Songlines SA 1543-2

Accretions ALP 032

Preparing or doctoring the strings of the piano with different objects, then playing them using uncommon techniques has been part of contemporary music since composer John Cage came up with the idea in the 1940s.

Free improvisers of every stripe have also adapted the technique to a greater or lesser extent without making too much of a fuss about it; the originality of their creation is usually apparent without artificial means. Here are two completely different approaches to the method.

Although the final track of NU-TURN is a computer-created remix of earlier solos, the playing of French keyboardist Benoît Delbecq recorded in a small Vancouver, B.C. concert hall is almost traditional in a Novelle Vague sort of way. Over the course of the other eight improvisations, Delbecq — known for his duets with Canadian clarinetist François Houle and for his band The Recyclers with drummer Steve Argüelles and guitarist Noël Akchoté — may have prepared the instrument with different items, but he also plays straight, unadorned piano.

Naked pianism appears a couple of times on Californian Hans Fjellestad’s disc as well. But most of the time he seems to be having too much fun altering its sound with, among other articles, — synthesizers, computers, bows, sampled voices and sounds, feedback, an accordion and a knife — to play it straight. But this fits in with the oeuvre of Fjellestad, who is a filmmaker as well as a musician. A member of San Diego’s Trummerflora Collective, who has also worked with players like trombonist George Lewis and the late bassist Peter Kowald, he’s interested in the strange structures that can arise from unexpected juxtapositions.

Take “El Cavernario” and “Smoke Shank” for instance. On the later the hints of a female voice gasping and breathing fades into a double keyboard sound. With dampers on the instrument’s action, a toy piano pitch appears in the treble keys with a counterline of regular chords below. As a legit-style double fantasia of many notes and their vibrations resonates, voicings become more expansive, until processional chording is almost lost in silence.

On the former, feedback and prepared samples that sound like motors and a conveyer belt make it appear that sharp objects are being dragged along the piano’s soundbed and keyframe, manipulating the copper and steel strings. This is followed by what sounds like a voice sampled from a radio broadcast, shrilly orating in Spanish facings a percussion melody of scratched piano keys.

Then there’s “Phone Damage”, where computer-created, wiggling electronic tones meets up with a percussive drone that gets louder with vibrating overtones, sine- wave oscillation and the strum of piano strings. In and out of the soundfield move approximations of human footfalls, competing with what appears to be airplane cockpit communication interrupted by static and a mechanized roar.

Fjellestad can create a piece like “Harsh Knife”, where his superfast Conlon Nancarrow-like piano chording gives way to string stroking by that knife, as easily as “Sult” which mixes ghostly tumbleweed sounds and accordion vibrations that soon expressively expand and rumble like a church organ. Elsewhere his prepared piano and samples replicate the high intensity rhythm of an African balophone or squeaking and abused fiddle strings more closely related to Jack Benny’s than Jascha Heifetz’s technique.

“Pica” and other singular piano showcases are less impressive, though, since his simple, romantic, but random Keith Jarrett-like syncopated fantasia, only showcase the sort of double time tremolos that many other pianists create.

One who can so is Delbecq. His CD — except for the final track — is more concerned with the capabilities of the piano and its alterations, in contrast to the extra components Fjellestad adds to alter the piano’s sound.

“Into White”, which is also the longest track on NU-TURN, is described as a “computer created remix of the solo material”. At points, inside the piano, he create impressionistic legato phrases in high tones and discordant wooden percussive notes on the bottom that not only ring out, but also seem to vibrate. In the end the mbira-like sounds end and there’s a coda of romantic timbres that finally vanish into the piano like the March Hare down the rabbit hole.

Earlier, between his classical techniques and improv experience, Delbecq seems intent on creating self-contained and expanded melodies rife with more timbre and texture than Fjellestad’s. During the course of improvisations, looping complementary lines often come to the fore, although many of the pieces seem to begin with low energy before finally perking up. With his preparations he too can suggest the sounds of a woody marimba or a gamelan, but even polyrhythmically there’s never any doubt he’s playing a piano. On “In Lilac” for example, he comes out with a perfectly respectable near-swing line, mixing prepared keyboard-rolling arpeggios with a right hand that keep the rhythmic impetus going.

“On Laterite” Delbecq even goes Fjellestad on better, with an invertible counterpoint making it sound as if two pianos are playing at once — one wound-up like an ancient player piano and the other a conventional model producing classical cadenzas.

Then there’s “On ne dit pas regarder la lune, on dit ‘luner’”, which has the oddest — or is it the most specifically “French”? — title of the set. Here his plucked tones sound midway between dampened action and the wooden flippers of an old tabletop hockey game. As that beat snakes its way through the piece, tinkling, right-handed notes arise, creating a strange primitivism, almost as if you’ve stumbled on a Yoruba ceremony being performed by a bunch of toy instruments.

In contrast the atmospheric title track features passing tones and the overall impression of a blizzard of notes falling like so many snowflakes, producing tones that are always legato and low frequency, never sharp and staccato.

Like many other instruments touched by the improv impulse, prepared pianos can be utilized in many satisfying ways for new ideas. Both Fjellestad and Delbecq have done this with their individual keystrokes.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 33: 1. San To San 2. Hash Knife 3. Don Garlica 4. Kylling 5. El Cavernario 6. Smoke Shank 7. Sult 8. Wriggling Call 9. Pica 10. Phone Damage 11. Cabrito 12. Mink Eyed 13. Pacifico

Personnel: 33: Hans Fjellestad (piano, sampler, Nord Lead 3 synthesizer, sequential circuit pro-one synthesizer, sampled voices, sampled sounds, feedback , a computer, a megaphone, a harsh knife, an accordion, a bow, an e-bow)

Track Listing: Nu: 1. In Rainbows 2. In Lilac 3. On ne dit pas regarder la lune, on dit “luner” 4. On Laterite 4. Into Neon 5. On Embers 6. Nu-Turn (Étude de Nu) 7. In Funfairs 8. Into White

Personnel: Nu: Benoît Delbecq (piano and piano prepared with eraser bits, carved wooden twigs etc.)