CD Reviews

Tuesday 22nd June

June 23, 2010

extendedpiano_frontcover-300x297Hot and tired tonight. I have foresaken the dehydration of good wine for the bloated refreshment of pear cider this humid evening. Work was pretty tough today and my listening tonight has mostly been done horizontally- the recent acquisition of a decent laptop now means that I am able to post while in such a position! I have also been working on a few things for other places, a couple of reviews for The Wire amongst them, so writing further reviews here each night sees me a little overloaded, but I persevere.

Tonight I listened to a CD that I have been playing on and off for a few weeks. Its a disc of contemporary experimental piano composition written by five different composers but performed by Sebastian Berweck. The first time I was aware of Berweck’s work was when he contributed to the Stock11.de album that Simon wrote about for these pages here. Sebastian got in touch after that piece was published and sent me a copy of the Stock CD along with this other newish release, a nicely produced disc simply titled Extended Piano issued by the University of Huddersfield’s CD label.  There are five pieces on the album, one each written by Benjamin Lang, Michael Maierhof, James Saunders, Thomas Wenk and Johannes Kreidler. The CD includes extensive liner notes about each of the pieces, how they were performed and what their intentions may have been, so it doesn’t seem right to just rewrite the liners here detailing each of the pieces. Instead I will try and focus on another area that the disc touches on, the traditional notion of the pianist as a virtuoso being overturned with the music on this CD.

Although all quite different, each of the pieces here tries to extend the role of the pianist beyond someone that just sits and plays keys in an impressive manner before getting up to take a bow. All of them  involve some form of extended technique, from the familiar preparations of Lang’s composition to the eBows and marbles that are used in Maierhof’s Splitting 16 through to the addition of taped sounds on Johannes Kreidler’s Klavierstück 5. The extent to which they are used, and therefore the extent to which the music sounds familiar, varies across the five pieces. Throughout the album though there is no sense of grandeur, no feeling of showy, skillful flourishes, and in some cases seemingly deliberate attempts to undermine the tradition of this in piano music. Thomas Wenk’s Recordame (for piano and handheld cassette recorder) requires the performer to record the piano as he plays it, then playing back bits of the recording at specified times, the sound of the recorder clicking and whirring becoming as much a part of the music as anything else, and the played back bits of piano then sounding grainy and fuzzy next to the real instrument sounds themselves, so commenting almost on the traditional desire for a piano to sound beautifully clear and resonant.

As the liner notes remind us here, Lachenmann once described the piano as ” a piece of furniture” and in some ways this CD attempts to remove the mystical qualities of the instrument and reduce it to what it really is, a large resonant box with strings in it that can be used in more ways than we are used to hearing. The compositions here only nod their head to tradition, and often undermine it entirely. James Saunders’ #250904-r is one of two pieces here to utilise eBows on the strings, a method that is often seen as “cheating” by piano purists, particularly as the Ebow was originally designed for use on a guitar. the final piece by Kreidler also includes completely non-pianistic taped sounds, ranging from the sound of football fans to a supermarket to unidentifiable roaring white noise.

The intent of this album is to show that the piano can be extended out beyond what we expect. Even the prepared piano full of clips and bolts has been around for more than half a decade now, and the challenge to the pianist, or the composer for the instrument, is how to go beyond the norms, find something new to do with a piano, something new to say with it without retreading the same old relationships and ideas. Another German Sebastian, more familiar to readers of these pages is Sebastian Lexer, who is answering a similar call for originality in the area of improvisation, and his piano+ technique is often in my mind as I listen to Berweck’s realisations of the music here. Of course not everything here is completely original, perhaps none of it is, but certainly this album is an attempt to pull together work from five different composers that at least does not all sound like something we might have heard four or five decades ago, and oozes a sensation of adventure coated in no small amount of danger. There is still a fair amount of real beauty to be found on this album, Saunders’ piece in particular seems to generate some truly gorgeous little environments where soft sounds come together in little patterns. This isn’t all unlistenable dadism, there is real craft and an attention to the end product to be heard here, but the beauty comes from the sounds rather than from any showy pianism.

This is a really nice collection of interesting new music. Its rare to find a disc of piano works like this. Sure there are many recordings of prepared piano out there, but these pieces often go beyond the simple addition of percussion elements to the more familiar piano sound. There is a real sense of exploration of this piece of furniture here. In some places it is more successful than others, but from start to finish the feeling is of seeking out new ideas, and for me personally that can only be a good thing. I still haven’t got around to playing the Stock11.de CD (sorry Sebastian!) but I now am looking forward to doing so very much indeed. Available here.

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