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Playing with the ivories

There was a moment earlier this year, during the 12th Edge of Wrong — the avant-garde, experimental music festival and cultural exchange involving mainly South African and Norwegian players — when ping-pong balls were tossed into classical pianist Coila-Leah Enderstein’s instrument. It was a jarring moment — Enderstein’s playing on the piano, controlled and vibrant, and then the balls striking unplanned notes as they ricocheted off the piano’s strings.

Improvisation of any kind is seldom associated with classical piano music, never mind the addition of uncontrolled, chance-encounter elements. Yet the work ended up representing a beautiful experience.

It made me wonder just how it was that Enderstein’s music had arrived at this point. “I’m intrigued by the philosophy of performance and real-time composition,” explained Enderstein, who is based in Cape Town. “Improvisation has become a huge part of my process of late in the work I’ve been doing. It is so interesting because it’s such an embodied practice.”

The body is an essential element in Enderstein’s works, moving her musical expression even further beyond set, traditional modes of classical playing.

“The liveness of music performance is probably the most exciting thing and, for me, that’s a very physical act. The mechanism behind the piano and my technique are based on how movement impacts on sound — because how you choreograph your movement will determine tone, phrasing and timing. So, I’ve always received playing the piano as a heightened choreographed performance.”

Physicality, of course, is not limited to the performer. It includes the instrument and, in Enderstein’s case, offers opportunities to redefine and reimagine the possibilities of piano music.

Ping-pong balls seemed to have been a milder option in comparison to other performances in which nuts, bolts and screws were scattered among the piano strings to alter its timbre dramatically.

For Enderstein, getting the opportunity to play avant-garde American composer John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano sparked this particular interest in pushing the boundaries of what her instrument could do.

“[Those pieces] kickstarted my search for a baby grand piano to rent. In the six months in which I had two pianos — taking two to three hours to prepare the one — I found it was such a great world of sound,” she said. The piano can be frustratingly limiting in terms of its range and textures, so to be able to play with these and turn conventional play on its head is exciting to me.”

“Excited” is the word that often came up during our conversation as Enderstein spoke animatedly when describing the aesthetic choices that went into creating her oeuvre.

Her excitement and sense of adventurous creativity are what led to theatrical collaborations with choreographer Nicola van Straaten.

She has also worked on multidisciplinary performance pieces with actor Richard September and multimedia artist Francois Knoetze — notably, last year’s Flotsam. It incorporated into Enderstein’s improvised play a host of whirring fans, enabling the dancelike movement of whatever props were on stage.

“Being on stage in that sense, in a real theatre, was exhilarating. Doing all these performances has opened my mind,” said Enderstein.

Some of the more difficult pieces of music in her repertoire include part of the series of étudesby modern Hungarian composer György Ligeti. These complex works seem to exist in a world far removed from her own, governed by set parameters. Even here, though, Enderstein finds space for expression and embodiment.

“I think the études complement each other quite nicely, because I obviously get a kick out of trying to follow these very specific, difficult instructions to a T — because I find it a worthy challenge,” she said. “But the way the compositions fit under hand is very nice. So physically, it’s enjoyable. There’s always this exploration of some kind of fun.”

Rigid academia seems to have led to her multidisciplinary wanderlust. She recounts embarking on an exhaustive nine-week journey to audition at music schools in Germany. At one point, she was allowed to perform only five of the 45 minutes of Beethoven music she had prepared.

Classical music is constantly redefining itself and in a niche section of that industry, the only way to succeed is to be bold and hardy. “Music is my passion, but the other side of passion is strife. It’s actually generated by strife, and pushing yourself.”

For now, the future for Enderstein holds mostly more of the same — a constant search for more excitement. She’ll be increasing the scope of her collaborative dance pieces with the help of the Live Music Archive project, as well as concentrating on more traditional work with flautist Sally Minter as part of their duo, Avanti.

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