The Sound from Down-Under


Deep in the outback of Queensland, Australia, you wouldn’t expect to hear the sounds of pianos from the past. Nor would you expect to come across their source: a three-story building dressed in copper, built especially for the 16 vintage pianos inside. The one thing you may expect from such an offbeat musical project, however, is that the hands of Tritons are at the keys.

Partners Erik Griswold MA ’92, PhD ’97, and Vanessa Tomlinson, MA ’97, DMA ’00, met as graduate students in the music program and soon after graduation became part of the vibrant music scene in Tomlinson’s native Australia. With a background from breakthrough professors like Steven Schick, Roger Reynolds and George Lewis, it wasn’t long before they became involved with the effort to build The Piano Mill, an architectural art piece and “mega-instrument” that serves as a magnificent nod to Australian history, the Outback environment and modern experimental music.

Griswold and Tomlinson collaborated with Australian architect Bruce Wolfe to see the project through, from the building’s design to the collection of old pianos from throughout Australia (even off the side of the road, in some cases). Each piano has distinct qualities and different degrees of wear and tear, all adding to the character of the compositions often written and performed by the two alumni (and 14 other pianists, of course).

What inspired you to create The Piano Mill?

The original inspiration for The Piano Mill came from Bruce Wolfe, who wanted to combine his passions for architecture, Australian history, the environment, and experimental music.  Although as he’s pointed out, he probably wouldn’t have come up with the idea if we hadn’t introduced him to experimental music in the first place, and prepared piano in particular.

The Piano Mill is a copper clad building in the forest – itself a giant musical instrument which is listened to from the outside, with all sixteen pianists and pianos housed inside. You cannot see into the Mill, but sound emanates out through adjustable louvred openings, as if walking past a house on a summer’s night with the music floating out.

What were your respective roles in the creation of the Mill?

Four of us worked closely together to develop the original idea:  Bruce designed the building, Jocelyn Wolfe contributed research into Australian colonial pianos and the history of the site, Erik composed an hour-long work titled All’s grist that comes to the mill to launch the building, and Vanessa was musical director for the performance and curated a series of musical happenings in the surrounding bushlands.

How did you collaborate with the architect and others on this project?

This collaboration has developed over a number of years.  Our first encounter came about when Vanessa performed on found objects – tiles, bowls, bottles etc – at an event supported by Bruce’s architecture firm Conrad Gargett.  A little later, in 2007, Bruce and Jocelyn commissioned a work from Erik for the 50th anniversary of Queensland Conservatorium, called A Wolfe in the mangroves.  In the years since then, Bruce and Jocelyn have become involved with our musical activities, as audience members, sponsors and board members.  We started going up to their bush property in northern New South Wales every Easter, doing some site-specific environmental performances for the neighbors…things grew and grew into The Piano Mill.


What’s the story with the 16 pianos? How did you locate and obtain them? Are they all different kinds of pianos?

The Mill boasts 16 vintage upright pianos, representing 14 different brands manufactured in Germany, England, the U.S., and Australia.

The idea of shipping these instruments across the world, in some cases more than a hundred years ago, to small towns in Australia is kind of mind boggling.  These pianos came mostly from people’s back rooms, some from Brisbane, and some from smaller regional towns.  One batch was even spotted by the side of the road near Warwick.  They’re really beautiful instruments, many have inlaid hardwood designs and huge sounding boards, but all have different degrees of wear and tear, and that adds to the character of the music.  It’s interesting to note that in the late 19th century, there were more pianos per capita in Australia that anywhere else in the world – which means there are probably more discarded pianos in Australia than anywhere else in the 21st century. Bruce moved most of the pianos on a flatbed truck (with occasional assistance from a local farmer or the builder).  Erik helped out just enough to get into some of the piano-moving pictures.

How long did planning and construction take? What did that process entail?  Logistically speaking, how did you get the pianos into the Mill?

It was about a two-year project from conception to the launch.  Bruce worked closely with a great Brisbane-based builder, Ray Toaldo, throughout the construction process.  Among the features and great stories of the building are:

  • it has a minimalist, steam punk aesthetic
  • a local miller had to construct a special kiln to dry the massive support beams needed to create the height of the tower.
  • the building is clad in copper, so that as it ages it develops more and more interesting colours and textures.
  • the external walls are made of plywood sheets, in order to project the sound to the outside with maximum clarity.
  • each wall is fitted with a narrow window running from top to bottom, which can be opened and closed to alter the acoustics.
  • the sound of two select pianos is piped via plumbing pipes to ground level where they can be heard via large copper megaphones.


Photo by Greg Harm

How did you incorporate what you call “environmental music” this into the creation?

The Piano Mill is a tower in the forest.  When you’re inside the building, in the upper level, you are literally in the middle of the trees and amongst all kinds of avian activity.  Lots of distinctive, beautiful and noisy birds can be found in that part of the country, such as bell birds, whip birds, kookaburras, magpies and cockatoos.  One of the most literal musical connections was to imitate the sounds of these birds.  In performance, you sometimes have the palpable feeling that you are in conversation with them. In addition, connections are drawn to the sounds of wind, weather phenomena, and to the heightened sense of space brought about through this unusual performance situation:  while the performers are inside The Mill, the audience is outside, in the forest.

How has the Mill been received by viewers, listeners, and attendees of performances?

People who have attended the performances thus far have expressed that they feel part of something very unique and special.  The really great thing is that a large community of musicians, farmers, city folk, bush folk and music lovers has become involved with the project.  Starting with the 16 amazing pianists and percussionists who performed the premiere: including Michael Askill, Brieley Cutting, Louise Denson, Stephen Emmerson, Anna Grinberg, Michael Hannan, Lynette Lancini, Sonya Lifschitz, Therese Milanovic, Steve Newcomb, Alistair Noble, Colin Noble, Cara Tran, and Yitzhak Yedid.

Gathering together, high in the Great Dividing Range in the Granite-belt of Australia, standing on land, listening, is a really special experience. There is a sense of wonderment and awe about the Piano Mill, and the property on which it is housed. And there is also a sense of adventure in getting there, setting up picnic chairs, meeting new people, and again, listening.

How did your experiences at UC San Diego influence your work and where you are today?

We’re still following a number of threads we started in our UC San Diego days; improvising, exploring new sounds, new ways of playing instruments, connecting with communities, and connecting with our environment. And there are quite a few of our classmates around the world doing the same.  We recently toured Australia with classmate Glen Whitehead and his group EcoSono.

How did the two of you meet?

Vanessa came to UCSD specifically to study with Distinguished Professor Steven Schick.  Erik was already a student when she arrived, and had also been working with Steve as well as Roger Reynolds and George Lewis.  We first knew each other in and around the music department, and at the Grove Cafe.

How did you go from studying at UC San Diego to living in Australia and working on projects like The Piano Mill together?

Vanessa is originally from Adelaide, but she had been living overseas (in Germany and the U.S.) for most of the 1990’s.  Friends of ours had been telling us what a great music scene there was in Melbourne, so in 1999, after we both completed our Doctoral studies at UCSD we decided to move there.  It turned out to be a really creative period for us in which we started performing and recording as Clocked Out, initiating new collaborations, touring and organising our own concert series.

In 2003 Vanessa was offered the Head of Percussion position at Queensland Conservatorium, so we moved north to semi-tropical Brisbane.  In Brisbane we’ve continued to perform, collaborate, tour, organise events and festivals, while raising a family and teaching.  Over the years we’ve been fortunate to find an incredibly creative and supportive community here, with people like Bruce and Jocelyn; both huge supporters of Clocked Out.

What has life been like since leaving San Diego?

Busy (see above).  Australia has been a really good place to develop our creative work and have a family, but we miss the Mexican food…and family and friends, of course!

What’s in store for the future of The Piano Mill?

Since the premiere performance, Michael Hannan, Colin Noble, and our daughter Beatrice Tomlinson have created their own works for the Mill. We have made other works on the site such as Vibrations in a Landscape – a work for 20 percussionists scattered across the clearing – improvised environmental responses to place on the stages scattered across the property, and performances in canoes on the dam. More and more people are contacting us, wanting to be involved. We are excited to see the community grow and The Piano Mill to continue to develop in new directions, with the creative team of Clocked Out and the Wolfes at the core.  We’re planning more events now so keep an eye on the Facebook page and the website for details.