingly long, like the teeth of the dead.

Kerryn Goldsworthy writes in her story 1843:

Perhaps all over this terrifying country there are Dead Pianos – left on beaches – abandoned on tracks - pushed over cliffs - rotting in ruined huts and cabins - making peculiar homes for birds and mice and spiders playing witches’ music among the strings and fretwork, and the silk all gone to rags’. (Note 5)

If the piano during the early settlement was a principle of order and a source of religious comfort in a hostile environment, the ruined piano with its heaps of broken keys poignantly reveals another story. In the wail of their ringing forever tones I hear the grief of indigenous people killed in massacres, and through transmitted diseases. In that wailing I feel the pain of separation of aboriginal children stolen from their parents.


1: COMETTANT, Oscar [1890], In the Land of Kangaroos and Gold Mines. A Frenchman’s view of Australia in 1888, trans. Judith Armstrong, Adelaide: Rigby, 1980, p.178

2. GOLDSWORTHY, Kerryn, “14th of October 1843,” in Carmel Bird, ed. Red Hot Notes, Brisbane, Queensland UP, 1996, p. 89

3. BOLLETER, Ross, Piano Hill, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, Western Australia, 2009, p.38

4. BOLLETER, Ross, Average Human Heart, (unpublished manuscript of poems and left hand stories), p.13

5. GOLDSWORTHY, Kerryn, ibid.

© 2017 Lenka lente

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