Fred Van Hove

Spraak & Roll

By Ken Waxman

October 25, 2004

Solo piano, no matter how many orchestral effects you bring to it, is still a difficult proposition. This is especially true if you venture out of the mainstream to wholly improvised music.

Cecil Taylor is the best example of someone who has magnificently overcome these innate obstacles, but Belgium’s Fred Van Hove comes close behind him, as he demonstrates on this two-CD set recorded in late 2003 and early 2004.

Born in 1937 in Antwerp, Van Hove’s first solo concerts were in 1970, partially in reaction to the clangorous playing of Dutch drummer Han Bennink and German reedist Peter Brötzmann, who were then his most frequent collaborators. Since then he has continued to refine his solo work in concerts and accompanying experimental silent movies of the 1920s. A provincial nationalist, Van Hove, who was Cultural Ambassador of Flanders 1996, also teaches, has composed for film and theatre and led groups ranging from duos to nonets.

Fine as it is, Spraak & Roll still suffers from a surplus of ideas. Highlight of the collection and taking up most of the second disk, entitled Roll, is the 46½-minute bass clef showpiece “Roll-over” — also the most recent performance. Close to it with a combination of technique and invention are two shorter creations: “Roll-on” and “Roll-off 3”. Spraak on the other hand suffers from compression. Consisting of 15 [!] improvisations, only three of which are over the seven minute mark — and six of which are in the two to three minute range — many appear to be mere exercises rather than completed creations.

Dealing with the best first, “Roll-over” which seems to be all tension, no release, may have left Van Hove with a cramped foot; every tone seems to be extended with the sustain pedal. As different sections appear, however, each is subtlety tighter, more drawn out and almost imperceptibly quicker.

Beginning in the piano’s sub-basement, pedal pressure makes it appear as if every note is bundled in weighty wool, played adagio, the repetitive note clusters appear glued together, producing reverberations that seem to move right through the soundboard and hit the bottom board and back frame. With a majestic engorgement of vibrating chords, it takes a while for the right hand to create middle-register counter melodies to the initial theme.

As the continuous clusters press forward, Van Hove is soon double and triple timing as if heading for a mini-climax. Rather than an explosion, though, he hits the keys with full force, not only opening up different properties, but also heading even lower on the scale — just when you think the bottom has been reached. Many of these textures are outlined with specific finger action, though after a while you notice the tempo increasing ever so slowly as he interpolates the occasional staccato grace note from the upper end of the piano. Polyphonically the next texture apparent would in other contexts be the perpetual rhythm of eight quavers per bar of boogie woogie.

Propelled at a canter, a more pointed — and slightly faster — theme replete with arpeggios and glissandi that contrast with the emphasized bass notes arrives, asserts itself then vanishes beneath walking bass tones. Eventually a splattering of higher-pitched cadenzas appears, only to be drowned in waves of pedal tones. A burlesque of jaunty nursery rhymes then dissolves under the subterranean pedal onslaught, as does a flurry of notes in the penultimate minute. Finally Van Hove concludes without every having reached orgasmic release.

Intimations of what will arrive, “Roll-off” and “Roll-on” are lighter indigo variations of the final number. The almost nine-minute former tune is made up of cascades of flowing chords that are boxed, concentrated and built up into an edifice of ascending note clusters rotating and gyrating arpeggios. The almost 6½-minute second piece features a darker, tremolo section with heavy pedal pressure to emphasize the left handed notes then pitchslides into polyphony that introduces a sort of Chopinesque intensity with passing chords and doubled and tripled time.

Unsurprisingly, the tracks that impress the most on the first CD are usually the ones lengthy enough for some contrapuntal development. “STMP”, for instance is taken mid-range and andante, with individual broken chordal lines that seem to lack a tonal centre. With fully stretched octaves alternating with circular note clusters, it suggests a conventional ballad for a few seconds just before completion until hard-hitting pressure reintroduces high-frequency improvisations.

“LSRTSb” is expansive and impressionistic, featuring glissandi that down pedal to lightly accented note patterns, languid pitchsliding finger motions and portamento sweeps. “SCRCH” finds Van Hove swaying on the soundboard, stopping the action as he quietly presses the notes, then scraping a sharp object against the bridges for a lusterless tone that’s all metal and no note. “FST” showcases reverberating tones and uses broken chording to build up clusters of uneven notes that bounce back and forth in waves of flashing octaves. Eventually using a heavier touch and a dynamic tremolo expansion the orphan note clusters are shepherded into larger entity, as Van Hove works his way in increments down the piano as the sustain pedal promulgates cascading and reverberates basement tones.

Then there’s “BLLS”, which is filled with the rebounding of the internal string set. As the balanced tension of the strings are vibrated internally, Van Hove plays a harmonic fantasia on top of the keys that diverge from the whining bottleneck color of the piano’s vibrating insides.

A consummate multi-faceted introduction to the Van Hove solo persona, Spraak, and the first two tracks on Roll will prepare listeners for the opus that is “Roll-over”.