Step 1. Put a piano in a field. Step 2. Light it on fire. Step 3. Hear it burn

In late March, in a paddock in Tyabb on the Mornington Peninsula next door to a mushroom farm, a small team of Rising art festival producers, technicians and a curator set fire to an upright piano, and watched it burn to cinders.

The wood crackled and snapped, resonating in the instrument’s interior. Strings popped from the steel skeleton, and finally the ashen wreck toppled to the earth. The observers nodded. Yep, this was going to work.

It was a technical test run of one of the more unusual musical performances coming to this year’s Rising winter arts festival: Piano Burning, by expat New Zealand artist Annea Lockwood, which premiered on the banks of London’s Thames river in 1968.

The is a few evocative lines.

Set upright piano (not a grand) in an open space with the lid closed / Spill a little lighter fluid on a twist of paper and place inside, near the pedals / Light it / Balloons may be stapled to the piano / Play whatever pleases you for as long as you can.

Lockwood smiles at the memory of that time, the experimentation and freedom of the arts scene in swinging London where she’d moved in 1961 from New Zealand to study composition at the Royal College of Music. She’d been working with a British choreographer and they’d had the wonderfully crazy idea of involuntary audience participation by heating up a performance space enormously.

We didn’t get around to making that piece, she says. But as I was beginning to gather ideas for it, I realised I wanted to record fire.

Experiments in her Essex home’s fireplace and courtyard were not compelling.

So I got to thinking about what should I burn that really might be resonant, Lockwood says, and her mind turned to the London council’s piano graveyard where they dumped instruments that were beyond repair, or had been replaced in a lounge room by one of these newfangled televisions.

At an arts festival on Chelsea embankment she set up the piano, popped in an old microphone wrapped in asbestos linked to a tape recorder, and set a tiny flame to it.

The recording was totally useless because people (at the event) talked their heads off, she recalls. But it sounded magnificent. There are resonant spaces inside the instrument; when a piece of the structure collapses it sounds great.

They burnt another that evening, in the semi-darkness.

I had no idea it would look so stunningly beautiful, Lockwood says. I’ve seen colours in the flames depending on the varnish: purple, green, orange and of course red. It’s the way the flames lick through the instrument and the uncertainty that you never know where they’re going to emerge.

It very often happens that [the audience] subsides into a sort of intense silence, which is a lovely thing to feel.

The piece has been regularly performed around the world – and, laughs Lockwood, regularly misinterpreted.

It keeps recurring [an idea] that I was setting out to make destructive inroads on Western culture. Really! I’m a product of Western culture. The experience was the original aim, nothing to do with destroying cultural icons, something which people are all too ready to attribute to it.

But the piece has gathered new resonance over time. Those who have watched the Twin Towers burn live on television, or shed a tear at the immolation of Notre Dame, hear echoes in this fire.

And there is Australia’s own recent immolation.

These piano events are like some sort of indirect, slantwise reference to these huge forces, that are becoming overwhelming. Fires, floods, landslides, circling around us.

Uniquely to Rising, Piano Burning will be performed along with two of its younger siblings, Piano Garden (1969) and Piano Drowning (1972). You can guess how they work.

Or go see them, of course. Even play them. And if you go to Piano Burning, Lockwood has a tip.

Take some foil wrapped potatoes and just slip them in near the pedals.

, 5-8pm, June 10 at Birrarung Marr Lower Terrace.

A cultural guide to going out and loving your city. .

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