a column by
Sebastian Lexer Kamran Sadeghi©2010
The piano has a special relationship to the history of western music. It’s the ultimate acoustic keyboard, a spectacular conclusion to the history of claviers and harpsichords whether in volume, evenness of sound and ability to hold pitch. As such, it’s also the idealized mirror and instrument of harmony and the mobility achieved through tempered pitch. With its range and diagrammatic indexing of harmony and counterpoint, it (along with its more temperamental predecessors) has been the principal instrument of composition and orchestration for centuries. Along the way, it’s also been the instrument of some great improvisers, whether unrecorded or recorded, from Beethoven and Liszt to Tatum and Bud Powell.
While John Cage’s radical revaluation of the function of the piano in the 1940s -- preparing the strings with objects so the keyboard might act as trigger for varied sounds and events – has led to sixty years of often very different uses of the piano, there are also technological changes afoot that have further altered the piano as idea. In his liner note to Sebastian Lexer’s Dazwischen, John Tilbury writes: “Perhaps the (acoustic) piano cannot survive. Certainly in its 19th century incarnation it is threatened by obsolescence, overtaken by a confident, predatory new technology. (New venues boast state-of-the-art electronic, computerized pianos, but rarely a Steinway or a Bösendorfer.)” That’s strangely in keeping with the modern concert hall’s enshrinement of 19th century repertoire: replace the piano with a digital facsimile that cannot be “treated” in manners that arose around the middle of the twentieth century.
There’s something else usually going on, sometimes ironic, in radical treatments of the piano. While preparation turns the piano into a fertile source of varied and complex sounds, it is the traditional “neutrality” (of pitch, of timbre) that is undermined. Just as approaches to the piano’s interior undo its even sound (and can restore pure cycles of fourths with glass balls sliding up strings), there’s usually an inquiry into the very historical definition / relationship of the piano. That relationship to electronics has become increasingly ambiguous. If an era begins with Cage tipping the piano into a percussion music that would eventually sound electronic, we have also seen the rise of the electric piano from the tinny amplified metal bars of a Fender Rhodes to a computerized digital imitation of the “real” thing. That digital facsimile makes the most radical approaches to the traditional piano seem even more nostalgic, from Berkeley-based Eric Glick Rieman’s explorations in “preparing” a Fender Rhodes and playing its interior (hear Ten to the Googolplex on Accretions, ALP-021) to Australian Ross Bolleter’s work with ruined pianos (e.g., Secret Sandhills and Satellites [Emanem 4128], and the forthcoming Night Kitchen [Emanem 5008], as well as his recordings on the WARPS label). These transformations of the abandoned resonate with Conlon Nancarrow’s extended explorations of player pianos from the 1940s on.
Two very different solo recordings that appeared in the past year might epitomize the piano’s potential for sonic extension: Sophie Agnel’s Capsizing Moments (Emanem 5004) and Sebastian Lexer’s aforementioned Dazwischen (Matchless MRCD 74). While it’s divided into three parts, Sophie Agnel’s 51 minutes of improvising at Les Instants Chavirés in November 2009 has a continuous lyric sweep. Concentrated for long passages in the piano’s interior, it moves fluidly from reverberant echoing of strummed bass strings to rapid-fire keyboard phrases triggering prepared strings, then on to the most fragile, bell-like sounds at minimal volume. The liner asserts an absence of electronics and the CD is a transcription of a world both ethereal and insistently material, with Agnel altering the piano sound with the materials of contemporary industry, aluminum and plastic. As Henri Jules Julien notes in his liner essay, “The piano is extended into the world. Sophie Agnel puts the world into the piano.” There’s nothing particularly new about what Agnel is doing, but she finds and mines a vein of very personal sonic poetry rooted in this exchange between inner and outer impulses and the special dialogues that arise around the status of materials. This sense of recovery and transformation—an aluminum foil ashtray, perhaps, or maybe a ping pong ball inserted in the cultural altar of the grand piano—is akin to the work of Rieman and Bolleter. Agnel employs resonance to create a sense of timelessness, even when her work is polyrhythmic.
Lexer’s Dazwischen must be viewed as one of the most important (and beautiful) CDs of improvised music released in the past year. Referring to his work as piano +, Lexer has developed a computer patch that (conjoined with multiple microphones and various forms of signal processing) allows him to record and modify sounds he makes in and around the piano. Given the nature of the signal processing, Lexer is “dazwischen” (in between), involved in a genuinely complex process that’s as much composition as improvisation, as much electronic as acoustic music making. Chain-sounds, bits of electronic grit and soundwaves mix with struck piano tones. Apparently acoustic piano sounds bend gently and elusively into the reign of the electronic. Listening to Dazwischen, a listener is in-between as well, suspended between knowing and not knowing how something is made, whether it’s recorded music being processed or live piano playing, and what degrees of intentionality and control (absolute, permutating?) are enacted in the ultimately resultant sounds of these luminously meditative pieces. The very slight alterations and additions to piano sound in a piece like “Opposition” possess both detailed precision and a fresh vision, reconstructing some of the possibilities of sound.
Four recent CDs on another British label, Another Timbre, provide further material for reflection on the state of piano exploration, from acoustic to electronic, from minimalist to orchestral, with works as strongly distinguished by temperament as methodology.
Cage’s “Electronic Music for Piano” is sparser still, with Tilbury and Lexer creating a score out of Cage’s 1964 performance notes and adaptation of the earlier “Music for Piano 4 - 84” (from 1953-56). The two have used transparencies of star maps a la Cage and David Tudor and moveable mikes, with Tilbury’s performance then subjected to further randomizing processes and editing by Lexer. Like any successful “performance” of Cage’s later work, its realization is determined as much by the originality of the performers as by Cage’s own, and Tilbury and Lexer are genuine originals. Strongly associated with the methods of Dazwischen, this also makes a fine introduction to Lexer’s development of the “piano +” concept in which the piano is subject to computer processing, feedback , etc., a process in part shaped by earlier Tilbury/Lexer realizations of the “Electronic Music for Piano.”
Currently resident in Berlin, Magda Mayas is a young pianist who has studied with Misha Mengelberg and Georg Graewe, and her work is characterized by tremendous, sustained activity. Heartland (AT 25) is her first solo CD. Mayas plays two long improvisations here, the first, “Shards,” recorded in Berlin, the second “Slow Metal Skin,” at Roulette in New York. Her approach, like Sophie Agnel’s, is rooted in the timbral variety available by playing directly on the strings: striking them with mallets, scratching them, overlaying objects to create reactions that can be triggered either by playing the keyboard or, again, playing directly on the strings. Mayas further affects the piano sound by using very close micing, and there’s some evident distortion achieved through high recording levels. Akin to dance, a series of sonic gestures often employs marked contrasts in pitch and dynamics, from sharply percussive metallic rappings to scratched strings, whistling rubbings and koto-like plucking. Mayas’ flight to the interior frequently employs simultaneous contrasting events in a re-definition of two-handed piano playing. Further, her approach includes micro-gestures that sometimes repeat, creating a soundscape in which a figure moves through uniformity to sudden difference to echoing figures that suggest wandering in circles. It’s evocative, cinematic work with roots in Romanticism and Impressionism, sound coming in great flurries that resemble thunder and delicate tinklings like wind-chimes.
Given the focus of these Altered Timbre discs on piano exploration, it’s almost a surprise to encounter The Middle Distance (AT 24) played by something like a band, a trio of Chris Burn on piano, Simon H. Fell on bass and Philip Thomas on prepared piano. What is particularly delightful is the way that the three interact. If two pianos usually suggest a degree of bombast, then Burn and Thomas are the antithesis of the typical. Each works with something resembling the meditative discretion of Tilbury or Lexer, a scattering of notes here, a sudden gesture to the interior there. Fell’s sense of line and pitch inflection make him an ideal (and equal) partner and the pianos are redefined in terms of timbral possibility rather than the usual density of harmony, line and event. The performance might serve as a model for the piano in small group free improvisation.
The final entry in the series is Turned Moment, weighting (AT-B07) by Stephen Cornford and Samuel Rodgers, released in Another Timbre’s special series of CD-Rs. Cornford is a sound and installation artist (his work also includes trespassing on the London site of the 2012 Olympics) and here he’s working with feedback, micing a piano that Rodgers plays in an extremely minimalist way. Like the work of Sebastian Lexer, it’s meditative in the extreme, clearly touching on the music of Morton Feldman, and while it possesses little of Lexer’s technical sophistication, it’s nonetheless beautiful work, slowly unfolding music that maintains an extraordinary concentration, taking on the quality of a Japanese temple gong (a fundamental legacy of Cage’s interests in prepared piano, Zen Buddhism and I Ching: take the definitive Western instrument and make it as Eastern as possible). There’s an intense sense of the spatial here, as if Cornford is using the piano and its electronic feedback to measure the room, its psychological parameters as well as its physical dimensions.