Dour Revenants

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March of the Dead

Lucie Vítková / Jolana Havelková
Návrh Na Zmenu Partitury
SLOVAKIA LOM LOM03 CD (2013)

This is a collection of highly interpretative solo performances that pay tribute to the work and influence of 19th century Czech composer and conductor, František Kmoch, who was known for his idiosyncratic take on traditional military march pieces, drawing heavily on Czech folklore and folk songs. These compositions communicated his implacable patriotism, which outside of the music’s local popularity is said to have so chafed against encroaching Austro-Hungarian imperial ideals of the era to the point at which he was even allegedly excluded from pedagogical duties. Our modern-day interpreter, the ‘experimental photographer’ Jolana Havelková, seems at pains to categorise the allusiveness of her ‘alterations’, which metamorphose the written score into a set of quadrilateral abstractions, or ‘graphical scores’: vehicles for one lackadaisical instrumental or other, featuring accordion, organ or harmonica. These attractive, if decidedly unmusical visual spectacles can be found online or in the sizeable expanse of the CD’s fold out insert.

Havelková’s ‘allusiveness’ concerns the music’s consummate vagueness, which might be conceptualised as the imperfection of memory or the memorial. For the realisation – which is as mysterious to me as the language in which it is all named – we have another Czech composer and performer – Lucie Vítková – to thank. Many of her performances took place around Kmoch’s (and her, I assume) hometown of Kolín, in locations significant to the composer, as if to summon (or channel) some vestige both of the composer’s spirit and that of the city itself, to which Kmoch contributed so significantly as to have earned an annual festival in his honour. Monochrome stills of these Spartan surroundings can be viewed at the release’s website, and so silent are they that Vítková must have experienced total immersion in her performance. This is certainly evident in the recordings, though whether the listener also stands to experience ethereal connection with something ‘other’ is another matter entirely. It may indeed be a strained undertaking for the melodically fixated: performances are pruned to the shadow, with few hints of the life in Kmoch’s original compositions: a dour revenant rather than full-hearted renaissance.

Keyed instruments exhibit the more sincere drama on offer: the organ opening (‘Pozdrav Vlasti’) is more bleak than liturgical, though returning in ‘Na Stríbropenném Labi’ in a more demented wise; notes dancing like fireflies in a Svankmejer animation. These sections are among the most eventful, if only by virtue of the curious meandering and ecclesiastical silence. There is also the sustained hammering of a piano in ‘Mesícek Svítí’, barely implies the march and is repetitious in a manner more analytical than exclamatory. By contrast, much of this might be consigned to purgatory: a bath house bevy of female voices cohering wearily in a grey resignation (‘Moravské Lilie’; ‘Moravian Lilies’). It is typical of much of the singing: pained as though briefly free from imprisonment. Similar spaces are devoted to droning accordion, handclaps and sometimes little more than the elements. As an outsider to this austere expression of ‘national consciousness’, it’s difficult to find foothold in this revival project, in spite of the second wind in the latter part of the disc. The motives for its undertaking are mysterious: is it merely the allure of unearthing of a forgotten curio, or an unfolding process of cultural psychoanalysis?

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Unprepared Piano

Eliška Cílková
Pripyat Piano (The Zone Of Chernobyl)
POLAND MATHKA MTHK015 CD (2013)

The bare-boned performances audible here issue from improvisations on pianos found in Chernobyl. Since 2010, Chronicler Eliška Cílková has made several journeys into the veritable ghost town of Pripyat, once home to 50,000, which was abandoned and looted immediately after the 1986 nuclear disaster. Over the course of three years she located, after extensive foraging, a total of nine pianos in varying states of disrepair: her journey taking her through crumbling schools, apartment blocks and a concert hall. The pieces she recorded possess an understandable lack of veneer, the pianos having stood neglected for some 27 years, and she cautions against expectations of the melodic. Rather, her effort stands as an audio monument to a city ‘that has closed itself to the world once and for all’.

Echoing in the silence of spaces accessible only by those with a special permit, these musical relics sound more distinguished in dilapidation than they might have in their prime and, thanks to the exploratory gestures that dominate the collection, offer an interesting array of dissonances. Many pianos bear signs of senseless brutality, the work of chance vandals. Cílková ‘plays’ the gutted remains of one specimen in ‘House of Art’, a maudlin reminder of the nadir of human whimsy and experience in an infamous part of the world; one alluded to by the mind-reading, wish-fulfilling faculty within ‘The Zone’ in Tarkovsky’s Stalker; a villainous sentiment Cílková practically dramatizes in a semblance of sinister footsteps (and the real strumming of desiccated strings) in the melodramatic ‘Piano Apartment II’, which is a rare moment of near composition amid a Sturm und Drang of metallic clangs, drones and thuds. The commemoration of desolation hits fever pitch in ‘Torsos of Non-playing Pianos’, comprising recordings from several smashed and plundered specimens: all slithering scrapes and next-door knocks, it’s virtually electroacoustic in essence. After three years of research, these thirty-five minutes may constitute a cold and short-lived exercise, but as a reminder of harder times they satisfy almost as much as a Solzhenitsyn novel.

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