Tagged: piano

Popular Belief

Superb set of compositions by the American composer Eric Wubbels is called Duos With Pianos Book I (CARRIER RECORDS CARRIER 030). We’ve received many release from this New York label Carrier Records and enjoyed every one of them. Members of Wet Ink Ensemble, previously noted in these pages for their work with Sam Pluta, accompany pianist Wubbels on this set of compositions dated from 2007 to 2014. The press notes characterise Wubbels – who happens to be co-director of Wet Ink Ensemble – as “a rare virtuoso of extended piano technique”, and there’s abundant evidence on the grooves that follow. But he’s also a hyper-intelligent composer with a conceptual depth that enriches every one of these pieces.

For instance ‘Shiverer’ – a compact but dense explanation is given in the CD notes for this equally dense music. It’s something to do with “relationships between the instruments” and the way they play. Piano and flute in this case. Right away it’s clear Wubbels is a composer who understands how instruments actually work, and the extremes to which they can be pushed, an adventurous spirit we’ve been missing since the time of Charles Mingus. Wubbels admits this is a “dfficult” piece, but the main problem for players is the complex co-ordination of ideas and actions which they have to achieve. In these eight minutes we’ve got a rich flow of traffic, of ideas compressed into notes, and the sparks fly when one or more of these bundles intersect. Further, Wubbels has the notion that he’s making the musicians pass through “a series of gates” – a metaphor which would please those who like to interpret Mark Rothko’s paintings in that way – and through technical skill and mental effort, a spiritual epiphany may be reached. Whew.

‘The Children Of Fire Come Looking For Fire’ arrives in two long parts. Scored for violin and prepared piano. While previous piece seemed like it could almost pass for very advanced 1960s classical avant, this one owns up in its opening seconds to its contemporary “noisy” influences. Josh Modney’s violin scrape throughout is intense – acoustic Merzbow on the cat gut! Rarely heard such wild atonal screeches on that instrument. But this sound of his didn’t just “happen” one fine day when they strolled into the recording studio; rather it’s the result of months of planning, rehearsals and hard work which Wubbels instigated. It earned Modney a printed dedication; one senses it was a painful process for him. Apparently this piece is derived from a small section of a Brahms piano piece, where Wubbels has zoomed in on a few precious seconds of music and used its form as the basis for an entire compositional structure. To put it another way, he’s taken what he calls a “contrary motion wodge shape” from Brahms and repurposed it into these 25 minutes of astonishing music; I can’t understand more than the gist of his explanatory notes, but once again it feels like he’s pushing something to the utmost limits, when he speaks of a “neume that functions on every structural level…from global trajectories to micro-gestures”. This approach seems very comprehensive, and no doubt accounts for the remarkable richness of ‘Children Of Fire’’s content; it’s like reading a thick 400-page treatise on an abstruse subject, and quite often the challenging ideas are presented with tremendous speed. Yet it’s not incoherent or disjunctive; even though highly structured and near-abstract, this comes over as a very convincing argument, thought-through from start to finish.

‘Doxa’ is another two-parter, scored for prepared piano and prepared vibraphone. Only the most minimal of notes are supplied by Wubbels for this mysterious piece; almost like two lines from a modernist poem. Part I = (mind cannot be grasped). In stark contrast to the busy-ness of the previous pieces, Doxa part I is a blank canvas occasionally decorated with bursts of light and colour from the two percussion instruments, chiming into the silence as if reluctant to disturb the stillness of the atmosphere. The carefully-programmed silences in this piece give us a chance to breathe, finally. True to its title Part I does convey something of a mental problem which can’t be solved, a philosophical investigation into a metaphysical conundrum. Part II = appearances/phenomena. Even more restrained than its brother, but at least the sound it makes is continuous, a beautiful limpid near-drone of crystal-clear music which slowly grows in richness and complexity. With its relatively limited range of notes and the repeated patterns, ‘Doxa Part II’ is like Morton Feldman enriched with vitamins and power drinks.

Lastly, the 20-minute ‘This Is This Is This Is’, two alto saxophones with a prepared piano. Dedicated to the writer David Foster Wallace whose thinking had quite an influence on the composer Wubbels; indeed he’s decided to try and articulate, in music, a particular type of consciousness that was propounded and advocated by Wallace. It’s something to do with moving beyond the habits of thought patterns which we all accumulate in our lives, and also trying to transform everyday life into something sacred and meaningful. Certainly ‘This Is This Is This Is’ does seem, in places, to zip by at the speed of thought, and there are no end of repeated patterns in the music. A sense of struggle is conveyed, Wubbels trying perhaps to break free from the very shackles of his own ideas. “Extended repetition as a force against habit,” as he would have it; and if this music doesn’t represent a significant advance on the repeated arpeggios of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, then I’ll eat my hat. From 7th October 2016.

Petalody

Karoline Leblanc
Velvet Oddities
CANADA atrito-afeito 006 CDR (2016)

This arrived with a hand-written note on a very nice piece of marbled paper. Perhaps the marbling is the work of Karoline Leblanc as well, perhaps not. The design of the cd sleeve is also very striking. A warm-yellow sleeve; a single fold-over piece of card, but professionally printed in full colour; the yellow on the outside augmented with a four bar graphic – three turquoise bars and one red on its face. Upon opening, on the inside the background is red with the same graphic but with one red and three white bars. There is no written information on the inside apart from the indication that these are nineteen individual pieces of piano improvisation. This description is included on the back cover as a helpful subtitle for the casual observer. The longest piece of music is just under four minutes while the shortest is very brief at only 58 seconds. I use the term “music” deliberately; these are very “musical” improvisations; no extended technique, Cageian preparation or augmentation with everyday objects here. These nineteen tracks actually work very well if listened to straight through in one sitting and perceived as a whole piece, or a whole movement. Leblanc demonstrates some very technical playing and clearly she is a very accomplished pianist – I think she plays instruments other than piano as well, namely violin, harpsichord, organ, and most interestingly, the Ondes Martenot: an early electronic orchestral instrument. If you are not familiar with the Ondes Martenot, imagine something not unlike a scaled-up Stylophone. And go and source a copy of Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony and be amazed. I’d be very interested to hear her tackle the Ondes with a similar approach to this.

She appears to be involved with an improvising scene in Montreal; I think her initial entry-point some time ago being through free-jazz. She runs the atrito-afeito label with another musician, the improvising drummer, Paulo J Ferreira Lopes. I think Velvet Oddities is a very impressive piece of work with a good flow throughout the course of the album. Indeed, with this many short pieces, I’m sure a lot of thought would have gone into the sequencing of tracks, which benefits the material greatly. It works very well; is very dynamic, and because of the high level of technique, a lot of it is leaning towards – or revealing the influence of – classical piano music more than it is Electro Acoustic Improvisation. But that’s no bad thing. Yeah, I like it. Edition of 100.

Four Pianos

I’ve been enjoying Angelina Yershova’s spacey craft for some weeks now, without necessarily knowing how to sell it, as I frequently find myself drifting into unknown pastures of the mental antipodes when I should be taking notes. On Piano’s Abyss (TWIN PARADOX RECORDS TPR001), she specialises in deep water ambience of a distinctly Robert Henke (Piercing Music-era) flavour, albeit more tidal, more insistent in its space-sweeping pulsations than Henke’s drip-fed, hour-long seabed soaking sessions. These pleasantly primordial scenes she decorates with such lilting, rolling piano passages as one might find hanging in the air at a luxury spa or scoring a screen saver rich in deep purple hues. Pleasant enough, though she pulls of a skilled balancing act between cacophonous and calming as events head towards a sinister climax of similar dimensions to David Shea’s ‘Inn of the Green Dragon’: a perspiring, metallic landscape that stretches to and fro like a beachfront fed through an Infinite Probability Drive.

Another piano-powered debut recording that doesn’t set out to dazzle as much as it seduces the listener with the slow-burn treatment (with dry ice as the chosen combustible) and makes a virtue of dead air; it seems safe to say that Sanctuary (Overtones And Deviations) (FROZEN LIGHT FZL 041) will receive recognition once this young composer’s subsequent works have earned him a bigger name. It offers a glimpse into James Batty’s quirky preoccupations and processes via gradual exposure therapy between astringent piano stylings ringing out across a cosmos shaped by other-worldly, process-based electronica. Except things are not as they initially seem: this alien astringency may partly result from Batty’s having ‘digitally hacked’ the piano to expand its 12 notes into a set of 16, giving his tinkerings the manner of someone doing a daunting dérive across a lunar surface. More considered are the swooping, Radiophonic synths and sound effects that shed light on bleak, Tron-esque cyber-surfaces crossed by digital tumbleweed and bored animals pissing in the digital water; dispassionate passages of Jim O’Rourke-esque concrète drone and a bonus track closer pounded numb by Pan Sonic-style industrialism.

Last enjoyed Florian Wittenberg’s music while listening to his collection of Artefacts, describing it as ‘a whirling void of dense and delicate textures’ born of the resonance of mystery instruments like the ‘Messertisch’ – something like a chopping board pinned down by a row of kitchen knives. Eagle Prayer (NURNICHTNUR 116 01 20) – while more terrestrial in origin, is frequently just as ethereal. Take ‘Willow Tree’, in which bowed wine glass samples converge with data drawn from photographs of the titular willows to supply a ghostly backdrop for Wittenburg’s numb-toned recitals. That software should have equipped Wittenberg to transpose images of trees into sounds might not be such a feat nowadays, but the backdrop conveys the maudlin movement of a windblown weeping willow surprisingly well. Those not inclined towards poetry may take heart that Wittenberg’s delivery is such a noncommittal murmur that it is almost eaten by the undergrowth, though perhaps not thoroughly enough for some. Also arboreal in name at least is the longest piece here: ‘One White Tree’ – a plaintive rumination for solo piano sostenuto, which may be the album’s emotional centrepiece, pipping even the pithy title track and its suave command of the patois of the African Fish Eagle.

A bit of a left turn for Mr. David Shea, whom we last heard indulging in beguiling, Fourth World soundscapes as informed by mystical religions as by devotees such as Giacinto Scelsi. Even with a soft spot for such preoccupations, I couldn’t fathom how I felt about Shea’s Rituals. Similar ambivalence abounds on this occasion, as Shea’s notoriously plunderphonic instincts on Piano 1 (ROOM40 RM476) are reined into a set of reference-laden piano pieces that pay homage to the young Shea’s personal pantheon of perfect pianists (Scelsi, Feldman, Ligetti and… Mancini among them). The defining sound is stark, minimal tonalities that hover and slide like paint droplets running down a wall, the odd flourish or splatter notwithstanding. Fancying himself the samplist-cum-composer, Shea does not play any piano himself, for reasons of apparently technical ability. Which is mysterious, as none of it sounds especially complicated. I get the impression that his outsourcing has Zorn-esque puppet master pretensions, allowing him to adopt a position of detached interest towards his ruminations. Though the collection consists of a couple of suites including one entitled Suite; the other a schmaltzy-but-distant and incongruous Mancini tribute, these are markedly less interesting than the gloomy climatologies of the more agreeably aimless stand-alones ‘Mirror’, ‘Magnets’ and ‘Trance’ – which suggestively explore the piano’s tonal drift zones with a far lighter hand.

Hvilken vei er ingen steder (del 3)

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Ivar Grydeland
Stop Freeze Wait Eat
NORWAY HUBRO MUSIC HUBRO 3538 LP (2015)

Enveloped in warm and fuzzy nocturne is this serene yet sturdy surprise from the ever-reliable Hubro label, nestling within which we find the laconic Norwegian multi-instrumentalist, one Ivar Grydeland – member of improvising trio Huntsville (previously reviewed here) – and his 6 and 12 string guitars, drowsily picking and tapping out morse code m’aiders in honeyed droplets to the sound of soporific alarm bells. However, the draping of every long tone in echo serves more than simply a sedative function; it is Grydeland’s ‘extended now’ that allows him to improvise atop the sounds of his own playing in a window of time that he likens to a painter’s stepping back from the canvas to regard the work underway. Meanwhile the listener is free to sink deep into a crackly dream world of pin-pricked, low-frequency harmonics; a less focused take on Oren Ambarchi’s soundworld, but a cosy blanketing that never smothers.

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Trondheim Jazz Orchestra / Christian Wallumrød
Untitled Arpeggios And Pulses
NORWAY HUBRO MUSIC HUBRO HUBROCD2566 (2015)

Our first (and last) encounter with the Norwegian ‘jazz’ pianist Christian Wallumrød was bemusing to say the least, an effect partly brought about by the connotations of using the j-word, by Wallumrød’s history with the ECM label and by that record’s unfailing ambiguity of style and intention. Intriguing to a fault, Pianokammer defies the finger of categorisation, falling somewhere ’between the realms of easy listening and cold abstraction’, to the point at which questions such as ‘do I like this?’ become redundant. Whatever motivations led to the recording of that strange selection, they remain invisible to the naked ear.

Its successor – Untitled Arpeggios and Pulses – arrives in a similar cloak of cool mystery and a title suggestive of the anonymity and simplicity of its ethereal ways. Carried by The Trondheim Jazz Orchestra as a commission for Kongsberg Jazz Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2014, the ‘action’ has moved from the fire-lit living room in winter to the chilled auditorium where quiet coughs mingle with the steam of musicians’ breath. Suspended in air, rendered sluggish by hibernation instincts or lurching like locked groove vinyl, the four sections of this 50+ minute composition consist of short, semi- and atonal phrases repeated ad infinitum by small and unusual instrumental assortments that include piano and pedal steel peddling peace and forgetfulness (part 2), to a trudging, trash-coated behemoth for graunching guitar, Supersilent-style electronics and jubilant bursts of winter-numbed brass.

Clearly intended for a single sitting: walk in at any moment to find an absolute mess. Sit back however, and enjoy the unfurling from afar and things might start to click into place. Devoid of straight up ‘jazz’, the orchestra’s dedicated pursuit of the ‘pulse’ overrides all other aesthetic commitments. It’s challenging music in the best possible sense, and best of all, it knows when to keep its mouth shut.

Masters Of Suspense

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The Necks
Vertigo
UK ReR MEGACORP ReR Necks 12 CD (2015)

It is received wisdom that The Necks do what they do better than anyone else, in the same way that the Dead C do what they do better than anyone else, the way that This Heat do/did what they do/did better than anyone else. One could also say; no-one else does what they do.

Those familiar with The Necks’ recent output will recognise the ingredients; watery rotary speaker-processed Hammond organ, sampler glitches, sinister bass tones, hard-edited reversed drum hits, cymbal shimmer, playful long duration, repetition and slow, relentless real-time development of a theme. This remarkable Australian trio – pianist Chris Abrahams, drummer Tony Buck, and Lloyd Swanton on bass – take the classic jazz piano trio format and subvert it. As an important component of the Sydney music scene over the last twenty-odd years, all three have also regularly performed as part of more recognisably “straight jazz” projects as well as operating as session musicians and enjoying opportunities to follow their own individual paths. The fact that they still come together and can produce sessions of this quality tells of a shared musical pursuit that may be very close to a compulsion.

Vertigo is apparently the Necks’ eighteenth album. That’s some achievement for a group concerned only with pure improvisation operating in a commercial field. The fact that a project as outstanding as this has come out of a country whose popular music history has often been unfairly presented by some in the music press as being relatively unremarkable, is in itself faintly bizarre, yet pleasing; not to say surprising. They seem to have never put a foot wrong; from 1989’s debut Sex to what I have here on my desk today – there’s a sense of continuity and achievement to their work. In particular, they have been successful in presenting their own unique brand of freedom. According to the album’s press release, the Necks are “…powered by an idea”. Their idea is to perform music which has little pre-ordained about it. Improvisation in jazz is nothing new of course. But it’s kind of how you do it that counts. In the world of piano trios, the Esbjörn Svennson Trio knew what they were doing, for example, whereas arguably The Bad Plus don’t.

Vertigo is one 44-minute improvisation. As always, The Necks “…explore the development and demise of repeating musical figures…”, as their Wikipedia entry explains. And there’s something Lovecraftian about it. The recording begins fairly subdued, yet with simmering purpose; when the electric piano comes in out of nowhere at 15:14 it’ll give you the heebie-jeebies. Throughout, the music is suspenseful; it promotes a sense of unease in the listener. It’s not overt – it’s just a feeling that there’s something unacknowledged and nameless contained within; or within the listener, even; waiting to get out. The trio drive the music on; not forcibly, but with clear deliberation, and as relentlessly as a summer gale. It is elemental; like fog at twilight or a sea mist. Not all boats that leave port return home safely. Rotary speakers are dashed on the rocks. The final few minutes are like dinner party music; for when the hors d’oeuvres get served round at Cthulhu’s house. Indeed, there is an inscrutable photograph of a large body of water adorning the sleeve, so I reckon I’m not far off imagining the tentacles.

Long Overdue Part 17

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Lubomyr Melnyk is the Ukrainian composer and pianist who makes beautiful long-form music. We noted The Voice Of Trees in 2012, a composition for two pianos and three tubas released on the Swiss label Hinterzimmer Records. They also put out Windmills (HINT 19) in 2013, of which the main event is ‘Windmills (For 2 Pianos)’, performed by the composer and recorded in “Omni-Sonic sound”, presumably the better to help us enjoy the sonorous nature of this deep and rich music.

‘Windmills’ is a very old-fashioned narrative piece, telling the story of an old windmill and based on Melnyk interpretation of an early Walt Disney animated cartoon. Presumably this is The Old Mill, a 1937 Silly Symphony directed by Wilfred Jackson with music by Leigh Harline. The sleeve note to this Hinterzimmer release gilds the lily somewhat, by giving us a written description of the visuals which ought to be conjured by the music, and treat us to such heavy-handed gems of prose such as “we hear the massive but worn gears begin to toil as the wind wakes the windmill from sleep…”. This feels rather like school magazine English literature and doesn’t really do the music any favours on this occasion. But it also brings home to me how prosaic Melnyk’s music can be. I enjoyed the transcendent majesty of The Voice Of Trees, but this music seems to be making one simple statement over and over again, and stretching it out for 45 minutes. However, I don’t object to the romance and beauty of these simple arpeggios and repeated phrases, and Melnyk’s sustained performances are clearly fuelled by passion and belief, not just stamina.

Long Overdue Part 1

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Welcome return for some music by The Vitamin B12, in a double-cassette set we’ve had here in the racks since 2014. The Vitamin B12 is sometimes just a solo project by Alasdair Willis, but has also been an improvising collective involving any number of people in and around the Brighton UK area. We used to enjoy the solo records enormously back in the day, such as the vinyl-only releases 2LP Gatefold Set from 2000, or the double LP Badges from 2003, and for a time I was amazed we managed to persuade this rather reclusive fellow to contribute some record reviews to the magazine and provide some of his sumptuous drawings as well. Solo Vitamin is always hard to pin down to a genre, but it’s usually a form of very melodic music, full of inventive and eccentric electronic tunes and ditties, informed by everything from Radiophonic Workshop, easy listening, and classical avant-garde composition. The improvising version of The Vitamin B12 didn’t appeal to me half as much, but the manic skittering clattersome noise they made was well represented on a series of 10-inch LPs called Heads, all issued together in 2006. When spun, you had the impression with these players that they just didn’t know when to stop.

Today’s item is not like either of the above “modes”. Winter City Patterns 1-4 is two cassettes with zero artwork or information printed anywhere, and they’re sealed inside a plastic box which you have to open by loosening four screws. Luckily, I have a head start in that department. Listeners without a Philips screwdriver will find themselves at a loss. I was afraid it might turn out to be a memory stick inside the box, containing some 400 unreleased albums. I wouldn’t even have known the title had it not been for the helpful letter from Nick Langley of Third Kind Records, who issued it and sent me a copy. It’s a solo set by Alasdair Willis; “the music…will definitely not be described as impenetrable”, writes Langley.

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Winter City Patterns is all keyboard music, mostly piano (or digital piano) with some other keyboards including a tasty organ preset, with one long piece per side of a tape. It is indeed very accessible music and in places quite beautiful. The earlier electronic music from 2000 onwards was often characterised by its brevity and compactness, but here Willis has opted for the long form to allow his discursive ideas to develop. Perhaps as a result of this, it’s easy enough to find comparisons with the music of Terry Riley or Philip Glass in these repeated arpeggios and restated patterns with their slight variations, but Willis is clearly not aiming for anything as solemn or monumental as an American Minimalist, and is still happy to construct model villages and Lego toytowns in sound. His music here may mesmerise and enchant, but he doesn’t promise mystical Sufi fulfilment or Eastern knowledge at the end of it, maybe rather a trip to the toyshop and a bag of boiled sweets. All of the pieces are pretty much in a major key setting, contributing to the sense of uplift and well-being; and the music flows as naturally as a mountain spring.

Besides the American minimalism parallels, there’s something of more substance and complexity going on with sides three and four (at any rate, the third and fourth sides of these unmarked tapes which I spun) with moves and structures which I would like to classify as more European, but I lack the musical knowledge to affirm this claim. One might hear traces of Satie in these inventions and caprices, including phrases which sound as though they ought to be quotes from well-known classical works, woven seamlessly into the flow of the music. For one thing I had no idea Willis was so fluent and capable behind the piano, but with such a self-effacing personality it’s perhaps in keeping that he remains modest about these achievements.

If one could find fault with Winter City Patterns, it would be with the small problem that Willis solo, like the Vitamin B12 collectives, doesn’t know when to stop. The duration here is important to the meaning and realisation of each piece, but they also seem to go on for far too long, without really progressing much in the process. There’s also this slightly cloying taste to the work, to the point where the major key and user-friendly melodies start to become irritating. It’s almost like a very contemporary form of cocktail lounge music. These observations though should not detract from your listening pleasure as you allow these lengthy and pleasing extemporisations to wash over you like a warm bubble bath. From 1st December 2014.

A Perpetual Fog

Ryuichi Sakamoto Illuha Taylor Deupree

Ryuichi Sakamoto / Illuha / Taylor Deupree
Perpetual
USA 12K 1082 CD (2015)

This disc is housed in a beautiful and enticing gatefold sleeve; the design printed in muted grey-greens on a good quality textured card stock; really a beautiful thing in the hand. Illuha are Corey Fuller and Tomoyoshi Date and they already have three of their own records on 12K; Shizuku, Interstices and Akari. Fuller plays guitar and pianet, augmented with electronics, while Date claims responsibility for pump organ and “noises” as well as more of the ubiquitous electronics. Taylor Deupree, who uses a modular synthesiser here, is pretty prolific and enjoys a good collaboration; as you probably already know he also has previous releases on 12K plus albums on labels such as LINE, Raster-Noton, and/OAR, Mille Plateaux, Room40, but since about 2010, mostly 12K, including his 2013 collaboration with Sakamoto, Disappearance. Here he plays modular synthesiser.

I was going to write something along the lines of “…It’s good to hear the familiar timbres of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s synthesiser patches on these three pieces of music: “Movements 1, 2 and 3”. Sakamoto’s patches are like a family friend’s old dog you’ve known since it was a puppy or a familiar aunt’s cardigan. They are reassuring. I’ve been listening to them since his soundtrack to the film Merry Xmas Mr Lawrence back in 1983 it seems. To me, some of Sakamoto’s sounds on this album are reminiscent of the ones he used on David Sylvian’s piece ‘Steel Cathedrals’ on Sylvian’s 1985 album, Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities …” but it actually transpires that Sakamoto plays only piano – treated and untreated – on Perpetual. So it must be one of the other guys making a knowing nod towards Sakamoto’s unique oeuvre. Glad I spotted that. Could have been embarrassing. Or maybe I’m simply investing so much personal significance onto his music that I like to think the sound of the poor man eating his lunch might be recognisably “Sakamoto-ish”. So anyway: as you can tell, Sakamoto’s music has in some small way been a perpetual presence in my life, you could say.

“Movement 1” has a tinge of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports about it; but barely that. I feel like I’m hearing things that sound like Music For Airports all the time. Maybe I am. My wife watches a lot of television in the evenings. “Movement 2” includes raw recordings of cymbals and voices – by “raw” I mean they sound unprocessed – and, mixed low in the mix as they are, add a very satisfying grain to the music as a whole. “Movement 3” carries on pretty much where “Movement 2” left off. I would go as far as to say Perpetual has the feel of one long session edited into three passages in post-production, although this may not actually be the case. This album is like an evening spent in a comfy armchair, watching the fire with a good quality Scotch in hand, in a quiet, welcoming, old-fashioned country public house. Possibly with someone’s large dog asleep at your feet. Somewhere you don’t want to leave in a hurry. But in the same way you are abruptly sent out into the rain by the landlord at 11:10; when Perpetual fails to live up to its name and finishes at 49:46, not only are you suddenly and unexpectedly outside at the mercy of the weather, you are also left pleasantly foggy in the head by the whole experience. Don’t forget your big coat.

The Carousel: a slow languid recording ruminating on times past

Tom James Scott, The Carousel, Skire, cassette SKR05 (2016)

Recorded during the northern hemisphere summer in 2015 through to winter in 2015/2016, this short cassette features 12 instrumental pieces composed and performed by Tom James Scott on piano, guitar and keyboard, with one track “Hiding Places” also including autoharp by Kristina Liulia. These slow little pieces – almost like fragments really, reaching out to connect somehow and almost succeeding – have a languid, sultry air and some of them are very solemn too, probably because of the soft organ-like instrument droning steadily in the background.

The feeling across this cassette seems to be one of longing or regret over fading memories or lost opportunities. Titles suggest an inward-looking, maybe even obsessive focus on objects that recall past childhood memories and feelings, objects recording the passage of time. On some tracks, background chatter has been left in, not just to emphasise the improvisational or ephemeral (or both) nature of the music perhaps but also to highlight the alienated quality of the solo instrument playing its lacklustre melody. On Side B, one track is taken up with creaking sounds suggestive of someone trying to wind up an old creaking wooden clock to get it to work and not succeeding too well.

As you can imagine, listening to this tape isn’t always a pleasant experience and it doesn’t lend itself to frequent replaying. But if one late summer’s day, when the sun is already starting to set behind the trees and hills, long shadows are stretching far in front of you, and your thoughts turn to pleasures and good times that are already fast becoming sketchy in your mind, soon to be unreachable in the recesses of your brain, you know someone else has already limned out the soundtrack for what you feel.

The album is limited to 175 copies and each comes in an attractively designed slipcase with a download code.

Understated Saccharine

Bruno Bavota

Bruno Bavota
Mediterraneo
RUSSIA DRONARIVM DR-31 CD-R (2015)

This disc is a little unusual in that it is not the sort of thing that I would usually expect to find within The Sound Projector’s remit, but nevertheless here it is, so here goes. Mediterraneo is a highly pleasant and yet simultaneously extremely unchallenging piano and acoustic guitar music of a hyper-melodic bent. Apparently the recordings were made in total darkness, which could have been an interesting starting point conceptually, but unfortunately, Bavota sees no reason to explore the implications of such a strategy and no attempt is made to develop the idea the way others such as Yiorgis Sakellariou or Francisco López use darkness as part of their own operations.

After two fairly unremarkable pieces, the third, “Hands”, employs a chiming, delayed guitar which threatens to lead us into more interesting Mogwai-like territory, but once the piano starts, the guitar is reduced to providing reverberant swells to support the chord changes. Later, Marco Pescosolido’s cello and Paolo Sasso’s violin augment those same chord changes well and for me it is their efforts which go a long way to turning the piece round.

If a contemporary piano album could have an obvious single, track four “Who Loves, Lives” is it. It is crying out for a female pop vocal and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being sampled with a vocal line courtesy of someone like Ellie Goulding before long. Track five, “Alba”, uses a similar fingerstyle acoustic guitar progression as Kaleidophon’s Here from 1998, but where Kaleidophon deliberately left in recording and production errors as textural artefacts, Bavota’s recital on guitar here is pristine and flawless and as such maybe lacks a little interest and authority. When the distantly-recorded Steinway (a model D274, the sleevenotes inform us) kicks in, the piece improves immeasurably. Incidentally, the first cassette-radio I owned was made by a company called Alba. Moving on, the super-restrained, quiet beginning of “The Night” could almost be a Talk Talk / Mark Hollis homage until yet another endlessly repeated, tricksy little melody rudely obliterates the effect.

The nadir of the album (so far – track 7) is the title track which sounds lovely in terms of production value, but employs an annoyingly unchanging chord structure, predictable melody, and perhaps the most amount of understated saccharine I’ve ever heard in an album of popular music. I suspect these are all deliberate strategies on the part of Mr Bavota. From a record company’s point of view it ticks all the boxes; great production, skilled performances, accessible composition, but to me it’s like everything I’ve ever heard squished together into a nice neat block of “what contemporary popular piano music should sound like”, with all the fat, gristle and offal removed. Have you ever seen those vacuum packed pre-cooked half chickens you get in convenience stores? That’s what this reminds me of. Superficially beguiling but once you get stuck in, it proves to be tasteless, wan, textureless and of dubious nutritional value. By the ninth offering, “Sweet Fall”, it is obvious Bavota is aiming to plough a similar furrow in more or less every track, but he’s got plenty of diesel left. Clumping piano block chords descend for ever in to an abyss of self-satisfied cleverness. I could suggest that most nine-year-olds learning the piano could produce a similar result.

Bavota is credited as composer, arranger and with piano, guitar delay, reverb and, fashionably, field recordings. Where are these field recordings? I couldn’t actually hear any. Where were they made? Who were they made by if not Bavota himself? The press release mentions “…the sound of the autumn rain…” but I’ve not been able to spot it. Albums of this sort are probably very popular with people who hold a lot of dinner parties, but I personally felt like I was either in a motivational video for bank workers or watching a trailer for the latest Hollywood rom-com most of the time. Or listening to Coldplay Unplugged if such a thing exists. So far this year we’ve lost talent like David Bowie, Keith Emerson, Lemmy Kilmister and most recently, Prince Rogers Nelson – is this the sort of new thing we really should welcome into the pop mainstream? You decide.