October 11, 2009
Accomplishing almost everything imaginable with her instrument’s keys, strings and construction short of capsizing the object, French pianist Sophie Agnel offers up a dazzling recital of solo prepared piano in three parts here. Nearly 51 minutes in duration, the three-part invention is neither edited nor transformed with any sort of electronic interface.
Paris-born and with extensive traditional and jazz education, Agnel’s raison d’etre is improvisation. A frequent playing partner of acoustic improvises such as baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro, she also partners wave-form manipulators like electronics specialist Lionel Marchetti. Agnel’s achievement on this CD is creating an original interface by mixing the microtonal and noise-making properties of New music with the aleatory freedom gained through improvisation.
All of part, her three “capsizing moments” encompass pecked keyboard patterns and creaking internal string-stopping mixed with unvarying, percussive chording. Metaphorically bringing karate-chop strength to her clipped and fanned key patterns, Agnel broadens her quivering, off-pitch textures with fishing line abrasions on internal strings – that bring out partials as well as the sounded notes – and sharp slaps on the piano frame and the bottom board for further coloring. Using the fortissimo power resulting from uniting processional and fungible key clusters to pump up the rhythmic accompaniment, Agnel dampens her climatic crescendos by piercing then with staccato whistles and rigid rapping on the external piano wood. With foot pedal pressure extending soundboard reverberations, additionally she produces brutal abrasions by weighing the vibrating strings with heavy objects such as ashtrays or slashing at the string set with rigid objects. The sonic results are wave forms that can sometimes swell to suggest massive church bell reverberations or maintain equilibrium by referencing the thumb-tacked action and dampers of Ragtime Revival prepared pianos.
Attaining a final elongated thematic variation, Agnel penultimate interlude turns from an adagio evisceration of the piano’s innards to more percussive undercover work. With objects she hammers on the wound bass strings so that the resulting beats contrast with the portamento runs she inflicts upon the higher-pitched unwound treble strings from the keyboard. Concluding with an intermezzo of pitch-sliding tonality, ocean-waves of glissandi are contrasted with contrapuntal whines and shrieks caused by foreshortened string stops. Finally, as silences bisect strident sonic invention, she replicates cello-like sul ponticello string strokes, daxophone-like whining and flattened key pulses.
As mesmerizing as a solo player as she is in a group situation, Agnel never capsizes her balanced improvisations during the many extreme – and exciting –
moments on this CD. She also confirms that with timbres assembled in a distinctive manner, an acoustic keyboard can be a textural source as much as a mechanism for formal musical narratives.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Capsizing Moments part 1 2. Capsizing Moments part 2 3. Capsizing Moments part 3
Personnel: Sophie Agnel (prepared piano)