Music for painting

Florian Wittenburg
sympathetic, (a)symmetric – new music for piano

A clutch of pieces for piano, some incorporating e-bow, with a very fluid dynamic – all killer, no filler – which held my full attention over the course of the entire disc over several listens. The pianists on these recordings are Daan Vandewalle, Nico Huijbregts and Florian Wittenburg himself. I initially took to listening to this disc while painting the spare room and was thus able to hear it in a uniquely concentrated way. Repetitive manual labour enables the mind to flow freely, I always find.

From an appropriate standpoint, all the pieces are very striking, powerful, involving and transporting. They may have roots in pieces for piano by Purcell rather than Schoenberg or Satie, but Wittenburg states a more modern interest in Morton Feldman and his term “crippled symmetry”. I must say I enjoy listening to this disc very much. The e-bow improvisations by Nico Huijbregts work particularly well within the disc’s running order to insert a little sense of air and space – in fact I hope this is how any pianists who may intend to use Wittenburg’s piano pieces in their repertoire utilize these – and are sufficiently short of duration to have the maximum effect. Now that I look more carefully at the sleeve notes, it seems that Wittenburg has credited Nico Huijbregts with the improvisations Three Drones I, II and III (2008). However in the (unusually substantial) press release Wittenburg states he “…started with 3 ebow drones for piano…The drones inspired me to create melodies on top of them…the idea of enriching the melodies through improvisation came to me.”

Wittenburg apparently then asked pianist Huijbregts to take the drones as a starting point from which to diverge and later return to. This is an approach not unusual in contemporary music; some members of the Wandelweiser group of composers, for example, live for this sort of thing. I had imagined integrated graphic notation within the score for these pieces, but Wittenburg puts it somewhat cryptically – “…being still involved with a visual approach to music at that time, I constructed the drones out of what I called ‘symmetric’ and ‘asymmetric’ intervals.” Wittenburg admits an interest in Morton Feldman’s term “crippled symmetry” – and/or Feldman’s actual composition Crippled Symmetry (1983) – but to listen to Three Drones I, II and III (2008), Huijbregts seems to be allowed free rein. It’s certainly a curious device when placed next to the other compositions. But anyway; the result is a set of pretty melodies augmented by the sympathetic long tones generated by the e-bows, which serve to break up the (fairly dense in contrast) bulk of Patterns In A Chromatic Field I-IV (2008-2009) and the pieces performed by Daan Vandewalle; Sol Meets John I and II and Chords In Slow Motion. Huijbregts does some respectful and delicate improvisation around Wittenburg’s melodies as expected and all is right with the world. Three Drones II is perhaps more sombre than I, and III arguably more contemplative.

So far, so academic? I was pleasantly surprised to have a strong emotional response to Chords In Slow Motion (2000) on first and subsequent listens. Wittenburg presents this piece – via his extensive texts in the press release – as a rigorous and complex system of elaboration whose gestation involved several stages of embellishment both additive and subtractive, leading me ultimately to expect to hear a dry, airless and overly scholarly composition. Quite the reverse is true, and I would recommend this very successful early piece and credit too the performer on this recording; Daan Vandewalle, for his reading of the score; as Wittenburg asserts: “…the notation is “free”, leaving space for interpretation by a performer, which affects especially the timing of the notes…” Just what I need to speed along my next DIY task.

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