Saturday 26th JuneJune 27, 2010
Well that was weird. I was sat this evening, as I usually am at this time, in my favourite listening chair, playing Scrabble on my iPhone while listening intently to some music when I felt my nose running and reached into my pocket for a tissue. This is not so unusual for me at this time of the year either as I suffer quite heavily from hayfever. When I brought the tissue to my nose though a big drop of blood fell into it and I then sat and had a nosebleed for the next ten minutes. I haven’t had a nosebleed since I was about ten years old. I think the last time I had one was after receiving a smack on the nose playing football at primary school. Now, weirdly I was having one while sat listening to Philip Thomas playing piano pieces written by Tim Parkinson. I’ve no idea why it happened. All a bit baffling really.
About as baffling as the music. This new CD is one of three new releases of piano music just out on Wandelweiser. It contains two pieces for solo piano written by Parkinson and played by Thomas. Each is named Piano Piece, but with the identifiers 2006 and 2007 helpfully added. The music then is incredibly hard to assess and probably even harder to describe. In the brief liner notes to the disc, Thomas states that although “traces of other musics may be suggested by some of the material, the focus for the performer in on projecting the sounds without the clutter of interpretive rhetoric”. As the perfomer here he achieves this very well- this music sounds like nothing else I can think of.
Both pieces follow a similar course, in that they wind allover the place and seem to have to fixed pattern, tempo or easily attachable reference points. The first piece begins with a series of very simple rising and falling scales, but then wanders off into tiny fragments of melody, quiet, spacious moments, sections within which hammered simple one or two key repetitions occur, and just about everything else in between. There is maybe an overarching sense of the history of English piano composition here, if I was listening to this blind and was asked to name the composer after much shoulder shrugging I might have plumped for Skempton or Michael Parsons, and there is a vague sense of Cardew’s playful simplicity in there somewhere, but actually this really doesn’t sound like much else at all. It is as if (and the liners might point this way) Parkinson has set out to make music that refuses all references, rejects all influences, and perhaps in doing so makes a kind of oblique reference to all composed piano music at the same time. There is an almost childlike innocence to the music. it doesn’t sound random at all, but somehow sounds like the work of a talented pianist that had never heard any piano music before.
Its hard to explain why I say this, but there is a freshness to this music I rather like. The playing feels light and airy, the notes bounce from one to another, and even though they don’t seem to go in the directions that might sound familiar there is something well formed about the music, it does sound complete somehow. Parkinson writes that he wanted to focus on the present, make each moment in the first piece a new beginning. This certainly feels like it has been achieved. As each part of the work begins I have found myself forgetting what came before. The unnatural progressions from one part of the music to another make it hard to pull the whole piece together in my head so I can evaluate the structure or overall atmosphere. Both of the pieces here sound more like musical journeys than concise works with a beginning, middle and end.
The liner notes for the second track, Piano Piece (2007) are just as brief, paraphrasing quotes from a couple of people I hadn’t heard of before, but also there is the line from Parkinson; “To work, for a period of time, until that work and time is over.” This to me is reflected in the simple, matter-of-factness of the music. Like in the first piece different sections seem to bear no relation to each other, but they do not sound like gimmicks, they do not seem to apologise for themselves, they just exist where they are until they end and the next section begins. The question then is what we are meant to make of it… are we supposed to just listen because the sounds are there until they are gone? Are we meant to enjoy the music in any particular way? We don’t get melodies to cling to, there isn’t any one overriding sensation to take from the playing, so what are we meant to go away with?
Personally I took away a sense of bafflement, plus a nosebleed, but also a sense of something quite important and unusual here. If improvisation, at least in its formative years went in search of non-idiomatic playing then maybe this piano music is doing something similar, and coming very close to achieving it. Has anyone else heard this disc yet? I am very interested to know how others have felt about it. is it just me that finds it so unusual?
The Wandelweiser site, which includes a link to buy their discs from is here. The other two piano releases are both double CD sets, one a series of works by a variety of composers played by Dante Boon, the other two discs of very wonderful music written and played by Eva-Maria Houben. The former I will listen to and write about here soon, my review of the latter should appear in the next edition of The Wire magazine.