Six months ago, Evan Shinners received a call from Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, the artistic duo who will represent the U.S. in the prestigious Venice Biennale in June. Their request? Would Shinners, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano from Juilliard, be one of a rotating handful of pianists who stands inside a piano and plays—upside-down and backwards—the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? What’s more, the pianists would each have to perform this feat three times a day for a month in the second floor atrium of the Museum of Modern Art among a multitude of art-loving onlookers—and sometimes hecklers.
The task seemed only mildly daunting to Shinners. A classical pianist who specializes in Bach, he’s also in a rock band (the Suits) and recently released a solo Bach album, @bach, in which he finds a way to incorporate Ives, Liszt, Dylan, and his own poetry. Seeking out the unfamiliar within (and without) his art form is just part of his 9 to 5. “I’ve done some crazy things before,” Shinners said in a recent interview with The Journal, including tap dancing inside a pianoand placing a microphone inside a piano to recite its autobiography. “I even set a piano on fire once.”
While none of these stunts was easy to perform, Allora and Calzadilla’s Stop, Repair, Prepare (the upside-down Beethoven Ninth piece) posed unique musical challenges. The artists, who first presented this work in 2008, carved a hole into the middle of the soundboard of a Bechstein grand and charged the pianists with “driving” the instrument, Fred Flinstone-style, while tackling one of the most monumental works of Western music from a position that makes its execution nearly impossible. If a Martian had graced our planet and stumbled upon the exhibit, she would have undoubtedly concluded that earthlings are a hapless race of sadistic voyeurs, who ritualistically subject their musicians to bizarre forms of torture.
For some members of the human race, though, presenting the “Ode to Joy” movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in such a manner is a kind of blasphemy against art, desecrating one of the most revered symbol of universal brotherhood and the triumph of the human spirit.
Of course the ode’s spiritual potency has scarcely existed in an abstract realm of pure experience—it has been used by such disparate figures as Hitler and Leonard Bernstein to make political statements.
For Shinners, Stop, Repair, Prepare is less about politics and more about minimizing roadkill. In the course of perambulating around the Modern, “I ran over a couple of women. I hit a couple of children with the piano,” he said in characteristic deadpan. “This is an experiment in how classical music can interact directly with people. People need to have a hands-on, unorthodox experience with a piece of classical music in order to get into its world,” he said.
“If I held [Van Gogh’s] Starry Night by my fingertips wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses and shoved it into every European tourist’s face and said ‘Look at this! This is Starry Night,’ people would write home about it,” Shinners continued. But if it’s just hanging on the wall, nobody takes notice. “The fact that I’m actually moving this piece of art through the atrium and running over people with it is why it got such publicity. This is where classical music is going, whether people like it or not.”