Pushing the envelope on the traditional concert format, music group pianocircus performed dynamic works by composers Graham Fitkin and Colin Riley—including the world première of Riley’s Double Trio—in the concert Trilogies, inviting the audience to partake in the strange, yet beautiful world of contemporary classical music.

© 2011 pianocircus
© 2011 pianocircus

Made up of six pianists—David Appleton, Paul Cassidy, Kate Halsall, Dawn Hardwick, Semra Kurutac and James T. Young— pianocircus was first formed in 1989 to play Steve Reich’s Six Pianos. Since then, they have dedicated themselves to performing only the most dynamic, forward-thinking contemporary music, most of which is composed specifically for them.

The entirety of Trilogies was designed to break down traditional barriers, both between the audience and the performers and amongst our individual perceptions of what constitutes classical music. With six keyboards and two grand pianos, visual art by William Simpson and Simon McCorry, as well as six cameras suspended from the ceiling projecting what Riley referred to as ‘a choreography of hands’ on a giant screen, the whole performance proved challenging, interactive and just plain fun. An epic cross-arts performance, with visual stimuli, electronic and acoustic sounds, plus performers playing inside and outside of the grand pianos, audience members felt as much a part of the performance as pianocircus themselves.

The first half of Trilogies was devoted to Colin Riley. Distinctly avant-garde, all three pieces were powerfully executed, but the visual effects proved distracting. It was easier to grasp the ebb and flow of each piece with eyes closed, particularly in Ebb Cast, which oscillated between soothing harp and chime-like sounds and an unsettling whirring noise not unlike a siren. Excited to hear the world première of Double Trio, the piece proved both dynamic and compelling as it challenged the way we both hear and see the piano performed. Plus, with so many ideas contained in one piece—symmetry between the players and their instruments, experimentation with the sounds of a full keyboard (inside and out) and imaginative visual effects—pianocircus performed this piece masterfully.

Unlike Riley’s compositions, Fitkin’s music revealed clearer ties to earlier minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley. In Log, the whole piece felt very much like Reich’s Piano Phase with its interlocking rhythms and various melodies that morphed into each other throughout the piece. And in the last piece Loud, Fitkin experimented with rhythm, transitioning between very quick, march-like rhythms and more laid back, swing-like dance beats. Extremely temperamental to perform, pianocircus achieved these rhythmic transitions with such ease, they sounded like one entity. Performed breathlessly, one would never have guessed six pianos were playing at once, except for the sheer diversity of notes and melodies embedded in the piece.

Performed at King’s Place on Monday 7 February 2011, Trilogies proved to be a singular opportunity to hear the punchy, post-minimalist works of Graham Fitkin right alongside Colin Riley’s eclectic mix of acoustic and electronic sounds. Overall, pianocircus put on a dizzying performance.